The dizzying pace of global development can flatten cultural differences in even the most remote villages of the world. Whether designing colonial houses in New England or creating a major public space in one of Cairo’s oldest neighborhoods, architects today are often asked to reference the past while accommodating contemporary lifestyles. How can respect for local traditions lead to better design for modern communities?
The 40 Knots House in Tehran, designed by Habibeh Madjdabadi and Alireza Mashhadi Mirza, is an inspiring example of how a deliberate approach can build on vernacular traditions while solving challenges specific to a modern capital city. The Iranian project infused perhaps the most typical contemporary urban typology — the mid-rise apartment block — with elements drawn from a centuries-old tradition of Persian and Islamic architecture.
As 20th-century cities were transformed by urban migration, the industrial revolution, and global capitalism, building traditions that had evolved as sophisticated responses to local topography and culture were replaced by Haussmann-inspired boulevards; the steel, concrete, and glass of the International Style; and the standardized floor plates of multinational corporations.
Tehran, a city whose rich architectural traditions span several thousand years, has suffered from such a break in tradition. “It’s essential that the heritage of a people be preserved,” said Richard Frye, former Aga Khan Professor of Iranian Studies and founder of Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, at a Library of Congress conference on Islamic culture. “If Walmart came to Isfahan, what would happen to the bazaar?”
For Madjdabadi and Mirza, two Iranian-born architects, the need to conform to a small rectangular plot and develop 10 residential units that were affordable for Tehran’s “missing middle” — the range of residents who struggle to find market-rate housing but are not eligible for social housing — meant that any nod to traditional architecture had to be an integral part of their design rather than a luxury or embellishment.
The façade, a defining feature of the 40 Knots House, seamlessly combines two central aspects of Persian and Arabic traditions: the mashrabiyya (an elegantly carved screened window) and the Persian tradition of carpet weaving. Rather than simply copying the wooden latticework of a traditional mashrabiyya, Madjdabadi and Mirza developed a simple pattern of interwoven bricks that stretched across the entire façade, defining windows and balconies. As well as being an essential aspect of traditional Iranian architecture, brick is one of the cheapest materials available locally, and the intricate pattern provides privacy while allowing air to flow through each apartment.
The architects worked with local laborers to draw on a system that has been used in textile workshops for generations, where one artisan reads instructions and another lays the bricks. “The one who reads the instruction does not necessarily know how to knit,” the architects told ArchDaily. “She reads the instructions, usually with a rhythm, and like a song: two reds, a yellow below, two blue... those instructions are usually drawn on checkered papers.”
The practical elegance of the 40 Knots House earned its designers a nomination for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, an institution that recognizes designs that respond to the needs and aspirations of contemporary Islamic societies, while drawing on local traditions and materials. Rather than simply referencing an aesthetic, the architects facilitated the evolution of a vernacular tradition to fit a contemporary urban context and create a bridge between the past and the present.
Artwork: Born and based in Scotland, Emily Moore is an alumna of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design international exchange program. Her paintings and collages explore the tension between environments and the manmade structures that inhabit them. All images courtesy of the artist.