ASA North transforms a 1920 beer distillery into a contemporary museum in Tehran

Abandoned since 1970, the Argo Brewery in downtown Tehran gets a new identity as an arts incubator for the Iranian city, featuring age-old exposed brickwork and new floating roofs.

by Zohra KhanPublished on : Oct 26, 2022

The redesign of a 100-year-old disused beer distillery in downtown Tehran into a contemporary museum is described as a 'second chance' as against 'preservation' by its leading architect Ahmadreze Schricker of New York-based practice Ahmadreza Schricker Architecture – North (ASA North). The result is a restraint conversation tying the built form with its context, materiality, and heritage, however in differing interpretations. The transformation of the Argo Brewery into the Argo Contemporary Art Museum and Cultural Centre is distinguished for multiple reasons. One, it led to the making of the first private contemporary art museum in Tehran since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Two, the urban activation resulting from the place serving as a melting pot for artists and local people has spurred a cultural revitalisation of the neighbourhood and the city beyond. Three, the intervention sensitively opened up the built fabric to slot new expanded spaces to house the museum’s diverse programmes, while retaining the sanctity of the 1920’s structural composition.

ASA North led the transformation of the beer distillery which was left abandoned since 1970| ASA North | Tehran | STIRworld
ASA North led the transformation of the beer distillery which was left abandoned since 1970 Image: Aga Khan Trust For Culture - Photograph by Deed Studio
A series of five floating concrete roofs have been added to the built form| ASA North | Tehran | STIRworld
A series of five floating concrete roofs have been added to the built form Image: Aga Khan Trust For Culture - Photograph by Deed Studio

ASA North was commissioned by the Pejman Foundation – an Iran-based non-profit art institute – to craft its home within the brewery that remained unused since 1970. Together with American practice Hobgood Architects, who were involved in the concept stage of the project, Schricker beautifully intervened into the architectural remnants of the factory to carve out a range of contemporary spaces which include a public courtyard, six distinct galleries, a library, a high capacity auditorium, artist residency spaces, private studio apartment, art-shop, a penthouse level observatory, offices, and a non-alcoholic bar serving re-issued Argo draft beers.

  • The new roofs interpret the urban morphology of the neighbourhood | ASA North | Tehran | STIRworld
    The new roofs interpret the urban morphology of the neighbourhood Image: Aga Khan Trust For Culture - Photograph by Deed Studio
  • The exposed brick load bearing walls have been preserved in the new design| ASA North | Tehran | STIRworld
    The exposed-brick load bearing walls have been preserved in the new design Image: Aga Khan Trust For Culture - Photograph by Deed Studio

The driving approach to the intervention was about tapping into the urban morphology of the neighbourhood to draw new elements into the built fabric, at the same time retaining the factory's original exposed brick walls. This conversation between the old and new was backed by a sound structural design, led by engineer Behrang Bani Adam who is currently based out of Adelaide, Australia. Some of the new structural additions to the brewery include insertion of new structural foundations, the design of five floating roofs, and inclusion of a new poured in place grand staircase in the main gallery, spanning 12-metres in length and erected without any support.

  • A new grand staircase has been added to the main gallery space | ASA North | Tehran | STIRworld
    A new grand staircase has been added to the main gallery space Image: Aga Khan Trust For Culture - Photograph by Deed Studio
  • The museum spaces feature ceiling heights of up to 15 meters| ASA North | Tehran | STIRworld
    The museum spaces feature ceiling heights of up to 15 meters Image: Aga Khan Trust For Culture - Photograph by Deed Studio
  • A range of playful naturally lit spaces for events and gatherings have been carved out in the new scheme| ASA North | Tehran | STIRworld
    A range of playful naturally lit public spaces for events and gatherings have been carved out in the new scheme Image: Aga Khan Trust For Culture - Photograph by Deed Studio

To know more about the project which is one of the six winners of the 2022 Aga Khan Award for Architecture, STIR speaks with Iranian-Austrian architect Ahmadreza Schricker in an email conversation.

The following italicised text are the edited excerpts from the exchange.

The coming together of two worlds – the past and the present| ASA North | Tehran | STIRworld
The coming together of two worlds – the past and the present Image: Aga Khan Trust For Culture - Photograph by Deed Studio

Where the old and the new crossbreed

Argo's structure was left abandoned for the past 57 years and during that time, the roof material was stripped and its beams carried-off by neighbours, the factory was roofless and in a state of desolation. And of course we should never tear down a hundred-year-old industrial building we can still use, but this anecdotal fact about Argo aside, in Iran, there still exists many other buildings with traditional local architecture of their time, worthy of preservation. In comparison to them, for me Argo Factory is not a historical building, with its many industrial architectural twins around the world… so I never worshipped Argo, and this lack of admiration allowed us to redefine it as something its original architects did not intend for it to be and at the same time, against my lack of admiration for it, I love Argo… After our efforts, today, from outside, Argo looks very much as it once did about a 100 years ago with the exception of the newly inserted floating roofs, and from the inside the old and new in the Argo museum crossbreed.

The Argo museum and its context | Tehran | STIRworld
The Argo museum and its context Image: Courtesy of ASA North
The design team posing with a few prototypes of the roof| ASA North | Tehran | STIRworld
The design team posing with a few prototypes of the roof Image: Courtesy of ASA North

The tip of the hat

The architectural expression of the new roofs is a restrained conversation between symmetrical geometry of the traditional neighbouring metal roofs and the asymmetrical adaptation of that geometry, which now is made of concrete. Metaphorically, the new roofs can be interpreted as five hats that consider another character for an existing building with a strong personality. Architecturally, with the help of a completely new structural foundation, the floating concrete roofs maintain the character of existing spaces and the concrete roofs play multiple roles: as concrete surfaces they dance with the striation of traditional metal folds of their neighbours; as deep horna skylights, they keep the heat out while filtering the light in for the galleries; and lastly as a symbolic nod or “tip of the hat” greeting to the city, they welcome visitors back to Argo once again.

  • New expanded spaces tie different programmes within the museum
| ASA North | Tehran | STIRworld
    New expanded spaces tie different programmes within the museum Image: Aga Khan Trust For Culture - Photograph by Deed Studio
  • Light filters through the concrete roofs and illuminates the gallery spaces below| ASA North | Tehran | STIRworld
    Light filters through the concrete roofs and illuminates the gallery spaces below Image: Aga Khan Trust For Culture - Photograph by Deed Studio
  • The exposed brickwork of the original 1920 structure has been beautifully preserved in the redevelopment; pictured here is the courtyard space | ASA North | Tehran | STIRworld
    The exposed brickwork of the original 1920 structure has been beautifully preserved in the redevelopment; pictured here is the courtyard space Image: Courtesy of ASA North

A second chance

I think our architectural response to Argo Factory was to offer it a “second chance” as opposed to “preservation". If we preserved the factory, it had to function as a brewing plant at the moment. We gathered our brains to consider the charged history of the site, located in the heart of Tehran, the original intention of its industrial architects and most importantly the exhibition spaces that the Pejman Foundation demanded, and our goal was to unite them into a locally sustained hybrid. Originally the roofs were designed to be made of brass, the 2017 sanctions on Iran directly influenced the price of metals and we could no longer afford it. It allowed us to totally withdraw from our original intentions and re-infiltrate the project by choosing concrete panels, a material which was not as economically affected as the metals and we could also make it by hand on site. Patrick Hobgood, my friend and collaborator once told me “Just as America was entering a dark chapter, Argo presented itself as an opportunity of unbridled optimism.”  Our collective intimacy allowed us to relearn the use of regional resources, local materials, native craftsmen, on site decisions and 1:1 mock ups guarantee a kind of other impactful sustainability.

  • East Elevation| ASA North | Tehran | STIRworld
    East Elevation Image: Courtesy of ASA North
  • North-South Section| ASA North | Tehran | STIRworld
    North-South Section Image: Courtesy of ASA North
  • Basement plan| ASA North | Tehran | STIRworld
    Basement plan Image: Courtesy of ASA North
  • Ground floor plan| ASA North | Tehran | STIRworld
    Ground floor plan Image: Courtesy of ASA North
  • First floor plan| ASA North | Tehran | STIRworld
    First floor plan Image: Courtesy of ASA North
  • Second floor plan| ASA North | Tehran | STIRworld
    Second floor plan Image: Courtesy of ASA North
  • Roof plan| ASA North | Tehran | STIRworld
    Roof plan Image: Courtesy of ASA North

Scripting the unscripted

When we started, we never assumed that by “just” applying a razor-thin painting coat on the bleakly empty leftover walls we could transform this abandoned industrial building into a space to showcase contemporary art work. Thus with the help of a completely new structural foundation, the abandoned factory was restructured, and now the museum is the first venue in Tehran in more than 50 years to present more flexible spatial opportunities for artists - with more diverse ceiling heights of up to 15 metres. In this process, many outside influences, which are the norm in any architectural effort, affected the project, but similar to how a documentary film director welcomes trouble and redefines it for the benefit of a more intelligent script… in our efforts, we directed the narrative.

  • Argo Factory before the transformation by ASA North| ASA North | Tehran | STIRworld
    Argo Factory before the transformation by ASA NorthImage: Courtesy of ASA North
  • Argo Factory before the transformation by ASA North| ASA North | Tehran | STIRworld
    Argo Factory after the transformation by ASA North Image: Courtesy of ASA North

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