Majara Residence, Hormuz Island

Interview: Iranian studio ZAV Architects shares manifesto for a better architecture

Iranian practice ZAV Architects is committed to a research-driven, case-specific architecture that not only helps improve the built environment, but also helps establish a more coherent school of thought for the field of architecture in the Middle East and wider region.

Shortlisted for Tamayouz’s Mohamed Makiya Prize 2020, ZAV Architects is an Iranian architecture firm based in Tehran that seeks to generate socio-economic change. It does this by employing architectural means and capacities to create designs that match the contemporary needs of the Iranian people, and architectural forms that adapt to the present-day reality of design and building processes.

In seeking its goals, ZAV Architects operates via a three-part work process: it relies on national resources (human, natural, industrial, cultural and scientific); it applies adaptive aesthetics (the studio avoids using a formal approach to projects and copying heritage forms or western architecture, and rather lets the form and aesthetics of a project result organically from the building process); and finally, it informs its work with future-proof scenarios (spatial programmes are defined by present-day and future needs of the end-users).

ZAV Architects aims to redefine the function of its practice beyond the predefined limits of its influence; it believes architecture can be evaluated in terms of its capacity for maximising the balanced production and distribution of economic gain for its stakeholders. In the firm’s work, it attempts to postpone architectural presumptions in order to create space for critical re-evaluation of assets, techniques and spatial diagrams.

ZAV Architects

Here, ZAV’s founding partner Mohammadreza Ghodousi speaks to Round City about the studio’s work and principles, and he shares the team’s manifesto of sorts for a comprehensive architecture.

Tell us about starting ZAV Architects.
During my years in university in Tehran, I was a member of a group with Parsa Ardam and Leila Hamzehpour called ZAV. We designed objects and furniture, organised exhibitions and gradually started to do some architectural projects. At the time, I planned to live with my family in Canada after my studies and continue my father’s line of work – a business related to exporting goods from Iran. Taking part in his business from my early years, I grew familiar with working with German and Japanese companies, providing the goods they needed and interacting with them on equal footing. I came to understand that the interests of different countries highly depend on what products they can export, most importantly the cultural ones.

In architecture school I always had a great performance but towards the end of my master’s studies, when I became more acquainted with the field of urban design, architecture took on another meaning to me. I developed a deeper interest in urban questions and how users and builders of architecture can affect it. Back then I realised architecture can be much more multi-faceted, dynamic and animated than a single building, and it ought not to be imprisoned inside the building.

Around 1998, I co-wrote my thesis with Parsa about Khorramshahr, a city devastated by the Iran-Iraq War. Khorramshahr is located north of the Persian Gulf close to the Iran-Iraq border. It’s a city that contains the essence of issues surrounding this war, and is in this sense considered a city of national importance, in contrast to the more well-off parts of Iran, which sugar-coat Iran’s struggling economy and that are dense with architectural projects because of the larger amount of funds available.

‘Six Scenarios After the Architect’ – the thesis project of ZAV’s founders on the regeneration of Khorramshahr

The city of Khorramshahr illustrates the economic and social circumstances of the Iran of yesterday and even today. It reveals what resources we really possess and what architecture can do for the country. The economic and social circumstances discussed in the thesis are still pertinent for the country and for ZAV, and the same applies to the spatial scenarios of our thesis: as interventions that avoid formal presumptions and favour small down-to-earth action, suspending product-driven aesthetics and encouraging a benefit-driven approach in favour of everyone, the approach remains the main preoccupation of ZAV Architects in its projects.

Amidst urban ruins and a population that is deprived of hope because of war, how can architecture inspire the people to wish for something better again, for something real, down-to-earth and attainable that could improve their lives greatly with their own participation through space? The thesis proposes six scenarios with a bottom-up approach that instead of using expensive material construction in the urban environment, they tend to shape activities in the city for its regeneration that are doable with near at hand resources and the participation of people through flexible and adaptable spaces.

In 2006, ZAV became an official architectural office. A main quality of ZAV is that collaborations with architects and experts outside the office are frequent. With time, these collaborations have become increasingly diverse and interdisciplinary, and after Parsa left the group, two new associates joined: Golnaz Bahrami and Fati Rezaii (Fatemeh Rezaei Fakhr-e-Astaneh). ZAV believes that collective creativity can reach grounds unattainable to individual efforts.

These thoughts were developed from our early projects, and were applied and practiced even within the limits of the urban lot of a small project. We have a research-driven and pragmatic approach towards architecture and we try to explore realistic and practical subjects. Design is not the starting point of our work – we begin by investigating the capacities that enable social and economic agency and whatever can make small wishes come true, and we use architectural means to reach this end. Spatial organisation, architectural typologies, craftsmanship and construction techniques all become subject to research in order to find out how their capacities can be activated. In following a social and economic agenda, it is important that architectural qualities are not set aside and neglected; instead, they become the means of realisation of these goals with their inner capacities and tools. And this is a sort of compromise between different and sometimes diverging interests that redefine the question of what architecture is about, revealing its mediating attributes.

Tell us about some of the studio’s projects.
During the early projects of ZAV, we were mainly discovering ways in which we can attain a social and economic agency through architecture, and what could be activated in each project to that end. In a small project such as Barbad Fruit House (2008) in the Golestan Province, we built house with a small budget using recycled materials. The simple passion for fruits, which belonged to the child of the family, played a role in the spatial organisation of the house, and through design development, it was combined with plastic characteristics of Iranian architecture. The result was a house that is modern and personal, that somehow upgrades the typology of a Persian house in fluid space. Building low-cost is not an excuse for neglecting architectural qualities and small wishes, instead they all become convergent.

In Pedari Guest House (2011) in Khansar, a private property was turned into a space for accommodation and a hotel in order to generate tourism to the small city, making the area more recognised and known among tourists. Since the project’s completion, Khansar has attracted more footfall by visitors who spend their resources there and vitalise the local economy. The building was broken down into small-scale spatial compartments in order to adjust it to the scope of the city and interrupt the dominance of a larger establishment. Its construction crafts were innovative but simple so they can be performed by local craftsmen and craftswomen. Using the natural slope and directing accessways through open urban spaces, the spatial organisation of the project remains highly flexible and in case of economic changes, it can easily be modified to become something else, such as private residential units for sale. This future-proof spatial organisation is vital in the unsteady economy of Iran, as it reduces the need for new construction or rebuilding, thus saving resources.

Habitat for Orphan Girls (2014) is another charitable project with a modest budget. Instead of taking the form of the usual big dorms with no individual space, this residence customises space in order to make the girls feel at home. Their group activities and celebrations shape how the building looks from the outside: balconies, conventionally not allowed in such establishments, take the colour and cover the girls choose based on their mood or occasion and challenge the restrictions they usually face to express themselves.

As ZAV grew older, our strategies brought us closer to our goals, which also became clearer. We regularly looked back at our completed projects and evaluated them in terms of how well they realised their intentions. At some point we made a radar chart for every project, which helped analyse them based on several aspects that we considered important at the time, such as social, temporal and spatial aspects, as well as contribution to Iranian architecture, craftsmanship and the GDP. Each item was represented on a different axis and each project would be rated in each category.

Today we see these axes as interconnected and in line with the overall goals of elevating the GDP and social optimum. For example, updating an existing typology in Iranian architecture is not separate from GDP-driven goals because it leads to the production of value similar to what an athlete does by winning international competitions – it generates national pride. Similarly, if temporal aspects are strong in a project it means that it has a future-proof spatial scenario which in turn saves national resources by reducing the need for construction. With the same logic, if craftsmanship is encouraged a bigger share of the budget goes to human labour costs instead of expensive imported materials and this results in a sort of aesthetics that adapts itself to current needs and reflects them. Studying previous projects and evaluating how our goals have been met helps us understand our own work and make better decisions for upcoming projects.

For example, Cheshm Cheran (2017) is the child of the Pedari Guest House in the sense that it focuses on a future-proof spatial scenario. The building opens up to the surrounding landscape and at the same time places its accessways in its semi-open areas creating a fluid spatial organisation that was able to host everything from a public olive festival to private gathering of relatives of the owner. The project was also sensible to GDP-related goals in its construction and use and has been built with innovative low-cost materials.

The attempt at converging the interests of different groups that started with Rong Cultural Center (2017) continued in a much bigger scale at Majara Residence (2020) in Hormuz island. Hormuz is a small island in the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, and building trust among the residents of the island was a major challenge. In the end, not only did they gladly accept the new developments but they also took part in them because they realised that they can improve their livelihood and living conditions by improving their habitat. Like many other projects, a big share of the project budget goes to human labour costs, and all materials are made in Iran with many of them local to the island and produced by its residents. The small domes are familiar structures that break up the hegemony of a big development in a small island, and create flexible spaces that can adapt their function to emerging needs as the island develops.

Baba Beski’s Garden (2020) is a public monument and garden for an environment activist and embraces adaptive aesthetics. All over this garden in Northern Iran close to Gonbad Kavous, where the Sheikh-like environmentalist used to live and is now buried, existing and new structures display different stages of incompleteness of design, embodied in structures made of woven rebar constantly being changed or conquered by nature. Rebar is widely used in constructions in Iran but is always under a layer of refinement, here it becomes dominant and more visible than ever.

Rong Cultural Center, Hormuz Island

Tell us about your work process, and why you choose to work this way.
In 2017 when we published a book on FarshFilm and reviewed the theoretical framework and design process at ZAV, we organised a series of meetings with experts and fellow architects and gathered their feedback on the matter. This helped us define a new theoretical framework based on the previous one, and helped us realise that the structure and spaces that organise the work of ZAV need to be reconsidered in the actual building of the office. In 2018 our office was redesigned in accordance to our new framework which we called An Unfinished Plan of Attack on Earth, available below. Each title represents a space inside the office and states its mission.

ZAV’s Practice of Architecture: An Unfinished Plan of Attack on Earth

Core – In favour of me, in favour of all
Architecture can redefine its capacities beyond the limits put in place by the building industry and is able to shift its operation field from that of a passive object to designing an entire process, apt for creating a significant impact through interacting with a larger field of forces, upgrading it to an actively engaged social and economic agent.

ZAV’s solution for attaining social optimum in a developing economy is incorporating architecture in the Gross Domestic Production.  Our method is to create a bigger economic cake by tying together the benefit of the stakeholders to that of the larger society. Life and work in Middle East brings resilience towards recurring fundamental paradigm shifts, and we seek a balance between hasty pragmatism and deterrent idealism, avoiding whether the waste of resources or the loss of enthusiasm for taking action.

Think tank – Analyzer
The ZAV think tank is skeptical towards pre-established assumptions, and analyses each project with an eye for discovering and activating its hidden capacities suitable for expanding the production of value, from the very early design stages to construction and implementation.

This leads to strategies that guide the project in using national scientific, human and material resources exclusively when possible and creates adaptive spatial scenarios and future-proof programmes.

If architecture insists on unnecessary traits such as consuming imported intellectual or material goods, it takes part in wasting national resources, prompts dependence on an economic and cultural level and the gradual degeneration of civil identity.

On the other hand, if opportunities of production are identified and instigated through the use of internal architectural mechanisms it will lead to economic growth and social pride, and a by-product will be the survival of the discipline of architecture.

Studio – Typologist
The outcoming strategies mingle and interact in a reciprocating process with internal architectural mechanisms such as spatial skills and diagrams, construction details, and the rendering of space, and evolve to concrete spatial solutions.

Architectural tools and mechanisms are not predetermined, they rather are flexible possibilities that help the architectural practice step in an unpredictable path relying on collective creativity, which open new grounds to the architectural product, unattainable through individual imagination. Adaptive typologies of architecture and future-proof scenarios are born in the studio. 

Lab – Craftsperson
Building process is an important potential stage for the economic and social agency of architecture. Industries related to construction have the capacity to become the point of convergence of aesthetics and the production of added value, meaning that aesthetics take an adoptive turn: a process-driven approach that frees architecture from an absolute adherence to product-driven aesthetics.

Adaptiveness of aesthetics removes the restraints of using low-cost human and material resources and results in a formal expression that can be spontaneous, alternative or even repetitious but this flexibility towards the form is the result of a critical outlook.

What matters to ZAV are the inherent capacities for a production of space that is beneficial to all.

ZAV’s radar charts for analysing its projects

How does ZAV Architects contribute to Iran’s built environment?
ZAV’s contribution to Iran’s built environment is mostly the way of thinking and approach it has brought to it. Built environment shapes people’s lived experiences and can be subject to critique or experimentation. Any experimental practice may offer their own views on it, as we try to do.

Studies show that in Iran, with an economy offering little incentives for productive industries, the building industry has become the area where liquid excess of oil revenue is spent. Building industry is not truly productive in Iran because oil revenue is mostly spent on importing materials, engineering, thought and even form.

In our way of thinking, consuming thought, form and resources should be replaced by the production of all of them. We try to take a GDP-oriented approach in our own work and then spread it in the public sphere, and we believe that the proliferation of such views through our work and the similar work of others gradually result in an architecture that is adaptive towards its context, that is profit-oriented and that truly belongs and benefits its society.

In Iran and many countries in the Middle East, often building the biggest and the tallest becomes the end goal, and real architectural quality is neglected. The idea of good architecture is sought in media and models from developed countries.

We seek to discourage this tendency, and suspend the importation of aesthetics, thought and a product-driven approach. We need to promote the more pertinent way of a process-driven approaches, which stem from their society and the inherent circumstances. When we implement or upgrade Iranian spatial typologies or innovative building techniques such as Nader Khalili’s Superadobe technique, it is because they were, at their own time, preoccupied with benefiting their societies, rendering economic and relevant solutions.

We think that this sort of thinking can slowly create a paradigm shift, resulting in solutions that do not waste national assets on mere imitation, and advance towards improving economy and society, and resist the media and market spreading consumerism and passivity. Our wish is that instead of consuming the wishes of developed countries we start to develop our own wishes and discover the ways to make them happen. Injecting hope and wishes to society and realising them will generate national pride and result in the gradual loss of despair, to finally be able to interact with the outside from an equal position.

ZAV Architects is passionate about finding architectural solutions that are appropriate and relevant to their context – what drives this passion?
It is important to note that relevance to context is a multi-layered phenomenon, it can happen on the surface or on deeper unnoticed layers. Relevance does not only mean accordance with context; it can also mean to suggest an alternative to it. For instance, the island of Hormuz is frequented by young campers who do not interact much with the people of the island, either economically and culturally.

For Majara Residence our research showed that it is in the interest of the local economy and the well-being of its community to attract tourists from the Iranian middle class to the island in order to create more sustainable development. The spatial programme of the complex is based on this decision.

In our projects we try not to idealise context, but to realise it. When a project sees context as merely abstract historical references of architecture it is idealising context, but when real down-to-earth circumstances are taken in consideration in order to improve people’s lives, context is being realised.

A passive attitude does not help improve lives anywhere in the world. Recognizing the problems in your surroundings and feeling discontent should not lead to passive complaints. Studying our surrounding, discovering and analysing it, developing wishes for it and planning to improve it with relevant solutions is a healthy path to growth, and we wish for our region to be on this path. This is where the passion comes from.  

What projects do you have coming up?
Projects that we impatiently wait for their completion are those that follow a lineage of goals from previous projects and aim at a specific geographical or urban region together with projects from the past.

Currently we are working on research focused on intervention models suitable for inner-city Tehran, an area where we have been experimenting during the recent years. The culturally valuable fabric of the city centre can return to urban life through re-adaptation, as done in Nabshi Gallery or Farshfilm.

Today we also have projects that are newly built, but even with these, recycling and upcycling previous assets is vital. The research represents our prospect for the evolution of contemporary Tehran, in an area with an intense and multi-faceted urban life and where the urban pulse is strong. In this area are upcoming projects, such as Charkhooneh, which has a similar approach to Farshfilm in recycling and upcycling materials for renovation. In Tehran, due to ideological or norm-related restraints, many public space activities are unofficially displaced to inside the walls of buildings and semi-open public spaces become more important in shaping the public sphere. Charkhooneh is a public space of such status for collective work and social interaction, and it has the aim to bring the young generation active in entrepreneurship and the start-up scene together with the goal of improving the GDP.

As mentioned before, Hormuz is a small island where a few of our projects are located, as part of a process that we call ‘Presence in Hormuz’, which focuses on building trust in order to improve the life of the locals through architecture. The projects in this programme are the temporary community centre inside an old water storage structure, Rong Cultural Center, the renovation of the historic house of an architect, and the more recent Majara Residence that is bigger in scale. The Presence project will continue to evolve with other projects as well, such as Type-less, which is a center for managing ‘Presence in Hormuz’ with the continuous participation of the locals.

Another upcoming project is designing the public spaces surrounding the Museum of the Iran-Iraq War in the Abbas Abad hills of Tehran. It has given us the opportunity to review my academic thesis and its memories. There are also several other projects, such as one in Gonbad Kavous in the north of Iran.