Niamey 200 housing in Niamey, Niger. Image courtesy of united4design

Interview: Designing developments for vulnerable communities with Yasaman Esmaili

The Iranian architect and educator shares insight on her projects in Afghanistan, Niger and Iran that address marginalisation, lost heritage and education.

Shortlisted for Tamayouz Excellence Award’s Women in Architecture and Construction Award 2020 in the Rising Star category, Yasaman Esmaili is an Iranian architect and educator based between Boston and Tehran. In 2017, after a successful international architectural journey which led to the completion of Gohar Khatoon Girl School project in Afghanistan, she founded Studio Chahar, a local yet global collaborative research-based studio, focused on design equity, community engagement and empowerment

Esmaili is also a founding member of united4design, an international design collective formed in 2013 to spark dialogue about architecture and intelligent global practice, and a co-founder of ‘Color My Home’, a project focused on finding the meaning of lost homes through architectural thinking by working with recently displaced immigrant and refugee children. Simultaneously, Esmaili is a visiting professor at the University System of New Hampshire. Her work has been widely published and exhibited in New York, Munich, Venice, Washington DC and Seattle.

Here, she shares more information on her projects and how they cater to various communities not often catered to.

Yasaman Esmaili, founder of Studio Chahar

Can you share a bit about your background?
I am an architect and educator. My architectural practice is focused on finding innovative and equitable design solutions for community-based projects. In 2014 I became the founding member of united4design, a global collective of architects working on projects in Afghanistan and Niger. I founded Studio Chahar in 2017, through which I have participated and keep engaging in several collaborative design projects. Since 2016, I have served as an adjunct professor at the University of Washington, Keene State College and Roger Williams University, teaching undergraduate and graduate level architecture courses in the US. I hold a master’s of science in design computing from the University of Washington, a master’s of architecture from the University of Arizona and a bachelor’s of architecture from the University of Tehran, obtained with the highest honour.

My collaborative work has resulted in the realisation of several highly acclaimed projects. Hikma, a secular and religious complex in Dandaji, Niger, won the 2018 Global LafargeHolcim Silver Award and the 2017 Gold Award for the Middle East Africa region. Niamey 2000, a multifamily housing project located in the capital of Niger, received a 2016 Award of Merit from the AIA Seattle and an R+D Award from Architect Magazine. The Goharkhatoon Girls’ School in Afghanistan was recognised by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) with a 2018 Honor Award. All three projects have been widely published and exhibited in New York, Munich, Venice, Washington DC and Seattle.

Goharkhatoon Girl School. Image by Nic Lehoux

You’re based between Boston and Tehran – how does this impact you and your work?
We live in a new era where the advancement of technology allows us to form international collaborations and be closer than ever before in an ever-changing global society. Right now, I am based in different geographical locations and my projects are also in different parts of the world, based on various opportunities that I have chosen to focus on, which align with my passion in community-oriented architectural endeavours. Through practicing with international teams and interdisciplinary groups, I have learnt the value of global egalitarian collaboration in design. Therefore, the type of practice that I am building is nomadic and borderless. With the experience that I have gained by being in different places in the world, my goal is to be part of national and international design dialogues through the cultural exchange that develops within architectural design. I believe design can empower our communities to have open discussions and shift misunderstandings.  

Tell us about starting Studio Chahar – why you chose to do so and what it hopes to accomplish?
Between 2012 and 2015, I was fortunate to be a key team member in the design and construction process of Goharkhatoon Girl’s School in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. During the design process, we facilitated workshops and idea sessions with the community members in Afghanistan to ensure that the new facility would serve their needs. This collaborative approach led to a promising showcase for international humanitarian design, offering contextualised design solutions and economic stability. The lessons I learned from this experience, along with other collaborative initiatives, led to the formation of Studio Chahar. It is inspired to act as a catalyst that represents, engages and supports less-architecturally-represented communities in a global setting.  

Goharkhatoon Girl School. Image by Nic Lehoux

Studio Chahar is a research-based design studio focused on design equity and innovation, founded to form architectural projects and join initiatives with a focus on the fluidity that comes from the interdisciplinary teamwork in any given situation. The goal is to address design problems by considering the implications of the decisions that are made and to accommodate for equal representation of all who are associated with a design project.

Can you discuss some of your projects and how they reflect the studio’s vision and principles?
‘Hikma Cultural Center in Dandaji: A Mind’s Garden’, completed in 2018, was a derelict adobe mosque that we renovated as a library, adjacent to a new mosque that we built with compressed earth blocks, creating a cultural centre for cultivating minds in the village of Dandaji in Niger (with Mariam Kamara from atelier masomi). Dandaji is a Hausa village in arid western Niger with a very young population of 3000, low literacy rates and high economic vulnerability. The new library provides books, a computer lab and quiet study spaces to improve reading and vocabulary skills for the community and to increase graduation rates. By involving women groups in the project, additional spaces for literacy, accounting courses and workshops were added. And while women never used the current mosque building, as they preferred to pray at home, the library and its proximity to the new mosque positively engaged them with the new spaces as productive members of the community.

The new building reinterpreted traditional mosque organisation in the region with contemporary structural support and detailing. The dialogue between the formal structures of the old and the new led to further interaction between the traditional artisans, the design and construction crew, and the local community. With the support of local leaders, women and the youth, the Hikma project creates a culture and education hub where the different mindsets peacefully co-exist to cultivate minds and strengthen the community.

In 2017, to explore the more overlooked side of the architectural thinking, I co-initiated ‘Color My Home’,a community-based educational architectural design programme in collaboration with Palestinian architect Rania Qawasma. The project focuses on the issue of displacement and takes recently displaced youths on a journey to trace, dream and imagine their personal concepts of home by building architectural collages. Our goal is to share the story of those who experience displacement with the rest of the world, by publishing and exhibiting the collection of the collages and poetry pieces that depict the meaning of home. So far three workshops have been held and the result has been exhibited at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle as part of the ‘Design with the 90%’ exhibition.

You’ve completed several projects in Iran, Niger and Afghanistan – how do you approach work in such varied contexts?
My architectural practice is focused on regions that I can offer better architectural services based on my background and education. For me, the design approach in all these contexts is a ‘local + global’ one. There is a strong local linkage with the community and regional experts, yet the global access to relevant sources of information and expertise enables learning from different, yet similar experiences through collaboration. Such an approach empowers me as an architect and a facilitator to find better solutions for design problems and share the results with a wider audience.

Tell us about united4design.
united4design is an international design collective that I co-founded with three other architects (Elizabeth Golden, Mariam Kamara and Philip Sträter) in 2013 to implement ideas about architecture and intelligent global practice. Through this collective effort, we designed ‘Niamey 2000’, a resourceful multi-family housing complex formed as a typology in response to the housing crisis occurring in Niamey, the capital of Niger. In this collaborative effort, we addressed a critical challenge with a contextualised approach, with each member of our team offering expertise from different backgrounds contributing to finding well-rounded design solutions.

Niamey 200 housing in Niamey, Niger. Image courtesy of united4design

Tell us about some of your roles outside of Studio Chahar – such as being a visiting professor.
I am building a career in academia and research along with practicing architecture. My current research focuses on investigating social-tectonic solutions for contemporary architectural practices and studying how traditional knowledge, which has evolved as the elements of the built medium, can be adopted in contemporary architectural practice, particularly in the Middle East.

As an educator, I encourage my students to practice creativity along with social and cultural sensitivity in every step of the deign process. I guide them to develop simultaneously as designers and communicators, learning to seek and speak up about the role of architecture in the society. I believe that the education of architecture plays an important role in shaping an equitable built environment.

What are you working on now?
My current collaborative projects are focused on tracing cultural craft in its context and envisioning a radical growth path for architectural artistry in southern shores of Iran with the goal of community empowerment and unity. The context, Qeshm Island, is home to two endangered UNESCO World Heritages: Harra Protected Area in Qeshm Geopark and the traditional skills of building and sailing Lenj boats in the Persian Gulf. I started working with a local village cooperative in 2019 on a few projects, including ‘Sarzurzuma Living Shoreline’,a community-initiated effort for the rehabilitation and revitalisation of the shore and local craft in Gouron Village, Qeshm Island. This project studies a nomadic genre of contextualised craft in Iran, which is shaped, transformed and refined in exchange between distinct geographical locations, through the historic water route of Hormoz.

Sarzurzuma craft exploration. Image courtesy of Studio Chahar

Read more interviews here.