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How Yazdani Studio creates buildings that shape culture

A former painter is using technology and an inquisitive culture to determine the “poetry of architecture”

The Kraemer Radiation Center in Anaheim, California, was driven by a desire to fold in nature and light, and to create spaces that were both communal and contemplative.
Bruce Damonte

For cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, the outdoors can seem distant amid medical machines dispensing treatment. At the Kraemer Radiation Oncology Center in Anaheim, California, designed by Yazdani Studio, the layout seeks to improve a stressful situation with a connection to nature.

As explained by design director Mehrdad Yazdani, the Kraemer design used technology in a way that sought to, in essence, push technology aside. Generally, oncology centers need thick concrete walls to prevent radiation leakage.

Yazdani and his colleagues devised a curving, naturalistic shape for the building, incorporating Zen gardens into the layout so all the patients, even those in the midst of heavy radiation treatments, could connect with nature. It was driven by a desire to fold in nature and light, and to create spaces that were both communal and contemplative.

Mehrdad Yazdani

For Yazdani, the Kraemer project for the Kaiser Permanente healthcare group demonstrated the strengths of his namesake practice. A smaller, LA-based firm-within-a-firm at Cannon Design that has the ability to draw upon the specialized knowledge and resources of a larger company, the practice is expected to grow to a staff of 30 by the end of the year. And by pairing computer-aided design with a culture that encourages its designers to question precedent, the firm can focus on the human experience.

“We’re not typology focused or geographically focused,” Yazdani says. “We’re agile enough to do a little exhibition space of 1,500 square feet or work on a billion-dollar medical facility.”

Craig Booth, a principal and long-time collaborator with Yazdani, believes the lack of focus is a an asset.

“We want to invent,” he says. “If you’re a healthcare architect, you’ve done 20 surgery rooms without a window. You’re not going to suddenly wake up one day and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have a window?’”

During a tour of the firm’s office in Century City, Yazdani explained that the very existence of a boutique firm within a larger organization is a sign of the times: Changing markets and technology have meant that architecture firms either need to become massive and scale their practice accordingly, or shrink and find a razor-sharp focus. Mid-size regional firms often lack the resources to keep up with technology and maintain subject-matter expertise.

Yazdani Studio fuses the best of both worlds, and reflects Yazdani’s philosophy of humanistic design. An Iranian who left the country during the Islamic Revolution, after finishing a year of architecture school, Yazdani immigrated to Austin and studied at the University of Texas. During his fourth year of studies, he applied and was accepted as an intern for the office of Michael Graves, who had just finished his now-famous Portland Building and was, says Yazdani, a “rockstar.”

Nicknamed the “Persian Cowboy,” Yazdani was the first non-Ivy League student to be accepted to work in Graves’s studio. Yazdani, a longtime sketch artist and painter, was influenced by Graves, who also allowed his artistic inclinations to influence his work (Yazdani currently on his 30th sketchbook, a practice he picked up when working in Graves’s studio).

“I appreciate how his studio worked on a small scale, and the way art and architecture were folded into the design process,” says Yazdani.

The Jacobs Medical Center

In 2000, when his former employer, Dworsky Associates (where Yazdani was director of design) merged with Cannon Design, Yazdani took the opportunity to create an experimental studio-within-a-studio.

Recent projects have exemplified his emphasis on humanistic design in a technological age. Yazdani calls it “parametric planning.” Computers and digital modeling can help find efficiencies and functional solutions, freeing up architects to focus on user experience and community.

A pair of residential towers in Dubai, right across from the Burj Khalifa, presents a simple example: Since the towers’ views were a big selling point, the firm developed a design model that optimized them, allowing the team to focus on more hands-on aspects of the overall design.

“I’m trying to liberate you so you can bring your creativity to the work instead of laboring over layer after layer and measuring efficiency,” Yazdani says.

The interior of Jacobs Medical Center

This community-building approach scales up. Jacobs Medical Center, which opened in La Jolla, California, in 2016 and won an AIA Healthcare Design Award, was a seamless merging of Cannon Design’s healthcare expertise with Yazdani Studio’s upstart energy.

It was the studio’s first major healthcare commission and was approached as a clean slate. The architects learned from colleagues at Cannon to help understand the current state of healthcare design: what the requirements are, the latest studies in the field, and the flow of surgeons, patients, and nurses. They also worked to identify the current solutions to some classic functional problems of healthcare spaces (privacy, light, sanitation, openness).

At the same time, the studio’s investigative approach aimed to capture important first impressions and tap into new ways of solving problems—and designing a medical center that covered more than half a million square feet. Yazdani staff spent time interviewing nurses, arguably the users who spend the most time experiencing a healthcare building, and thinking about the patient and physician experiences within the space.

The end result, an atypical curved layout, earned plaudits for its lighting design. Nicknamed the “vertical garden hospital,” Jacobs Medical Center features a roof terrace and gardens every few floors, as well as curvilinear floorplans, a focus on daylighting, and custom headwalls (the array of machines and gear surrounding a patient’s bed). Created in consultation with hospital users, the final design resulted in better wayfinding, more natural light, and a more comfortable patient experience.

The exterior of Lassonde Studios
Lassonade Studios integrates housing and lab space.

“A machine can help you temper the light, or figure out the frit pattern on the glass,” says Nadine Quirmbach, the studio’s associate vice president. “It can help create a functional patient room. But what do you do with that space? Design goes well beyond solving the functional problem.”

An approach similarly unburdened by preconceptions helped inform the firm’s design for Lassonde Studios, a combination dorm, business incubator, and maker space for the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Approaching the project with a famous entrepreneur and tinkerer in mind—Steve Jobs lived in his garage, right?—the firm imagined a center for contemporary technology that placed tools alongside pod-like living spaces, enabling students to constantly create and collaborate.

Yazdani is currently at work on campus design planning for the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, as well as a new school of medicine for Kaiser Permanente with a focus on educating doctors.

“We tried to figure out how the new Kaiser building can become a device that creates a new culture,” says Booth. “How do you create a new kind of doctor? By mixing the classrooms, library, and office, we created a sort of learning resource, a more open kind of office.”

While the typologies and clients may change, Yazdani Studio always seems to pivot back to culture, creating spaces that can shape interactions.

That may be the ultimate goal of institutional architecture. And it’s something that computers, despite all their utility, can’t figure out on their own.

“It’s the poetry of architecture,” says Yazdani. “The idea of a building, the way it has a relationship to its context, the way it reflects its culture. That’s the life of a building.”