A Platform for Tehran


16 December 2016

"We still have a very long way to go," says the Tehran and Toronto-based architect and curator Azedah Zaferani, "but I believe we are experiencing a great beginning – or, let's say, a rise."

Zaferani is the founder and director of Platform 28 for Art and Architecture, a non-commercial space in Tehran's downtown district, which programmes exhibitions and workshops centred around art, architecture and the city. She intends to open similar centres in other cities around the world, as part of her wider entity Plat + Forms for Art, Architecture and Design.

In the following interview, the arts and design writer Lemma Shehadi talks to Zaferani about architectural education, Tehran's urban issues and the growth of creativity in a post-sanction Iran.

Platform 28 opened in 2015, as a non-commercial space for critical discussions about art and architecture. You yourself have a background in architecture and urban design. What made you turn towards education?

As designers, we struggle to make architectural thinking more accessible to the public. It’s difficult to communicate ideas on architectural thinking. This is a problem that we face everywhere in the world. The idea of Platform 28 is not exclusive to Tehran. It is one of many platforms that I will set up under a larger entity called Plat + Forms for Art, Architecture and Design.

If this project is not exclusive to Tehran, then why did you decide to initiate it there?

In Tehran, a space like Platform 28 is more crucial because certain cultural activities and infrastructure are missing. We have many commercial galleries in the city, but not a lot of museums, platforms or events where we can discuss issues or think about art and design topics more critically. The artist and architect circles are so segregated and extremely isolated in Iran. It's time for the public to be engaged in spatial thinking and for the world of art and architecture to develop a language that speaks to wider audiences.

As an architect, what do you think are the challenges faced by the architecture community in Tehran today?

Iran itself is a challenging market for architects. The market has been divorced from the rest of the world for decades, particularly during the Iran-Iraq war and the years coming out of it. This isolation had a direct impact on the vision and tastes of clients. Until recently, the focus was on building new buildings and conventional block apartments. There was a lot of copying and mimicking, and no room for innovation. Increasingly, both clients and designers are becoming more visionary.

How so?

A new generation of architects, such as VavStudio, are more open minded. They are interested in connecting Iran with the world of design and innovation once again. This year, VavStudio were invited to show work at the Venice Architecture Biennale, and they decided to feature a presentation of the emerging and post-revolution architecture practices that are active in Iran today. This was a big step because everyone is working individually in Iran – it is difficult to form collaborations.

Last month, Leila Araghian’s Tabiyat Bridge, a pedestrian bridge connecting two parks in Tehran, won the Aga Khan Award 2016. As a public building, it shows that even the government’s taste and vision are changing: they are adopting new ways of looking at public space. Equally, Iran has an interesting modern architectural history that we have been silent about since the revolution, for political and economic reasons. Now, little by little, designers are shedding light on the modernisation phases that occurred in Tehran in the 1960s and 70s before the revolution. The idea of renovating old buildings from that period is becoming more fashionable. The old buildings and shops of Downtown Tehran, including in the areas of Karimkhan and the Darvaze Dolat where Platform 28 is based, are attracting new studios and galleries for the first time in decades. We still have a very long way to go but I believe we are experiencing a great beginning – or, let's say, a rise.

How does Platform 28’s programme contribute to the art and design communities in Tehran?

So far, we have developed a programme of workshops and exhibitions that changes seasonally, and a highly specialised architecture and design library. Our programme consists of Reviews, where we look at design concepts and projects that have happened internationally, followed by Workshops, where we apply these new lessons to the context of Tehran. We invite internationally-based designers and architects to give talks and workshops, to encourage a cultural exchange. The designers that we invite will have some initial achievements and their own studio. I want to focus on a younger generation who can still bring a fresh eye onto studying the city, rather than the big names in art and design.

The Recycling Socialism series in the winter of 2016 explored Eastern Bloc countries and their sociopolitical changes after the fall of the USSR, as well as the design solutions that emerged from their participation in the global marketplace. We invited Aet Ader of the Talinn-based architecture practice b210 Architects to give a work-shop. It was based on the practice’s own concept for the Talinn Architecture Biennale 2013, in which they studied socialist and modernist spaces of the former Eastern Bloc. By drawing parallels, we were thinking about Iran’s own situation as the country comes out of the embargo.

How do you think the sanctions have affected the creative community in Tehran?

Iran has been under embargo for almost 40 years – I am surprised by how long it’s been when I hear myself saying it. In that time, people have found ways to get their work across internationally and vice versa, often in quite creative ways. The major difference appears when it comes to financial transactions. It is more difficult to move money around, less se-cure and it takes longer. With the sanctions being lifted this will be facilitated.

Most of the architecture and design education at Iranian universities is poor, because the research and process stages, which are so important in architecture and design, are not emphasised in the curriculum. Architecture students are often under pressure to produce final buildings, rather than focus on the process and development of their ideas. Our pro-gramme of Reviews and Workshops aims to address this gap. Yet local designers have been very good at educating themselves and updating their practice independently - most of their strengths have been developed through self-education. Life goes on, as it has to. The Internet gave people unlimited access to new ideas.

Tehran is a densely populated city that suffers from a high rate of pollution, poor air quality and depleting water supplies. How does Platform 28 address these urban issues?

We have dealt with issues regarding the city, such as urban development and pollution. What we are trying to have in Platform 28 is a think tank that discusses the existing dis-courses in Tehran. We don't solve problems, we discuss them. We believe in the exchange of ideas and thorough and critical observations. I suppose there is an element of protest in the project. Great changes can happen with the help of honest yet analytical observations. We’ve also explored bio-politics and technological embodiment in past events. One of our projects was to design wearable masks to help clean up the air, based on the series Micro Environment Gear by Stacie Vos, an intern architect at the Ontario Association of Architects.

What do you hope Platform 28 will achieve?

My aim is to bring art and design together, to make issues surrounding architecture, art and design more accessible. Many cities have spaces like these, like the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, and we need to create more especially in developing countries. I’m working on opening a second space in Toronto, as part of Plat + Forms. I will adapt it to the context of Toronto itself, so the approach and the programme will be based on what is missing or questionable within the urban framework of that city.