In conversation with Tehran-based architect Firouz Firouz

From lost heavens to ecological values of the Iranian vernacular architecture, context-oriented architect Firouz Firouz talks about how architecture needs to redefine itself.

by Afra SafaPublished on : Feb 21, 2022

Firouz Firouz was born in a garden house in Tehran, Iran in 1954. He finished his architecture studies at Pratt University in New York, where he collaborated with Victoria Georgini. Later in his professional pursuits, he worked with Hassan Fathy on mud architecture and brick architecture in Egypt. He established a design office in New York with Nasser Ahari (1985-1990). Ahari and Firouz Architecture Office carried out several projects including a care centre for children suffering from HIV, which was published in New York Times as an unprecedented project in the USA at the time. Their design for a mosque in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, won the first prize in the Aga Khan Foundation Mimar Magazine competition in 1985.

After many years away from home, Firouz returned to Iran in 1990 and established the Firouz Firouz and Partners Architecture Office. He has been active as a lecturer, teacher and referee in various architectural events and competitions. Firouz Firouz is a context-oriented architect. His interpretation of context is based on the mutual relation between nature and culture and focuses on sustainable design solutions. His works are influenced by his efforts to integrate the ecological values of Iranian vernacular architecture into contemporary practice. His approach to architecture is inspired by theories that prioritise ethical, social and human values in architecture and the enhancement of the quality of life. In such a theoretical framework, the correlation and connection between the individuals, the communities, the architecture and the environment are necessary for the health and well-being of the society. This correlation, which Firouz defines as “co-existence”, forms the core of the aesthetics in his works. He is also known as an artisan and displays qualities of art and craftsmanship and attention to form and details in his projects.

Firouz Firouz; Plaque 23 is a residential building in the north of Tehran | Firouz Firouz Architecture | STIRworld
Firouz Firouz; Plaque 23 is a residential building in the north of Tehran Image: Courtesy of Firouz Firouz Architecture

For this interview we met Firouz in his office in an old garden of Tehran. As an experienced architect and a well-versed individual Firouz has fascinating points of view to offer and our conversation covered a range of issues from 21st century architecture, to culture, climate change and globalism.

Afra Safa: How has growing up in a garden shaped your view towards architecture and life in general?

Firouz Firouz: Primarily, we need to define what a garden is. In my world, a garden is where plants - some with crops and some merely ornamental - have been selected and designed with a certain order. Growing up in a garden means that my life has been in close connection with ornated nature. I have not grown up in an apartment or a house in the city. The house I was raised in was designed by Abdol-Aziz Mirza Farmanfarmaian and it had a massive patio where we spent most of the springs and summers. So, this form of life where you have a fort and you live inside and outside of it defined internal, middle and outer spaces for me and thus defined my dialogue with an architecture which is still present. This is not a new or innovative discourse; it's been around for seven or eight thousand years and is the result of the lifestyle in the environment of Iran. This concept is repeated throughout Iran and the only thing that changes in each region is the language of architecture.

For me, the garden is the embodiment of the respect we hold for nature. From the very beginning, all my endeavours in architecture have been about creating this connection with nature, since the first competition I participated in, which was the Aga Khan Foundation Mimar competition to design a mosque in Jeddah. My design was in fact a field of palm trees and the mosque was under it. The building holds little significance to me but the connection of that building with the environment and nature is important. Since then, the rapid changes have pushed us to the brink of destroying the biggest garden of all which is the Earth. The destruction is more significant now and is happening on a much bigger scale. I think we are all the gardeners of the Earth. Gardening means taking care of the Earth as a mutual habitat with all the connections that exist between its creatures. It means giving back as much as we take. This idea is rooted in my childhood experience in a garden. We played with mud and ate fruits directly from the trees and watched the seasons. We watched the stars. And we were together. I cannot separate these from life and architecture.

Plaque 23 is a residential building surrounded by a garden and made of colourful tiles and motifs | Firouz Firouz Architecture | STIRworld
Plaque 23 is a residential building surrounded by a garden and made of colourful tiles and motifs Image: Courtesy of Firouz Firouz Architecture

For instance, in the Plaque 23 it was important for us that the pool of the building was a place full of natural light, surrounded by a garden; and that the apartment units were homes wherein colours and happiness exist. Maybe this doesn’t seem significant to a Japanese architect but Iranians love ornaments and colours. Because we are desert people and in the desert gardens have gained significant value to an extent that the representation of gardens and nature is present in all the Iranian arts. You can see it in our carpets and tiles and the clothes of our nomadic tribes. I am not Japanese and cannot use monochrome concrete-like Tadao Ando. I am Iranian, and I am from the desert, and I desire colour. So, in Plaque 23 we have created a mix of natural red bricks, green from nature and turquoise tiles and then we have the black that has been dragged around the windows like kohl which indicate the in-between spaces that create a connection between the outside and the inside.

Plaque 23, Apartment Unit | Firouz Firouz Architecture | STIRworld
Plaque 23, Apartment Unit Image: Courtesy of Firouz Firouz Architecture

Afra: Tehran has lost almost all of its gardens in the recent decades. Apart from the state policies, what's been the role of the architects in this?

Firouz: There are different views on this. Some say that the architects are a guild where clients place orders for buildings to be designed and constructed and they are allowed to do so by the law. There is a second group that believes that architects should try and make the shared spaces between the building and the city more aesthetically pleasing. And there is the third group who are very few that believe construction in the gardens is wrong and they refuse to do so. Until now, I belong to the second group. I live in the city and the urban regulations allow the people to build in the gardens therefore, I have no choice.

But what can I give back to the city? How can I turn the garden into a creature whose façade, yard and unconstructed spaces are shared with the citizens are beautiful? Because the quality of the buildings affects the surrounding urban spaces.

I believe that we ought to redefine architecture. Architecture should no longer be about architecture itself. It belongs to a bigger whole. Thus, as much as we develop and enhance the quality and the beauty of public spaces in the city then we have made the city happier. When we limit the public spaces, bring cars into them, destroy their trees, cut off the water and pollute the air then these will affect all the citizens. The city also needs a gardener. We cannot quantify beauty. But ecology is quantifiable science. Beyond that ecology is a way of defining the world. It is the science of co-existence. It defines a world where nature will always find a balance and whoever cannot live within this balance will fade. If we do not interfere with nature, this balance will prevail and the Earth will regenerate itself.

Co-existence, Memory Regathering Syrian Competition, Cultural Center in Aleppo, Syria 2019 | Firouz Firouz Architecture | STIRworld
Co-existence, Memory Regathering Syrian Competition, Cultural Center in Aleppo, Syria 2019 Image: Courtesy of Firouz Firouz Architecture

For me as an architect, the 21st century is about such matters. A huge portion of the pollution is being produced by constructions, but are architects involved in this and can they be effective? Or are only politicians responsible? I believe architecture has a great role in the 21st century. Architecture for the sake of architecture is no longer valid. So, architecture must not be the primary concern of the architects. For me architecture is gardening. When I build something, its connection with its environment and its interaction with its surroundings are important to me.

Afra: You have worked in many cities across the globe. What made you choose Tehran and Iran in the end?

Firouz: The primary reason is that I am from Tehran. Although I was privileged to be born in a family that could send me abroad for education, they also encouraged us to return, make Iran prosperous and serve the Iranian people. This was the way of our upbringing.

The truth is when I returned after the Iran-Iraq war, I fell in love with Iran. I travelled across the country and fell in love with architecture and I never wanted to be anywhere else. Even when I was abroad, I worked with people such as Hassan Fathy and my mind was on desert and adobe architecture.

Co-existence, concept renders | Firouz Firouz Architecture | STIRworld
Co-existence, concept renders Image: Courtesy of Firouz Firouz Architecture

Afra: You always mention the word co-existence. Can you elaborate on that and how does architecture encapsulate this?

Firouz: For me co-existence is respect. In a discussion with an employee of the UN, she believed that there is an underlying force in co-existence and suggested “respect” instead. This is also an appropriate phrase; respect for everything. All things are connected, so if we don’t respect everything then we return to the theory that says humans are above all else. From an ecological point of view, all the creatures have the same right to live on the Earth. But the difference is that humans can destroy everything else. This idea is not new. All the nomadic and nature-oriented societies have always known this. When we began talking about one God and created heaven and hell we forgot that the present life is important. But the nomadic societies didn’t think like that because all they knew was here. They, from Iranian nomads to the African tribes and America’s indigenous societies, respected everything. The world is the same even now. The 21st century must be about respecting the things around us.

  • Co-existence, concept drawings | Firouz Firouz Architecture | STIRworld
    Co-existence, concept drawings Image: Courtesy of Firouz Firouz Architecture
  • Co-existence, a memorial in Aleppo | Firouz Firouz Architecture | STIRworld
    Co-existence, a memorial in Aleppo Image: Courtesy of Firouz Firouz Architecture
  • Co-existence, concept renders of the interiors | Firouz Firouz Architecture | STIRworld
    Co-existence, concept renders of the interiors Image: Courtesy of Firouz Firouz Architecture

Afra: Co-existence is the title of the project you worked on for Aleppo, Syria. What was the idea behind designing a memorial for a war-stricken city?

Firouz: We were supposed to build a memorial in Aleppo. But for me, it wasn’t that. We wanted to create something shared. So, for this shared project we decided to design a space that is not architecture. A space that everyone can use. We made an urban void. There is a marina in Beirut where all the people enjoy regardless of their differences. We also wanted to design a place where everyone could just hang around. A place with shades, where the trees have crops. A place for feasts and sharing these crops and happiness. The architecture is in fact under the ground and below the urban space. Over the ground, there is only a bordered space where there is a mirror that reflects the city being rebuilt with the name of the war victims on it. There is a space of silence which is the memorial and that silence belongs to everyone. When you read the names, you also see yourself in the mirror. You are no longer in the city but in timeless space.

  • Memory Regathering Syrian Competition, Cultural Center in Aleppo, Syria 2019 | Firouz Firouz Architecture | STIRworld
    Memory Regathering Syrian Competition, Cultural Center in Aleppo, Syria 2019 Image: Courtesy of Firouz Firouz Architecture
  • Co-existence, memorial site | Firouz Firouz Architecture | STIRworld
    Co-existence, memorial site Image: Courtesy of Firouz Firouz Architecture

Afra: Let’s talk about the 21st century. We are in an era where we are free of ideologies but we are also a bit lost. Where should architecture head to considering the prevailing notion of global is local? Can localism have a place in a globalised world?

Firouz: Architecture has to define its role in enhancing co-existence and respect towards the Earth. There is no contradiction in this. Imagine a forest. The forest is healthier with natural variations. Variety is necessary for the sustainability of ecosystems. I don’t see globalism as a unifying force. It was never supposed to be this. Globalism means that the Earth is important. We have various systems on the planet. In China, many communities live under one system that guides them. The Europeans have their own system and the US has its own. Should the whole world have one system? I can’t answer that. But I know that all these systems have to find a way to save the planet. That is why all of them were present for the environmental summits. Because there is no other way and the result of failure would be chaos and war.

Co-existence, memorial site - exterior view | Firouz Firouz Architecture | STIRworld
Co-existence, memorial site - exterior view Image: Courtesy of Firouz Firouz Architecture

Afra: There are two trends in contemporary architecture - sustainable architecture and smart buildings. They contradict each other because for sustainability we need to lessen the energy costs but smartness is costly and energy-consuming. Consumers are excited about buildings that are smarter than ever while for saving the planet we need to become more sustainable. How should architecture solve this?

Firouz: Humans are very lazy. Our smart cities are more about surveillance cameras and face recognition and control. It’s not about solving a problem. But we cannot stop the technology either. Once I asked a philosopher if humans would eventually make artificial intelligence that will destroy them. He believed so. Even in sustainable architecture, we are not looking to change the architecture, only trying to make it sustainable. It’s as if we say that we do want to have cars so we make more roads and parking spaces. This will not solve our issues. We should say that we do not want cars. I only know where I want to head to. I don’t want to compete and consume. And I have loads of contradicting thoughts but I want my architecture to be the embodiment of the respect I hold for the environment, the people and the love that I wish to share. I believe everyone can make a change. The architects build for the wealthy but they can still make a change.

  • Interior view of Plaque 23 (Study) | Firouz Firouz Architecture | STIRworld
    Interior view of Plaque 23 (Study) Image: Courtesy of Firouz Firouz Architecture
  • Interior view of Plaque 23 (Bathroom) | Firouz Firouz Architecture | STIRworld
    Interior view of Plaque 23 (Bathroom) Image: Courtesy of Firouz Firouz Architecture

Afra: Architecture has a significant place in Persian culture not only in physical form but also in the literature and the arts. Haft Peykar by Nezami is an epic that is based on architectural ideas. Various Iranian miniature paintings depict architects and construction. Persian culture is rich with imaginative and poetic architectural ideas. Take the Persian garden for instance which is supposed to be the simulation of heaven on Earth. Do you believe that the Persian/ Iranian worldview in architecture has anything to present to the contemporary world?

Firouz: I believe it has loads to offer. But we haven’t worked on it. The interesting aspects of Iranian architecture are its ancient history and how it has adapted itself to the different climates of this land. We have always had a lot of dialogue with the world about these matters.

Construction of the Khavarnagh fort Haft Peykar illustration, Kamalodin Behzad, 1493; Haft Peykar illustration, 15th century | Firouz Firouz Architecture | STIRworld
Construction of the Khavarnagh fort Haft Peykar illustration, Kamalodin Behzad, 1493; Haft Peykar illustration, 15th-century Image: Courtesy of Afra Safa

I travel to Qatar or Dubai and all I see is iron and glass high-rises but I don’t understand what these materials are doing in such a climate. Only Europeans would do such a thing in that heat. Because they want a view! In the Middle East, you don’t want views, you need shades. We don’t do that in Iran. Iran has been the exporter of fundamental architectural ideas. And that is what we should do today. In Persepolis, I cannot believe the mathematics of such narrow columns. This is a miracle. Or the idea of the Sasanid arcs that have travelled across the world. In Isfahan, the Safavid rulers tried to make a garden out of the whole city.

  • Sasanid Arcs, ruins of Ctesiphon | Firouz Firouz Architecture | STIRworld
    Sasanid Arcs, ruins of Ctesiphon Image: Courtesy of American Colony Photo Department
  • Persepolis, Iran | Firouz Firouz Architecture | STIRworld
    Persepolis, Iran Image: Courtesy of Afra Safa

Afra: What do you want to leave behind as an architect?

Firouz: I want love to remain in the things that I leave behind. In a discussion with my colleagues, it was asked if Calatrava will be remembered 50 years from now. I believe so, just as Gaudi is still talked about. Am I after this? When I was younger, I was. But now I think it’s very interesting to build something that would fade away inevitably.

Naghsh-e Jahan Square, Isfahan, Iran | Firouz Firouz Architecture | STIRworld
Naghsh-e Jahan Square, Isfahan, Iran Image: Reza Sobhani

Afra: "So, you wish to leave no trace of yourself behind?"

Firouz: Yes, that's why I have a tendency towards adobe as a material. It is interesting to build something from the earth and it eventually returns to the earth. We leave traces of ourselves when we do not know where we are going and we want to say that “I was here”. But if you think that you are ever-present, why should you leave anything behind?

What do you think?

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