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Alireza Taghaboni design philosophy

Alireza Taghaboni: ‘Architects have to be optimistic — it is our fate!’ Working within the constraints
of space and sanctions, the Iranian architect has created some utterly distinctive structures Share on
Twitter (opens new window) Share on Facebook (opens new window) “Architecture, I think, lies
somewhere between Kant and carpentry.” I don’t know exactly where in our conversation the Iranian
architect Alireza Taghaboni said this, but I have underlined it in my notebook. And it seems a more
hopeful place to start than the atmosphere of simmering tension between the US and Iran. We’re
sitting in the café of the Royal Academy in London, to which Taghaboni has returned a year after
winning the inaugural Dorfman Award. This annual prize aims to honour “an international talent that
represents the future of architecture”, and was awarded this year to the Thai architect Boonserm
Premthada. Taghaboni is sitting with his wife, Zahra Jahani, who is also an architect and whom he
occasionally looks to for assistance pulling an English word out of the RA ether. Forty years old, with
a slightly rectangular face topped with a thatch of salt-and-pepper hair, Taghaboni has an easy charm
and a ready smile and, as his quote suggests, has found a place between the intellectual and the
physical ends of architecture. The Dorfman Award recognised that he is doing something interesting
but there is also, perhaps, an unsettling sense of exoticism in the honouring of an architect from
outside the familiar territory. The contemporary architectures of China or Chile or Vietnam seem
quite close to us now, yet Iran still seems mysterious, 40 years after the revolution ever further from
the west. “Orientalism, in the Edward Said sense,” says Taghaboni, “is still a very strong idea. The
west wants our culture to be exotic and non-rational. Maybe the question is how can you be yourself
and not the way the west wants to see you?” Taghaboni, who also paints, teaches and writes,
founded his practice Nextoffice in 2009 and his multidisciplinary team (including researchers) now
stands at about 40. The designs emerging from the Tehran office are undoubtedly impressive and
very much part of the mainstream of contemporary global architecture. The parametric curves and
cut-out arches, the stacked boxes and carved-out, cavelike interiors are striking yet vaguely familiar.
But there are utterly distinctive, original and poetic moments too. In one Tehran apartment building
he has built a concrete frame populated by timber boxes which pivot to follow the path of the Sun
(or avoid it), a remarkable work which appears on the street as a kind of kinetic sculpture, always
presenting a different aspect. Sharifa-ha House in Tehran, designed by Alireza Taghaboni, features
timber boxes which can pivot to follow, or avoid, the path of the Sun © Salar Motahari Or there is
the planning office in the historic city of Qazvin which takes traditional materials and openwork brick
walls to make a dignified and austere building, but one with a generous open plaza in front — one in
which planners, engineers and citizens meet on their way in: a public good carved out of a seemingly
banal commission. A design for the HQ of a construction company exhibits an even more extreme
version of this idea — a huge arcing cut-out eating away the base of the building to create shaded
public plaza and route through the site so that the most distinctive thing about the structure is the
void at its heart. There is a young, educated, middle class and they want good things It is never easy
to create good architecture anywhere. Are there, I wonder, any particular difficulties in Iran? “The
market has some very special demands,” says Taghaboni. “It needs decorated sheds, kitsch,
neoclassical. And then the government might want a particular interpretation of history, grand and
powerful with ideological messages. But then also everyone builds their own houses and there is not
so much work with investors [developers].” In other words, architects are able to work directly with
the people who will live in the houses, understanding their particular needs more intimately. “Young
architects,” he suggests, “can penetrate through the cracks and can change and disorientate those
market and government forces. “The most important thing about Iran now is the percentage of
young people,” he continues. “There is a young, educated middle class and they want good things.”
Where are those young people looking for trends and tastes? Within Iran? Abroad? And where does
Taghaboni himself look for inspiration? Are there other contemporary or historical Iranian architects
he always turns back to? Or are he and his contemporaries looking at developments more globally?
He pauses for a moment and then takes a detour. “Cinema. Iranian cinema is very inspiring for us. It
exposes the hidden layers in Iranian society. And they can change the language of the discipline,
using interior and exterior lives.” Film is also one of the media in which Iran is universally recognised;
we mention Abbas Kiarostami, of course, but we could have talked about Samira Makhmalbaf or
Asghar Farhadi; Iranian film seems to travel well. “Cinema deals with narrative,” he says, “and so can
architecture, to communicate. “Also I look to Japan,” he says. “After world war two they established
a language of architecture, very modern but which became both local and contemporary. And there’s
Persian literature and poetry of course, which is something else we’ve offered to the world.” Guyim
Villa in Shiraz, designed by Taghaboni’s Nextoffice How might these other art forms influence
architecture, how oblique or direct might that transference be? “If we think of film,” he says, “it
shows the human condition. But the editing of a film, the technique, is also its form. The form is the
content and the content is the form. So how do you bring that idea into the interior structure of
architecture — not just as a slogan but penetrating into space and form and materiality? Can we take
this integrity into every layer of the building?” Tehran, he explains, is an extremely dense city. “The
appetite of the market has filled all the voids. So how can an architect make space for the city? How
can we get government projects to create public realm to accommodate different lives, events or
gatherings? Can we create space, use architecture to leave spaces in the footprint of our buildings?”
Alireza Taghaboni It’s a difficult moment for Iran and economic sanctions are biting. How is it to
practise in Tehran in this situation? “It’s like climbing a hill that is collapsing beneath you,” Taghaboni
responds with a wry smile. “The economy and the demands are always changing and maybe under
this pressure creativity needs to be something else — something between survival and making things
better.” And with increasing international attention, is he tempted to design abroad? “Of course, but
with the banking system [the embargoes] it’s very difficult. So I choose to remain in Iran and work
there. Architects have to be optimistic — it is our fate!”
Architect Li Hua was born in 1972 in China. He studied architecture at China’s leading school,
Tsinghua University, from which he received his bachelor’s (1994) and master’s (1997) degrees. He
continued his studies at Yale University, graduating with his second Master of Architecture in 1999.
Hua then stayed in the US, practicing in New York at Herbert Beckhard Frank Richlan & Associates.
The firm’s founders used to be partners at Marcel Breuer office before starting their own practice in
the early 1980s. This experience introduced Hua to dealing with masonry and precast concrete, while
working on cultural and educational projects in the New York area. Returning to Beijing in 2003, Hua
established Universal Architecture Studio (UAS) with his former classmate at Tsinghua. Parallel to
that, he started his teaching career – first at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, CAFA and then at his
Alma Mater. In 2009, Hua left the partnership and established his own practice, Trace Architecture
Office, TAO. His studio currently numbers about twenty architects. TAO’s most prominent built
projects include Huandao Middle School in Hainan province (2018), Xinzhai Coffee Manor in Yunnan
(2018), Wuyishan Bamboo Raft Factory in Fujian (2013), and Museum of Handcraft Paper in Yunnan
(2010). The architect won many prestigious honors and was shortlisted for the 2013 Aga Kahn Award.
The following interview was conducted at the architect’s office in Caochangdi Village, a thriving arts
and culture hub on the outskirts of Beijing.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: What would you say are the main intentions of your architecture?
Li Hua: Architecture to me is about solving real problems, while creating poetry. The title of my first
monograph, is Origin and Gravity. Origin is about the essence, fundamentals, and the starting point.
In other words, every project starts with a question – what is it about? Gravity is about how to work
with reality and specific conditions. Every project has a unique situation. That’s what I want to
address most. I don’t start my designs with preconceptions. It is all about questioning and testing.
Every project requires this investigative process, like fermentation, so to speak.
VB: It says on your website that you are critical at contemporary architecture as an obsession to
produce fashionable forms. It says that you “Envision architecture as an evolving organism, being
an inseparable whole with its environment, rather than just a formal object.” Could you elaborate
on this view?
LH: I see architecture as part of an overall environment, rather than isolated objects. Architecture is
always about connecting with its site, surroundings, and people. Each project is site-specific and
therefore, unique.
VB: You said, “Architecture should solve concrete problems of location, scale, material, relation
with people.” This is all very clear, but how do you bring subjectivity into your work? Do you at all
try to make architecture your own?
LH: Subjectivity is carried in design thinking and expressed through a particular form. A form is
always subjective and that’s what distinguishes one architecture from another. Every project is
expressed through a particular form. That’s what makes architecture my own.
VB: The current architectural production in China, coming from the offices of leading independent
architects, appears to have strong similarities, as far as focusing on projects located in the
countryside, similar building types, typically done on a small scale, predominantly out of
traditional materials, trying to reconcile architecture with nature, and insistence on preserving
ruins, just to list a few key points. Do you agree with this observation?
LH: Not really. From the social and cultural perspective, there is certainly some common ground
amongst these architects. But how to make architecture, is still up to each architect’s own vision and
VB: You have no intention of developing your own perspective, your own answer for how to move
on from this point in time, right?
LH: That’s not true. I think I am developing my own perspective and answers in my practice all the
time. But I don’t pose these kinds of questions consciously.
VB: This explanation seems reasonable except that this would be very unusual in other countries.
For example, Russia went through a somewhat similar history and opened up to the world around
the same time as China. Yet, architecture there is wildly different from one architect to another.
There is a range of ideas – from following historical examples, neo-modernist and neoconstructivist models to versions of Post-Modernist tendencies, deconstructivist and parametric
projects. There is no consensus about Russia’s regional or national architecture. And just like
in China design institutes used to dominate there during the Soviet times. There was just one kind
of architecture, one prevailing view. But once the system broke a whole range of ideas came
through. Here leading independent architects have no disagreement; you are moving in one
direction. I am not saying this is good or bad, I am simply bringing attention to this phenomenon.
LH: Honestly, I did not see it that way. I think independent architects in China today are also very
different. There are no prevailing values, probably corresponded with chaos in China’s development.
The way I see my work is autobiographical. I try to find my own path, to establish my own history.
VB: This is actually exacerbated by the fact that so many architects around the world are now
giving up on the idea of claiming any kind of personal authorship and so many architects prefer to
work as a group, collaboratively. Still, there is a tendency in the West for architects to see
something published and reject it, thinking – let me tweak it, let me find my own way. But here the
tendency is to incorporate various tricks. Architects here seem to be fine with sharing ideas. There
is no competition for authorship. Once a particular solution is introduced it is up for grabs for
LH: I think you are exaggerating this too much. Actually, I don’t see that much difference between
here and the West. Some architects claim that their work is not referential and entirely inventive, but
the reality is that no one can create in a vacuum and everyone is influenced either by history or by
what other contemporaries are doing, at least to a certain degree. I don’t think that here architects
don’t care about authorship, but it seems true that it’s more difficult to be original today
everywhere. Nevertheless, I don’t think architects can always invent. You can’t come up with an
invention in every single project.
VB: Here in China, are there architects who you would consider your model figures? Who are your
authorities? What kind of practice are you trying to build?
LH: I don’t have authorities. But talking about model figures, I would want to mention Yung Ho
Chang, who first started independent practice in China in 1993, and then influenced younger
generations. He served a strong example showing that it is important to create alternative models
and reflect on how architecture could be practiced independently.
VB: What do you think are the most pressing issues for Chinese architects today?
LH: Clearly, to ask more questions. I am listening to your questions and I wonder – do I know how to
answer them? But I want to address these issues. Over the last two decades, China has gone through
so much development. For sure there is not enough debate and how to balance between
modernization and preserving traditions. Architects should challenge the mainstream and even their
own past. We do need this critical thinking and questioning. It is healthy to avoid ever becoming too
satisfied with your own achievement or success. I think it is important for young architects to think
about what else can be achieved, rather than just follow a path that’s already accepted.
VB: That’s exactly right and my feeling is that a certain level of idealism and success, already has
been achieved. If you look at the production of the Chinese leading studios, you will see a certain
balance between modernization and preservation, there is a social purpose, beauty, I would even
say – seductive beauty. Are we satisfied? Many critics are celebrating and even suggesting that this
kind of regional architecture could be adapted worldwide. So many projects aimed at being looked
like a beautiful painting or picture – there is nothing to add, nothing to take away, perfect
harmony has been achieved, or so it seems. How would you progress from here? What new
questions would you raise?
LH: Perhaps at this stage, it is the right time to ask all these questions. I believe certain qualities were
achieved and they should be carried on. For me, the new question is always this – Then what? What
is next? What are our limits? What else could we do to set ourselves free in architecture? By asking
questions, we are transforming into the future.
I think the idea of a good project is not about celebrating something but to generate a debate. In that
sense we will never be satisfied because there will always be new questions and new alternatives.