Cristiano Luchetti interviews MEA Awards Architect of the Year Farshad Mehdizadeh
What does it mean to be an outsider? For one, the word refers to a person who does not belong to any specific group, and it’s often associated with someone not likely considered to win or succeed. It has negative connotations – to be an outsider is to be an outcast in some way. But what happens when the outsider does succeed? Do they become a central standard that has magnetic pull? Does it become a positive term? This is the case of Farshad Mehdizadeh. Among all the submissions we received for Architect of the Year at the Middle East Architect Awards 2017, his portfolio stood out to myself and the other judges. He was an outsider in the category with clear distinction. Within the excellent production of architecture coming from Iran, Mehdizadeh’s research was clearly recognisable. A consistent, readable thread links all of his projects together. So what are the ideas behind his practice? What is the thinking and creative process that leads to such built work?
Farshad, you seem to have a high interest in what you call ‘dynamic fields’, or ‘topologies’ in mathematical terms. Your research focuses on an architecture generated by its structural and geometrical systems that carry some sort of “homeomorphism” – a kind of invertible transformation. Once you said that “there should not be any difference between [the] structure and design of a building, and structural components of the building must organise everything.” How and why did you become interested in these specific structural strategies?
When we talk about dynamic structures, there are two aspects: one is the kinetic structure, which is responsive and performs in dynamic fields (dynamic environment and context), like water, wind and so on. The other aspect of dynamism focuses on the structural performances, which are not just about the kinetic structures, but are also more about the structural behaviours in their own context. In this term, a structure can grow, adapt and be optimised by its location, functions or the context’s changes. It needs a bottom-up design methodology to analyse and map the context data and behaviour in order to generate the cells or DNA of the structure. This helps it to have the ability of growth and mutation. Actually, that cell can have the context’s character. In my office and design studios, we are practising and researching both aspects.
The study of these structures and their implementation in the spaces you design is never detached from an analysis of the final users and their “elements of culture”. An example of this approach would be your project for the commercial centre in Isfahan. You pay a lot of attention to how your buildings will be used. Would you define this theoretical paradigm as “neo-structuralist”?
What we gain from our research is a kind of knowledge, vocabulary and methodology of design, which lead us to criticise and develop the design process through touching and feeling the material behaviours, performances and context. Isfahan Commercial Centre is a very good example of a limited existing situation that led our team to start working with that structure. At the end of the day, all of those limitations pushed us to create design solutions that improved the outcome of the design brief and the structure performances on the site. We know that by designing a structure’s façade, we limit its growth and communication with the site around so we applied brick to the borders between the inside and outside and opened the structure to its context.
Many contemporary architects, especially those more involved with the latest digital technology, are working on these structural–geometrical investigations. Sometimes, the risk is to consider this research as an end in itself, which leads to solutions that challenge the ordinary but often remain formal experiments alien to the context where they will take place. Instead, your work seems to be heavily rooted in the tradition of your country. How important is the legacy of your own culture in your architectural design?
We do not focus on a specific material, technique or geometry. I believe these parameters should come out of the project’s brief and context. Through this methodology, what we are investing in is not the form of the structures and the final products, rather, we are practicing a methodology of having a specific and adaptive design process, which results from and is created by the context. Obviously, the final structure will be responsive formally and culturally to its context. For example, in one of our latest projects, which was inspired by a traditional pattern found in Qom (one of the major cities of Iran), the design process focused on the local culture and religious events – two dynamic parameters that gave the context a specific behaviour. So we analysed the context’s character and figured out that the place and origins of those events were in the specific public spaces of Qom. Then we tried to regenerate the structure of the context in our project. This technique could solve the huge functional contrast between the residential site and our mixed-use volume through a transformation of public space scale and behaviour.
Is it just an impression or is it true that basically every Iranian architect who reaches an international stature seems to be deeply influenced in their work by the legacy of their millenary culture? I mean, sometimes, imposing cultures can produce the wildest rebels and in this age of globalisation it would have not been so strange to witness stronger references to contemporary “international styles”.
In the past, students hoped to work in big and famous firms in the architecture capitals of the world, like London and New York, but now graduated architects are returning to their countries where they are a part of the culture and context. For sure, Iran is a very good platform and context for architects to learn and practise architecture because of its strong and amazing culture, in which responsive and sustainable design strategies can affect and threaten specific geography. That’s why the new generation of architects have started to practice and research it, and I think there’s an international dialogue that’s appearing.
Once you said, “Iranian architecture is against the design of skins and façades”. Why is that?
Iranian architecture is not just about Isfahan or Kashan, which are located in the middle of Iran and in desert areas. Iranian architecture can be found across different geographies from the north (like Rasht and Tabriz) to the south (like Booshehr and Shooshtar), which are full of structures with different organisations and that use different techniques of controlling their context with local materials. So Iranian architecture is not limited to its skin, and the designing of façades and interfaces. It’s more about the organisation and designing specific structures with a depth that even has the ability to organise a city. Although Iranian architecture has pretty nice skins, details and ornaments, it’s not where the design process starts.