FictionFinder: A conversation with AN.ONYMOUS - Iman Ansari

Updated: Mar 3

Iman Ansari, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at The Cooper Union, NYC, the co-founder of AN.ONYMOUS - an anti-disciplinary design firm that explores speculative approaches in architecture and urbanism discussed his office’s work as a consultant for NASA JPL and a design partner of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT).


Founded by Iman Ansari and Marta Nowak, the practice focuses on speculative approaches towards architecture and urbanism in relation to science and technology. Since its inception in 2012, AN.ONYMOUS has engaged in numerous international projects, encompassing a diverse range of scales from urban and architectural design to furniture and prosthetics. AN.ONYMOUS works have been published and exhibited in various international venues including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and Hammer Museum, and A+D Architecture and Design Museum in Los Angeles.


Iman Ansari is currently a faculty at USC School of Architecture and has previously taught in a number of other schools, most recently as a visiting professor of architecture and urbanism at UNLV School of Architecture, and at UCLA Architecture and Urban Design.


PRODUCTIVITY (Photo courtesy: AN.ONYMOUS)


PRODUCTIVITY and ZERO.GRAVITY are proposals for collaborative work spaces designed for NASA JPL.


[FICTIONMAPPER] What is AN.ONYMOUS?


[AN.ONYMOUS] We started AN.ONYMOUS as an anti-disciplinary design practice because after years of working in different offices we saw the limitations of conventional disciplinary approaches to design. It’s not just about the design process--the tools, techniques, and methods--being liberated from its conventional disciplinary framework, but rather we strongly believe that we live in a time when the concept of space or environment cannot be defined on the basis of those rigid categories. So our goal is not simply to forge connections with other fields, as an interdisciplinary practice, but essentially to tear down those boundaries all together in order to envision new possibilities. In other worlds, Since the time of Vitruvius, architecture has been defined by its ability to embody physical and material strength, functionality, and beauty: firmitas, utilities, and venustas. AN.ONYMOUS aims to explore the uncharted possibilities of architecture beyond the stable, structural, and formal qualities that have come to define the discipline. Our work is about a shift away from those conventional frameworks towards an exploration of new methods, tools, and techniques that suggest the potential for an immaterial, transient and amorphous architecture. We do that by focusing on specific spatial conditions--whether its movement and mobility, environment and atmosphere, or the human body and prosthetics--that signals the possibility of new types of spaces.


[FICTIONMAPPER] What would be the vision/goal for An.onymous 10 years from now?


[AN.ONYMOUS] I have said before that I think a practice runs a lot like an old train: It’s governed by its own inertia. It takes a lot of horsepower to get it started and set it in motion, and once it does, there isn’t much you can do to get it move faster or slower. So while we have some degree of control over it, it runs on its pace. How far will we get in ten years down the line? Only time can tell. But I think the goal is that by then we have a body of work that represents that larger project, the agenda or thesis, that argues that “architecture” is not simply about brick or concrete formal enclosures but about the complex set of interactions between the human body and the nonhuman elements within their shared environment.


[FICTIONMAPPER] Which is your favorite movie that isn’t anyone else’s favorite?


[AN.ONYMOUS] I have a lot of favorites but I think the one that I happen to like and almost everyone else dislikes is Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. I’m a big fan of Haneke’s work because he doesn’t use film as a passive media to tell a story, but the film is an active participant in the experience. In other words, despite the appearance of a narrative storyline in the film, the actual story is the experience of the viewer watching the film. This is of course the post-structuralist phase of cinema which I’m particularly interested in. It’s quite powerful and terrifying!


[FICTIONMAPPER] What was the design process for NASA WORK.SPACE? Did you collaborate with researchers?


[AN.ONYMOUS] We started the project with a series of ergonomic studies that looked at what people nowadays do at their office desk. When office desks and chairs emerged as standardized furniture, they were primarily used to do paperwork, and later on adjusted for using machines such as the typewriter or the computer. Today we use our office desk for a variety of functions: from reading and responding emails on a desktop computer, teleconferencing or speaking on the phone, to listening to music, texting, FaceTiming or having a private phone conversation with friends or family, taking a coffee or lunch break at our desk, or even simply relaxing for a few minutes within the busy working schedule. So the ergonomic studies were intended to provide a new standard for office chair and desk that could accommodate those functions. We used photography and mapping techniques very similar to those used by people like Étienne-Jules Marey in the 19th century, Frank and Lillian Gilbreth in the early 20th century, or Alexander Kira in the 1960s, to arrive at the basic diagrammatic conditions that led to the final design of the chair. But the other aspect we were interested in was mobility. The first office chair with wheels belonged to Charles Darwin who manually attached four wheels to his regular chair so that he could move around his office more easily. Since then, office chairs have come in a variety of forms but they are still chairs with wheels. Our goal was to go against that. We were inspired by NASA JPL’s own rovers and its maneuvering technology. They asked us to design their office space and we went back to them arguing that unless we reinvent the office chair and desk, there is very little we can do to change the nature of the office environment. So we proposed an ‘office rover’ which, in the spirit of JPL’s own martian rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, we called it PRODUCTIVITY. We studied the rover wheel mechanism more closely and adopted a version of that for PRODUCTIVITY. But since we replaced the rigid office chair with an all-terrain rover and a modular desk system, that enabled us to transform the office environment itself into a more dynamic, flexible, and stimulating environment.


[FICTIONMAPPER] What was the start process/ narrative for ZERO.GRAVITY?


[AN.ONYMOUS] At the time, I was doing research on tubular steel furniture of the early 20th century and was really interested in exploring that material. Early examples were particularly interesting: Marcel Breuer’s chair for instance was inspired by the use of tubular steel in bicycle frames, and Mart Stam’s first cantilever chair prototype was built with gas pipes. And by 1937, Everest and Jennings’ first collapsible wheelchair not only facilitated the movement of disabled bodies in space, but also the tubular steel frame allowed it to be collapsible so that it could fit in the trunk of a car and be moved elsewhere. So the history of tubular steel furniture is strangely tied to mobility, whether movement of bodies in space, the movement of fluids or gases within tubes, or the ability of the thing itself to be moved, therefore making us more mobile. So it was important for us to celebrate the material and its rich history. We selected four classic tubular steel chairs--the LC4 Chaise Longue by Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Jeanneret, the MR Chair by Mies van der Rohe, the Wassily Chair Marcel Breuer, and the first modern wheelchair by Everest & Jennings-- and arranged them along a continuous loop within a wheel. The piece accommodates different seating positions, some prescribed by the original four chairs, others made possible in the transitional space between them or simply by the users misusing the original chairs to create new and unforeseen postures. You can turn ZERO.GRAVITY to select a desired position or move the piece from one space to another simply by rolling it on the ground. But most importantly it forms a mobile environment that only balances itself with the human body. ZERO.GRAVITY is only complete with the body inside it.



ZERO.GRAVITY (Photo courtesy: AN.ONYMOUS)

ZERO.GRAVITY (Photo courtesy: AN.ONYMOUS)

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Will the real AI please stand up?