Iranian Architecture Today, A Bridge Between East and West

By: Kamran Afshar-Naderi
Abaadi (Quarterly)
Summer 1996, No. 21
Pages: 18-23

Modern architecture was introduced in Iran 60 years ago and we are now witnessing the fourth generation of Iranian architects. With architecture how a productive activity, we should admit that considerable progress has been made in this period. Today, most buildings, at least from a bureaucratic perspective, are "engineer-built" and the number of graduates and students of architecture has increased. The Construction Engineering Association has many members and large construction engineering consulting firms have been established. However from an artistic perspective, and specially if we expect our building activity to signify as well a cultural advance, we cannot cite a particular work as a brilliant example from recent decades. In architecture, cultural progress is not synonymous with the number of buildings constructed or the changes in tastes and trends that are always manifest among the younger generation of architects. To examine positive achievements in the fields of arts and culture, one should study the structural changes in the architectural profession and in its design methodology.

Lack of respect for the architectural profession shown by both public and private building patrons and their interference in the implementation of projects are among chronic difficulties that have remained as rampant today as yesterday. Other problems have also persisted, such as expecting consulting engineers to carry out large-scale projects without an initial plan, the inability to evaluate the artistic quality of projects, nitpicking over trivial matters while ignoring fundamental faults when judging the projects, the designers' and builder dislike of constructive criticism, lack of productive cooperation between designers and consultants, absence of healthy competition and the prevalence of deceitful practices in competing with others. Recently, a new issue has been added to these and that is the resistance of building patrons toward the construction of an edifice that is of a bold and outstanding artistic design.

With regard to artistic values and our concept of architecture, in most cases, we are still preoccupied with the old question, "West or tradition?". In the first issue of the magazine "Architect" Vartan wrote about the prospects of Iranian architecture: "All in all, architects educated in the West are faced with two differing viewpoints; should one imitate the past and recreate the valuable works of that era; or should one look to the future and adapt architectural design to the modern way of life." (1) It should be said that in one respect, Vartan's old approach to the problem is more to the point than current debates regarding West and traditionalism in architecture. This is due to the fact that on the one hand, through an absolute and inappropriate use of the expression "traditional architecture", we contradict the historical character of architecture and the dependence of style on time and location. On the other hand, we tend to attribute to the West all the achievements of modern architecture, on which Oriental cultures and Islamic countries have had some direct and indirect influence, and thus ignore the need to establish an agreeable link with modern architectural forms.

Although it should be admitted that some of the current debates are far more serious than the above common, yet crude, line of argument, in the final analysis and half a century after Vartan's article, the main worry of today's architect is finding a place for his work; will be identify with the currents belonging to the West or with those belonging to old Iran, though none of these correspond to present conditions from the viewpoint of time or place? Two important objections can be raised concerning this association. The first is to accept that Iran's historical architecture is the antithesis Western architecture. Such a view promotes a simplistic view of the West as being culturally uniform and congruous. The second objection is that we are searching for our own identity by referring to phenomena that are not compatible with our present conditions and are to a large extent unknown to us. This state of affairs is itself the result of some kind of confused attitude towards architecture. As to traditional architecture, it is worth nothing that the primary difference between a traditional activity and a modern one is more in the process and method of executing out that activity than in the final product. Thus, if today we are to imitate all the patterns and forms belonging to our historical architecture, we will not succeed (as proven in practice) as the process of designing and constructing buildings is not being done the traditional.

On the other hand, there are tendencies that are opposed to the utilization of any traditional form of architecture and these try to keep pace with developments in modern architecture. These trends copy foreign styles. If in the past we had tens of Le Corbusier, Wright, or Alto imitators, nowadays among students, we have hundreds of Eisenmans, Andos, and Kurokawas. Although in the teaching of architecture, the old custom of master and apprentice has apparently become obsolete, the need for it still remains, albeit in a disguised and unofficial form.

One of the points I am trying to prove is that today's Iranian architecture, should break free from the unhealthy state of "being at the crossroads" and put an end to disputes over the choice of inspiration or whether it belongs to a particular tendency. Whether we take a certain position as our point of departure, what is important in discussing it is architecture itself. Iranian architects in the ancient Achaemenid period as well as in the recent Qajar period have demonstrated how elements from foreign architectural influences can be employed to create works that are in complete harmony with the Iranian spirit and culture, Nowadays, however, in using elements from "traditional" architecture, the resulting buildings are completely incongruous with the spirit and culture of our nation.

Our present-day difficulty is not that we have become too westernized or that we work too much along a traditional vein. Our difficulty is that we do not have sufficient knowledge about these subjects. Regarding historical architecture, we have an incomplete knowledge of past building design methodologist. Due to the lack of treatises on architecture (2) or collections of old designs (3), our knowledge is only based on what has passed on to us orally by old masters who were only experts in building technology and ornamentation. Studies specially by Russian scholars, have shown that spatial proportions, the dimensions of the main structures, and even construction details are based on very precise methods and calculations.

These facts have not even been noted in any of the numerous books written these days on the architecture of Iran (4). Regarding so-called Western architecture, it should be mentioned that we do not yet have a research center that is dedicated to a serious study of the periods, styles or the architectural culture of a particular country. We are aware that in other advanced states, hundreds of such centers exist that are dedicated to the study of Iranian art, literature, and architecture and some of their specialized studies are so advanced that it is highly unlikely that we Iranians would be able to apply even some of the finding such studies. "Occidentosis" in architecture did not come about due to our broad knowledge of the West, but rather to how little we know about Western architecture. Otherwise, Europeans, with their numerous institutes on Oriental studies, should have been orientalized by now.

In our universities, the study of world architecture and modern architecture is limited. Instead of gaining real knowledge about theories, design methodologies, and the important and useful elements of contemporary architecture, students are captivated by the colorful pictures and completed projects. Familiarity with contemporary architecture is important not for purposes of imitation but as one step in the process of attaining artistic and professional understanding. In this process, any type of experience is beneficial. Experimentation, trial with various tools, and exploration of new dimensions in aesthetics are specially important in modern art and architecture. Similar to an infant who wants to explore all the possibilities of his body and therefore shakes his legs violently, raises his voice unbearably, or puts his hand inside his mouth in an exaggerated manner, modern architecture rejects the classic balance between various aspects of architecture, and each time directs its attention in an exaggerated way to one specialized branch or one particular problem. Viewed from afar, we do not realize that the infant, when putting his hand inside his mouth, comes one stage closer in gaining understanding. For us, the act of putting the hand inside the mouth is an imitative action. Our problem is lack of authenticity, be it in the so-called Western style or the so-called traditional style. Of course an important point to keep in mind is that too much insistence on an authentic character also can result in producing affected outcomes and be destructive in its own right.

In modern art, artists who believe that it is their duty to express their inner worlds and choose their own method of work, instead of attempting to create a useful, beautiful and popular work, explore new frontiers of aesthetics and new aspects of artistic creation. Modern radicalism and the intense tendency toward discovering the boundaries of each domain of human studies, have affected the arts and architecture; art as a process of creating complete works has turned into a process of exploration with artistic creations mostly giving the impression of being in an unfinished state. As pharmacists who always look for the "active ingredient" in every impure composition, the artists search for the main constitutive element or the main effective characteristic in nature. In artistic works of the past "such explorations were manifested in paintings from Impressionism to Fauvism, Tachism, Cubism, and Abstract Art. They also affected architecture from Neo-classicism to Rationalism. In the second half of the nineteenth century, architecture lagged behind the taste of the period and except for those works known as engineered architecture, which were not creations of architects, Renaissance, Baroque, and Gothic forms were repeatedly employed in building designs. For this reason, the revolt against traditional forms of architecture was more intense and more radical. Architecture, which since the Medieval Age was considered to be an art form on the same level as painting and sculpture, had to turn to the latter to make up for lost ground. Naturally, the aesthetic foundation of architecture expanded rapidly, with no regard for the main difference of architecture with other mother arts, i.e. the practical nature of architecture.

Thus, the special studies and different branches of aesthetics progressed so far that in some cases, they entered the realm of utopianism, taking us from the utopias of futurists, such as St. Elea, to completely imaginary "Archigram-like" models such as the "Walking City". Gradually starting from the 1960s, some architectural designs appeared that could not even be used in the construction of actual buildings and were only legitimized through the mass media and in specialized journals and exhibitions. With the appearance of this paper architecture, photographic architecture gradually emerged. The disintegration of various aesthetic backgrounds, the failure of the architecture of the 1960s' and 1970s' to create a durable language independent from painting and sculpture and especially the rapid depletion of the post-modernist archive from historical elements, drove some groups of architects in the 1980s to some extreme forms of experimentation. Alongside these styles of architecture, we find specially in Europe, architects, such as Alvaro Siza, Osvald Mattias Ungers, Gustav Peichl, Christian de Portzam Park, Vittorio Gregoti, Mario Botta, Aldo Rossi and many others, who possessed a serious principled method and achieved some interesting aesthetic results. But the dizzying consumption of images by the television and advertising media and public inattentiveness to any kind of "effect" in architecture drove some architects towards exaggerated "dramatization". Trends in architecture, such as "Folding" and "Deconstructivism", were essentially created to impose a new aesthetic dimension by destroying visual habits and aggrandizing the unnoted facts of the existing world. To legitimize their dangerous formalisms, they were equipped with unprecedented heavy philosophical literature. Thus, with the increased aesthetic randomness and independence of the projects, their philosophical justifications became more ostentatious and more difficult to understand.

And how are all these reflected in Iranian architecture? In this part of the article, following a brief review of distinct trends in the professional architecture of Iran, a study of prevailing trends among the younger generation will be presented. This study starts with today's commercial architecture, which has spread its influence from Tehran to large and small cities of Iran and continues with a look at the professional trends in architecture, some designs of which we were able to see only in various design competitions stage in recent years or due to their publication in special journals.

Commercial Architecture

By commercial architecture, we mean that collection of works the main goal of which is to satisfy the customer. This group of works ranges from very commonplace match-box houses to large commercial complexes. The commercial success of these buildings has reached such a level that allows us to make an accurate description of their style. Right now in Iran, there are several quite distinct commercial styles, each with its own clientele and market. When customers go looking for archtects working in one of these styles, the quality of the work should be predictable, so there is usually no debate or discussion about the work. At best, customer expectations are limited to practical, technical and cost considerations. Each style represents a particular application and the patron unconsciously accepts that classification: "hard" traditional architecture for religious buildings, "soft" traditional architecture for commercial complexes (such as the Golestan Commercial Complex in Shahrak-e Gharb or the Sattar Khan Traditional Bazaar), as well as cultural complexes that are hardly distinguishable these days from the commercial ones (Khavaran Culture House, Dezful Cultural Center and others), the Rationalist style of the sixties and Neo-brutalism for hospitals (Basij's Imam Khomeini Hospital, 400-bed Educational Hospital, Abaadi Journal's Competition), and neo-colonialist architecture (Roman facade) for high-cost residential buildings. Recently, a considerable number of administrative-commercial and residential high-rise buildings have been built that are either inspired by the international style of seventies (which in Iran was popularized by some foreign companies such as Edward Darryl Stone and Co.) or are direct imitations of the old designs belonging to the period before the Revolution. Farzad Daliri's work are representative of this type of architecture while Mehrdad Khalili is the creator of the post-modernist version.

The Professionals

Traditional Rationalistic tendencies constitute the main characteristic of large architectural consulting firms. These firms are up and running, thanks to the construction sector's administrative bureaucracy, which is strengthening monopolistic tendencies in construction, every day granting more concessions to large consulting firms. One should not expect outstanding and original works from these entities unless they undergo a major internal overhaul. Anyway, many public buildings have been built under the influence of this trend. The designs by Tajeer, Hasht Behesht and Baavand consulting firms for the "Farhangsaray's" (culture houses) of Iran are the best and most meaningful works belonging to this tendency. The roots of this style can be traced back to the 1960s and 1970s, and the amalgamation of Rationalism and Neo-brutalism with the Iranian architecture. The design of Tehran's Music Center by Ardalan and the Museum of Contemporary Arts by Kamran Diba are older examples of this trend. The Iranian traditional Rationalism has not made much progress in the past 25 years and it does not seem to have the capability of treading a path to the future. This type of architecture represents the nitpicking yet insincere, and the sprawling yet ineffective bureaucracy of the present system of construction in Iran.

Another group of architects are searching for dramatic aesthetics. Bahram Shirdel who possesses the most dramatic architectural language among Iranian designers, has mainly worked in the international arena, so we have yet to see how he will approach realities in Iran. After him, we should talk about Mirmiran. Having emerged from a long Rationalist and Neo-brutalist background, he has demonstrated quite well his coherent understanding of style, his architectural methodology, and his taste , specially in recent years with such projects as the Presidential Museum, Iran's "Farhangestan's" (academies) and the National Library. Among the characteristics of Mirmiran's works are simplicity and comprehensibility, the existence of an explicit central aesthetic theme, attention to humanistic and social utility, correct utilization of historical architecture, and good taste. The main shortcomings of his works are extreme monumentalism, excessive abridgment of functionality and not attention enough to construction technology. Anyway, it seems that if he is given the opportunity of carrying out his projects, he will be able to overcome some of these shortcomings and gradually achieve more brilliant conceptual results in architecture and aesthetics.

The third tendency is that of artisan architects. To this branch belong Abbas Gharib, Mahvash A'lami, Firooz Firooz and Imani-raad. They are essentially architects of the small-scale and in the realm of smaller works they have created some valuable works. Rigorous work methods and attentiveness to details, accompanied by craftsmanship, prevent stylistic coherence on the larger scale. In Europe, this architectural leap from the small-scale to large buildings was effected through the conversion of the traditional type of artisan architecture to an industrial type. Architects such as Grimshaw, Foster and Piano were able to create a style that lacked any philosophical foundation but was very serious and construction-oriented. In this style, despite the large scale, all the details of a building were constructed with craftsman-like precision and elegance. One reason for the success of the prominent members of this tendency is the attention to ornamentation. In Iranian historical architecture, one of the major tools of expression was ornamentation. It greatly affected the spatial quality and aesthetic sense of old architecture. Our present experience with so-called traditional architecture has shown that by giving up the old construction technology, for which we have not yet found a suitable substitute, with the modification of the old functionality and the elimination of ornamentation, all that remains from old architecture are a few pointed arches, three-cm brick facades and an inflexible geometry.

Here it is appropriate to mention that experiences recent from architectural competitions showed that even major consulting firms were not familiar with large-scale design and they merely tended to increase the aesthetic complexity of the building in proportion to the area under construction. The result was that none of the presented works contained an outstanding aesthetic theme. Along with the neglect of the inescapable issue of taste as the most important factor in creating an aesthetic and of common sense in the creation of a good architectural design, in the two competitions for the Iranian academies and the National Library, and specially in the latter, we witnessed the emergence of a strange type of architectural literature or might we say, literary architecture. Contrary to what these architects may think, the questions of sources of inspiration and personal lyrical interpretations do not have the slightest effect on the judgment of their works. When a work is designed or built, it becomes an entity separate from its creator and finds an independent life; different people see it and judge it. As Michelangelo said: "It is the human eye that judges a work of art. The artist's compass should be in his eye, not in his hand." Architecture is a practical art and it is judged by the eye. Any mental attempt to create complex poetic symbols or rigorous geometrical relations is in vain if it does not have a concrete and definite affection people.

The mental acrobatics might be important for the designer but in judging a work, no attention is paid to these personal aspects of the work. For example, if we go through some of the reports presented along with the designs for the National Library (5), we will find that an attempt was made to compensate for the conspicuous vacuum in the architectural quality by a detailed but awkward explanation. In these reports, the designers tried to hide unsuccessful aesthetics by resorting to symbols borrowed from the world of literature. In principle, all such tendencies that have appeared recently have similar formulations: a mixture of quantitative data and implausible functional reasoning, second-hand methodological arguments, well-known metaphysical-symbolic slogans spiced by selections from literature. Architects who think so lyrically in coming up with the initial architectural idea, instead of being able to develop their ideas using the vast possibilities of construction materials and technology, face difficult technical and construction problems when they reach the stage of implement their designs. This encounter with two extreme and contradictory aspects of the work takes them away from the substance of the work, the corresponding architecture taking form in the breach between poetry and asphaltic felt.

The other point that became obvious in recent competitions, is that today's architecture more than carrying out its historical role of enhancing culture and serving it, feeds on culture. There is so much talk of motives, methods, and cultural issues that the final result, which is the main issue, is ignored.

The criteria the judges used in the above two competitions and several other competitions held in Tehran and the provinces, was the ease of implementation, the lack of a special aesthetic, fulfillment of practical uses not in an analytic and synthetic manner but in a dry (diagrammatic) and controllable fashion. Due to the lack of information and the fear of being poisoned, individuals who travel in unknown lands sometimes prefer a dry piece of bread they brought from home rather than expand their gastronomic taste by consuming the special dishes they find on their way and which may even be quite delicious and exquisite. These days, specially in the case of large projects, the attempt is to choose works that are so trivial as to seem familiar and not require any mental effort or specialized exertion from the patron. This approach is tantamount to being satisfied with the minimum, instead of trying to improve an quality.

The Young Generation

Among the Iranian young generation, the attraction to the unconstructed "photographic" pictures of European extremist architects is even greater and the fear exists that some of them might only increase the extent of their daydreaming rather than their power of imagination. What is deeply lacking actually, is not graphical abstract philosophies or experimentation; rather, it is a careful study of the objective spaces of life and the physical structure of architectural forms. In architecture, a wall is not simply a rectangular form or a surface; it is a presence, a memory, a history, a shield, a support, a material, a texture, a technology and a boundary. Among students and young architects, there is a prevalence of model projects - buildings designed as if they were going to be built with cardboard or plywood. Technology, materials and textures do not play any effective positive role in this type of architecture. There is no qualitative or structural distinction between different elements and spaces. Due to the lack of serious theoretical debates or practical experience contributing to an understanding of technology and materials as tools of artistic expression in universities, students tend to be attracted to styles such as "Folding" and "Deconstructivism".

The need to affect and enjoy strange forms, which appear even more attractive in three-dimensional and color computer graphics, has resulted in some type of imaginary architecture in the universities. This situation does have some positive aspects, but it does not open a path for the post-academic professional career of students. Of course, this does not mean that the universities should be transformed into professional schools: a university graduate familiar with the scientific method and is in possession of the power of perception, can rapidly transform himself into an able professional, while a professional may never be able to obtain method and perception. In my view, what is important is getting involved with the real issues of architecture, at the same time that the imagination and artistic taste are being honed in the universities. Nevertheless, these tendencies, despite the above-mentioned weaknesses, are preferable to the conservative and conventional works of some students who follow some of their professors, superficial attempts at "Iranian post-modernist" projects.

Among the projects belonging to young architects and students that are sent to the office of the Abaadi journal, there are many good designs that despite their formalistic styles and imitation of extreme tendencies in world architecture - Folding, Deconstructivism, etc. - they are admirable because of their boldness, right proportions, correct relationship between "whole" and "part", "form" and "dimensions", as well as good taste.

Among the projects of the youth, we can find some outstanding works. The design for the Municipality's Tower drafted by Arshia Mahmoodi's group, which relates directly to the contemporary European architecture without any mediation of Iranian architecture, and the diploma project of Gita Mansoorfar, graduate in architecture from the Fine Arts Faculty of Tehran University (adviser: Dr. Daaraab Diba), that is a good example of combining historical and modern architecture, bear witness to a new generation that can distinguish its era in architecture and open a way towards the future despite the numerous difficulties it faces.

Towards the Future

What is certain is that one of our major and unresolved difficulties is the question of our relation with the historical architecture of Iran and contemporary world architecture. I believe that there is no definite answer or solution to this question. Each architect can choose his personal approach on his own. Our concern is the depth and authenticity of the links established with various sources and the act of drawing inspiration from them, not the sources themselves. Thus, unless specialized research centers are established that are geared towards a serious study of Iranian architecture (not Iranian archaeology) and of other architectural trends throughout the world, we can never overcome this difficulty. To support the younger generation, the university curriculum needs to be reformed. Many areas of study, which are quite extensive such as the course on "Man-Nature-Architecture", neither belong to any branch of architecture, nor is there access to many specialized resources for teaching them. It seems more appropriate that subjects introducing particular viewpoints in architecture, comparable in content to such books as "Space, Time and Architecture", "Your Architecture and My Architecture", "Art, Science and Architecture", be included in other materials or treatises on architecture. Instead of useless subjects that usually depend on the personal taste of the professor, it is better to have some basic and serious courses on contemporary architecture and the world architecture. At present, the amount of time dedicated to these subjects is just a fifth of that in other universities worldwide and there are many important courses that are not being taught at all.

Considering the conservative approach to large projects and the lack of experience in progressive designs, in order to attract creative ideas it is better to put in competition designs for very small buildings that have sufficient financial baking. It is only through such means that one can strengthen practical experience in this field and hopefully, this will eventually change the outlook of building patrons.

The advancement of professional architecture is not possible without supporting the whole order of construction engineering. Priorities include dealing with such problems as the reform of wages, job specifications, and specially, checking the monopolistic tendencies of large consulting firms and giving assistance to smaller consultants or individual professionals. The important point regarding professional architects is that the creation of a work of art is not easy. Aside from the capabilities of the designer, sufficient financial support and flexibility on the part of the patron are also required in order to create an artistic work. In many cases, non-ostentation but serious architecture is far better than an architectural work with claims to formalism. Considering the present realities in Iran, the author believes the Vitruvius principles should be altered and substituted with new concepts. Except for the first unalterable tenet relating to the durability and sturdiness of the buildings, the other two principles can be corrected as follows: necessity should be substituted for usefulness, and seriousness for beauty. With increasing knowledge divided from specialized magazines on various aspects of architecture and the active participation of government institutions, such as the Center for Studies in Urban Development and Architecture, in the critique and study of contemporary architecture, we hope to see positive effects in the contemporary Iranian architecture in the near future.


1- "The Problems Related to Architecture in Iran", Architect, First year, No. 1, July 1936.

2- "Meftah-ol-Hesab" treatise by Ghiasseddin Djamshid Kashani, which has a chapter dedicated to drawing and computing the details of construction, is essentially a mathematical treatise that uses examples from architecture to mention and solve different problems of geometry.

3- Except for some samples found in Uzbekistan and India.

4- The author's thesis titled: "Idea e Progetto, Architectura Islamica Iranianna", Genova, 1990, is dedicated to this subject.

5- Abaadi, Summer of 1995, pp. 17-20.

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