Grey Villa by White Cube Atelier

Interview: Architect Shabnam Khalilpourfar is creating a modern identity for her hometown in Iran’s West Azerbaijan Province

Shortlisted for Tamayouz’s Women in Architecture and Construction Award, the co-founder of White Cube Atelier is developing Maku, a small town in Iran’s north-west.

A finalist for Tamayouz’s Women in Architecture and Construction Award 2020, in the Rising Star category, Shabnam Khalilpourfar co-founded her studio White Cube Atelier in 2012, which aims to build up her and her partner’s hometown of Maku, a small area in the West Azerbaijan Province of Iran. There, they have designed and constructed more than 60 buildings, significantly contributing to the area’s development while addressing ongoing challenges, such as haphazard construction and demolition.

Khalilpourfar believes it is the architect’s responsibility to create high-quality spaces for better life quality and has dedicated her career to reflecting her ethics while also influencing the architectural thought of Maku’s construction sector. In doing so, White Cube Atelier has taken it upon themselves to educate regional contractors on how to develop the details of their projects, which range from one-off villas to residential complexes, as well as commercial and hospitality projects. According to Khalilpourfar, White Cube Atelier’s buildings will further help improve local public taste and reform the city view.

Here, she speaks with Round City about starting her studio and her hopes for improving the living standards of Maku’s residents.

Shabnam Khalilpourfar, co-founder of White Cube Atelier

Can you tell us a bit about your background?
When I started studying architecture in Tehran University of Art in 2003, I was very motivated and enthusiastic to learn about forms and discover spatial relationships. I was a hard-working student who spent many hours developing my design ideas and making detailed professional models of my projects. In the educational system in Iran, you have to pass a difficult exam to enroll in a master’s programme. I was accepted in the field of technology in architecture at the University of Tehran, University College of Fine Arts in 2009. During my postgraduate studies, I worked in a few offices as a designer, as well as taught specialised English courses for architecture students.

After graduating in 2011, Reza Asadzadeh and I decided to establish our own studio – White Cube Atelier – and we have been working together ever since.

Tell us about starting White Cube Atelier. What is its vision and goals?
When we founded White Cube Atelier, I was eager to be involved in professional projects. I wanted to experiment and construct my ideas. Our office was based in Tehran and we had a few projects in both Tehran and Maku – our hometown, which we considered a blank slate for architectural content because of its great natural features. We initiated a few small-scale projects in Maku, such as houses, villas, offices and interior design projects, while also advancing our career in Tehran to learn up-to-date details and materials and take related courses simultaneously.

We decided to focus entirely on our hometown in 2016 with the aim of completing our projects to a desired quality, expanding our office and utilising younger energetic members – we now number at 10. We also aimed to use local materials, develop modern architecture and influence the city’s thoughts and views by considering our projects as fractions of a whole. This focus led to a number of distinctive buildings that made the residents of Maku sensitive to architectural taste.

White Cube Atelier’s vision is to develop modern architectural concepts in this district while being known as a professional studio among Iranian contemporary architecture offices. While our team works locally, we think globally.

You focus on your hometown of Maku – can you tell us more about this area and what your goals are for developing it?
As you approach Maku, in Iran’s West Azarbaijan Province, you are faced with a winding road enveloped by a narrow valley with a river. The city view appears as you pass a crescent-shape in the road. Soaring, bare mountains embrace this historical border city and include one of the largest and most unique climbing crags in Iran. Some buildings have been constructed on the mountain slopes during different historical eras, especially the Ghajar period, but contemporary buildings have multiplied chaotically in the years since.

Diagram provided by Shabnam Khalilpourfar

In modern history, one-storey (and at most two-storey) local buildings were built in Maku to express, each in their own way, the order, harmony and unity of the city and its surroundings, but changing this region to a free zone has led to rapid development and a wave of demolition in recent years, with the prices of properties sky rocketing.

Garden houses are demolished one after the other and replaced with multi-storey buildings with different functions. The city is changing from a harmonious complex to a disorderly juxtaposition with an undesirable city view, similar to what is happening in many other cities in Iran. It seems to us that capitalism has caused this disaster and it is constantly changing the face of our cities. However, in an attempt to resolve these issues, we have designed and constructed more than 60 buildings in Maku in the past nine years.

I can divide our goals for developing architecture in Maku into two categories: one is a short-term goal, which includes designing and constructing high-quality buildings to improve the quality of life for the occupants and to benefit from the opportunity to experiment and explore our ideas, thus having a chance to compete in domestic and international architecture awards.

The other category is a long-term vision to have the lasting affect of an architect within a given context. White Cube Atelier seeks an orderly pattern to subtilise this chaos. We hope to influence the ever-changing city view with the aid of modern architectural concepts and vernacular materials respecting the unique natural context. It’s very encouraging for us to see our impact on the built environment, reflected in the general thoughts, usage of materials and details by other architects in this region and we hope to continue and move towards maturity and perfection.

Can you please share some insight about some of your projects? How do they reflect your goals and impact their context?
The output of our architectural practice ranges from one-off villas to residential complexes, commercial interior design schemes to mall and hotel designs. Our studio worked on a number of projects in recent years, including V Villa, which was shortlisted for a 2018 Middle East Architect Award for Residential Project of the Year; Parnian House, which won highly commended for Middle East Architect’s Residential Project of the Year in 2019; and Ham-Sayeye-Park Apartment, which was the second place winner at the fourth award biennale of Iranian Architecture and Urbanism 2020. My partner and I were also the joint winners of the Young Architect of the Year Award at Middle East Architect Awards in 2019. During 2020, we were involved in completing a number of residential projects, including Grey Villa, Omid House, Raya House and Parla House, as well as a few retail and commercial spaces.

Grey Villa is our latest project, and it was initiated by its location. Passing through a beautiful landscape packed with walnut, cherry and apricot trees alongside the river, the site faces a vast field next to the mountain with great views of the road and the southern plains at the end of the alley. The commission was to create a distinctive building in a context located exactly at the entrance to the city. Formation of the concept was based on considering contextual architecture while having the least impact on the virgin garden, and also seeking a close relationship with the natural environment. Finally, a villa was designed and built named Grey Villa, which not only relates to the natural landscape in a traditional way, but also tries to interact with the context in a modern way.

Irregular rocks and the soaring mountains led us to design a light and orderly project that respects the surrounding environment. Utilising basalt stone as a vernacular material enriched this connection with the context. Using the grey colour and the grey monumental volume induces a neutral content. The building tries to unite with the context, despite the formal appearance of the whole volume with various subtractions and additions.

The construction has the potential to benefit from daylight in all directions, which creates different shaded spaces and shadows throughout. It also enjoys great views over the northern heights as well as the southern plains, river and the main road.

The spatial organisation is formed on a 20-square-metre gross area with two-metre-cantilevers on the first and second floor in four directions, which leads to a 100-square-metre built area. The first floor is dedicated to the living room and kitchen, and is accessible via two light-weight metal stairways in the yard. The first and second floors are connected by a cantilevered stairway to solve the gross area challenge, meet spatial requirements and play a fundamental role in shaping the form of the building. The upper stairway leads to the roof which functions as an observation area, maintaining views of the natural sceneries. The form is designed in a way that when the user seeks for connection with the outdoors from inside, they can by experiencing different views because of the consciously created openings.

Grey Villa is the representation of a modern approach – it has a modern colour, modern volume and it seeks a modern connection with nearby nature. It’s settled in a peaceful way within its site, and we hope that it becomes a memory of our city for passers-by.

Another project, the Ham-Sayeye-Park, is designed and built also in Maku. This building was a replacement for the client’s previous house, and is located in a 22 X 9-square-metre property next to a small park. In fact, the project is near a park, and thus, interaction and dialogue with the park was the first challenge of design. This interaction resulted in diverse balcony openings to the park. In turn the park benefits from the shadow of the building at sunset, so children can play comfortably well into the evening.

Material diversity and unnecessary details were kept to a minimum so as to focus on aspects like natural light, views, proportion and composition of volumes. We aimed to refine the complexities, but achieving purity wasn’t so easy.

Arrangement of interior spaces was organised according to views of the park, while also preventing views into the building from park. The other consideration was the potential of terrace function as a flexible space in relation with interior and exterior spaces. Finally, the building was imagined as a cohesive whole including open, semi-closed and closed spaces.

Five floors are accommodated across 900 square metres, including a ground floor allocated to public space and parking. The first and second floor flats enrich the interaction between the occupants and spaces, while the third and fourth floors feature a duplex residence with an internal void in the heart of the living space, integrating private and public spaces and allowing for the interior main living rooms to fully benefit from the sunlight and the stunning views over the nearby park.  The fourth floor is the junction point where the building connects to open space and the open space connects to the sky.

Each area within the space integrates well with nature. The building’s eastern and southern French windows welcome natural light into the interior, allowing for coexistence and dialogue between the spaces and daylight as well as ventilation. The staircase is made of oak wood, which separates the private and public parts of the entire space and strengthens the connection between different floors with its warm textures. The residence provides a cosy living environment, where the occupants can enjoy various activities.

An extra volume on the roof is attached to the fifth floor to embrace the stairway and elevator box which are generally attached in an unsightly manner to the roofs. It forms a belvedere for enjoying the stunning views over the northern and southern mountains.

The appearance of the building is a reflection of the interior spaces. The project is designed in a simple way so as not to impose chaos on the urban context and respect the surrounding built environment. It is white and well-polished, standing out among all the old brown mass that surrounds.

The façade material is utilised in rhythm with a graphic pattern of vertical openings and framings. All apartments are accompanied with either a generous balcony or terrace. Likewise, it also adds a semi-transparent extension to the apartments that embrace privacy as well as provide an active and living façade.

What are some challenges that you have faced and how did you overcome them?
The first and most prominent challenge was making people familiar with modern thought in architecture and construction. At first, it took pain-staking effort to convince them of our approach and designs, and also have them be satisfied with unfamiliar spaces and forms. However, when we completed a few buildings, people began trusting us and this challenge turned into an opportunity, as more projects were being referred to White Cube Atelier.

The other challenge was working as a female architect in a male-dominated profession in our society. At first it wasn’t common for contractors and clients in such a traditional small city to work with women architects, so I had to work hard to improve my knowledge about the construction process from the beginning phases through to the end. I saw the benefit, though, of experiencing the construction process, which isn’t common for an architect with specific responsibilities in a larger firm or city.

There have been other challenges, too, which relate to Maku’s distance from big cities and their facilities, which has caused a series of problems including shortage of up-to-date technologies, specific materials and professional contractors. In facing these issues, we tried to utilise vernacular materials, like basalt stone, and educating local workers.

Can you expand more on your responsibility to educate local contractors?
When I started working in this context, there were few preparations. People were used to trusting the local contractors and they repeated the same methods for many years. We tried different ways at White Cube Atelier to reach our goal of creating high-quality projects like:

  • Making precise models of our designs to show exact formal additions, subtractions, joints and diversity of materials. There are a lot of models in our office now!
  • Preparing detailed drawings, and explaining them to the contractors. This is followed by an uninterrupted control over the quality of implementation.
  • To create the opportunity of trial and error for contractors on a small scale, we would make a prototype of details, like railings and woodwork.
  • In several instances, we asked professional contractors from larger cities to implement different parts of a project and encourage the local contractors to learn and accept the responsibility.

I can see pleasant results such as specific principles in the construction process now being observed by workers, especially in regards to safety issues and the use of high-quality isolated materials even in ordinary buildings without the presence of an architect. There’s also a greater tendency to live more so in accordance with modern lifestyles and choosing modern forms and spaces to live in. And perhaps most pleasant is that we have witnessed some elements and patterns of our work repeated by younger local architects and students who are working in their hometown to help upgrade the quality of life for all of the citizens.

What projects are you working on now?
As shown in the schematic diagram of our projects scattered on Maku’s map, all black and white images are in progress by White Cube Atelier. The most important one is a five-star hotel which our office is responsible for in terms of project management. I am also involved in the interior design and preparation of the shop drawings of this project. I am also advancing some duplex residences, a few cost-effective apartments, villas and the interior design and implementation of two jewelry brand stores in Tehran.

Read more interviews here.

More Stories
Saving Samarra, a city caught between its past and present