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MIT Better World

By Kris Willcox

Originally from Syria, Abou Ras grew up in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, and has always been drawn to building and design. “I used to love playing with LEGOs,” he recalls, “and initially I wanted to be an engineer.” Ultimately it was architecture, however, that integrated his interests in math and engineering with his appreciation for creative influences such as art and cultural history.

Abou Ras earned undergraduate degrees in architectural design and physics from the University of Toronto and today continues to add new influences to his work as a second-year graduate student in MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P). He is focusing on the emergent field of computational architecture.

“The best part about MIT is that every single person in my studio has a different background, a different focus of study, and something to share with the others,” says Abou Ras, who is this year’s recipient of the Carney Goldberg Fellowship, created by the family of MIT-trained architect Carney Goldberg ’29. The support of this fellowship, says Abou Ras, has made his MIT education possible.

Abou Ras and his SA+P classmates work in studio cohorts of approximately 30 students each, a structure that he says encourages community and a rich exchange of ideas. In the fall of 2019, his cohort’s first assignment was to create a performance space within the Emerald Necklace, a chain of connected parks designed by storied landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted in Boston and Brookline, Massachusetts. Abou Ras designed a computational method to divide the imagined space into a grid and then algorithmically populated the space with elements such as trees and benches. The result was an innovative co-creation by architect and machine.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Abou Ras spent the fall 2020 semester taking courses remotely from his family’s current home in Toronto, Canada. But he says classes such as 4.181 Architectural Design Workshop: Kintsugi, Upcycling, and Machine Learning, taught by SA+P faculty members Caitlin Mueller ’07, SM ’14, PhD ’14 and Daniel Marshall MA ’19, continue to expand his skills and spark his imagination. In this workshop, students combine computational modeling and design with Kintsugi, a Japanese art form in which broken fragments of pottery are reassembled into new shapes. The class perfectly suits Abou Ras’s interest in exploring the boundaries of traditional form and drawing inspiration from many disciplines. He notes that his personal influences range from writings in his own field, such as Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays by the architectural historian Robin Evans, to the magical realism of Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, whose novel One Hundred Years of Solitude reminds Abou Ras that architecture is about more than structures; it has the power to profoundly shape people and their stories.

“Our cities are where we live, where we develop, where we evolve,” Abou Ras says. “The role of the architect [can be] to envision the city,” not only as it is but “what it might become.” This imaginative work is particularly important now, he says, as Covid-19 is profoundly impacting the lives of people around the world and may influence design solutions of the future—just as cholera once reshaped urban water and waste management.

Global warming is another force that presents compelling questions for architects, Abou Ras notes: How will humans survive rising sea levels? How can buildings become more adaptable to changing weather? And how can cities be made greener and more sustainable? Answering such questions will take the work of many minds, which is one reason Abou Ras is glad to be at MIT.

“MIT has this perfect collaborative platform where you can share, not only with your cohort in your studio, but also with individuals in different departments, [cultivating ] thoughts and ideas,” he says. Though architecture is rooted in technical rigor and precision, says Abou Ras, it is also “a very subjective field, and I think that the only way to learn in such a subjective field is to share as much as you can with others.”