by Dilpreet BhullarNov 22, 2023
Yasaman Esmaili is an architect and educator based in Iran and Boston, USA. Her firm Studio Chahar (four in Farsi) is a nomadic architectural design practice that has worked for several community-driven projects across the globe. A path breaker and a native of Iran, Esmaili was once referred by Metropolis as less an architect, and more of a ‘diplomat or crisis intervention specialist’.
She was recently in India for Women in Design 2020+, an international conference and exhibition curated by the HECAR Foundation. It saw the participation of more than 35 women speakers who gathered at the Nehru Centre in Mumbai to share their inspirations, stories, challenges and more.
The three-day conference, from January 8-10, 2020, witnessed architects, designers, artists, film directors, political and social leaders turning into the harbinger of change through their perspectives, narratives, and sensitisation towards design.
As STIR got the opportunity to interact with the Iranian architect, we found that her work engages the community at every step of the design and building process and creates a positive impact on their urban and natural environment. Esmaili’s collaborative work has resulted in the realisation of Hikma, a religious and secular complex in Dandaji Niger, the Gohar Khatoon Girls’ School in Afghanistan, and Niamey 2000, a multifamily housing project located in the capital of Niger.
Esmaili holds a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Tehran, a Master of Architecture from the University of Arizona and a Master of Science in Design Computing from the University of Washington. In 2018, she won the Silver Global LafargeHolcim Award for Sustainable Architecture. After working in the US, she returned to Iran to set up her nomadic practice.
Here are the excerpts from the interview…
Meghna Mehta (MM): It is a very interesting context you are catering to and the kind of architecture that you are trying to revive between contemporary and traditional. Could you tell us more about the crisis, the diplomatic agenda that you are trying to address in the area through the schools and institutes that you are designing. Is there any particular philosophy that you follow?
Yasmana Esmaili (YE): I cannot really say that I have a general philosophy that I follow or that my purpose is necessarily to address political situations. It is just that I grew up and I come from a place that is at the centre of these political talks. The projects that I have worked on and I am interested to work are also coincidentally in these locations. Therefore, this becomes the necessary part of it, to address the social and political background for each project. I think in any project it is about finding the right context and studying, observing and learning and based on the nature of these aspects, the project really changes and evolves.
MM: Would you say it was during your architectural education that you tried to imbibe certain things, or because some things were taught at school and some did not? How did this kind of architecture develop for you?
YE: I think mentioning the school is very-very important. When I studied in my undergrad (from University of Tehran), the way we were taught, it was very western as our professors were from the Beaux-Arts. Even though we were living in a place that was full of great examples of architecture, we studied American designs with limited examples of Islamic and Persian influences and our focus of the studios was very westernised. Then I went to the US for my Masters, and this continued.
I think it was when I saw my surroundings and that it was lacking that sense of building that I had grown up in Iran. Because you see great architecture everywhere, and you just don't notice it. – Yasaman Esmaili
Even in contemporary architecture, like many houses in Iran that were built in the 60s and 70s, have great contextual detailing and thinking. That is when I realised that I should see what is lacking in my education. That is really when it happened.
MM: Even in India, the books that we refer to are westernised. We see influences from the West, while there is so much happening in India and we are probably not learning from our context itself. How did you arrive at the decision of going back to Iran while you were studying in the US, and what were your thoughts?
YE: When I was working in the US it felt great and comfortable. However, it was only the part of me that had learned in the US and that was American that I could offer to these projects. And I needed to hide all the other things that was in me. What I did had no effects or influences on where I came from. I am not a type of person who can say ‘work is different from life’. I still cannot say that I know what to do yet. I am just seeking a way to mix different identities.
MM: I think you have accomplished that to a great extent already. Would you like to elaborate on Gohar Khatoon Girls’ School, which I believe is a significant project.
YE: That was the first project that introduced me to this path. It showed me that there are other ways that I can bring together identities and not necessarily belong and work in one place. So, it was a great opportunity. It was first in a studio that was led by Bob Hull and Elizabeth Golden from the University of Washington, and then it turned into a project. I was in the design team from the beginning all the way to the end. There were lots of complexities because it was somehow like an American team trying to work in the context of Africa, Afghanistan from far away.
There were many lessons for me to learn in that project and also trying to see if it is possible to figure this out and do it because for me, it is not only about going back, it is about opening doors. Specifically, if you are talking about a place like Iran right now, it is also about bringing the exposure to these types of projects in Iran and making connections. – Yasaman Esmaili
MM: Absolutely! Many Indian architects are also studying in the cities and then visiting small towns to offer their expertise. You are catering to refugees or people who are migrating and that’s something you talked about in your lecture. According to you, what is the role of architects in migration or in the architecture of migration?
YE: I think that we are facing many crises. Not that we were not facing it before, but now it is right in front of us. I think no matter what you do, as an architect, engineer, doctor, it is everybody's responsibility to do something and to bring more awareness and to ask the question. Of course, immigration needs to be addressed, because it is about changing homes and architecture starts with designing homes. It is important seeking that meaning and understanding how it affects people's lives.
The crisis of identity is important. Buildings relate to identity, space and memory - not necessarily only the physical objects. I think these are great issues to focus on and think about. – Yasaman Esmaili
MM: An article in the Metropolis once called you a ‘diplomat or crisis intervention specialist’. You split your time between the US and Iran; would you say you are trying to do your bit to address the crises?
YE: It is not my goal to be the person who is addressing crises. I am just sitting outside trying to be a normal architect and be a normal Iranian to open up doors for other architects or in other conflicting places.
MM: What kind of challenges do you face as an architect or a woman architect in Iran?
YE: For me, travelling is not an easy thing to do. Similarly, there are hidden issues that we don't see that really influence professional and personal life, what you can achieve and opportunities that you get.
There are many challenges and biases around us, as women; sometimes the age, the colour of the skin, all of these biases and other problems. I think the best way is, of course, we should keep talking about these problems, focus on how we overcome and sometimes simply ignore and keep going. If we just focus on the problems themselves, we kind of lose our power.
Two ways to stay on track and to feel empowered; just to keep going in a self-motivated way and to not focus on the problems. There are so many problems, they are treated differently, but it's okay! We are in a transitional zone.
MM: What would you say is the way forward now? Do you have a plan or prefer the way things are coming your way?
YE: I think I want to stay focused, to keep exploring ways of setting up this practice that's based on collaboration and flexibility and empowering everybody who is in the team. But again, it is very unpredictable, I also believe that anything can happen at any second, I believe in circumstances. I like to keep it open.
MM: That’s a good strategy. You had said ‘My work is simply based on the opportunities that I haven’t gone to’. Can you elaborate?
YE: I believe there are necessary necessities in your life that you just figure out. To me it has always been like in architecture there are always missing parts. When you see projects about how it happens, how do people get the power to be in a place to get a job and to design and to get it built? I find that phenomenal.
It's not about always getting it built, but to do something, because that's why people want to be become architects. For me it's about exploring the reasons and the meanings and bringing exposure to those for other people.