A conversation with Iman Ansari & Marta Nowak.
How did the collaboration between you two come about? What was the motivation behind starting AN.ONYMOUS?
MN-  Well, Iman and I met at Harvard where we were both doing our graduate studies. We did a fellowship together at the UN and worked on a project together. So I would say our collaboration really started back then.  After getting our degrees, we were working full-time in different offices, but were never fully satisfied with the type of work we were doing in those offices. 

IA-I think we both cared deeply about the cultural and intellectual issues within architecture and felt that we weren’t really exploring those in the offices we were working in. So we began working on our own projects, on our own time, some competitions and some purely theoretical work. That’s how AN.ONYMOUS came about. It came from the desire to go beyond the conventional disciplinary boundaries, business-as-usual, and the rigid and somewhat dull environment of design practices that we were exposed to. 

As a multi-disciplinary studio you experiment with various design scales and typologies.  Is there a specific one you prefer to work with?
IA- It’s hard to say. In the beginning were more interested in the larger urban scale projects because we believed those type of projects provide an opportunity to envision an entire system and to address multiple problems, from environmental management, energy production and consumption, to circulation and mobility, urban growth and development. But as we progressed, we realized that much of the large scale issues we were concerned with stem from the individual human-scale habits, customs, or standards that we’ve become accustomed to. So to answer your question, we are more interested in the human-scale interventions--and by that I literally mean the scale of the body--that have implications on architecture and urbanism.
MN- Every scale creates a new challenge as we adopt our approach to it. I think I really enjoy working on the scale of the body--furniture and prosthetics--as I see the body’s effect on architecture in a more immediate way. Also when I’m working on a new project I’m usually very excited about it so I’d like to see the objects fabricated and tested, often improved and re-fabricated and tested again. You can’t do it with architecture, as the process of construction is much slower.  So regardless of the type of the project, we try to scale it down first and rethink the body-scale and then scale back up if needed. For instance in a project we did recently for NASA JPL, we were asked to design their offices but ended up designing them a new office chair that transformed their office landscape. 
Do you think technology can help us make better architecture?
MN- I don’t think that technology is going to save architecture or building industry but I do think that as a tool it will make things easier and more accessible. I also think that technology will give us ability to explore new ideas and experience them on a different level. I see technology more as a platform to question things we’ve become accustomed to. I also think that the influence of technology can produce an alternative opportunities for architect to practice architecture for example in gaming industry, robotics, mobility, interactive environments or many others. With this in mind I see that architects can now work in a more entrepreneurial mode rather than organized practice.  

IA-Technology is of course a very broad concept. But generally speaking, I happen to think that architecture is technology. It has always been so. But the relationship between the two are somewhat convoluted nowadays. If you look at the post-industrial state of architecture, there is a clear distinction between what constitutes the building from the technologies it houses. Architecture has been increasingly marginalized by the ever-expanding army of technological systems--from systems of heating, cooling and ventilation to management and control of water, gas, power, energy and now data. Architecture is taking a back seat to technology. It’s the allegory of the hut versus the fire, where fire has gone out of control and is consuming the hut altogether as its fuel. I think we live in a time when as architects and designers we need to question and rethink the role of architecture in fundamentally new ways. That’s what we are interested in; the type of design approaches that begin to restore the role of architecture in relation to, or potentially as, technology. 

Computer software is rapidly changing the way we represent our concepts in the field of design and architecture.  Do you still use paper and pencil to showcase your ideas?
IA-We still use pen and paper for quick sketches, mostly for communicating ideas internally within our team, but never as means of representation or communication with clients or the public. I strongly believe in the role of drawing not just as a representational tool but as an analytical device. There is an intrinsic quality in the precision, rigour and richness of architectural drawings that free-hand drawing or sketches can never replicate or replace. But I think the more valuable contribution of computer software is not in the digitalization of drawing (as representation) but the automation of design processes. Scripting software, for instance, allow us to model and draw a level of complexity that would be nearly impossible or utterly inefficient to do manually. 

MN-Always! Sketching is formulating ideas. Paper and pencil is still in use but as Iman explained it, for quick communication of ideas or design details in drawings. But I think there is another aspect to sketching and hand drawing. We recently worked as the art director of a sci-fi film where we had to imagine and design many aspects within the film, from the environment and architecture to vehicles, robots and different machines. We had to explore a range of ideas and coordinate that with the design of all elements. Sketching was instrumental in that process as it allowed us to convey concepts without being drawn too much into drawing or modeling all the specific details. We explored many ideas, sketched many options and pinned them all up on our office wall. The iPad and Apple pen comes in handy in this process as well. 
How important is it to spend time in the office doing architectural investigations versus just pursuing clients?
MN-For us it is actually very important to be in the office. We realized that we will never achieve the quality of the project if we are not constantly involved in development of the project. We never look at projects and wonder if the client will be happy or what would the audience say. We have to be happy with the project, we have to be satisfied with where it is, we say when it’s finished. And that’s a pretty high bar to reach. Iman is detail obsessed and I want to see the larger context and integration of all systems. But of course it’s very hard to achieve. Running an office you spend most of your times on calls, email and paying bills. Sad reality. 

IA-I agree. I think a lot of our time is spent being physically in the office but mentally elsewhere, writing emails and on the phone with clients, contractors or consultants. We try to avoid that and minimize it as much as we can, but somehow it seems like as architects we haven’t still mastered that. But to highlight what Marta just pointed out, I think there is a clear distinction between service providing to a client, versus seeing the client or the project as a means to a larger end--it’s a distinction between an ‘entertainer’ and an ‘artist’. Pursuing clients is only one way to achieve the end goal, if that goal is a to have a built or paid project, but that’s certainly not the only way to make architecture. I don’t think we’ve ever pursued a client--although sometimes I wish we had. In our practice, we are primarily concerned with making architecture. If a client comes along the way then great. If not, we keep working.  

What’s one advice you give your students in the various schools you’ve taught at?
MN- Iman once said to his students: No matter how much you love architecture, architecture will never love you back. It was such a harsh comment at that time but the more time passes by the more it resonates with me. I see that students’ attitude toward their project and studio is very different then what we did when we were their age. Students work from home and often not work as hard. I think there are three aspects to success: heart, hard work and attitude. You have to pour your heart out into your project otherwise it will always read as homework or task oriented activity. Hard work is the only way to explore, test ideas as well master your skills- without that you stay behind. And you have to have right attitude. No one wants to work with people who complain and don’t care. But it is a pleasure to work with people who are excited, positive and determined.

IA- I think architecture students nowadays work as hard as before but there is a sense of entitlement towards the profession that is new to me. I tend to be very direct to my students about it because I think they deserve to know and understand that architecture is a very difficult field to succeed in. Most people who study architecture will never get to do architecture. So in a field like this, if you really want to succeed, you have to be obsessed with what you do. You have to love architecture and what you do from the start, not for getting anything in return but only because you love doing architecture. Otherwise you’ll always be disappointed. What’s great about our profession, I think, is that every architect redefines what architecture is. 
What kind of social issues are important to you? Can you use your studio to help improve them?

MN- I think our goal is to do a project right, do it the right way, do the right thing and when we do the social aspects is integrated naturally. For example we were asked by Hammer Museum to do a workshop that could shed some light about climate change to their visitors. We came up with the idea of a city game where participant build structures from the block puzzles and set them on a large map. As time when by the river on the map extended its territory flooding the structures people built. We invented the game but the conclusions could only be drawn by participants- some people were concerned that their effort went to waste, some may have not gotten it.   

IA- We care deeply about various social issues and of course we live in a time of social, economic, and political polarization in the United States. But as Marta suggested, rather than tackling these issues directly, we think as architects we can be more effective mediating our response through our work. I think architecture has far more capacity to deal with social issues than architects do.   

What are some of the things found in Los Angeles that inspire your work?
MN- Los Angeles is a fantastical place for me. When we moved here I discovered the freedom of making and the freedom of thinking. Unlike in New York, things are not as structured, hierarchical, competitive, and stressful. I’m encouraged to explore ideas about architecture that wouldn’t have even cross my mind before. The influence of film industry and new tech companies around definitely plays a big role in that.  So I find Los Angeles very inspirational. 

IA-I spent most of my adult life in New York and that’s where we started our practice. But as Marta suggested, we became interested in the collaborative work culture and experimental approaches to design that we saw in Los Angeles. There is mundane, provisional and an artificial quality to the city that is appealing to me. It’s a hybrid environment or ecology that merges the natural and the artificial, density and sprawl, the real and the imaginary, history and fiction.  

What role does storytelling play in the presentation of your projects?
MN-I think the storytelling was always a big part of our project presentation. Iman is a master storyteller so he always starts and sets up the project conceptual ground. It stirs people’s imagination and allows them to see how their project is actually situated in a larger context whether it is theoretical ground, site understanding or situating the project culturally. 

IA-I never really thought of myself as a storyteller--I’m flattered Marta thinks I’m a good one. But in reality, I think before we can solve a problem or offer any solution, we need to find a way to engage with the project. You have to make it your own first.
With various initiatives spearheading the way towards space colonization, is now the time to start discussing what the architecture of the Moon or Mars might look like?  
IA-Certainly that would be a good start. There is something fascinating and yet terrifying about thinking of a place that has no real history, no culture, or possibly no life. I don’t know how architecture could respond to that in a meaningful way. So I think your use of the word ‘colonization’ is an appropriate one and would inevitably have influence over what the architecture might look like. But perhaps those are the only type of places that could offer us an opportunity to imagine a truly autonomous and “universal” architecture?

MN- Great question! I agree with Iman that’s a fascinating project. The context has to be build from scratch. But I also like the challenge of the landscape that is so harsh and unforgiving. I taught a studio once on Extreme Environments where we had to adopt a living unit to the external harsh conditions of the hottest or coldest place on earth. I realized then that that environment not only determines architectural space, construction methods or building systems but it also determines the behaviour of it’s occupants for example you could only go outside at certain times of a day or you rely on external support, tools or prosthetics to get through your day. I think that’s where it gets interesting when the behaviour and psychology of the human body is subject to environmental adaptation or survival.    

Which books and publications have you read this year?
MN- I definitely am more interested in the fiction and science fiction. I don’t have much time to read but I make sure I can read few pages every day. My current favourite is Read Player One by Ernest Cline a dystopian virtual reality vision set in 2044. Film and shows are as important for me as books so Black Mirror, Blade Runner (old and new), 2001 Space Odyssey, Metropolis, RoboCop, Minority Report, Mad Max stuff like this.   

IA-I have to admit, unlike Marta, I rarely read a book cover to cover. I sort of start somewhere I find interesting, skip a few parts, and stop when I feel like I gotten it figured. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good practice but it works for people like me who have low attention span and like to “read” a lot. I frequently read Log and Cabinet Magazine, like to read The New Yorker but never have the time for it. I was recently invited to share a reading list on Places Journal that includes some of my favorite books and essays on the relationship between architecture and the body.  If I have to pick one from the books I’ve recently read, it would have to be Luis Fernández-Galiano’s Fire and Memory: On Architecture and Energy. It’s a fascinating read that draws from economics, ecology, biology, physics and thermodynamics on a discussion around the commutability and interchangeability of the material in architecture.