FOR EILKHANI AND NABIAN, RE-THINKING THE TYPOLOGY OF THE CITY’S TYPICAL ARCHITECTURE IS THEIR QUEST THAT HAS LED TO THE OPTIMIZATION OF SPACE AND EXPERIENCE
11 years, from 2003 to 2014 to be exact, is the time that Nashid Nabian spent studying her second master’s degree in Urban Design at Toronto before pursuing her PhD at Harvard Graduate School of Design, working at MIT’s SENSEable City Lab while working as a professor and special lecturer at Rice University, Harvard University and MIT. It was also during this particular time period that she and three other partners founded an architecture office in Tehran with Rambod Eilkhani, her life partner being one of them. The two also gave birth to two children during the span of those 11 years. Nabian and Eilkhani later decided to leave the firm and open their own office, [Shift] Process Practice, together in 2012 before Nabian finally moved back to Tehran for good in 2014 after their second child was born. “I don’t know how during the 11 years of traveling back and forth between Iran and the States, we managed to have two kids, I don’t know, it’s the 21st century.” The rather straightforward and humorous answer on Nabian’s part provides us with a certain understanding of the mechanism of her architectural thinking. And when asked what it’s like to be working as an architect in this country, she jokingly answers, “It’s fun as long as you don’t want to be paid!”
WE VALUE THE DESIGN OF EXPERIENCES RENDERED FROM THE MAXIMIZATION OF FUNCTIONALITY AT THE CUBIC METER LEVEL, NOT THE SQUARE METER.
It was a rainy afternoon in the Zaferanieh neighborhood. We were sitting in the family-owned building that [Shift] shares with other companies and in which they design. While showing and explaining some of their works to us, Nabian and Eilkhani discussed their opinions and views on architecture and the urban dynamic of Tehran. “Actually, there are only a few cultural projects out of all of the works you see in the city, and they’re all pretty much small-scale projects because the government doesn’t exactly have a policy to invest in public spaces of such nature.” This isn’t the first time we have heard this kind of opinion from architects who are working in Tehran. “It’s mostly inner city development and then villas, and for the construction of villas in particular, we are not going through any process of suburbanization as in people are moving outside of the city in a systematic way and living there as their first residence. It’s a different type of suburbanization. Most of these villas that you see, they are second homes. Owners live inside the city and then they have a second residence, 45 minutes or two hours outside of the city. It’s not like typical American suburbs.”Two of [Shift]’s architectural projects in Tehran (both of which were winners of MEMAR Awards), are the quintessential representations of their architectural ideology, employing the ‘infill’ or ‘urban infill’ approach. One of them is Eilkhaneh Residential Complex, Nabian and Eilkhani’s own home. The five-story residence has an underground floor with emerging ‘levels’ between each floor that optimize the house’s functional space. For Nabian and Eilkhani, functional and living spaces can be created not only horizontally but also vertically, allowing for efficient management of vertical space that can unexpectedly render more and effective spatial usage, volume-wise. “Both our clients and close acquaintances refer to our work as ‘sectional complications,’ which is actually true. It’s because we value the design of experiences rendered from the maximization of functionality at the cubic meter level, not the square meter. For example, with Eilkhaneh Residential Complex, the sectional complexity would allow for many of the vertical surfaces to become inhabitable. We want to be the kind of architects who deliver good spaces. The interior space may be complicated but we try to make a building look and feel humble from the outside. And we like the idea of humbleness on the outside and complexity on the inside. Like the time when White Gallery had just finished its construction, it was the day we did the shooting for MEMAR, and my dad wanted to come and see the photoshoot and he said that he had never seen this type of sectional relationship, and he was like, ‘Wow, you can get lost here.’ I loved it,” Nabian explained with laughter. The White Gallery that Nabian mentioned is a private gallery designed and built for the owner to keep his art collection. It’s one of the works where the sectional relationship was created to expand the functional space beyond the horizontal axis allowing for almost every element of the building to be used to install art pieces. Such a complex relationship of spaces is nicely wrapped in the extremely minimal exterior. Nabian ended the conversation with her view on the difference between designing a large-scale public project and a project of a smaller scale. “We’ve done some big projects in the past but it’s very hard to maintain quality control, especially creative control. You need much greater management skills when it comes to designing large-scale projects and sometimes you have to overlook certain points of the design. Take Tabiat Bridge, for example, given the socio-political landscape of the city of Tehran, I think that the fact that the project was realized, that’s an achievement on its own. It’s a project of such scale that you shouldn’t judge it based on its architectural style. It should be judged from what it is doing for the city. It deserves a Nobel Prize!” Nabian, Eilkhani and the 10 architects of [Shift] Process Practice are being assigned to work on projects of a larger scale, and as the studio’s ability to balance creativity and the completion of their works is being challenged, we’re looking forward to seeing how they will pull it off.
TEXT: NARONG OTHAVORN