Medicinal Herbs Museum

Interview: Iranian architect Sanaz Ghaemmaghami hopes to change the face of contemporary Iranian architecture

Shortlisted for Tamayouz’s Women in Architecture and Construction Award, Ghaemmaghami and her studio Modaam hope to contribute to Iran’s changing built environment.

Shortlisted for Tamayouz’s Women in Architecture and Construction Award 2020, in the Rising Star category, Iranian architect Sanaz Ghaemmaghami started her studio Modaam in 2009 with a colleague. In the decade since, she grew the practice to have 12 full-time employees and several part-time peers.

Despite the many challenges she has faced, such as working in a local industry monopolised by relatively low-quality construction and a national economy that has long faced severe difficulties, Ghaemmaghami has gone on to design various acclaimed projects such as the Cinnagen Pharmaceutical Company and Factory, Medicinal Herbs Museum and the Sabcool Showroom. Her approach to design is highly research-based and she believes in embracing the contextual necessities of every project.

Ghaemmaghami’s work illustrates a clear understanding of the context and local needs and her goal is to be effective in changing the face of Iranian contemporary architecture. Previously, she was head of architecture and urbanism at the University of Aradan, as well as head of the department of painting at Sooreh University. With her academic background, she hopes to further spread the approach of study-based design.
Here, she speaks with Round City about her studio Modaam, and the projects she’s currently working on.

Sanaz Ghaemmaghami, co-founder of Modaam

Tell us about your background.
As a kid, I remember my father drawing plans and making architectural models. I loved wandering among his sheets and fanaticizing about the stories of his building drawings and models. He was an experienced architect in the 1960s and 70s. Being raised in such an atmosphere inspired me to pursue my dreams of becoming an architect in Tehran. I chose architecture as my academic field and started to study architecture at the University of Tehran, the most prestigious and oldest university in Iran. After gaining experience in several architectural firms and also working as an apprentice in my father’s firm, I decided to continue my own dreams.

Why did you start Modaam? What was the initial vision for the studio’s work?
Right after graduation, I decided to start teaching architecture in academia. Shortly after, I decided to continue my career as an architect.

When I was teaching in Sooreh University of Tehran, I met one of my gifted students, Mojtaba Mohammadzaheri. We started to work together in my father’s office and shortly after, we started our own architecture office. Gradually, we expanded our work. Besides gaining experience in architecture, we also started to further explore the theoretical aspects of architecture. Our goal was – and still is – to play our role in redefining the face of contemporary architecture in Iran.

You’ve mentioned that you grew your company to 12 full-time people, despite certain challenges such as working in a heavily male-dominated society. Can you discuss some of the challenges you faced and how you overcame them?
Construction and architecture are mainly male-dominated fields all over the world, and this is even more evident in Iran. In Iran, contractors, clients and engineers are mostly men, making it very hard for a woman to prove herself as a dependable architect. After 12 years of effort, I have tried to change this image and I am happy that along with my female colleagues, the overall atmosphere and attitude towards female architects has changed in comparison to how it was the day I started my career.

Can you discuss some of your projects? What is your work process and how have your projects contributed to their context?
One of our beloved projects is the Medicinal Herbs Museum in Kordan, Karaj. It was a museum designed to present the historical background of medicine science in Iran and it consisted of spaces like the ‘history of medicine in Iran’, ‘medicine scientists’, ‘room of scents’, ‘map of herbs’, and so on. The overall concept was based on the idea of a contemporary Persian garden. The interior design was based on a deep study of several aspects of medicine science in Iran. The museum intends to exhibit the rich historical heritage of Iranian medicine science and the capabilities of Iranian scientists of this field. This is done by including an exhibition on Iranian herbs, historical medical objects, while also introducing historical Iranian health and medicine specialists, and other related information and objects.

Our other significant project was Cinnagen Pharmaceutical Company. The challenge of this project was to design a factory consisting of different interwoven spaces and functions. These functions included production spaces, storage, technical facilities, administrative spaces, offices and labs. They had to be integrated in a complex of different open, closed and semi-closed volumes. The solution was to link three different masses with three different functional roles: a mass for the technical facilities, a mass for production spaces, supportive functions and storages, and a mass including labs, offices and administrative functions. The complex consists of two separate yet attached volumes: a warm, cozy, brown-brick building, which is the administrative zone with its inner small gardens for each office, and a second building dedicated to the production zone with its white patterned surface. These two volumes are connected to each other with different pedestrian bridges in different parts of the two buildings.

The Cinnagen Pharmaceutical Company project was mainly based on the functional needs of the company. However, we decided to redefine the nature of industrial buildings by making it a pleasant place to work, stay and even exhibit. We also tried to refer to the cultural and historical context of the project by implementing certain design patterns in the façade.

Your work illustrates your goal to change the face of Iranian contemporary architecture – can you expand on this?
Our objective is to design and build in a way that serves the users; it is a human-based approach that tries to avoid architecture-oriented artistic trends. We believe that by prioritising society’s needs in our design, we can play our role in changing the face of Iranian architecture. Iran has a minority of good architectural works and a vast majority of chaotic kitsch and problematic architecture. By embracing the social context of each project, we can be a part of a movement towards a realistic Iranian utopia.

You were head of architecture and urbanism at the University of Aradan, can you share more about your role in academia?
Shortly after my graduation, one of my professors introduced me to the newly established University of Aradan. Aradan is a small town near the desert. For almost eight years, I taught there, first as an assistant and then as an independent university teacher. After a while, I became the head of the architecture department. I gained a lot of experience and I learned a lot during that period of time. However, after a while, I felt that I have to experience working in the building industry so I left the university.

What are you working on now (with Modaam and outside of it)?
After our experiences in designing industrial and pharmaceutical projects, we felt we can have an impact on redefining the architectural standards of industrial spaces in Iran. Besides, after these projects were published, industrial and pharmaceutical companies were attracted to our work. As a result, we began designing more pharmaceutical factories, such as the Gachsaran pharmaceutical factory in the south of Iran and Abidi Pharmaceuticals Headquarters.

Read more of our interviews here.