“The Future Is Not A Prediction But A Project”

Iranian architect Habibeh Madjdabadi talks about the current state of architecture in her region and the uniqueness with which she finds solutions in her architectural practice

Habibeh Madjdabadi is a highly accomplished Iranian architect who obtained her master’s degree in architecture from Azad University in 2002. She established her own studio in 2003 and quickly gained recognition for her innovative designs and creative approaches to architecture, resulting in multiple prestigious awards, including nominations for the Aga Khan Award 2016, Tamayouz Women in Architecture and Construction Award 2019, Chicago Award 2014, Worldwide Brick Award 2014, and MEMAR Award 2014. Madjdabadi is also widely known for her thought-provoking articles on various architectural topics. As an influential figure among the younger generation of architects both in Iran and worldwide, Madjdabadi has made a significant impact on the field of architecture.

Please tell us a bit about your journey. How did you become an architect? 

It is probably better to say “how I continue to become an architect.” I believe this is an endless path. I started my career in 2003 after winning a competition for the restoration of a  historical building in Shiraz, Iran. At the time, all architecture offices were male-dominated.  Since then, despite context and gender-specific issues, I have had the chance to engage with challenging design experiments on a variety of subjects and scales. In the early years, I tried several architectural competitions and, in parallel, wrote articles for architectural magazines.  The nomination of “40 Knots House” for the Aga Khan Award 2016 was a turning point in my career. During the following period, I was invited for several workshops and to give lectures around the world – with a focus on involving local workers and valorising their part in the manufacturing process of my projects. 

For me, there are no clear boundaries between arts such as painting, sculpture, installation, and architecture, and I like drawing contrasts between them. In fact, there are strong affinities between these disciplines. I believe using different means of expression contemporaneously will positively affect creativity.
Although my work has been published and reviewed by several specialised journals, in my opinion, the most valuable is the monograph book entitled “Pioneer Women.” It is dedicated to elementary school children, which made me very proud, and I was very happy to be able to motivate children.

What is the current state of architectural practices in Tehran?

During recent decades, the new generation of Iranian architects has made significant efforts to find a contemporary language for Iranian architecture. This language is influenced by the elements of context, distinguished geography, and rich cultural background. Many outstanding projects have been carried out by small offices with clients as private entities. Unfortunately, these projects have little impact on the image of the cities because they are mainly small-scale projects. Unfortunately, the government has no plan to promote high-quality public spaces and appears unwilling to support young architects. Despite all the barriers, such as cultural and economic problems and a lack of support for architects, there is a generation of Iranian architects who have created significant works independently. They have introduced a fresh breath of innovation into their material practice and formal development.

You recently won the competition for a square in Tehran, can you explain what you tried to express through its design?

The competition, an element (landmark) for Vali Asr Square, was stimulating and challenging at the same time. Vali Asr Square, typologically a roundabout, is the most important traffic node on the longest street in the Middle East (17.9 km), connecting the north and south of Tehran. Tehran is paradoxically a megapolis with few outstanding architectural or sculptural objects. The contest was a limited competition in which 17 renowned architects and sculptors were invited to participate. There were several sculptors among the participants, and it was clear that the client wanted a sculptural monument to be located in the centre of the roundabout. In that sense, the proposal I had in mind was going to be quite provocative. I realised that the project has three different scales: urban design, architecture, and sculpture. So, instead of imagining an object to be put in the centre of the roundabout, the project started by considering how the new square could valorise the pre-existing urban phenomena, such as the axis of Vali-e-Asr Avenue with its lined trees and the transportation infrastructures.

Secondly, we focused on the organisation of the heterogeneous space of the square, surrounded by different sizes and shapes of buildings, and the subway terminal in the centre. In Iranian cities, meidans have always been suitable for hosting social and cultural events. In the proposed plan, the circular court, surrounded by concentric round gradients and a well-defined boundary wall, forms an arena for holding all kinds of events. The arena and the gentle ramps connecting the different levels of the square are integral parts of the emerging landmark that is designed with a focus on the sculptural scale of the project. The landmark does not stand in the middle; instead, with its curvy movement, it runs around the arena to valorise the central void. With its bending trees and pointing to the mountains in the background, this sculptural form has two symmetrical peaks emphasising and framing the axis of the uphill Vali Asr Avenue.

Your articles have been widely discussed in design thinking forums. What is your belief in the power of theory and writing in architecture?

Theories are about general knowledge. Practising architecture needs specific and situational knowledge. No original idea comes from putting into practice the theories developed by others. Theories are born as a consequence of several attempts at practising good architecture. These are linked to the personal experience and personality of each architect. Theorizing is an important part of the practice of architecture. It means acting consciously and having a stable roadmap across several projects.

You were selected for the ‘100 Women Architects,’ what are your thoughts on gender equality in architecture?

The physiological differences between men and women cannot influence how architects practice. Gender equity will be realised when women are no longer classified in a separate category. However, in the real world, these attempts to valorise female creativity are welcome.

“The future belongs to those who prepare for it today,” you have said, can you elaborate?

The future is not a prediction but a project. Every new work of architecture pays its contribution to the future.

The 40 Knots house is an interesting project that has won many awards, what would you say were the most defining elements of this project?

In 2014, we were facing budget constraints on a residential job, and we had to use non-skilled labour for manufacturing a complex building envelope. Workers were not able to comprehend the detailed drawings of the façade, so we had to find an alternative means of communication between ourselves and the workers. a language that was simple and easy for them to understand while also being versatile and efficient. In handmade carpet workshops in Iran, two people work together to make a carpet—one reads the instructions while the other sits behind the scaffold and makes the braids. Those instructions are usually drawn on checkered paper. The handmade exterior of this residence has been made using a similar system. One craftsman read, and the other placed raised, filled, and hollow bricks in corresponding supporting bars between L profiles. Due to this technique, there was no need for phase drawings, and the construction sequence could be performed by a series of localised labourers. Workers could lay down the clay blocks row by row without having to understand the concept of a whole façade.

Materials have an expression of their own. Your projects exemplify this statement. What are your thoughts on this? The labour force plays a huge role in architectural construction, what are your thoughts on this?

We all know that architecture is not achieved by enlarging a cardboard model of a project. For me, deciding on the material comes with the initial idea. The characteristics of form and matter should confirm and reinforce each other. I like the natural expression of materials. Materials are found in nature with rough, non-geometric, and approximate forms, and these features are very expressive. Human handwork, with its inevitable approximation and unrepeatability, emphasises the natural characteristics of materials. The construction industry in Iran still relies heavily on manpower because the cost of manpower is still lower than using technology. However, this manpower-based process is not valorised during the design stage. Handmade building components struggle to imitate standardised products in shape, precision, and perfection.

You try to balance between local and global in your architecture. How do you think this is going to define the future of architecture?

Today’s world is moving towards uniformity and the disappearance of cultural distinctions among different ethnicities and nations. I think if we don’t value cultural differences, globalisation will make the world a very boring place. In order to be global, we must first be able to correctly valorize local qualities. This should be one of the missions of art and artists: to make the world a better place and to reflect what is true, pure, and relevant.

Your work focuses a lot on experimentation. How would you say these ideas are impacting the future of architecture?

Experimentation and artistic creativity are essential for compensating for the monotony of everything, which is happening as a consequence of increasing globalization.

What do you think will define the next era of design thinking?

I think what defines the next era of design thinking is the new generation of designers, their priorities, their curiosities, and their creative and artistic solutions to solve the problems of the future. Problems such as homogenization and the monotony of the world are caused by increasing globalization, survival issues on the planet, the ageing of the world population, dealing with virtual reality, the pace of life, communication, and other unpredictable issues.

Habibeh Madjdabadi was a speaker at ID Symposium 2023 in New Delhi, organised by India
Design ID.