June 24, 2020

Mehrdad Yazdani on Equality, Technology and the Future of Design

This week, the Yazdani Studio of CannonDesign celebrates its 20th anniversary. Rooted in the reputation and leadership of design director Mehrdad Yazdani, the studio exists as a laboratory devoted to forging the future of architecture and developing new building typologies calibrated to our changing world.

An ability to design for unknown futures is embedded in the DNA of the Studio, so we sat down with Mehrdad to hear his thoughts on equality, technology and the future of design.

The Black Lives Matter movement is underscoring the critical need for equality, inclusion and justice. What role does design play? How do you address these critical issues in your design process?

It’s important to first acknowledge that the racial divisions in many communities still reflect the distressing legacy of segregation—largely because of design. There are actual dividing lines you can trace, and those lines influence everything from health, wealth and education to employment and political power. The design of cities helped perpetuate the racism the Black Lives Matter movement is fighting against. It’s important that everyone—especially designers who are actively reshaping communities—acknowledge that.

Although my experience is different than that of Black Americans, I’m an Iranian American. I moved to the U.S. when I was 18 and could barely speak English. I have darker skin and hair and a name most people can’t pronounce. When I first arrived, I landed in Texas, and a year after, the U.S. embassy was taken over by militia in Iran—fueling anti-Iranian sentiment. So very early in my life I was confronted with not being able to fit in or feel like others. I count myself fortunate to have found opportunity amid that, but I am always aware of the prejudice that still exists today.

As designers, we have a responsibility to reject racism and create spaces that bring people together and celebrate the distinct identities and backgrounds that make our world so beautiful. In the Studio, we practice inclusive design both through the process we employ and in the solutions we create. It’s about designing with people, not designing “for” them, and breaking down the physical and societal barriers that built environments can often create. This has always been important, but never more so than now.

Do you anticipate our experiences with COVID-19 dramatically shaping the future of design?

We will not go back to normal as we understood it, though we’ll be less reactive to COVID-19 as time passes. We’ve always considered infection control in design, but now we know more about highly infectious diseases and the role the physical environment plays in advancing spread. When significant disasters happen like earthquakes, hurricanes or fires, they impact building code requirements and cause us to rethink the design strategies we use to safeguard buildings. I am confident COVID-19 will do the same, changing the way we plan and design buildings to safeguard humanity.

On the other hand, from a practice perspective, there are technologies that we’ve had for a long time that we weren’t leveraging appropriately—and now we see those technologies can work. We’ve always had video conferencing, for example, but we didn’t use it often. Now that we’ve experienced how easy it is to collaborate and work together on video, we won’t always default to hopping on a plane or spending two hours in LA traffic commuting into the office. I also anticipate virtual reality playing a bigger role—we may be looking at a future where we’re virtually meeting in the same space as opposed to physically being together.

Clients often come to you to create project typologies that don’t exist. When you’re designing something without precedent, where do you start?

My team and I are drawn to projects that push us outside our comfort zones. The process we employ ensures we don’t rely on the past to guide future work. It is grounded in exploration, ethnographic research, deep user engagement, prototyping and time for creativity. We don’t design based on precedent. We rely on a creative process that can lead us down different and unpredictable paths for our work, whether it’s a healthcare building, a museum, a residential tower or a learning space. That’s how we push ourselves to create buildings and spaces that break new ground for our clients. We relish the opportunity to create something new.

Inventing new typologies will absolutely be a part of the future. As the world changes and takes on new forms, we can’t assume typologies of the past and present will still be relevant. We have to be bold and help clients uncover what’s next. The Studio was formed to do this. We don’t have all the answers right now, but through our design process, we help clients uncover them.

Can you share the origin story of the Yazdani Studio?

The idea came to me about 20+ years ago when I looked at where the practice of architecture was and where I predicted it would go. I wondered how we could form a practice that is able to respond and be equipped to take advantage of the evolution that was happening in the industry as well as advance and pioneer new discoveries. At the time, the world was getting flatter and more connected. Design ideas traveled very fast from one locale to another and buildings and typologies were becoming more complex. Technology was also rapidly advancing at exponential rates, dramatically changing the entire industry.

My partners and I, as owners of a mid-sized regional firm in the 1990s, found it difficult to make the investments needed to keep up with these advancements and the competition, never mind lead the industry. At the same time, clients increasingly expected that the firms they retained would have industry-leading market acumen, making it difficult for smaller firms like ours to keep up. This led us to CannonDesign, not as a merged firm that was “absorbed,” but one that was able to function somewhat autonomously.

Early on, I posed the idea that we could create a practice within the firm that united the best attributes of a small, hands-on, agile and experimental studio with the expertise, talent, geographic reach and resources of a large firm. This reality would allow clients to work with a single firm offering the best attributes of each. That idea led to the creation of our entirely unique platform in 2000. Now 20 years later, we’re working across the globe on projects across markets representing all scales and typologies. We’ve achieved our vision and I’m really excited for the future.

Technological advancements largely defined the last decade. How do you foresee it shaping the next decade?

In more recent years I’ve begun to think a lot about how robotics and artificial intelligence will play a role in our practice and how we might be able to build our own buildings, which is something we’re now starting to do. We’re one of just a few firms in the country with a robot [a robotic arm]; I often joke that she’s the only individual in our Studio that has a private office.

Our plan is to use the robot to help us as we build prototypes and explore how we might be able to command robotic technology to build what we design. Could we one day give a drawing to a robot and have it build a design perfectly? Yes! I have no doubt it will happen. Within our Studio, we have recent graduates who know how to run robots because that’s what they’re being taught in school. It’s inevitable that the robot will be a key player in translating ideas into fabrication.

Technology will also play a role in addressing other larger societal issues like climate change, the scarcity of materials, urbanization and more. We need to harness it to better influence, interact with and impact our world. For example, a few years ago we would collect data in terms of understanding the environment we’re building in, but now we can use very specific data to drive our parametric models whether in the shaping of the building, the siting of the building, or the orientation, materiality or façade development—we now have much faster and smarter tools to enable us to control the impact we make and the footprint of the built environment.

Learn more about the Yazdani Studio’s 20th anniversary >