Iranian Architecture & Monuments

Iranian Architecture Today, A Bridge Between East and West
By: Kamran Afshar-Naderi, 2003
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Nader Shah Mausoleum, Mashhad, Iran 1958
Architect: Houshang Seyhoun
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.

Iran's Senate House (Later Majles), Tehran, Iran
Architect: Heydar Ghiai
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." 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.

Iran's Senate House (Later Majles), Tehran, Iran
Architect: Heydar Ghiai
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 or collections of old designs, 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. 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.

Iran's Senate House Main Chamber Dome, Tehran, Iran
Architect: Heydar Ghiai
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.

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