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Event Coverage: Alumnus Sonny Astani Names Viterbi School Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

November 29, 2007 — Shiny streamers of cardinal red and gold shot through the air over hundreds of cheering spectators outside Kaprielian Hall on Nov. 29, 2007, as the USC Viterbi School of Engineering named one of its original departments after alumnus Sonny Astani.
Dean Yortsos, left, presents Sonny Astani and wife, Jo, with a framed copy of the newly named department banner..

In a multimedia presentation of music, video, speeches and "Fight On" from the Trojan Marching Band, USC President Steven B. Sample and Provost C. L. Max Nikias joined Viterbi School Dean Yannis C. Yortsos and Civil and Environmental Department Chair Jean-Pierre Bardet in announcing the newly named Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. The naming gift was made possible with a $17-million contribution from Astani, (MSISE ’78), an engineer and well-known Los Angeles developer.

“USC civil engineers helped build Southern California, and the Viterbi School of Engineering,” said Yortsos in an expression of the school’s appreciation.  “Throughout its 100-year history, USC civil engineering has led the nation in the science of structural mechanics and engineering, in construction management, transportation, water resources and the mitigation of natural disasters, such as earthquakes and tsunamis. 
“Sonny — a man of vision and a man of action — is today making a statement of faith and confidence to this university and to its Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering that transcends time, distance and culture …. for the benefit of generations of USC students to come and for the world at large,” he said.
Streamers rained down on the audience as the announcement was made.
In his remarks, Sample recounted Astani’s early education in Iran and praised his determination to pursue a career in engineering. Sample, an electrical engineer himself with membership in the National Academy of Engineering, congratulated Astani on his decision to attend USC over “a university to the west.”  

“One visit to our campus was enough for him to make up his mind about which university to attend,” Sample joked with the audience.

Astani came to the United States in 1976, after earning an undergraduate engineering degree at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, which has arguably one of the finest undergraduate engineering programs in the world.  He entered the Daniel J. Epstein master’s degree program in industrial and systems engineering and earned his degree in 1978.

He had planned to return to Iran, but by then the Iranian revolution was in full swing, so Astani decided to stay in the U.S., at least until things settled down. Not long after, he landed an engineering job in Downey, CA, but quickly grew bored with the work and turned to real estate.

Today, Astani Enterprises, Inc., is one of the largest niche real estate development companies in Los Angeles.  The company’s investments are valued at over $1 billion; the firm owns or operates approximately 4,000 apartment units and lofts in the city and is
Amy Rechenmacher, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, shows off a new Sonny Astani t-shirt.
currently building 2,000 condos and lofts in downtown L.A.  These include five iconic residential towers and two loft buildings: the Concerto, a mixed-use, twin tower complex standing 32 stories tall, with 27,000 square feet of shops, restaurants and spa; the 38-story 8th and Grand project; and Vero, located at 1234 Wilshire Blvd.

Astani received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the USC Viterbi School for his many civic and philanthropic endeavors.  Among them, he recently became involved in a homeless project to help those in need and improve neighborhoods. In addition to that work, he also serves on the Executive Committee of the Central City Association, on the Board of Councilors of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, and on the Leadership Council for USC’s Lusk Center for Real Estate Development. He is also a board member of the Pacific Council for International Affairs.

Special guests at the Kaprielian Hall Plaza gathering included Astani’s wife, Jo, and the couple’s children; brothers Marco and Shane, and sister Fay; Jean-Pierre Bardet, chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Jim Baum, chair of the Viterbi School Board of Councilors (BOC); and USC trustees Stanley Gold, Daniel Epstein, Ming Hsieh, Barbara Rossier, and Andrew J. Viterbi and his wife, Erna.

Other Viterbi School BOC members included Greg Brandow, Al Dorman, Gordon Anderson, Edward Reynolds, Pete Staudhammer and former BOC chairman Jay Kear.  Special guests included Jack Knott, dean of the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development; engineering senior Reed Doucette, who was recently named a 2008 Rhodes Scholar; and several of Astani’s industry associates. 
The stage outside of Kaprielian Hall.

The stage boasted a 9-foot-wide by 12-foot-high LED screen, which created a backdrop for the speakers.  Two 9-foot by 11-foot canvas prints of Astani Department’s colorful abstract graphics framed each side of the stage. The downtown developer’s gift is the largest ever to name a civil and environmental engineering department, and is the fourth department naming gift for the USC Viterbi School of Engineering since the school began its $300-million fundraising initiative in 2001. 

Yortsos presented a framed print of the graphics to Astani and talked of a higher characteristic among visionary individuals to make a difference in the world.  This is a time of increasing urbanization around the world, he said.  The trend is producing “megacities” — cities with 10 million or more people — which pose many challenges for urban planners and future generations of civil and environmental engineers. 
“Internationally we see an emerging vision for civil and environmental engineering as a major force for improvement and enhancement of cities, not only for Los Angeles, but for major urban centers around the world,” Yortsos said.  “Astani shares our belief that civil engineering is vital to achieving a critical need for the 21st century: cities designed to be highly functional, healthful and inspiring; environments that celebrate humanity."
L-R: Dean Yortsos, USC President Steven Sample, Sonny and Jo Astani and Andrew Viterbi. In front are other members of the Astani family.

Before speaking, Astani presented a three-minute music video of famous city landmarks flashing across the screen to the fast-moving beat of crunching electronica music. The images conveyed both the natural and manmade beauty of many cities around the world, as well as their not-so-pleasant byproducts, such as pollution, traffic, disease and homelessness.  A message at the end challenged viewers to “find solutions to societies” and embrace the future.

"Thirty years ago, by mere good fortune, I ended up in the best university, in the best city, in the best country in the world,” Astani said.  “This is a gift to both USC and Los Angeles.  It is my hope that it will allow a new generation of civil and environmental engineers to rise to the increasingly complex challenges created by the urbanization of Los Angeles and the changes to the global environment we are now facing."

Department Chair Jean-Pierre Bardet called his department “a bonfire of energy waiting for the right match.”

“Today, we are getting our light,” he said.