Interview with Iman Ansari
Iman Ansari is a designer and educator based in Los Angeles. He is a founding principal of AN.ONYMOUS, an anti-disciplinary design practice he founded with Marta Nowak in 2012. His practice focuses on speculative approaches towards architecture and urbanism that explore new methods, tools, and technologies.
Projects range from urban, architectural, and interior design proposals to furniture, films, games, and prosthetics. His work has been published widely and exhibited at international venues including MoMA in New York, Hammer Museum, and A+D Museum in Los Angeles. AN.ONYMOUS is a design consultant for NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and is currently a design partner of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.
Ansari’s doctoral research examines the instrumental role of architecture and design in the production and practice of medical science in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the United States. He has contributed multiple books and edited volumes on architectural history and theory, landscape architecture and urbanism. His writings have appeared in journals such as Architectural Theory Review, Journal for the Society of Architectural Historians (JSAH), Places Journal, Log, Metropolis, Room One Thousand, Architect’s Newspaper, and Architectural Review among others.
Ansari is currently a faculty member at USC School of Architecture, where he teaches design studios and architectural theory courses. He has taught in numerous schools, most recently as a Visiting Professor of Architecture and Urbanism at UNLV School of Architecture and UCLA Architecture and Urban Design. Ansari holds a Bachelor of Architecture from the City College of New York, and a Master of Architecture in Urban Design from Harvard University Graduate School of Design. He is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in Architecture at UCLA.
ZH: Thank you very much, Iman Ansari, for this interview, we would like to start with you by telling us more about yourself and education?
I moved to New York when I was 19 and enrolled in the City College of New York. I was taking philosophy classes, reading Descartes, Kant, and Nietzsche, and beginning to fundamentally question everything I had been taught to believe my whole life. Living alone as an Iranian college student in New York during the post-9/11 era was an unsettling experience. I was going through a kind of transformation that ultimately shaped my way of thinking and personal beliefs. And as an architecture student, I was trying to channel those thoughts and feelings through architecture. I think my early work in college is emblematic of an attempt to challenge the normative assumptions about architecture and to experiment with different approaches. It was also an attempt to apply the theoretical ideas I was reading about in philosophy to the design tools and techniques I was exposed to in architecture school.
I went to Harvard afterward and that opened a lot of new opportunities for me. I was interested in cities, and how architecture could respond to complex urban issues. Harvard is a phenomenal place to be at. To be in such a vibrant environment, to learn from leading practitioners and scholars, and to be surrounded by incredibly intelligent and talented people, was an invaluable experience. It was through that experience that I began to see architecture as an intellectual practice and became interested in how knowledge is produced and put to work. And this is why later I decided to go back to get a Ph.D. and invest more in research and scholarship—I’m currently in the process of completing my doctorate at UCLA. So while my work has evolved over the years, I think the residue of those early theoretical speculations is still present.
ZH: How do you balance practice with research and teaching? And how do these various pursuits make their way into your work?
I think practicing architecture is only one way to do architecture. For me doing architecture involves not just designing, drawing or building, but also research, writing, and teaching. All these components, in my view, complement each other. I think having your own office allows you to pursue other kinds of academic or intellectual pursuits, but it also enables you to explore ways to incorporate your research and academic work into your practice, or vice versa. I cannot imagine doing one without the other. Balancing those various pursuits and responsibilities is always challenging but at the time it has also been extremely rewarding.
ZH: What is the inspiration behind your work?
Architecture is an incredibly rich discipline, and I happen to believe there is a no larger repository of inspiration for architects than architecture itself. And I find myself increasingly interested in the means and methods of practice, modes of production, and techniques of representation or communication. There is so much in the history of architecture, and yet so much more that is not researched or studied enough. And no matter what project we do, I always find myself trying to locate and situate it within that disciplinary history, and perhaps hoping to build or expand on that.
ZH: How strongly does Persian cultural heritage inform your approach to architecture, interior and product design?
I remember visiting Sheikh Bahai bathhouse in Isfahan as a child and learning about the heating mechanism, and how the water in the entire bathhouse was, somehow mysteriously, kept warm with a single ever-burning candle. I couldn’t stop thinking about that for weeks. I also recall experiencing the acoustics of the Shah Mosque or watching the shaking minarets of Menar Jonban. These were fascinating experiences for me because it suggested that buildings are not just static formal objects to look at but carefully designed machines that function. So I have always been inspired by these qualities—thermal, acoustic, kinetic, etc.—that allow architecture to respond to, or interact with, its environment. I think as architects, even to this day, we are not fully equipped to deal with these issues. We have not developed the necessary tools or techniques to measure, draw, control or construct these conditions. And that’s something I’m trying to explore now in my work.
ZH: What is the main design process you attempt to have in your projects? What are you looking for?
To put it simply, I’m much more interested in the process than the final product. If we accept architecture as a mode of techno-cultural production, the process—the combination of tools, techniques, materials, and methods—reveals much more about the project than the final product, whatever that may be. This is usually the first thing I try to teach my students. “Design” is a strange word—it often implies an intuitive act, based on some formal or aesthetic qualities, performed by the designer. You can imagine the image of a designer sitting in a cafe with a sketchbook, trying out different ideas with a pen on a piece of paper until at some magical moment the perfect scheme emerges. That, in my view, is too simplistic and it’s the kind of approach that reduces architecture to a form of visual art. Architecture is much more complex and meaningful than that.
In our office, for instance, in each project, we try to experiment with a new tool or software, observe how those tools affect our understanding of the space, investigate how they inform the techniques of representation or fabrication, and explore how those techniques could ultimately form new approaches to design or production. For example, we recently completed a medical complex in Fort Worth, Texas. The human circulation in the clinic was the most important problem we were asked to consider. So we used two different software that simulates the movement of people in the building. But rather than using the software to test or evaluate a pre-existing designed layout—which is how the software is typically used—we used it instead as an analytical design tool. We set up the main parameters in space and ran the project through a series of simulations.
Every time we ran a simulation, we observed how the spaces functioned and where crowding, congestion or blockage would occur, and then reconfigured the layout to resolve it. Then we ran the simulation again and repeated the process until we arrived at the final floor plan. So here there was an iterative process, involving a reflexive relationship between the computer simulation programs and the design of the building. We didn’t sit down and design the floor plan, rather, we devised an experimental method, using computer simulation as a tool, to test and evaluate various conditions that finally led to the final plan. In other projects, depending on the problem at hand, we use different tools, which in turn lead to different design processes. But the most important thing we look for is identifying the main problems early on and then carefully selecting the right tools and techniques to tackle it. Once we do that, we trust the process and accept whatever it produces.
ZH: How can design play a role in developing new cultural relationships with the world?
I think what we often consider as culture is a material collection of cultural products, rather than what constitutes a culture, as a mode of thinking, a condition of being or interacting with the world. Culture can manifest itself in many different forms. I happen to believe that technology is the most fundamental manifestation of human culture and civilization. And by that, I don’t just mean modern technology or even the primal pebble and hand ax, but in my view, language is technology, perspective is technology, and architecture is technology. So I’m more interested in the fundamental structure and function of these techno-cultural instruments than their physiological form or stylistic appearance. This is why I think architecture or design does not succeed but fails to forge meaningful cultural relationships when it clings onto hereditary or cultural products or traits. This is what the modern movement was all about and I think we live in a world where there is an increasing sense of universality towards culture, in part due to media, technologies of transportation and communication, and the global economy, standardization, and mass-production. So rather than trying to go back against the current with a sense of nostalgia, I think like architects and designers we should embrace this new cultural and technological milieu and look ahead with a sense of optimism.
ZH: What are your thoughts on the importance of renders in architecture today?
We live in a unique era in the history of architecture when for the first time we are exposed to a range of radically new tools. The emergence of the computer has transformed the way we design, represent or produce architecture. But I think it’s important to consider the role of these tools and techniques associated with them more critically. For instance, when perspective was introduced during the Renaissance, architects resisted using it as a representational technique, deeming it a method only for painters or people who cannot read technical orthographic drawings, like a plan, section, and elevation. Similarly, when photography was invented in the nineteenth century it took a while for architects to adopt it as an analytical tool or develop representational techniques, like time-lapse or collage, associated with it. So I see the emergence of computer modeling and renderings to a large extent as a convergence of various existing techniques—such as perspective representation, photographic techniques, and model-making practices—made possible by the computer.
It’s important for us not to fetishize the technique or use it in a tradition of previous technologies especially in the service of an image culture we live in. We have been guilty of that ourselves. We do use renderings in our office, and some are produced by outside visualization companies for clients and their marketing purposes. But we also try to experiment with the renderings we produce in-house. This is something my partner, Marta, is particularly interested in. Unlike me, Marta’s background is in arts and she used to do free-hand drawings and paintings. She still paints but nowadays with an iPad and an Apple Pen. So some of the renderings we produce are a combination of 3D rendering software images with digitally hand-drawn iPad paintings. In this way, we are trying to explore the possibility of combining various tools and representational techniques in architecture. This is something a lot of architects in the past have done using tools available in their time: Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand’s use of graph paper in his diagrams in the early nineteenth century, Paul Rudolf use of Xerox machine to produce his detailed drawings, Frank Gehry’s use of CATIA software, etc. Whether the trace of the tools is evident in the drawings, images or buildings in my view is less relevant than their instrumental role in the production of architecture. I think we need to think about our tools, digital drawings or renderings in particular, in the same way.
ZH: Which project has given you the most satisfaction thus far? Please explain more about that.
If I had to pick one project I would say ZERO.GRAVITY. This was a project done in collaboration with UCLA City Lab for NASA JPL. We were asked to come up with an outdoor workspace for the JPL campus in Pasadena, California. At the time, I was researching tubular steel furniture from the early 20th century and was interested in working with that material. Early examples were particularly interesting. For example, Marcel Breuer’s chair, for instance, was inspired by the use of tubular steel in bicycle frames, or Mart Stam’s first cantilever chair prototype was built by connecting gas pipes. And by 1937, Everest and Jennings’ first collapsible wheelchair was able to not only facilitate the movement of disabled bodies in space but also the collapsible steel frame allowed the chair itself to become transportable as it could now fit into the back of an automobile. So the history of tubular steel furniture is deeply tied to a desire for mobility, whether movement of bodies, fluids or gases, or the ability of the object itself to be mobile. So it was important for us to celebrate that.
We selected four classic tubular steel chairs: the LC4 Chaise Longue by Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Jeanneret, the MR Chair by Mies van der Rohe, the Wassily Chair Marcel Breuer, and the collapsible wheelchair by Everest & Jennings. We traced the profile of the chairs and arranged them around a continuous loop within a wheel. The piece then accommodates different seating positions, some prescribed by the original chairs, others made possible in the transitional space between them or by misusing the original chairs to create new and unforeseen postures. You can simply turn it to select the desired position or move the whole piece from one space to another just by rolling it on the ground. This is a project that is neither a room, a piece of furniture or a vehicle in a traditional sense but yet it occupies a space in between all of them. But most importantly ZERO.GRAVITY only balances itself with the human body. In other words, it is only complete with the body inside it. And this is why the project is so important for us because it embodies the fundamental principles we were trying to achieve in our work: the idea that architecture is a prosthetic extension of the human body.
ZH: Which architects from the past do you admire the most?
I would say Le Corbusier is a seminal figure in architecture. There is always something new to learn from his work. Buckminster Fuller is another architect who was a fascinating character but doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves in my opinion. I’m also very interested in the work of architects in the 1960s like Cedric Price, Hans Hollein or Peter Cook for pushing the possibilities for architecture. But all that said, I think it’s incorrect to assume only architects have influenced architecture. There are many architectural historians, theorists, and critics who in my view have had a larger and lasting impact on architecture. Sigfried Giedion, Manfredo Tafuri and Reyner Banham are good examples. Much of what I’m trying to do today is inspired by the work of Banham and other intellectual figures who were not architects.
ZH: What are your big plans for the future?
I think right now I’m focused on finishing my doctoral dissertation and hoping to publish it as a book sometime in the future. I would like to expand my practice, AN.ONYMOUS, to do more research and experimental projects, collaborate especially with people outside architecture on interesting projects. I would also like to invest more in research and scholarship, be able to devote the time and attention it requires, and write a lot of books. Outside of professional plans, I would like to learn how to fly an airplane, travel more, make a film, design a video game, and maybe go on a space voyage—is that too big of a plan?
ZH: What advice would you give to young designers starting today?
To be a good designer is not about being good at making pretty things, but about being able to have something to say about how things should work, or offer a new way of life. And to do that, you have to expose yourself to different types of experience. Travel, read, see shows or exhibits, learn new skills, take classes in topics that interest you, and no matter what you are doing, take good notes. Invest in learning everything you can about your field but also question everything you are taught. Work hard not because you have to but because you enjoy and love what you do. Be mindful not just of what, but also how you are designing. Be open to new ideas and experiment with different methods even if they seem absurd. Ultimately every designer redefines the field through their work. It’s important to know your field, but it is more important to produce new knowledge and contribute to the growth and development of your field.
In collaboration with ZH Media