Going Underground


Mehrnoush Shafiei


Abbas Kowsari


The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art has been much maligned, over the years, by accusations of ‘keeping Picasso in the basement’.

While the claim may have a ring of truth to it – former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad locked up the collection, estimated to be worth over 2.5 billion pounds, for some lengthy spells – it overlooks the fact that the Picasso, along with the vast majority of the modernist museum, was originally intended to be housed underground.

There is nothing that architecture loves more than lighting – especially sunlight

Located a stone’s throw from the trendy boutiques, restaurants and high-end real estate in the unexpectedly serene Laleh Park – an urban oasis in central, traffic-congested Tehran – a Guggenheim-esque spiral ramp gently sweeps the museum’s visitors to its nine interconnected underground galleries. When open, the functional, almost anodyne-like nature of the museum both lends the building a certain stylish aplomb and offers visitors a contemplative space to take in the collection.

Commissioned by former Empress Farah Pahlavi at a time when Iran’s oil fortunes were on the rise, the museum’s cache is regarded as one of the most highly valuable collections of modern art outside of Europe and the USA. Unveiled in 1977, it includes works by heavyweight artists such as Van Gogh, Miró, Dalí, Bacon, de Kooning, Picasso, Warhol and Pollock, not to mention members of Iran’s own rich art history.

Past the cool remove of the museum’s saffron-tinged and factory-like façade, its architecture is at once vernacular and monumental in scope. Kamran Diba, the architect who not only designed the museum but also advised Empress Pahlavi, his cousin, on its collection, took the building’s design cues from Iran’s architectural heritage. ‘My aim was to integrate conceptual elements of modernity with tradition,’ he says.

Though the building is modernist in both materiality and form thanks to its straight lines and geometrical shapes, its design also nods to the ancient wind-catchers of Yazd, a desert oasis city in central Iran, dubbed the ‘wind-catcher capital’.

Wind-catchers, or badgir, are distinct symbols of Iranian architectural innovation used, historically, to create natural ventilation in buildings and offer a simple lesson in sustainability and energy efficiency. Designed in a windward direction, curved chimney-like towers are cantilevered upward with one face open to the wind, thereby ‘catching’ the breeze and bringing it down into the core of the building.

Today, wind-catchers primarily serve as a symbolic gesture of national pride. According to Nooshin Hayatdawood, a Tehran-based architect and interior designer, the late 1970s saw a push towards ‘revivalist’ architecture in Iran, a postmodern movement favouring the rediscovery of traditional forms. ‘Built during a wave of soul-searching among Iranian architects, the museum’s wind-catchers are an expression of this trend,’ she explains of Diba’s design.

In the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art this technique does not cool the air itself, however it does improve the rate of airflow, aiding ventilation and thereby increasing the effectiveness of its up-to-date cooling systems. ‘Environmental sustainability in architecture is a very modern concept. The museum highlights the relevance of the old in the 21st century,’ says Hayatdawood.

The Persian Garden, a longstanding Iranian architectural motif, is another important element of the museum’s design. In the Iranian psyche and cultural imagination, gardens are highly evocative of the cosmos – the English word for ‘paradise’, for example, is a derivative of the Old Persian root for ‘walled-in garden’.

Diba pays homage to this tradition with a garden of sculptures, a semi-enclosed exterior space featuring masterpieces by René Magritte, Henry Moore and Alberto Giacometti, among others.

Vestibules or, as known in Iranian, hashti, are another pillar of traditional Persian architecture that Diba referenced for the museum. ‘The vestibule is the space right after the entrance – an area that connects the outside with inside, giving the building a strong element of privacy,’ says Hayatdawood.

At the museum, where visitors exit through the same door from which they entered, Diba’s craftily designed vestibule is critical not only for the organisation of space, but for the management of pedestrian traffic.

In line with Persian architecture’s traditional philosophy of self-reliance, the museum was constructed using local materials, reducing transportation costs and, ultimately, energy consumption. ‘The museum is designed with deliberate restraint, which reflects a Persian architectural preference for keeping vanity to a minimum,’ observes Hayatdawood. ‘With respect to proportion and design details, wasteful and unnecessary ornamentation is left out of the equation.’

The museum strikes a chord with many of its local admirers. For Shafagh Shadravan, a 23-year-old architecture student at the University of Tabriz, what makes this underground museum so uplifting is its use of the wind-catchers. ‘They contribute to the fluid architectural expression of the museum,’ Shadravan says.

Though they are perhaps the most defining architectural element of the museum’s exterior, Shadravan explains that the wind-catchers also bestow a sense of dynamism to its interior too. By allowing natural light to filter in through their openings, the wind-catchers also create movements of light and shadow throughout the building, a sort of chiaroscuro effect that changes with each hour and season.

‘The wind-catchers harness the light and effectively act as nourgirs, light-catchers,’ adds Hayatdawood. ‘There is nothing that architecture loves more than lighting – especially sunlight.’

Although any sunlight entering the building must be diffused – for dangerous UV rays will degrade the art – the natural light that does flood in greatly helps to reduce the need for artificial lighting, adding another dimension of energy efficiency to Diba’s design. ‘This museum is a great example of how so-called traditional architecture can be very modern in its appetite for energy efficiency and functionality,’ says Hayatdawood.

‘The very soul and spirit of the museum can be found in the lighting,’ adds Shadravan. ‘Natural light is hopeful, it has the capacity for change.’

This article can be found in Brownbook’s September/October 2014 Issue.

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