Faculty Spotlight: Iman Ansari

School News

Faculty Spotlight: Iman Ansari

March 01, 2017

Iman Ansari is a founding principal of AN.ONYMOUS. He is a practicing architect, urbanist, and lecturer at the USC School of Architecture. His work explores the role of architecture and design at the intersection of ecology, technology, and the human body. His office has been a design consultant for NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and is currently a design partner of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.


Prior to establishing his own practice, Ansari worked for multiple architecture offices, including Terreform/ Michael Sorkin Studio, Foreign Office Architects (FOA), Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill (SOM), Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, Gensler, as well as the United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN-Habitat). His work and writings have been published in Log, Architectural Theory Review, Metropolis, Architect’s Newspaper, and Architectural Review, among others, and have been exhibited in international venues, including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and A+D Architecture and Design Museum in Los Angeles.


Ansari holds a professional degree in architecture from the City College of the City University of New York and a post-professional degree in architecture and urban design from Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Currently, he is pursuing a Ph.D. in architecture at UCLA.


His recent faculty exhibit is entitled IN.DENT.


What is the exhibit about?

The exhibit showcases a project that we recently completed, a dental office in Woodland Hills.  It focuses mainly on the design and fabrication of the ceiling system.


What is the background of the project, and what was your process?

This is our first project on the West Coast. When we were approached about the project, our first reaction was surprise because of the amount of program requested for a space that was only 1600 sq ft. So first we did a series of studies. It was a challenge fitting everything into that space. We realized quickly that we’d never be able to fit the amount of program in a regular orthogonal layout.


For each project, we are interested in problems of design and technology, especially in relation to the human body. We want to avoid that design and architecture approach where there is no longer really design occurring, but just picking and choosing from a catalog of pre-existing or pre-designed objects, elements, or equipment. Innovation is not easy, but in every project, our goal is to introduce or reintroduce one aspect that can be rethought of in a new way.


In this case, we were interested in the ceiling, specifically suspending the ceiling. To give some background, suspended ceilings have been around for a long time. They were patented in 1919, so it’s been almost a century, and yet they haven’t really changed much. They also haven’t been part of the discourse of modern architecture as much as, say, curtain wall systems.


So having these two problems in mind, we tried to use the ceiling grid as a main diagram, as an organizing system, for the entire office. Basically the problems were that while we could conceive of a paneling system and could design and fabricate it, we still had to deal with the grid structure that holds the panel. If we were to redesign and manufacture the grid, it would’ve driven the cost really high. So we decided to use what is existing and manipulate in a different way. And then to reduce labor, we decided to use the existing grooves, which are every two feet. But we reorganized it into a triangular grid.


How did you work on this with the client?

The client was supportive of the idea and shared our vision. He is a prosthodontist and also a professor at the USC Ostrow School of Dentistry, and he is interested in design, innovation, and technology.


How did you develop your ideas?

We did a lot of mock-ups. What are the implications of laying the grid differently, and what would be the size of the panels—would they fit? What would be the materials? A lot we could test and do mock ups of, but there were also a lot of things we couldn’t predict or test, and we had to just trust our experience, drawings, and intuition and believe that it would work. And fortunately it did.


To go back a little, one of the things we can all relate to is when we go to the dentist, the surface we are exposed to the most is the ceiling. And most of the time, they are these really boring, ugly suspended ceilings. In some cases, they’ve decided to put pictures of clouds and other things to make them more attractive. We thought this was a problem.


The project was also relatively low budget. So we decided to be strategic about the design and invest most of our time, energy, and budget on the ceiling and let the rest of the office be secondary, “standard” materials and construction techniques. The client liked the idea as well. And it felt like from the beginning it was a good element to tackle.


The space is very small. In the pictures it looks a lot bigger because the triangular grid distorts the perspective. So we wanted to use the ceiling to distribute the light evenly, to bring in more light and make it feel more spacious. Also it’s a very low ceiling, only 8 feet. All of these elements came together and pushed us to rethink the ceiling as a main element.


How did you get into architecture?

I moved to New York when I was 18. I knew since high school that I wanted to be an architect. I started right away in architecture school at the City College where I did a B.Arch.


Early on while I was in architecture school I also became interested in philosophy. We were reading Foucault and Derrida in studio and I was very much drawn to the theoretical discussions. I started taking philosophy courses and I ended up doing a double major in architecture and philosophy.


When I graduated, I went to Harvard GSD where I did a post-professional degree in architecture and urban design. I felt like as architects we always deal with urban issues and problems but we’re never really taught about how cities come together, how buildings work within the context of cities, and how we rethink those issues. Urban context is always an afterthought or reduced to site analysis and a naïve understanding of cities. My interest in urbanism was driven by that. And my experience at the GSD was useful, because it viewed urban issues from an architectural and design standpoint rather than based only on planning and policy.


I had a lot of different aspirations and ambitions. While at the GSD, I was awarded a fellowship to work at the United Nations human settlement program. I had this image that I wanted to do things that had a large impact and would make a difference around the world, and I thought the UN would be a good vehicle to do that. I was disappointed not much happened in terms of architecture and design within global organizations. I worked as an intern in the UN-Habitat headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, and I worked on a newly launched Cities and Climate Change Initiative. I ended up doing research and design studies on energy-efficient building materials and construction technologies.


After graduating from the GSD, I worked for seven different architectural offices within two years, from small-scale startups to large corporate firms. I learned a lot from working in these offices. Architecture schools never really prepare you for the realities of practice. My experience was very valuable but not just for learning how to run a project or an office, but also in realizing what kind of architecture I would want to practice. It then came to a point where I realized I didn’t fit anywhere anymore, and I needed to start my own practice and do what interested me. That’s what led me to start my own office.


How did your practice get its start, and what is its philosophy?

My office is called AN.ONYMOUS, because my partner, Marta Nowak, and I thought the emphasis should be less about the authorship of the work and more about the work itself. We also wanted to create an environment where the people who worked for us didn’t feel like their work is being developed and realized under someone else’s name. Instead, they all feel part of it; we’re all authors, we’re all part of the work. It doesn’t belong to me and my partner, it’s a collective exercise. Architecture is always a collective practice. We wanted our office identity and the name to reflect that.


We started in New York. It is always hard to start your own office, because you don’t normally have clients lined up at your door. When we started our practice, we both had full time jobs in other architecture offices. We would go to work every day from 9-6, then would work in the evenings and on weekends on our own projects.


We did a lot of competitions, and the first one was a competition organized by the MoMA in New York for ideas to rebuild the Rockaway Peninsula in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Our proposal was selected as one of the winners and was exhibited by the museum. That gave us some incentive to do more and participate in more competitions.


About a year after, we were contacted by a client in Paris who wanted us to do an extension of a historic building he owned at the heart of the city near Arc de Triomphe. Then it started taking off, and we got more projects but even then we didn’t know if there will more projects to sustain us, and if we should quit our jobs. But at some point, we realized it was time.


So what prompted the move to L.A.?

We both love New York; it’s the city where I’ve lived the longest and I consider it my home. But it got to the point where we realized New York is not what we thought it would be. And the opportunities for young, growing firms are very limited. Most people who start off in New York end up doing renovations or interior remodels of small residential or commercial buildings, even if they get that. The city’s dominated by a handful of developers, and there’s always a lot of competition over any project of decent scale.


We were also attracted to models of the collaborative, interdisciplinary work culture on the West Coast and thought we would have better opportunities here for the type of work we are interested in doing. Then we were both offered academic positions in L.A., and that made us finally make the move.


In addition to my practice and teaching, I’m now doing a Ph.D. in architecture at UCLA. One of the things I’m interested in is the disconnect between architecture and the human body. In our era there has always been this idea that either you take a phenomenological approach to architecture, the idea of a subjective experience of architecture, or the more conceptual or intellectual reading of architecture that ignores the subject or the experience in favor of a formal or linguistic understanding of the architectural object. I’m interested in challenging that idea and a new way of understanding the body within architecture. This is less to do with defining architecture through a subjective experience and more with an objective understanding of the body in relation to architecture. Architecture has rarely challenged the conventional assumptions about the body; it has often remained passive or out of touch. I think we are at time when we should question those assumptions and the very nature of those relationships


The scope of the architect’s work has also been reduced. As I said earlier, if we look at our buildings and take away the legal, mechanical, technological, or industrial elements, what’s really left in terms of ‘design’ or innovation is very little. Also, architectural spaces in general, building forms and geometries, have changed a lot, but essentially we’re all still occupying these empty boxes that need to be filled, and we barely interact with architecture directly. Our relationship is always mediated through secondary objects, whether it’s ramps or stairs, furniture, doorknobs, or light switches, all these little elements are what I call architectural prosthetics. They’re neither part of the building nor part of the body. So I am interested in the history of this and looking into these elements that mediate the relationship between the building and the body. That’s what I’m focusing on. Even today, when architects design buildings, these elements are just copy-pasted into the floor plan—that nobody really designs fire-escapes, elevators, handrails, or light switches; nobody challenges these elements. This is what I’m interested in: looking at the moment in history when these elements started to carve out a territory within architecture.


Any advice for students?

I always ask my students who come for advice, "what do you want to accomplish?" What’s your long-term plan for ten or twenty years? Where do you see yourself? What do you see yourself doing? And only then may I be able to give them proper advice.


If their goal is to do something similar to what I’m doing, my advice is to explore as much as they can while they’re in school and don’t limit themselves to what they think architecture is. Let their imagination and interests really drive their education and question everything they’re told or taught in a critical way rather than accepting them blindly as facts or truths.


Most importantly, they have to work hard. I often tell my students: no matter how much you love architecture, it will never love you back. You have to accept that very early on in school. You have to do it because you love doing it. If you don’t, you will not be happy. I still think that the biggest pleasure you will get from the work is just doing it. And that starts in school.


Finally, there is not one single way to do architecture. What’s great about our profession, I think, is that every architect redefines what architecture is. It’s the same with students, that they have to find their own interests and definition of architecture and design their own education around that. Take relevant courses they think they’d benefit from and align their curriculum to that path. And once they graduate, work for offices that share their understanding of architecture and can enrich their experience. ■