Iranian buildings – an inspiration for modern-day architects?

Evolution will be on display in the Asia House Gallery until 30 April

Iranian art and architecture exhibition Evolution will be on display in the Asia House Gallery until 30 April

Iranian buildings – an inspiration for modern-day architects?

14 April 2015

By Naomi Canton

A multi-disciplinary exhibition showcasing key aspects of Iranian art, architecture and culture across different time periods that could inspire and influence architects across the globe has opened at Asia House.

Evolution, which is free to the public, is on display in the Asia House Gallery until 30 April as a part of the British Council Iran’s UK-Iran Season of Culture.

The aim of Evolution is to raise awareness of the role that vernacular Iranian architecture could play in the design of contemporary buildings today.

Award-winning Iranian architects and designers Mehran Gharleghi and Amin Sadeghy, who co-founded Studio Integrate, an international architectural studio in London, are showcasing their research on a series of carefully selected historical and contemporary buildings in Iran as part of Evolution.

“The aim of this exhibition is to open up the dialogue on Iranian art and architecture to a wider and more diverse international audience than just architects, sculptors, musicians and filmmakers,” said Gharleghi, who curated Evolution. He said the contributors all decided to work together on one theme, rather than on their own separate themes – and that theme was ‘Evolution’ with all of them hinting at various aspects of Iranian culture, art and architecture over different time periods.

“Each platform we have in Evolution – art, music, architecture – has contributed to the evolution of culture in Iran – they are all interlinked, they are all important. Each of the contributors represents a different point of time through a different platform and perspective and each of them contributes to the evolution of Iranian architecture,” he added. “The idea was to bring them all together under one umbrella to look at Iranian culture. We hope we can continue to to be able to communicate our culture across different platforms,” he said.

On 14 April Stephan Roman, British Council Regional Director South Asia and Danny Whitehead, Director at British Council Iran, opened the exhibition that features printed drawings, physical models, illustrations, artwork, film, sounds and photographs that are currently reshaping Iran’s urban reality.

Danny Whitehead, Director at British Council Iran, said the “architecture of cultural relations” would help lay the foundations for better trust and understanding between the UK and Iran.

“Over the last 150 years, relations between the UK and Iran have been characterised by deep mistrust, often justified, but links between the arts, education, and languages have remained strong,” he said. “In fact, the history of cultural relations between Iran and the UK goes back to the 17th century as Shakespeare was inspired by Persia when writing his plays. This can particularly be seen in Hamlet.”

An architectural model on display at Evolution

An architectural model on display at Evolution

The exhibition displays architecture in Iran up to the current time showing how skilful the architects have been, for example, in how they directed water underground to desert areas to create life and also used the wind to create buildings that are cool inside – using special engineering techniques and materials – not technology.

Gharleghi, who co-guest edited the journal Iran: Past Present and Futuredesigns buildings across the world and regularly conducts case studies of buildings in different countries looking at evolutionary design principles that may be useful for architects today. Apart from Iran, he is also looking at case studies in China and Norway, for example.

Born in Tehran, he moved to the UK aged 24 where he received his Master of Architecture from the Emergent Technologies and Design Master Programme at the Architectural Association. He has been collaborating with prominent architects in Iran since 2002.

He said he was fascinated by the way vernacular Iranian architecture responds to its environment, climate, context and function. “It is really good at synthesising these four aspects and that is exactly what happened through evolution,” he said.

Speaking at the first panel discussion, he gave as an example the Khaju Bridge in Isfahan, Iran, built by the Persian Safavid king, Shah Abbas II, which he said “was much more than a bridge” – housing an art gallery and tea houses, a pedestrian footway and controlling and regulating water flow for irrigation, as well as cooling the temperature. He also mentioned Iranian ice houses in the desert that can achieve a temperature drop of 50 degrees without the use of electricity.

“Sustainability is so important in today’s world. We have to all be careful about our environment and culture. We can see now how these buildings have been constructed using geometry to change the temperature inside. Some of the principles of Iranian architecture can be used in England or elsewhere. We have gathered together scientific data on this valuable information,” he added.

Another example of clever Iranian architecture was the plethora of high Pigeon Towers which existed in the Isfahan region during the Safavid Period, he said.  They were designed to attract and be homes for thousands of wild pigeons so that their droppings could be used for fertiliser for agricultural purposes and in tanneries to soften leather. He explained how they were designed to prevent snakes from entering and cope with a severe climactic environment and be attractive to and offering a pleasant cool environment to the pigeons with access, ventilation and a controlled climate.

Some of the works on display at Evolution, which continues in the Asia House Gallery until 24 April

Some of the works on display at Evolution, which continues in the Asia House Gallery until 30 April

Interaction with Western architects started in Iran during the Qajar period (1785 – 1925). That led to a formal architecture education and the creation of modern versus vernacular architecture (using local materials), as well as a cross-over style of architecture, he said.

“Art and architecture both shape our culture and architecture is also impacted by culture. Certain architecture might lead to different behaviours, for example, if a courtyard is inside a building, then that has an ecological impact and it creates a space where people can hang out, so enhances the socialisation of people there,” he explained.

The Courtauld Institute of Arts Asian Art scholar Dr. Sussan Babaie gave a speech on 17th Century bridges, riverfront palaces and mansions and other architecture in the Iranian city of Isfahan which were built around the Zayanderud River (which has now dried up) to serve as spaces of sociability and entertainment and the clever engineering to exploit and manage the water from the River. She spoke about how many bridges were not just bridges but also dams that regulated the flow of river water for the purposes of enjoyment of people in the city. “The city developed along the lines of these water crossings,” she said. “This provided the city with gardens, canals and entertainment spaces that the public could use. Water in front of palaces would also help cool the reception area,” she added. She also spoke about how Iranian buildings were carefully engineered to allow the wind to have a cooling effect.

It was the way that wind was used in the vernacular architecture of Iran that inspired filmmaker and musician Roxana Vilk, co-founder of UK/Iranian Jazz band GOL and the other co-founder award-winning musician and sound producer Peter Vilk, to create a 42-minute 22-second sound installation titled Free as a Bird which is in the Evolution exhibition. Speaking at the first panel discussion Vilk said: “Wind also looks like sound waves, so we decided to make a piece of sound reflecting the exhibition and tell a story and make wind the character travelling across Iran.”

She said they imagined taking a sonic journey as the wind travelled across different architectural spaces and landscapes from Tehran to Isfahan and ending up in mangroves using their own field recordings of Iran spanning 15 years. “We hope to make this a digital project in the future,” she said.

London-based Iranian writer and journalist Kamin Mohammadi, author of The Cypress Tree, spoke about the architecture of Abadan, home to the world’s biggest oil refinery, which did not follow Iran’s traditional architecture of walled-in traditional dwellings with gardens inside. Instead, English-style houses with gates and gardens on the outside were built in 1912 during the Qajar period in Iran when the refinery opened. That is considered to be when Iran’s modern tradition of architecture started meaning the modern period of architecture in Iran was tied up with oil, she said.

“Oil became vital to Britain’s naval supremacy and Iran became the first country in the Middle East where oil was industrially exploited on a large scale. Many of the officials in the oil refinery had come from British India,” she said.

“In 1951 when oil was nationalised the British departed and houses were given to Iranians who stepped into the modern lifestyle of the British. That changed thousands of years of tradition and culture,” she said. “Whereas previously the family life was centred in the home, the size of these new homes did not allow for extended family living so the families shrank to being more like the Western nuclear family and women adopted western lifestyles and the tradition of public and private spaces disappeared,” she added. “The different materials used, which were faster to build, meant that fans, air con, fridges were necessary, unlike the traditional houses with central courtyards and water which were naturally cool,” she said.

But she said Abadan was also an example of a city where there was a peaceful coexistence and respect for each other’s cultures “which brought about a cultural blossoming.”

An exploded carcass of a truck tyre by Douglas White and a painting by Iranian artist Khosrow Hassanzadeh are among the works on display at Evolution

An exploded carcass of a truck tyre by Douglas White and a painting by Iranian artist Khosrow Hassanzadeh are among the works on display at Evolution

Internationally-acclaimed Iranian artist Khosrow Hassanzadeh, spoke at the next symposium on April 23. His focus was on gender in Iran by exhibiting a painting from his Pahlavan (Iranian wrestler) series at Evolution. The series celebrates the traditional notion of manhood in Iran. He also displayed a painting from his Ashura series, which portrays the crucial and often undermined role of women in Iran. Ashura is one of the holiest days in Shia Islam which commemorates the killing of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad. It is a patriarchal religious festival marked with mourning rituals and passion plays re-enacting the martyrdom.

Hassanzadeh said: “These paintings are changing what’s been happening for hundreds of years and changing nature. I have taken popular culture and presented it in contemporary art but changed the dominance of men in this religious ceremony and given women a central role.”

Gharleghi said: “Ashura is a religious ceremony traditionally dominated by men but he puts three women at the centre of it thus reviving the traditional ceremony and showing it through his own perspective.” In this way his work is also about using old values in new creations, the same as some Iranian architecture.

Some of the works on display at Evolution which continues at Asia House until 24 April

Both paintings by Iranian artist Khosrow Hassanzadeh and another sculpture by Douglas White

Co-founder of Studio Integrate architect Amin Sadeghy, of AECOM, also spoke on 23 April about how Iranians developed acumen for finding and directing water hidden deep under mountains which led to the construction of heavenly Persian garden pavilions in the middle of the desert which are also the expression of strict environmental performance. The Desert Gardens of Persia, for example, were built where there were underground irrigation systems and the pavilions, alleys and waterways were all designed to be connected to the irrigation system. “By bringing water, Iranian architects were able to create a micro-climate in the middle of the desert and through irrigation use this water to cool down buildings,” he said. “Light, geometry and water were all used to affect the temperature inside building,” Sadeghy added.

Internationally acclaimed Iranian filmmaker, artist, writer and actress Mania Akbari and British sculptor Douglas White  launched their short colour film Black Palm (2014) at Evolution on 23 April. White is renowned for the sculptures he makes using found objects and materialsThe film is about his sculptural series Black Palm made from the exploded carcasses of truck tyres picked up on the roadsides of Central America. In the film Akbari compares these to the ravages of the Iran-Iraq War of her youth. The film is about death and destruction as well as of renewal and hope. Akbari said: “What interested me about Douglas’s work was how an item could represent pain and also mean life, how he created beauty out of aggression and violence and created life out of death. It gave me a new perspective about memories.” White said he was fascinated by how something so inert as a blown-out tyre could become an evocative frayed form. After completing his series of sculptures, he received a letter from Akbari saying they reminded her of the Iran-Iraq War, which led to this film. “I would never have imagined this connection,” he said. “This demonstrates how art and sculpture are the process of one thing becoming something else,” he pointed out. “They evoke memories or emotions,” he added.

“This film and the coming together of these two people is a great example of the mutual understanding of different cultures, as well of the creation of a new type of art,” Gharleghi said.

“Some Iranian architects are very interested in Western architecture and some want to reproduce what it was before and some want to adapt traditional ideas into something new that is still linked to history and is ecological,” he added, saying he hoped that present-day architects across the globe would learn from the spatial and environmental principles of vernacular Iranian architecture.

Evolution takes place at Asia House from 14 to 30 April from 10.00 to 18.00.

The aim of the UK-Iran Season of Culture is to spotlight the rich and dynamic culture of the modern Islamic Republic of Iran, and its ties with the UK in the areas of arts, education, and languages. It is taking place between January and April 2015. For more information click here.

The launch was held on 14 April. It was chaired by British Council Regional Director Stephen Roman followed by a panel symposium with Danny Whitehead, Mehran Gharleghi, Dr Sussan Babaie, Kamin Mohammadi and Roxana Vilk. For more information click here.

A second symposium tok place on 23 April with Mehran Gharleghi, Mania Akbari & Douglas White, Amin Sadeghy, Dr Sussan Babaie and Iranian artist Khosrow Hassanzadeh. For more information click here.