Iranian Case Study: Can We Build For The Future Without Forgetting About The Past?


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Taking a taxi from Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport into the city, one cannot help but look at the seemingly random distribution of buildings along the road; an array of mismatched concrete blocks, worlds away from the images of Sheik Lotfollah Mosque that typically adorn the covers of Iran travel guides. “My observations about architecture in Iran are like that of many other countries that have changed in terms of architectural characteristics; Iran has changed too,” says Tehran-based architect, Reza Karfar. “Now we are in a time where everything is mass produced and we are just using and using, but not making memories with anything. That sense of belonging will, of course, go away. You see a 50 or 60, or 200-year-old house that just gets demolished and replaced by a 4 or 5-story building, and in 5 years they will demolish that 4 to 5-story building too.”

Not to say that Iran should be an exhibit for tourists, only consisting of beautiful tiled buildings, but this fear of memories fading in disappearing public spaces is one that, despite the numerous historical sites preserved around the country, is noticeable in Iran’s big cities. And while the subject is particularly pertinent in Iran, as Karfar points out this phenomenon is not unique to just one country. As a result, Iran might offer something of a case study for other countries around the world. 


© Ariana Zilliacus

© Ariana Zilliacus

The Zayanderud, around which the city of Isfahan arose, is no longer the river bringing life into the area, as it was before the Zayanderud Dam was built. Memories of people meeting by the river and dipping their toes into the water have not been passed on to the younger generation as they have before; to them, the Zayanderud is just another dry threshold in the city’s fabric. A changing world is impossible to avoid, and new places can always become associated with new fond memories. However, the problem lies in balancing what has been, what is and what might follow, to avoid a potentially massive loss of knowledge. As Karfar says, “It’s very important now to understand what we want to pass to the next generation.”


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The rate at which building is happening around the world today unprecedented. As pointed out by Karfar, this applies to Iran as well, where buildings rise and fall without being given the time to establish memories and a sense of belonging. Architecture is, among other things, a process that goes beyond the construction of the physical building. It is what Karfar calls “a journey,” and his “understanding of traditional architecture is… that the journey was learning from the master, experimenting with this thoughts and techniques, and helping the owner of a house to create a sense of belonging to the place he was making.” Unfortunately, our sped up lifestyles are reflected in our ways of approaching architecture: with impatience. With “fast food, fast transportation” and fast decisions being made, “architecture wants to become faster too,” says Karfar. 

Some may argue that this is a necessary adaptation to our contemporary living habits, however the ways in which “fast architecture” are being done has come at the cost of buildings’ integrity. “Now we have false ceilings, which are lying to us, yet we have them as elements in our homes. When we lay in our beds and look up, we see it. We are cheating ourselves, and not dealing with reality.” This unwillingness to deal with “true” or “honest” architecture has consequences that go deeper than just aesthetic results; it alienates people from their surroundings by removing the history and the process of a building within a community. This sped-up architectural process, paired with our mass production and intake of information, has got us “faced with and relating to so many different factors and definitions, that it’s just a bit confusing.” As a result of this confusion, the values that ought to be passed on to coming generations – who will responsible for continuing Iran’s architectural legacy – have been forgotten, as emphasized by Karfar: “I feel that there is a lot of potential, and we have a lot of work to do. Iran is famous for its architecture, and we need to be really careful about that.”


© Ariana Zilliacus

© Ariana Zilliacus

The work that is to be done includes finding some answers to, for example, the question of false versus honest construction. There is something stirring in the world of Iranian architecture, but Karfar’s point is that we don’t know what that problem is exactly: “In a time with loads of information and lots of definitions, we must redefine some things, and the thing that is really important to redefine now is the ‘architectural problem’ [itself]; architecture as a phenomenon of the 21st Century. We are entering a new era in architecture – I really believe that – and if we don’t think carefully about it, we will be surprised again.” In other words, the main dilemma regarding the architectural problem is that the problem itself hasn’t been identified, and without doing that, we cannot begin to understand the solution. What is needed is for people to start asking some new questions. “We have a generation of people who think that we just need to do what everybody else does. At the same time, if the new generation understands the conditions and availability of things around themselves, and are able to raise some questions as new problems of architecture, something can really come up,” encourages Karfar.

One place to start could be to ask the question: what is defined as an Iranian architect? An issue Karfar was faced with when traveling outside of Iran is that being born Iranian, and studying as an architect, did not automatically make him an Iranian architect. That title comes with a deeper understanding of something more intangible: “I was introduced by a friend as an ‘Iranian architect.’ Maybe I am a so-called ‘architect’ because I studied architecture, but I am not an Iranian architect yet. It became a phenomenon or problem for me to understand: who is an Iranian architect, and what is Iranian architecture?” An understanding of culture, history, the people one is working with and the overarching values of Iran are what he began to research, in order to bring him closer to becoming what he believes constitutes an Iranian architect. Taking values that stem from faraway cultures is an important stage in the evolution of our increasingly international world, but it can turn out to be more confusing than enlightening for a country that might not know what architectural problems it is facing, nor how deep they dive into Iran’s values as a society.


© Ariana Zilliacus

© Ariana Zilliacus

In a field such as ours, where practical and theoretical knowledge are of equal importance when solving a problem and realizing a project, talking and asking questions aren’t enough to make a substantial difference. An idea can often feel like a fully realized thought, especially when discussed and debated with others, but before acting upon those ideas one has only taken the first step. Karfar’s criticism is that this jarring relationship between discussing and acting is directed towards architectural education, because “it’s all about the ego. What unfortunately is taught in our schools is that we want to decide; we want to show our creativity; we want to say what we think. What will happen if we tuck away our ego and then do architecture?”


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One enormous source of knowledge when it comes to design principles and values is the community of Iranian craftsmen who possess the practical skills behind the theories. As in many counties around the world, however, increased urbanization and especially migration towards Iran’s capital city has left such craftsmen forgotten in smaller villages littered around the country. Although easier said than done, Karfar proposes a method of exposing the diversity of values around Iran through “decentralizing the city and finding alternative architecture by being present in a variety of different conditions, different problems and different regions of Iran.” In other words, architects should not accumulate themselves within the walls of Tehran if they are interested in understanding what is going on in the other regions of the vast country.

This method of understanding the “architectural problem” through personal accounts of Iran’s history and culture offers a richness that cannot be undervalued. As in the case of the Zayanderud, the importance of public space for interactions between people in Isfahan was not fully understood until it was gone. “It is true that both of us, the government and the general public, were not aware of this richness. A society will die if it forgets its own values, and of course one of our values is our urban heritage,” says Karfar. This is where the new generation of Iranians have an advantage over the ones still to come; Iran’s youth still have living memories of what Iran’s public spaces were like and can be again. Whether or not it is their responsibility to continue and preserve this knowledge is up to debate, but this question is also a part of understanding the problem and its solutions. Karfar himself sees it as his contribution, “to see if [he] can align [past values], if [he] can merge them with today’s needs.”


© Ariana Zilliacus

© Ariana Zilliacus

Evaluating one’s values as an architect within the context of a society can be difficult and confusing for many reasons, such as unidentified problems, or the undefined parameters of one’s professional responsibilities. At a lecture in Copenhagen, Hiroshi Sambuichi said that “architecture is a letter to the future.” So what will our children see as their own heritage, when they walk through our future spaces? What do we wish for them to see as our contributions? Iran and Iranian architects are not alone in asking these questions, nor should they be in exploring solutions. Karfar’s imparting message for Iran is this: “Even if we understand the conditions, if we understand the problems, and we understand our values, if we don’t act nothing will happen.” Perhaps the greater message for emerging architects is to take great care in considering and questioning their responsibilities towards the past, present and future when setting out to start a project. Surely the letters to our future will be just as beautiful and treasured, as the ones from our past. 

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