Five Questions With: Nader Tehrani

AS AN ALUMNUS of the Rhode Island School of Design, Nader Tehrani had a hand in the future of his alma matter, as the award-winning architect behind the North Hall dormitory and other aspects of the multiyear Quad block renovation project. / COURTESY NADAAA

As an alumnus of the Rhode Island School of Design and founder of the Boston-based architectural design firm NADAAA, Nader Tehrani had a hand in the future of his alma mater as the award-winning architect behind the North Hall dormitory, the first new dorm constructed by the school in 34 years when built in 2019 at 60 Waterman St. in Providence.

Tehrani and his colleagues were also behind the renovation of 1950s-era Nickerson Hall, and other parts of RISD’s multiyear Quad block enhancement project, which reached the finish line in September after $26.7 million in renovations to Homer Hall and South Hall.

PBN: You designed various Quad block renovations at RISD with NADAAA. As a 1986 alumnus of the university, what was it like to be involved with a campus renovation?

TEHRANI: First and foremost, it is an honor to be back at RISD in this capacity. I have been a student, a faculty member, a critic, a lecturer, but returning to RISD to contribute to its campus as an extension of the city of Providence is a responsibility much greater.

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And to this end, the Freshman Quad is located at a critical junction, bridging Benefit and Prospect streets, linking RISD and Brown University, and, equally so, connecting Waterman to Angell streets by way of the new Nickerson Green, a connection that consummates the larger urban promenade from Frazier Terrace all the way to Woods Gerry Gallery, where weekly art openings occur as one of the key rituals RISD enjoys.

That the campus enjoys such an integral link to the city is something unique to RISD, and being able to reinforce that was something important to me, especially having known its culture over the last several decades.

PBN: Can you tell us about your involvement and how you feel about the outcome of the Quad block renovations?

TEHRANI: Our involvement began several years ago when we were first interviewed for the Quad master plan. It had a more ambitious scope originally that included a student center and a more cohesive accessibility plan. However, as the scope was defined and eventually budgeted, the addition of a new dormitory, as well as the renovation of the older ones, emerged as the priorities for this project. … It required a no-nonsense set of decisions on design elements to fulfill the budget requirements, but it also established some key goals that make the project what it is, especially North Hall.

The idea of building it out of cross-laminate timber was an initial proposition, as part of a strategy, a large one, that can fulfill the goals of using a naturally renewable resource. The creation of new public spaces; outdoor, as well as indoor living areas; studios; and shared spaces make for a project that is more conscious about the needs of the students.

The massing of the building, big as it is, was a challenging balancing act to get the right amount of rooms while also establishing a legible dialogue with the buildings in the context. In this sense, I am quite happy with the outcome.

PBN: How do you see the design and development of student housing in Providence and throughout the country changing in the future?

TEHRANI: The quality of student housing has become one of the most competitive aspects of admissions in many colleges. That is, instead of students trying to get into colleges, the challenge has become for colleges to gain the right yield for their admissions through the construction of dormitories that elevate the quality of life for young students, replete with amenities of different kinds. In other universities this comes with gymnasia, food services and other sorts of perks that make them more like apartments/hotel complexes, which is not something I would advocate for RISD.

What I think is vital for RISD is to keep students in dialogue with the city, its streets, cafes and local businesses “to enter into the world,” as it were. Unlike other typical liberal arts colleges, RISD does not have a central quad, what tends to insulate students from the very city in which these colleges are set. So, one of the best features of RISD is its ability to simulate the conditions of social engagement on a smaller scale and being in dialogue with its larger community is one of the key aspects.

PBN: What other projects are you working on now?

TEHRANI: We just completed two projects in the Boston area, the MIT graduate dormitories, and the Adams Street Branch of the Boston Public Library, which required a complex public process. And now, we are working on two museums in the Northeast, and one apartment building in Nashville, all of which are keeping us quite busy.

We are also just completing the Turkey Bend Master Plan in Houston, Texas. This is a large waterfront project on the Buffalo Bayou, inclusive of public spaces, a boat house, event spaces, a library and food facilities. The COVID era has brought some road bumps to the practice, but we were lucky in winning some key projects as the economy reemerged.

PBN: What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned from your career so far in property design, and how did Rhode Island School of Design prepare you for this career?

TEHRANI: RISD was central to my education in many ways. It allowed me to speculate, explore and experiment without worrying about failure. Beyond techniques and tools, it also taught me how to develop a set of critical faculties, what is often as important as the artistic values it imparted.

From the perspective of architecture, RISD was headed by Rodolfo Machado in those years. His ability to convene an important conversation between himself and several other key faculty members of that era – Judith Wolin, K. Michael Hays, George Wagner, among many others – allowed us to see architecture within an expanded field: in dialogue with the cities within which buildings are set, with the imperative of producing new forms of knowledge, with a curiosity about building technologies and frameworks for invention, and a general appreciation of interdisciplinary values that allowed many to broaden their practices beyond strictly buildings.

Better than anything else, RISD prepared us for uncertainty, and that is possibly the best lesson for today.

Marc Larocque is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at Larocque@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter @LaRockPBN.

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