September 7, 2010

Architect Discusses Plans for Permanent Suicide Barriers

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The University announced last Wednesday that Nader Tehrani would be the architect to design the permanent barriers for suicide prevention on the bridges around campus. Tehrani — a principal for the architecture firm Office dA and a tenured professor of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — said he plans to integrate the design with Ithaca’s landscape as much as possible.

The Sun: What is your vision/concept for the bridges?Nader Tehrani: [This is] precisely the type of project which is about inverting vision, for several reasons. One, because of the character of Ithaca and of Cornell, and the beauty and the sublimeness of the gorges, you don’t necessarily want something to  be seen in that sense. The vision is about the absence of the introduction of new elements. The relative transparency, the ephemerality, the imperceptibility of the intervention is for us very important. Secondly, because each bridge is very different, there may not be a vision; there may be several visions. Thirdly this is not a project about only design, it is also about performance. Whatever these barriers may entail, they will have a functional role, a cultural role …. and yet they have to have a design element that transcends their performance.

Sun: Are there other bridge barrier projects that you will look to as an example?N.T. : We have looked at a few already in San Francisco, in England, and we are looking at many more. The budget and the circumstances of each bridge are tight, and they differ. It may be that some of the precedents will have a key impact on our thinking, some of them may not, but I do think that we need to look at previous solutions and previous analyses and make that central to the way we have a discussion with our clients.

Sun: In your design, will you consider student and community opinions about the controversial temporary barriers currently in place?N.T. : I see our role as designers as being multifaceted. On the one hand, we have to be technicians — people who can bring various areas of expertise together. On the other hand, I see our role as ambassadors — we have to find a way to bring consensus to very different views on the matters. And, in a way we have to be  inventors. Thus we have to  give smart solutions to material challenges and spatial conditions, and also [must] address the various constituencies involved. We have many different roles to play and certainly our collaboration between Ithaca and the Cornell community is essential to that.

Sun: When were you first approached by the University to do this? N.T. : Over the summer in the beginning to middle of July.

Sun: How and why did you decide to take on this project, given its sensitive undertones?N.T.: I think the sensitivity of the undertones sets up a much more interesting challenge than a conventional project does. Any project of course has a certain social, emotional, psychological content embedded into it but maybe this one does it at a heightened level, no pun intended. This is a project that is not really only about the bridges, it is about the way in which a campus environment impacts the life of the students — the way in which the curriculum, the pressures, the deadlines, the structure of the semester, the winter months of northern climates versus southern climates, influence the lives of students and faculty alike. We like the way in which architecture engages cultural problems and in this one the intersection between the well-being of our audiences and the physical environment is a very interesting question.

Sun: What will the timeline of this project be like?N.T.: I think the University has made it very clear that this is a top priority project. It is a matter of public health and safety on one side but it is part of the civic pride of the city also on the other. So we will be doing analysis and schematic design immediately and over the next few months will have some proposals on the table. It’s not clear what happens after that but what we do know is [this project] is of an urgent nature. In all of the interview process, the scheduling of the site visits and all of that, it was done faster than any other project that we’ve ever been a part of, but the selection was done with the same level of judiciousness and import.

Sun: How does this work compare to other things you’ve done in your career?N.T.: Strangely this project happens to touch on our various experience in urbanism and landscape project design. The bridges are not just objects, they are extensions of the landscape. [It is important] to make infrastructure not part of the technical life of the city but part of its civic pride. Also the resolutely technical aspect of the problem it really taps into our interests about materiality.

Sun: What is the project’s budget like?N.T.: We know it’s a very tight budget. One of the reasons maybe we were selected is because we do a good amount of work that sets out with an agenda of invention but under very tight resources. While this has a very tight budget, they don’t see that as hindering. [Administrators] are seeking something of some transformative nature, of some extraordinary nature.

Original Author: Dani Neuharth-Keusch