Nominated for the Woman of Outstanding Achievement category, Iranian architect Habibeh Madjdabadi discusses her well-respected built work and the poetry of materiality.
Q&A with Habibeh Madjdabadi
Iranian architect and founder of her namesake practice, Habibeh Madjdabadi is shortlisted for our Woman of Outstanding Achievement category. Here, she reflects on the importance of the human touch in architecture and why cultural differences add value to the built environment.
Tell us about starting your own firm.
I stared my career in 2001 by writing for Memar magazine. At that time, Memar was the most influential architectural magazine in Iran – it was a cultural hub where architects could meet and publish their opinions or projects. My collaboration with Memar continues until today.
A few years later in 2003, I established my design studio, which followed my first competition win. The competition was for the rehabilitation of a historical building in Shiraz. When I first visited it, I was deeply impressed by the poetic space of the 18th century monument of Divankhaneh, so I decided to base my main concept for rehabilitation on a poem by Rumi that tells the story of competition between Chinese and Roman artists. In the poem, the Chinese artists made a painting on the walls of the room assigned to them, while the Romans simply polished the walls of their room until they shined like brilliant mirrors. The rooms were adjacent but separated by a thick curtain, and when it was removed, the king was awed by the beauty of the Chinese painting, yet found it to be far more beautiful when it was reflected in the mirror-like walls polished by the Roman artists.
In my design proposal, I used several mirror panels and objects that would reflect well to valorise and expose the hidden geometry and details of the building. For the main porch, which was meant to become a theatre, I designed several concealed seats that were supposed to be hidden under the floor and revealed only on occasion. My interest for mirrors began then, and it remains today.
Considering that it was my first appearance in a competition, I was lucky to win first place and receive a special appreciation from the most influential architect of the time, Hadi Mirmiran, who was a jury member. Establishing my own office was an obligatory passage for signing the contract with the Historical Heritage Organization, which was directing the competition. This first commission inspired me to continue, and since then, I have participated in numerous design competitions and awards. For me, architectural contests are an arena for practicing and reinforcing my design abilities, and I dedicate a part of my studio to them today.
Highlight a few of your buildings that you feel reflect your approach to architecture, and tell us about them.
We design for every scale, from small furniture objects to medium and large buildings, including embassies, schools, homes, sports complexes and so on. Like many other architects, I have a particular affection for my unbuilt projects. Among these, I would like to mention my proposal for Shenzhen Museum in China (2007), Sports Complex for the Association of Engineers (2010), Norwegian Embassy in Tehran (2012), House of Genetic Mutation (2017) and Lunar Olive Market (2018).
Among the built ones, I can highlight two residential buildings which are more representative of my ideas and philosophy: House of 40 Knots (2016) and House of Approximation (2019).
House of 40 Knots, which was a finalist for the Aga Khan Awards in 2016, is located in a lower to middle-class neighbourhood in Tehran. The client couldn’t afford to pay for conventional architectural design and supervision services, but we accepted the work because we believe architecture should belong to everyone, not just the rich.
Iran is the land of craftsmen, par excellence, and manpower is still relatively inexpensive. In order to valorise this underused potential, we decided to conceive our project as a handicraft. We didn’t have design development or detailed design in our scope of services, so we replaced the technical drawings package with the oral instructions given gradually to the workers. We used brick as the main construction material – it is, at once, ancient and modern, and belongs to the earth.
In order to reduce construction costs, we trained workers at the workshop on perforating and installing conventional bricks. Our method was inspired by traditional carpet workshops, which function on a master-weaver relationship. Weavers who are not aware of the final result are dictated to by a master who translates the drawings made by a designer. This process allowed the workers on our project a certain amount of freedom, which resulted in a spontaneous aesthetic for the exterior of the building.
House of Approximation is a small house located on the west side of Tehran, where the city has found its way between the steep slopes of the Alborz Mountains to the north and the salty desert to south. The building is located on a narrow plot and is confined on two sides by other houses. A small setback from the street provides just enough space for a small courtyard – a fundamental element of Persian homes. The term approximation symbolises the approach of humanising the entire process of creation, from drawing to execution.
In the House of Approximation, the craftsmen were allowed to express themselves in shaping thousands of pieces of wood, which are going to be the main material for the façade. In this specific context, the façade is the only architectural element that can efficiently connect the building to its surroundings. It is much more than a decorated screen; it is a penetrable green micro ecosystem that connects the courtyard to the roof.
In addition to the project’s dense vegetation, the House of Approximation is home to many birds. During its growth, Tehran swallowed most of the existing gardens and woodlands, pushing more than 180 different species of bird out of their nests. If such projects become popular, the city will become a more suitable environment once again for birds.
Why do you think it’s important to incorporate contemporary expressions of traditional Iranian architecture into your work?
Being an Iranian architect has played an important role in my professional life. I think there is a subtle yet deep relation between my work and the practice of Iranian architecture and art. The influence comes naturally – it is not planned. Although, I believe that traditions and cultures belong to everyone, regardless of their origin.
When I am designing in other countries or for clients from different nations, I try to relate to their culture and grasp their real needs. I am quite familiar with international trends and new technologies in design and construction, which can be seen in my projects. However, knowledge of Iranian architecture is implied in my projects and connects them to their context, adding value. I believe the future of architecture will be about maximising diversity and cultural differences.
Tell us about your approach to materiality and form – the judges called it poetic. Why do you think that is?
I like to work with all kinds of materials. There are many examples throughout history of how this has served humankind – primitive humans used everything that was available in nature as building material, from straw to bamboo; the Sumerians used reeds; and Iranian nomads still use goat hair to make water resistant shelter for their tents. I like working with natural materials, such as wood, stone and clay (brick), and I am inspired by qualities of light, colour, texture and the secret rules I find in nature.
On the other hand, I also appreciate the human touch that contributes to architecture. Architecture is not just the constructed form; the spirit of the people who take part in the materialisation of a project play an important role in what I call the poetics of material.
Poetics of material is the subject of a series of workshops I am doing in different parts of Iran which focus on vernacular materials in new and experimental ways.
Tell us more about your written work, and what these articles explored.
For me, writing is just like painting, photography and sculpture – it is a tool for expressing my ideas. I like trans-disciplinary approaches and love experimenting with every media, even as an amateur. I assume the border between all kinds of art, architecture and literature is quite narrow.
What are you working on now?
I usually do different things simultaneously. I am working on a few new projects located in different environmental contexts. One is a residential project on the shore of the Caspian Sea called Vertical Village, which is under construction. I have also just finished working on two competitions: a concept for Notre Dame and a museum in Sharjah.
October will be a busy month – I will have some sculptures presented in an exhibition, I will lecture at the University of Venice about some of my projects during the ‘Share Architects’ conferences, and I will have my work presented at Melbourne University.
Our Meet the Finalists series is a compilation of interviews with those who have been shortlisted for our awards. Habibeh Madjdabadi is a finalist for Tamayouz’s award for women in architecture and construction, which awards female architects from the Middle East and North Africa.