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 architects 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.
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.
A Metal Work in a commercial Building Tehran, Iran
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.
A Residential Building
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.
A Modern Residential Villa
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".
A Residential Building
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.
Interior of an Iranian Appartment
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.