Craig Hartman (Chair)
Iran stands at a historical cross-road; torn between a conservative, seemingly anti-western invective and a rapid modernization that evinces a more moderate world-view. Beneath the surface, Iran is an intriguing example of the emergence of the ‘second-world,’ a developing nation that plays a major role in geopolitics. In spite of the obvious political insights that a visit to Iran would provide, there is also a rich, architectural past available for investigation. A history little spoken of in schools of architecture in the west, the monuments of the Persian Empire provide a multitude of possibilities for architectural study, and perhaps, an alternate history of the development of built form. Essentially this proposal for the 2009 SOM Foundation fellowship posits that a Modernist Iran exists and is worthy of investigation.
Modernism, here to be discussed as an architectural style and way of rethinking the tropes of 19th century design, theory and criticism, spread wider and deeper in the international arena than architectural history cares to remember. Far beyond the canonical works of Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Adolf Loos, and Alvar Aalto, exists another realm within which modernism flourished; for Iran, the middle of the twentieth-century saw great influence and exchange with the west – most notably in the realm of architectural design.
Presently there is little to no published material that covers the great architecture of this period in Iran. My preliminary research and conversations with colleagues in Iran have yielded several architects whose work deserves to be uncovered and documented. The key figure whose work I wish to detail is Seyhoon Houshang. Born in 1920, Houshang was educated at Tehran University under the guide of Maxime Siroux and continued his training at the Beaux-Arts academy in Paris, where he would later become professor. In working correspondence with Alvar Aalto and Le Corbusier, and ideologically affiliated with the International Style, Seyhoon was commissioned in the pre-revolutionary period for a wide variety of projects, most of which in honor of important cultural figures throughout the country. Although not uniquely affiliated with a purely Persian (rather than Greco-Roman) discourse, Seyhoon offers an interesting insight into the struggles of an architect attempting to infuse the principles ascertained by the Western canon within a lineage that is, on many levels, its contested other.
I believe that regardless of the great cultural experience a trip to Iran would provide, recovering one of its architecturally most significant icons and documenting the countless projects within his oeuvre will help diversify the profession’s conception of the Modern movement. Instead of excluding this non-Western historiography on the basis of essentialized difference, as Western modernity has created and preserved the conviction that the non-Western world exists only as modernity’s other, the long-term ambition for this project is to reveal one of the many lost facets of Modernist architecture.
“Many here [in the West] and some in Iran are waiting for and hoping for the moment when secularization will at last come back to the fore and reveal the good, old type of revolution we have always known. I wonder how far they will be taken along this strange, unique road, in which they seek, against the stubbornness of their destiny, against everything they have been for centuries, “something quite different.”
The year 1978 marked the beginning of the emergence of what is referred to as ‘crisis tendencies’ in Iran’s economy, diplomacy, and most prevalent with regards to this undertaking, practices within the realm of art and architecture. The perils of the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq Conflict froze all stratum of progress: a dramatic decline in both capital goods and domestic output; technological isolationism; the lack of foreign productive and human capital on account of war and its absorption of scarce resources; and a divided socio-political class structure were the result of this conflicts external to, yet not exclusive of, the discussions of oil and religio-politics. In its aftermath, Iran had inherited an outmoded, dysfunctional, noncompetitive, and bankrupt industry – unfortunately for the current generation of artists struggling in this era, this holds truer for any and all artistic enterprises.
My intentions for the 2009 SOM Foundation Travel Fellowship were clear—to return to Iran, privileged by both the gracious funding of the SOM Foundation and diplomatic rights as a dual-national to enter the country—and attempt to understand the current condition of our profession, albeit vaguely, research the lost Modernist works of Houshang Seyhoon and document all of his existing works. Successful insofar as uncovering the great architect’s oeuvre, the country’s tortured disposition will have to remain a mystery.
As the rest of the world pushed on through the troubling era of Post-Modernism, coincidentally overlapping with Iran’s regime change, artistic freedom and progress was amputated overnight. War, censorship and paranoia of Western influence diluted the development of built form from both a theoretically-exploratory level in academia but also in practice. Few new works were commissioned thereafter and those that were built at the hand of the state. For these reasons amongst the latest “free works” to be seen are those by Seyhoon, outlined previously in the “Final Travel Report.“
Magbarat Al Shoaram. © Parsa Khalili.
Magbarat Al Shoaram. © Parsa Khalili.
“What does need to be remembered is that narratives of emancipation and enlightenment in their strongest form were also narratives of integration not separation, the stories of people who had been excluded from the main group but who were now fighting for a place in it.”
The work documented here shows the architect’s ability to interpolate between a traditional ethos and modern techniques in the creation of form; though I have yet to index the projects chronologically, due largely to Iran’s unwillingness to preserve the rights and reputation of a now blacklisted architect, I have a near complete conception of Seyhoon’s work. The next steps in research, beyond the scope of my time working with the SOM Foundation, will be to create a formal catalogue of sorts, to preserve this fantastic set of projects and hopefully curate something in the future so that another great icon in our greater architectural history isn’t cast away and unwritten by the selective hands of history. Since the completion of travel I have been lucky enough to be in correspondence with the Seyhoon, whom currently resides in Los Angeles. Exiled from his homeland on account of his religious affiliations, he now paints to compensate for his inability to practice.
Conclusively, it is important to try and situate Seyhoon’s work outside of the context within which it was conceived and beyond its improvished political theater; to discuss it in this realm, on the objective plateau of form and tectonics, will enable its reciprocity with the other architectural works of his contemporaries. Above all else, understanding the formal language of architecture can eradicate the cultural obstructions to equally and honestly analyzing a project. One such methodology required for such an analysis would be to investigate this work of non-western architecture through the lens of the western canon; in turn branching from the notion of a ‘critical textual reading’ for architecture with the exception of taking the liberty of escaping that method of thinking’s representational dogmas. The ambition posited here must demand then that a project, any architectural work, may be understood (on a formal level) irrelevant to issues contextual to its inception – both socio-political issues relevant to the project and other concurrent and historic precedents that may have bearing on its development.
Looking at the work discussed here on this level, the architecture of Seyhoon is highly baroque. The manipulation of historical tectonic elements in an “incorrect” way makes the work both a transgression of agreed upon and time-tested rules, but also pushes itself into a new realm altogether (in a similar way to the ‘explosion’ of light, mass, color, decoration during the 1600s with the emergence of the Italian Baroque). This return to the baroque is ironic, as it is (un)popularly believed that its first coming (architecturally) was a result of the infusion of Islamic motifs by way of the Selijuk Turks.
At the same time his approach to construction and technology is emblematic of the ability for modern architecture to express itself minimally to achieve highly plastic form. Though this may seem to contradict the previous assertion, however paradoxical it may be, the architecture of Seyhoon is laden with these contradictions: implied movement and fluidity rendered in very stoic forms (stasis); traces of traditional stylistic elements manifest in modern construction techniques; and most significantly, the infusion of western design ideology and its respective formal tropes into the non-occidental Islamic state.
The notion of Modernity, as expressed in this report, is important to briefly discuss through the lens of and by means of philosophical interrogation. The geneaology of the Western narrative has been dichotomizing in its representation of non-Western cultures and societies and such has limited the ability for those cultures and societies to be modern. To believe that the Iranian state (or those sovereignties of other groups) is not “modern” reflects an attitude that modernity is to be experienced through the prescribed historiography of Western societies -- that is to say, if one isn’t prepared to take the same steps as the United States or Europe, they will never be fully modern. Pre-revolutionary intellectuals in Iran have worked through these issues, cultivating terms such as “Westoxification” (Jalal Al-e Ahmad), in an attempt to recast the narrative of modernization outside of the Occident. The politics of modernization is the fundamental thematic that emerged from my time spent in Iran and for further reference I recommend three publications as key to outlining this notion’s problematic [(“Intellectual Discourse and the Politics of Modernization: Negotiating Modernity in Iran,” Ali Mirsepassi, 2000); (“Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism,” Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson, 2005); (“Builing Iran: Modernism, Architecture, and National Heritage Under the Pahlavi Monarchs,” Talinn Grigor, 2010)].
Iran as a result of a tumultuous series of transformations, either in the dissolution of the Shah’s regime and the consequent shift in the stratification of its social classes, or in the desecularization of its political regime as witnessed by both the Revolution and the Iran-Iraq Conflict, is emblematic of a sovereign state whose recent shortcomings have a direct corollary to the mismanagement and disorganization of one of its most valuable resources: oil. Additionally it is clear that Islam—in the misuse of its teachings—is the vice for which the country owes much of its self-inflicted despair; paradoxically retarding modernization, obfuscating the popular masses, and enabling a corrupt clergy to abuse an increasingly unstable economy. Between the intense pressures from a shift in political regime and the censorship of all artistic vanguards a true architect was born. The work of Seyhoon, given its context, carries the illuminating torch of tradition—a historically derived formal language with a culturally embedded aesthetic—into the abyss of contemporary practice, without fear of invalidation. This is what it means to be Modern.
Pasargad and Persepolis. © Parsa Khalili.
Khayam Memorial. © Parsa Khalili.
, who hails from Naperville, Illinois, earned a Bachelor of Science in Architecture degree in 2006 from the University of Illinois at Champaign.