By Bruce Bahmani
April 23, 2002
So I'm walking around yet another Iranian High Technology event (Yawn! Are we over this yet?) and it figures, with my never failing luck at these things, I'm slated to go last to accept an award for a friend who stuck me with his acceptance speech (Karim, why Me?). After the speech, there were maybe 13 people left in the ballroom and this wild eyed kid comes up to me and says "Hey, that was a pretty funny speech you gave!" Sharmandeh, I replied, "Thanks", and thought to myself "Who the hell is this?". So I figured what the hell, I'm here, the parking lot is probably packed with beemers, mercedes, and lexus' trying to fight their way to get the hell out of there, and he was after all nice enough to sit through my boring speech, so why not? "And who the hell may I ask are you?" I asked as whimsically as one can when one is being nosey. He told me his name was Arshia Mahmoodi and that he was an Architect just up for a visit from LA.
Now, I have nothing against my many fellow esteemed countrymen who have pursued the noble (if tedious) art of computer sciences and electrical and other forms of commercially available engineering, but an architect! Wow! This was fresh. This is someone who theoretically forms the direction of modern civilization, someone who can make us do things merely by controlling the shapes and environment that we encounter in our day to day lives. I'll say it again, Wow!
So I sat and talked a while (this time without the aid of drugs, alcohol or junk food). It was worth it, he's an awesome specimen of the kind of evolved beast that frequently pops out of our culture. He blew my mind, I sincerely hope he blows yours too, trust me, you need it! And I have finally found who I'm going to hire to build my dream home one day!
Here's the chat;
I: So when did you realize that you wanted to be an architect?
A: If you are asking me to define a 'line of flight', I guess it started when I was trying to get into computer science from high school. I was introduced to the architectural exam and right then, I found it not only easy, but pleasing. For the first time, I experienced the soft side of science, and understood that pleasure is valid domain.
Architecture passed by me one day as a luscious entity, that derails momentum, when you have abandoned the pleasures of life for a methodical cause; but it well knows you have a weakness for her. This phenomenon catapults you into another dimension, like the planet that leaves the gravitational field, and you are accelerated by the inertia forever. Even though many people -including famous architects- want it to be, architecture is no longer the craft of putting brick on mortar, it is not even about building material, geometry or the 'needs of people', architecture is about organizing and leading sociological patterns and human behavior towards a meaningful living, and not just better living.
I: Tell me this, what is it that makes you decide to you put one foot in front of the other and then you end up over here?
A: It started out as the act of interrogating all that there was about architecture and art during my graduate studies. This led to a bigger understanding of what architecture really is as a space. And space has a multitude of implications. My thesis paper was titled: 'On Space and a Thousand and One Connections' where we explored the idea of those implications in a range of scientific, cultural, sociological and even religious apprehensions. Arts such as fashion, film and photography were not excluded.
Nevertheless the interdisciplinary fathom was well emphasized. It was an unbound liquefaction of the traditional conjures, of other branches of art. Through this I became more interested in relationships and connections rather than boundaries. For me it was a projection point. A point where certain phenomena no longer evolve at the same rate that they were before, but they leap into another plateau.
To my disappointment the modern world has become about building walls rather than empowering connections. That is why lawmakers are the most successful people, because they are in the business of establishing walls and then guiding people out of them. I think that the new information society will give rise to a paradigm of a more democratic nature. One that threatens institutionalism by a Napsteresque force. I think that Architecture could very well learn from its Silicon Valley alias.
I: What was your homelife like? Did you grow up here or in Iran?
A: My mother is probably my greatest influence. She brought us up in Baltimore, MD all by herself, while at the same time studying for her master's in child psychology. We were difficult kids, me and my sister. We went to elementary school in Baltimore for four years, quiet suburban neighborhood, then moved back to Iran in the midst of the revolution to pay a visit, and didn't return for the next 18 years. We did the opposite migration. My family never swam in the direction of the flow. It is not easy, but definitely more exciting!
Staying true to our rebellious family tradition, I too left the family, and I lived alone in a tough neighborhood of Tehran where I got the concept of the 'width of life'. When Jim Morrison asks: "did you have a good life, enough to base a movie on?" I could say yes. Experiences that supersede logic and are grazing on the boundaries of fiction, in a zone where the name of the game is operating within the superstructure of turf, territory and the State and all this with unspoken codes. What the French philosopher, Deleuze calls the "Science of Nomadology". I was only a voyeur but I still think that the greatest lessons of my life were learned there.
I: What type of architecture do you think is the best kind. Or, what do you as an architect consider good architecture?
A: An architecture that is new in concept. Newness is a pretty vague quality, that is always changing and cannot have a tradition. One of the most remarkable comments that I have heard about architecture is from the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. He says: "[the profession is] stuck conceiving itself only in terms of adding things and not in terms of taking away or erasing things". I thought that was a powerful statement, yet at the same time the horrifying image of the destruction of the World Trade center towers came flashing into my mind. What is really architecture, and in general, art today? The old theorem that art imitates life or vice versa? I have often been tempted to write an article about "the terrorism of art" about the attempts of destruction in the conceptual vs. the physical world.
I: How important do you feel Iran's historical contribution is to modern Architecture? Why?
A: From the times of the Achaemenids, artists and sculptors were gathered from around the world to construct environments, such as the temples of Perspolis. Iranian Architecture, traditionally is not about form. It is amorphous to a cloud. What centers most ancient architecture and that of Iran, is that 'grandiose spirit' which is also what is captivating about it. Studying traditional architecture made me anesthetized, until I visited the three cliff-carved tombs at Persopolis. There is a spatial quality that cannot be contained by any pen, photograph or film. For those who are afraid VR is leaving behind our physical art with a fast pace, rest assured that there is one last stronghold. What added to this experience was an engraving by a European soldier that dated back to mid 1700's. It blew me away that this monument was of historic significance to that soldier which for us today is the embodiment of history itself.
We boast about historical inheritance, but the truth is they are a product of collage. This is in fact what is fascinating about it. Because collage is a very modern concept and it plays an imminent role in post-structural art today. New York is a 'Collage City' and Los Angeles has a 'Collage Culture'. I am sure you are familiar with what is called 'Turntablism' or the mixing of music by a DJ . It too uses the very concept of collage in the production of its music. Samples of sound as topological blocks are cut and juxtaposed alongside of each other on a timeline to create a second form of sound. In ways it is a form of recyclement, maybe it is, as Einstein said: "To stand on the shoulder of giants". Although often times what is rare is that spectacular occasion where this chaos leaps into a new order. That's what excites me the most. We often hear that our culture is being vandalized by the fast global culture. To cure this, we cannot block ourselves from the rest of the world. Not only is it wrong, but impossible. Our way of treatment is one of authorship. To be the innovators of new trends and new culture, to be the ones at the edge of the envelope, pushing its limits. And to leap things into a new order. I think the post-revolutionary Iranian cinema is a somewhat accurate example of this.
I: As a recent émigré what can you tell us about the state of modern Iranian architecture?
A: Even though I don't believe that much of architecture depends on technology, the isolation of Iran from the rest of the world has created a duality in it's existence. On the one hand it has created a state of incompetence with the rest of the world yet on the other it has preserved the country from the nullifying effect that is overtaking the industrial world. The international style or what I call 'boxication', where architecture is derived from the size of parking spaces and the available beams in the market has grown enormously. Nowadays it seems hard to be able to distinguish between a midtown LA street from one in Tehran or even Beijing. The only surprising factor about architecture in Iran is the speed and scale of construction. This has led to an architecture that is much more down-toned, yet at the same time its abstraction might be more pure.
But aside from architecture, I think architect Bahram Shirdel said it best in a lecture, "..since the renaissance, civilization has moved from the Middle East to Europe and from there to the US. Now it seems that it is.. moving from the west coast of the United States to the Far East Asia and from there possibly back to the Middle East again.." Advancements in industrial countries have brought with them the mechanization of all aspects of life. When you sit behind the wheel in a technological society, you are basically taking over the role of a machine, like a friend said to me "..you feel that your humanity and intelligence is insulted." Industrial countries have advanced greatly in technology and other aspects, but at the same time they have been heavily grounded by the institutionalization created by the same advancement. It seems that Iran never experienced full blown industrialization, and therefore was affected very little by its consequences. It might be a fortunate and fertile opportunity for countries like Iran which are on the verge of an agro-industrial revolution, to advance with a softer and more intelligent structure than the information age suggests. Technology should be available to everybody at an affordable and tactile way.
I: What are you doing now? What are the most exciting projects that you have worked on recently or over the last 5 years?
A: Currently the projects in the office aside from the continuing research aspect of our work includes a couple of residential projects and two commercial improvements. Back in Iran under different circumstances, I was involved in many design competitions, which for me is the greatest challenge and pleasure. I am hoping that we can get to a point here that we can afford the costly process of entering into competitions once again. Not competing for me is like being out of water for a fish. 'I'm a fighter, not a lover'!
I: Tell us about your firm.
A: Our firm is fairly new. Through conversations with Kevin Mulcahy (my associate) we thought the firm should be an open system where we hope to absorb a variety of cutting edge yet independent minds of different disciplines, such as engineers, musicians, filmmakers, even scientists that are connected to us, so their work can affect our design and vise versa. Ideally we would put a roof over an abandoned street and setup desks on the sidewalk where people flow through it fluently and organically. That is one of the main reasons that we were attracted to our storefront location on Hollywood Blvd. There is something about open systems that help flourish growth and intelligence.
I: What kinds of projects are you currently doing?
A: In Northern California when you say architecture, it usually implies the engineering behind computers. But why architecture? Because justfully I think that the task of organizing complex phenomena in an intelligent system is the very essence of architecture. The same way that this type of organization of millions of channels, circuits and gateways empowers a machine of utmost intelligence, traditional architecture could create intelligence from the organization of its tectonics. One of the projects that I have been developing is a smart home. I have been looking at limited information on archetypes from the Xerox PARC Labs and places like Georgia Tech. To my surprise the architecture of structures has little to do with intelligent superstructure. I am hoping to attract interested individuals towards investing or collaborating on an actual prototype of this project.
I have also been working on a patent of an idea that if fully developed would revolutionize small scale construction. It is still in its infancy phase of but I am trying to find interested parties for developing the patent.
I: What is your long term goal?
A: Ah Goals! A goal is never a state of being, it is always "becoming" something. It is to continually grasp a moment of the "other" therefore it is constantly in a state of flux.
I: I hear that my brother! What kind of project would you drop everything to do?
A: A project that has a great client. Any project is the product of a vision. It doesn't exist before we want it to. And by we I mean specifically the relationship of me with the client. Most people look at architecture as an accumulation to wealth or the cycle of things. I look at it as a singular event in its scientific terms. Accomplishing that effort in the ultimate form - be it creating a building or a business plan. So to me the client is utterly important. He is my ace at a blackjack table and time is my bet. When the client has great aspirations and is willing to take risks for a vision, then you are on the right track of creating something worthwhile. Otherwise the tired process of persuasion is one of dismay.
I know there are many affluent Iranians that are involved with elite and intellectual ventures especially in Northern California and the East Coast. Some are second generation immigrants that have surpassed the traditional American lifestyle and are seeking something new. I am very excited to establish a relationship with these people. I live in two extremes. One is pre-Iranian and one is Post-American, which is reflected in the designs I employ and these two extremities reach a tangent on a circle, a zone where I best operate. It is intense.
I recently saw a project that a fellow Iranian had worked on, that had been given an "unlimited budget". I was brought to tears because it was nothing short of grotesque. So to answer your question, "a project with unlimited budget" would be ideal for me! I know I could do something great.
If you are asking about the program of the project that would interest me most, I would like to elaborate on the notion of 'architecture as performance'. What determines the quality of a space is not the physical enclosure that constrains the space. Space is really a multimedia attribute and architecture as we traditionally know it serves only as part of the ocean of vibrating fields. A project that really tries to employ these qualities to a great extent, be it a multifunctional, commercial or even habitual space, would be interesting to design.
I: What do you do when you completely blank out and run out of ideas?
A: I smoke pot! (just kidding!) For me the concept is otherness, to look at things from different perspectives. If I were a soldier, I would put myself in the shoes of the enemy. It is that otherness that delivers un-challengeable supremacy of appearance and metamorphoses. Baudrillard says: "There are two methods of getting beyond alienation. Either disalienation and the re-appropriation of oneself -a tiresome process, without much prospect of success these days. Or the other extreme -the path of the absolute other, of absolute exoticism." There are so many techniques that can be applied to design methodology that it is virtually impossible to run out of ideas. I think if you believe that a design process is something without a beginning or an end, that is to say it is always evolving, you wouldn't be bound by the wrong concept of 'solution'. It really depends on your ideology of design.
I: Wow! Uh, so what are you listening to in your car?
A: In general I enjoy the drum and bass genre, UK electronica and even some acoustic bands and of course I can't go on without mentioning my friend Max Sharam (No, she is not Iranian). I tend to keep it underground, through a friend, Brandon Labelle who pretty much runs the experimental music scene in LA at "Beyond Baroque", I got introduced to the work of Koji Asano a kid from Japan who is somebody to watch. I also enjoy DJ spooky. It is hard to decide when music has becomes capital, and you are living in it (LA). I am sure that if you ask me for my wallet while I am listening to Radiohead, chances are, you're gonna get it.
I: OK, moment of truth, what is your favorite Iranian food, and where do you go to get it?
A: Shirin Polo, Fesenjoon, Tah-chin, but only home made... Anybody got a clue? Drop me a note!