I Return home and to Architecture
Reflections on Architecture as Dialogue
Translated from Italian to Farsi by Taraneh Yalda
I Return Home
A few months ago I was invited to visit Iran. During that unforgettable two-week trip I was able to travel to many cities large and small, some I was visiting for the first time and some I knew from past voyages. The reader of this article may be aware of my long background in Iran dating from 1966 to 1980, in connection with the preservation and restoration of ancient Iranian monuments.
Since then, I have returned a few times to the place I know as my “second homeland” (and this is not a ta‘arof): in 1982, in order to take part in two official forums in Tehran and Esfahan; in 1986, to participate in the First International Conference on War-stricken Cities (during which I had the chance to go as far as the front line beyond the martyred city of Hoveizeh); and finally in 1998, on a commission by UNESCO to visit the ziggurat of Chogha-Zanbil in Susa (the only ziggurat extant in Iran) and to give a report about its condition; during this trip I spent a whole day exchanging views with the Faculty of Architecture at Tehran University. I shall admit that my stays in Iran during the past twenty years were always short, with tight schedules and precise tasks; therefore, I had not been able to fathom the atmosphere of the cities and their people, whereas in my recent trip, a few months ago, it was quite different. Despite various appointments and meetings with various local officials of the Cultural Heritage, I found the opportunity to listen to the pulse of Iran (the pulse echoing hope), and to contemplate the architecture I love.
The fruits of this visit were some new reflections and observations (in harmony to previous thoughts I had had) that I will discuss a little further and share with you.
I Return to Architecture
With all the years I have put behind, and with an experience richer today, I confess that I found the cities and villages I visited in Iran more beautiful and significant than ever: they were vivid and astonishing manifestations of the capability of Iranians in creating architecture, a creativeness which, while possessing a heroic monumentalism, has produced an architecture with a human scale.
Today, Iran is a country with few people in their forties; it lacks a productive, motivated and innovative middle generation. Nevertheless, and despite the hard and bloody period in Iran beginning in the last years of the Pahlavi regime, the initial years of the Islamic Revolution, and then the long years of the Iran-Iraq war, Iran is now rebuilding its environment. If we ignore some modern buildings that are built out of place or that are completely ugly and useless, and are from the cultural point of view, violent and imposing, the love and care for cities, homes and gardens has once again taken a deep Persian color. It has also occurred to me—and made me very glad—that the attention of the authorities for the conservation of the cultural heritage has, more than before, been drawn towards the art and architecture of the past 350 years (late Safavid era to the Qajar, Zand, and even Pahlavi I periods). Away from any nostalgic view (probably with a sense of irony), it could be said that this attention and care indicates a purely Persian sense of historical and artistic continuity, which once again is dominating the shyness and psychological withdrawals, ideological revenges and poor day-by-day policies.
1. I mentioned the Persian sense of historical and artistic continuity. If we confine this concept merely to the sphere of architecture, we can well observe how this continuity has always maintained a proper level of quality and this itself is a significant accomplishment. There is no culture in the world, as deep and delicate as it may be, that does not witness “ups and downs” in its arts; and these waves are almost always related to the history of that country. I believe that Iran is among the rare nations that has suffered little from such “ups and downs” in the course of centuries. In the history of Iranian architecture, we almost encounter no decline in the level of architectural quality from ancient times down to the middle of the last century. (This is exactly the reason why we give attention and appreciation towards the remains of the buildings from the Qajar era). Therefore, we shall ask ourselves what the core reason of this long and lasting success is. My opinion on this is clear: this success is the outcome of the continuous encounter (or dialogue, as it is said today) that Iranians have always maintained within their culture, hence with the arts of other nations. For years, I have tried to disseminate and introduce, on a vast scale, this belief about the special ability of Iranians to “Iranianize” the thoughts and cultures of other nations. By “Iranianizing” I mean a kind of processing and transforming of another culture, without disturbing it, in order to make it acceptable by its own Iranian culture. We all know that war and commerce could open major routes for transferring thoughts, customs and art. In the case of Iran, above the term “transferring”, we must talk about “the ability to choose” and “the power to select”. This means that beyond their great capability to create independent architectural forms, a foreign element (an input, some style, or a sign) could be observed in their works. Iranian art returns this foreign element to the world culture just after modifying it according to its own taste and by “Iranianizing” it. Therefore, I think it is worthy to think about an image of the Iranian culture, (even without limiting ourselves to the sphere of architecture), as a “focal point” of the radiations. It can be as a “meta” (in the grand circuses of ancient Rome) or a “boa” (in the concept of navigating competitions), where all the cultures should move around it, and leave their marks or a part of their identity there. This function goes well beyond the concept of “influencing” which is so honored by the western cultures. Influencing is what could affect a matter of culturally inactive substance, whereas, in Iran we observe a kind of conscious processing that is either already appropriate and in favor of Iranians’ intellectual needs or it is well adaptable to those needs.Therefore, it is better to say dialogue and comparison rather than influence, a concept that has been recorded in history.
2. At an undetermined time—probably in the mid-second millennium B.C—in a vast area extending from Mesopotamia to the valley of the Indus, and from the shallow lands of the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf, Indo-European peoples who called themselves Aryans entered the region. Their dialogue with the nations of the Upper Euphrates, the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt, and then with the Cassites of the Zagros Mountains (who ruled Babylon for almost six hundred years) continued and deepened. By dominating the Elamites, the entire land between the two rivers came under Persian rule and, for the first time, a new monumental architecture came into existence there. This architecture’s materials consisted of raw, baked or glazed bricks. It is not easy to distinguish to what extent the Assyrian-Babylonian art was utilized and how much of it was authentic Persian art. This is how that static course of “processing” I mentioned was started, finding its way primarily through the political and cultural accomplishments of the Medes and then to the glorious time of the Achaemenians. Needless to say, during the Achaemenian era, the dialogue and comparison turned into a real global deliberation and consultation: in fact, the need for establishing coordination between the nations, with mutual respect to different roles, was officially and generally
proposed and accepted.
Politically speaking, the Achaemenian dynasty made a significant turning point. Their concept of power (or the concept of an “Empire”) was based on harmony and coexistence rather than on force, even though force did count as a means of exerting power [or, more accurately, authority]. In the meanwhile, the Achaemenians devised and put into practice a set of rules that determined the behavior of the governed with their subjects. This new and revolutionary idea is reflected in the unprecedented composition, plan, and generality of the Persepolis architecture, even more clearly than in Susa, as it has been better preserved. If reference to Mesopotamian art is still well perceived in Achaemenian architecture, the processing base in Parthian (Arsacid) architecture is the art of the Greek world. It is not by chance that Alexander’s myth finds its proper reference of good and evil in Persian culture. The endeavor of the classic architectural order devoted to some of the Parthian monuments—even when they are located out of their natural, historical and geographical context—is very apparent. These can readily be distinguished as the outcome of a Persian processing, be it in Pamir or in Kangavar. The Persian interpretation of Greek art—and even Roman art—takes a more vivid and evident form in Sasanian architecture (of course the mediation of Parthian art is obvious here). This characteristic is particularly conspicuous in the design of great walls and fortifications, such as the palace of Sarvestan, in the facade of the heroic Arch of Chosroes (Aivan-e Mada’en), or in architectural ornaments and bas-reliefs, such as those of Bistun and Tagh-e Bostan. With Iran’s arrival on the political and religious scene of Islam, the reprocessing capacity of Iranians not only remains intact, but also the quality and the quantity of the cultures against which Persian culture could measure itself increases. Thus, the stamp and seal of Persian art changes and, while processing and recreating much varied artistic expression,
it keeps its authentic and unmistakable characteristics.
A short but intense and compact experience, totally self-reliant and local, in both political and artistic aspects, is the Buyid experience in Gilan, whose architectural achievements are just recently being duly appraised. These works represent a new expression in late sixteenth century Iran and have left very fruitful and permanent outcomes over time, one of them being the use of bricks in facades. The Persians are even able to analyze, compose and reinvent the established and strong artistic trends (as they desire). For example, who could guess the origins of the great works erected by the Seljuqs of central Iran to lie in the characteristics of (Eastern) Roman Seljuqs, whose powerful presence in the Anatolian region was felt strongly at their time? And didn’t the same event happen during the Il-Khanid colonialist era?
When the Safavieds took power, Iran succeeded to process the architecture (and other arts) as its own, with such different and distinguished characteristics that completely put the pre-Safavid cultural achievements into wane and caused its Turkish origins to be forgotten. The new pattern (probably for its decorative quality) was vastly—and with minor modifications—exported beyond its physical borders. In reality, the unmistakable mark of Iran could be recognized among the architectural masterpieces of such distant lands as Central Asia, Muslim India and even Bengal (Bangladesh). At that time, Iranian ideas, masters and craftsmen scattered throughout the world, were disseminating their experiences, innovation and unity.
3. In the present century, dialogue and processing (among Iranians) has reached a kind of flexibility and given way to a pleasant eclecticism in which many European and, in any case, “Western”, elements have appeared. Architectural works inspired by Russian patterns, and a little later, German rationalism, attest to this fact. The final impacts come from globalization, which tends to level the vital diversity of peoples, and the political and cultural isolation that Iran is undergoing in recent decades.
On the one hand, innovation in the construction industry is only producing urban and commonplace boxes, and on the other, (maybe as a good sign) the world is aware that the time of “monuments”—particularly the costly and useless buildings bearing the heavy burden of political landmarks—is over forever. This dialogue shall continue and will continue. With the Help of the Almighty God.