The Persian Spirit, Iran’s New Poetry, and Hossein Amanat’s Architecture

Azadi Tower (Nima Fatemi / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Schizophrenia may be a necessary consequence of literacy.
– Marshall McLuhan

The major historical empires maintained their glory only as long
as they managed to reconcile the opposing forces within a single framework.
– Harold Innis

Afsaneh (The Legend), the main character in the verse of Nima Youshij, the father of Iran’s New Poetry, manifests a unique modernist variety of universal angst. As Nima has Afsaneh tell this of the outdoors:1 2

Afsaneh says: In the somber night, a madman who
Has committed his heart to a fleeting hue
Is sitting in a clod, quiet vale
Like the stem of a withered plant
He begins a sorrowful tale.

In the Middle East, where the poem was written, this angst always brings about cultural and political complexities. Iranian architects played a major role in the history of Iran, acting within those complexities. Hossein Amanat legacy is comparable to that of Nima Youshij. He has metamorphosed the personage of Iranian architecture ever since the starting point of his career, and added new dimensions to Iranian identity.

Architects are prudent by nature and, like scientists, they attempt to catalyze humanity’s evolution while progressively constructing distinct concepts. In the words of the modern Iranian poet Forogh Farokhzad in “Another Birth”, their work “gives life to the leaden border of time by designing dimensions / coming back from a feast of the mirror.3 4 It’s an endeavor that, with any small mistake, any tiny miscalculation, there is a potential catastrophe. And as Mirza Mohammad Farrokhi Yazdi, known as the “sewn-lip poet”, had famously wrote: “We are home-wrecked because the architect is uncertain / and he fails to recognize our wealth.”5

This ‘uncertainty’ of Farrokhi Yazdi’s ‘uncertain architect’ is another depiction the aforementioned universal angst, and is dominant in many of Iranian culture. It is same one that had philosopher Dariush Shaygan describe as ‘schizophrenia’ in Cultural Schizophrenia: Islamic Societies Confronting the West, where he writes:6

As one would expect, the Islamization of society extends to education. Brainwashing, especially of the young and malleable, is one of the first procedures adopted by all would-be totalitarian regimes. The content of education is modified by the injection of a strong dose of Islamic catechism which, thrust into the existing content of secular teaching, blooms across the surface like oil dropped into a container of water. Just like the other targets for massive Islamization, education remains on the whole an example of patchy, superficial grafting. Most young people — especially in urban circles — are more or less aware of the absurdity of the situation. They know that the present state of things is artificial, contrary to the spirit of the time; that the hurried Arabization, the surahs learned by rote, ring hollow and cracked. This produces an ambivalent attitude in the children, who learn double standards (and the double language that goes with them) in the hedge-school of hypocrisy. Their private world is inspired by the heroes of video clips, […] they are living a secret life in a completely different dimension. This is producing a whole schizophrenic generation even more neurotic than the last one.

This is the schizophrenia that had Iranian architects either struggle with modernism or ending up merely pursuing anti-Western ideas, and so falling into the contextual trap of extreme nationalism.

Hossein Amanat is one of the major figures, intellectually as well as architecturally, who managed to escape from the various layers of that angst, uncertainty, and schizophrenia. His ideas display the deep pursuit of the Persian Spirit. An idea that is perhaps similar to that of the American Dream, except that it’s wittier, and rooted in long tradition of beauty, poetry, and mathematics.

Amanat designed two types of spaces, first, a handful of brand-new ceremonial spaces for the Iranian government, those we had previously seen in the historical-monumental buildings of Houshang Seyhoon: the Khayyam monument; the Ferdowsi monument and one for the frenzied dictator who had blinded his own son: Nader Shah. And second type of social spaces, like Azadi square and Dayakenar village. Amanat altered Seyhoun’s designs to a more magnificent version in an era better than of Nader Shah’s (certainly a more democratic one) and used them as practical spaces so that Tehran, having more prominent designs as an Index of its brand, would overshadow its competitors in Seoul and Peking.

And here we have both the business and fashionable architecture to which he was influential. He designed vocational villages as a model of progression in the northern cities of Iran. Thus, Amanat also belongs to the ‘idea of progression’ architectural category. The idea is lost today, though Shaygan has further developed it in his essay In Search of the Lost Spaces, where he writes:7

Architecture is always about a dream, or a Utopia, or a piece of imagination, and any special content resembles a way of existence, and a way of knowledge and life. Moving from Varanasi to Isfahan and then to Paris and LA does not just mean we move from one city to another, it also means we mingle with different and incongruous means of living.

I write this as, despite the endless curiosity of my classmates for American architecture, I was an enthusiast of the Persian Spirit, and the architects redolent of the rich cultural capital which was saved in our social history. As a freshman in college who had majored in architecture, I was interested less in the business trends of the industry and more in the world that the great architecture figures had created – many of whom were Iranians. I always searched for those ruined spaces that were historically far, far way. Kamran Diba, Hooshang Seyhoun, Abdol-aziz Farmanfarmayan, and most importantly, Hussain Amanat. To me, Amanat is posited somewhere between the two groups of Iranian architects, namely: those who had presented ideas in pursuit of the lost glory of Iran’s history and embodied them materially through manufacturing buildings, and second, those with an anarchist (and rather abstract) ideas presented on blueprints. Houshang Seyhoun and Vartan Hovansian belong to the first group. Hovansian tends to integrate the technique and tradition of European architecture with elements of Iranian traditional architecture, wide Eyvans, central gardens and pergola roofs.

Farshid Mousavi and Bahram Shirdel are other prominent examples. “Don’t mess with Bahram in two things. First gambling and second architecture” Peter Eisenman has said about Shirdel. We do not know if it is a gossip or if he has actually stated that, but its spirit is true. Bahram did gamble with his designs in architecture contests and ended up losing the bet when he stated his opinions on Kamran Diba (the director of the Iranian Contemporary Museum of Arts) and Ali Sardar Afkhami. His gamble fell flat. He headed over to the game of ‘uncertainty’ – in the words of Nima: “And the reason for your grumble is the (power of) fathers.”8 Sardar Afkhami designed one of the most elegant theaters in the Middle East, Tehran’s Shahr Theater, where we made memories watching plays by Bahram Bayzayi and Reza Ghassemi. Bahram never won the gamble by attacking the taskmaster. This coda from Forough Farrokhzad’s poem “Another Birth” is perhaps the best gauge of anyone who still has high hopes for the fake-smiles wing: “No one will sail a pearl from the pathetic ditch that flows to the swamp.”9 Farshid Mousavi has today evolved into a great conceptual artist. Her projects along with her husband Alejandro Zaera Polo were praised at the same time that the Spanish and Latin architects such as Enric Miralles and Alejandro Aravena rose to fame.

Of course, we can add a third strata to the list of architectural schools consisted of post-revolution figures like Mir Hossein Mousavi, Hadi Mirmiran, and a Hijab-wearing lady, Leila Araghi who was in charge of some of the most prominent projects of our time and their designs are counted as Tehran and Iran’s cultural capital.

If we consider the third group the necessary (if not particularly artistic) genre of Iranian architecture (the group we can ignore for now), there is a vast difference between the two former groups, that is, both failed to achieve an outstanding place in the social and intellectual development of Iran through their oeuvre. This why when Hossein Amanat designs anything for Iran or even for the world, he simply leaves you wonder-struck. Not only his works maintain the Spirit of the lost glory of the social and intellectual history of Iran, they are very novel, yet still embedded in the souls of the Iranian people. They have become a symbol of the New Tehran, of the contemporary Iran, and similarly to the verse of Nima Youshij, to the New Poetry of Iran. As Youshij writes:10

A hundred draw
Drawn from the heart
That, people root for
Even if it’s a shadow on the wall.

Some of Amanat notable works include Shahyad Tower, renamed to Azadi (Freedom) Tower. It maintained its popularity among the Iranian community, even after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 – a megalith that forever changed the very conception of Iranian monumental architecture. The Ariamehr Technical University retitled to Sharif Technical University. It was deemed as honest and meaningful, at least in comparison to Ariamehr, because when a king does nice things, he better not stamp his name on them and… it may also assign it with an undesirable destiny. But that is not the case in Sharif University, today known as one of Iran’s most selective academic institutes. Daryakenar (By the Sea) Village is a source of inspiration for many architects. In fact, every Iranian aspires to have a sea village similar to Daryakenar (for a weekend getaway).

Amanat remained a prominent intellectual in the past fifty years, staying out of the spotlight of blue-chip architects, in a world that downgrading is an inevitable tactic to gain a wide attention, a keeper of the Persian Spirit, one with deep sense of introversion that meets the power of love. The manifested identity is the legacy of Amanat.

But that was only the beginning. It’s the complex metaphor that Nima Youshij has used for Afsaneh describes building best, and it’s Afsaneh that is the birth of modernism in Iran:11

The alert logic smiled wryly
When he heard that,
There is an afterlife.

The other international work to mention is the Iran Embassy Project in Peking. It is very easy to find out where this building belongs to in this Chinese town, even if we do not see the three-colored raised Flag of Iran. What is most observable in his work is and is indeed most important, is that his love for his homeland breathes in every brick of every building. His works after the Revolution resembles a poem from Ahmad Shamlou, the master of avant-garde poetry of Iran, “I am the common pain / Scream for me12 A scream that could start a cosmic unity.

Love is the core of Amanat’s architecture. Love is the crux of the Persian Spirit. In a world where the great powers fight over the soft, cultural war to triumph the for momentary appeal, the Persian Spirit could possibly offer a philosophical appeal, free from patriarchy, chauvinism, or rough unwarranted force. For us who suffer the universal anxiety, there is no way but to spread the Persian Spirit. Iranian architects, Farsi poets, and Persian theorists belong in this frame. In that regard, Amanat is the leader and he could be the foundation of the framework that Harold Innis is pointing at in the commencing epigraph of this essay.13

Furthermore, by setting aside Sufi religiosity and matters of spirituality (that architecturally swiftly become nothing but touristic monoliths), Amanat injected a fresh take to Iran’s architecture, as well as Persian culture. By employing the avant-garde, Amanat further advanced the idea of in the heart of Iranian’s history, just like a ghazal from Hafiz that is being whispered by Iranians all over the world. Although it seems that our deep chronicle of our culture has long gone, at least for the moment, on a “historical vacation”.14 As written: “The dust of sorrow shall depart and the great pleasure shall arrive / Hafez, don’t deny this and for the sake of wiping away the sadness, you can cry.” ∎

  1. Tahbaz, S. (Eds.). (2011), The Complete Works of Nima Yushij, Tehran: Ghalam; p.39
  2. Muhammad Hussein Oroskhan, Esmaeil Zohdi, Nima Yushij’s “Afsaneh” as a Striking Exemplar of the ‘Greater Romantic Lyric’, ILSHS Volume 66; p.27
  3. Farokhzad, F. (2004), The complete works of Forough Farokhzad, Tehran: Negah Publication; p.305
  4. See for more poems. You can also find her poetry translated by Dr. Milani.
  5. Farokhi Yazdi, M. (2001), Divan-e Farrokhi Yazdi, Tehran: Armaghan; p.81
  6. Shayegan, D. (1997), Cultural Schizophrenia: Islamic Societies Confronting the West, New York: Syracuse University Press; p. 96
  7. Shayegan, D. (1991), In Search of the Lost Spaces, Iran-Name journal, Vol 0. No 9, pp 541-554
  8. Nima, 1991, p.5
  9. Farrokhzad 2004, p. 305
  10. Nima, 1991, p.18
  11. Tahbaz, S. (Eds.). (1991), Afsaneh – the complete works of Nima Yushij, Tehran: Fajre Danesh; p.18
  12. Shamlou, A. (2004), Fresh Air, Tehran: Negah Publication; p. 188
  13. Innis, H. (1950), Empire and Communications, University of Toronto
  14. “Historical Vacation” is a term Shaygan uses to describe Asian civilizations such as Iran and India.