Reprinted from:
Architecture & Urbanism magazine, No. 64 - 65
March 2002, Tehran

Architecture, Global Pluralism & Regional Crises

By: Darab Diba, Iran
The century, we have just left behind, has been incomparable to the entire past before it in terms of the ever faster pace of changes affecting man's life across the world. The population explosion, industrial growth, the communication revolution, the end of direct colonialism, the downfall of dogmatic ruling ideologies, the urgent need of most countries for national independence and true democratic self-rule, the emergence of civic societies and respect for the individual and for man's thoughts, the establishment of relations between different nations owing to common problems and the globalization of economy and development, the materialization of optimized solutions to myriad problems... no more allow the present world to be one-dimensional, based on a single ideology framed on a single behavioral pattern.

The accession of many countries to independence during the 20th century, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the breakdown of the Wall of the Berlin, the unification of Europe, the cultural prosperity of newly arisen countries of the South, the new economy and, most importantly, the formidable information revolution, are making people all over the world realize in what ways current and phenomena are moving and developing.

In Philosophy, established facts and conceptual dichotomies have yielded their place to examination, research, tolerance and dialogue. Many bi-polar relationships of the past, such as East and West, First World and Third World, right and wrong, essence and form, subjectivity and objectivity, beauty and ugliness, tradition and modernity, reason and spirituality, progressiveness and stagnation, and many other social, philosophical and political concepts, by which the world has been run to the present, have been abandoned to the benefit of interim investigation, interstitial space, communication between minds, polyvalent outlook and, generally speaking, all the issues involved in the intricate process of present-day interactions. Carrying on with Platonic aesthetics has become as difficult as relying on Kant's reason or Heidegger's stanch views.

The closure of the 20th century has been accompanied by a kind of reversion to the wholeness of the world and history, in whose long-term and tides one may perhaps seek to surmise a new theory, which of course reveals no new truth and only endeavors at studying and furthering the present limits. Perhaps the best theory in this domain belongs to Gilles Deleuze, who believes in the horizontal and vertical motions of the different forces of worldly phenomena; a whole made up of immense networks of matrices in which we are perpetually in motion, occasionally finding dynamic requirements and embryos each of which gives us new information about today's wide world.

Even as late as 50 years ago, architects and urban planners still entertained the dream that they could devise a new universal wisdom and build the infrastructure of the ideal world by their views. Those wishful thoughts were perhaps best expressed in the International Congresses of Modern Architecture (CIAM), held in the early 20th century. In the architect's mind, he seems to be the supreme hero/artist, the leader, the organizer, the orchestrate of forces... we have often heard prominent architects repeating these claims, whereas today, because the diversity of factors involved, the wealth of data available, and particularly economic and political international exchanges, architects and urban planners have no choice, but to join this immense wave to survive, hoping that their adaptation to the new conditions will not drown them and that they will wisely travel aboard this ship.

We have seen a very similar variant of this problem in our past urban planning, where the so-called planner divided the land or city into plots, grids and areas, for which he had imagined various functions on 2-dimensional plans that often ended up lacking one or more essential elements and forbidding human life, which should have thrived within them in the light of all related human sciences.

A single person taking decisions or drawing lines in an aberration today. In the 3rd millennium, planning without exchanging ideas and taking into consideration interdisciplinary entities involved in this social network of relationships can prove just as presumptuous and amiss, because today's world, in its beauty of all-encompassing information, has sowed the seeds of new artistic concepts in the minds of designers.

Paying homage to such great figures as Descartes, Bacon, Galileo, Kant, Hegel and other thinkers, who transformed the superstitious society into the modern world and promoted awareness of equity, reason and righteousness -in one word, man, we can but admit that the task is much harder today, because the social and economic forces affecting the shape of human societies and their interactions are becoming ever more complicated, while political and economic decisions impinge on the moral dimensions, the humanity, for which many thinkers have fought in the course of history and which is more often paid lip service to appease consciences in different circles and soon relegated to a file among the lowest priorities.

In modern sociology, we have come to realize that globalization does not mean losing oneself and one's regional wealth and does not imply cultural radicalism and uniformity, and that each nation still has to make great efforts in this complex world to contribute something from its level across history that is distinctive in the face of the existing diversity. This, of course, calls for freedom of information, freedom of expression and freedom of communication, or, in other words, a paradigm likely  to somehow serve man's development.

In this progressive and, at the same time, complex chaotic world, what will be the best approach for our country to progress? And how will the inevitable interdependence resulting from global development, on which our future depends, effect Iran?

In today's world, views and theories concerning the architectural design, form and identity of buildings are highly complicated issues. The time to absolute confidence in the modern architectural movement of the early 20th century has passed and no one follows its radical path and declarations anymore. Modernism, in reaction to its preceding period, to tradition, to aristocracy and bourgeoisie, adopted a new path, whose examples and models we witnessed for 50 years in the works of its adepts; works, which involved reason, wisdom, attention to sociology, attention to new materials and mass production, and the care for an abstract geometric pattern in the architecture of the world. But, excessive rationalization in the domain of forms, which where to conform to functional and rational criteria, and the fact that architectural design was to be a serious and useful issue, brought about the first signs of crisis in mid-20th century.

Attachment to memories, history, ecological issues, contextual appropriateness... remain un-addressed despite all the rational and scientific progress made in solving problems, and many different factors gave birth to movements referred to as post-modernist in the history of architecture.

Various expressions emerge in the architecture of the world from the relative formal freedom of the post-modern period and issues of unity of form or materials are replaced by initiatives aimed at blending different identities and references and gleaning elements from the past, from various lands, without particular sensitivity, particularly in issues concerning the compositions and aspect of building.

The works of this period are novel and eye-catching. However, despite all their efforts at expressing an environmental or historic mission, they never achieve the strength of the manifest period and their products look like experimental objects, which their architects have conceived merely to break away from the models of the modernist period.

However, notwithstanding their poignant humanistic slogans, post-modern architectures often remain limited to plays of colors, masses, forms and frills, with little sign of such dimensions or mission, originality or lasting qualities.

Although the rejection of the rigid models of functionalism and the opening of new value vistas in the modernist period could be considered a step forward in architecture, in practice, the creditable motive of combining diverse factors influencing the form leads to nowhere. Thus, when we look at buildings, erected in this period, practically in the 1970s and 1980s, we clearly perceive a reactionary movement in their design, and also notice that, despite the fame day acquired in their own time, they bear little importance in the history of the contemporary architecture of the world and merely rank as peculiar stages of eclecticism and a period of hybridization.

Today, when we look at these buildings, for example the works of Portoghesi, Charles Moore, Hollein, Michael Graves and many other post-modernist tifosi, we immediately recognize the times in which they were built and often fin an unpleasant taste of obsolescence to them. This feeling is not strange, because throughout the history of art, whenever man has based his work and methods upon his own era's conditions and popular styles, these have become obsolete as soon as new ideas and theories have emerged. The main reason is their lack of strong fundamental thinking; their construction without regard for temporal, local and environmental factors; their lack of a true artistic and human feeling, which is the exact opposite to fashion-oriented design, in which the popular ostentation of adorned commercial products is presented as true architecture. This period, this era of post-modern architecture, as a style, will also come to pass, and architects who have always put forward ever more advanced philosophical theories in their field, will seek new ideals, which will somehow radically and utterly alter architectural forms and models, thereby attributing a new status and a new mission to themselves and their products.

Many deconstruction works of the last two decades of the 20th century attest to this influential and strange vision. Even the deconstruction works of such illustrious architects as Tschumi, Eisenman and Zaha Hadid taste as a challenge of projecting horizontal surfaces, in which no center of gravity exists and where the construction materials, which appears as pliant, fluid mummified creatures, can be thrown around and shaped in any direction.

Interestingly, these architects, i.e. the followers of deconstruction theories, as are assertive about their philosophical standpoints as their works are incomprehensible, complicated and confusing, and their effective aims begin with the preliminaries of an almost abstract computer model and end with esoteric philosophical declarations, which leave one wondering about what existed and what happened, and whether a real innovation has been made which we fail to understand.

These formal architectural plays combined with esoteric hybrid reasoning, even with the assumption of freeing space and extending boundaries, may well appeal to come marginal intellectual circles on the international scene, but the reality of these buildings' existence actually lies in the experimental character of their creation.

One cannot understand why, dissatisfied with their job of building and seeking to give a superior quality to their profession, architects resort to philosophy and try to soar among philosophers in the skies of theoretical conjectures and pure science. Artists feel in quandary about their own existence, whenever they cannot fulfill themselves in their own creations; whereupon they turn to condescending pretension in every known domain of science and knowledge. Not long ago, Williams-Ellis was describing the architect as a kind of some demigod between heaven and earth, with his feet in the clay of his foundation trenches and his head amongst the stars.

Today, the more the work is hermetic, incomprehensible and strange, the more it attracts attention, perhaps causing many people, including specialists, to abstain from reading its justifying literature. Here, a question comes to the mind: Does a truth exist, and can skepticism, hesitation and experience cause its products to improve?

When discussions about deconstruction began a few decades ago, particularly in the wake of Jacques Derrida's theories and his very interesting lectures at Yale University, we became conscious of a dynamic new vision, based on the analysis of problems and the rejection of dogmatism, empiricism and historic categorical philosophical rulings. The de-constructive procedure was an attempt to free philosophy from its inbuilt constraints, the "takings-for-granted", which for centuries have stultified thinking; Derrida's issue of "logo centrism" applied the belief that one can't get to the bottom of things by logic, rational argument, revelation or whatever and that investigation only could again a conceptual paradigm for things and thoughts, In the path, he joins those, who attacked and finally destroyed "the myth of the given": Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Quine and Sellars, who approved there are not, and cannot be "ultimate foundations" to our knowledge. Generally speaking, by scientific skepticism and inquiry, we became conscious of efforts devoted to the discovery of new conceptual horizons, which the reflections of Derrida, Paul Recoeur, Ronald Barthes, Faucault and many other modern philosophers greatly clarified, allowing these concepts to be analyzed and their constituent components identified. If a bridge truly existed, is it still strong? It is not that, by the force of construction, together with all its limiting factors, such as materials, gravity, sunlight, rain..., we are rather trying to relocate it forms its own domain and, sitting behind our advanced computers, bring into being intricate fluid graphical entities, by which we can emit an intellectual sigh and soar in the company of the most illustrious philosophers?

Those so-called progressive architects, who act in the name of spatial freedom and the rejection of architectural boundaries, must not forget that life and earth have limitations of their own and that, despite their pretensions to divinity, they too will depart and many of these computerized creations will remain marginal specimens stored on computer disks, almost as mere drawings, alongside the real social production of architecture. In the same frame of mind, many architecture historians, such as Kenneth Frampton, have already assigned them a limited, marginal place.

Folding's theories, in-between architecture, cyber-architecture, virtual architecture, chaos theory, fractals, fragmentation, cosmogenic architecture and many other new titles pretending to theoretical foundations for architecture are in fact no more than computerized images and their virtual three dimensions are nothing but attractive science-fiction vistas, which occasionally result from the accidental confrontation of lines and surfaces. Now, perhaps we do not want to go as far as to say that these virtual architectures are the products of the rightwing ivory tower inhabitants of the world of capitalistic trusts, who go on playing with their computer images, oblivious to the people of the world's urgent need for useful buildings and desirable ecological models, but one can hardly say so today, because objecting to these games and impressive glittering architectural forms results in one being classical as a reactionary, since the followers of virtual architectures see themselves at the zenith of all the progress of the world. And it is interesting that, ever for the sake of enhancing their profession by all possible mean, responsible architects have always tried to take architecture a few step ahead, because social responsibility has never been, and is not, at odds with the desire of improving one's field of activity.

Now, let us see what has happened in Iran in the face of the world's phenomena and all the imported architectural manners. Have we been as innovative and expressive on national and international levels as contemporary Japanese or Indian architects? Have we really let imitation behind? Are our works now truly environmental in essence and based on thought-out theoretical principles?

Alongside all the contemporary architectural models of the world, infatuation for Western architecture, in its most distinctive forms, is still conspicuous. Have we really been able to embark on a dynamic process that will reconcile the science of the world with our cultural environment? Has the time of Jalal Al Ahmad really past and the fake Western mannerism of some pseudo-educated personalities really come to an end?

If some architects believe that they now stand on a higher platform and, as erudite authors, have incorporated the essence of this country's ideals in their writing, this has to be reflected in their architectural realizations. One can hardly speak of the essence of Rumi (Molavi) or Hafiz, if one ends up with imitations of John Nouvel, Isosaki, Libeskind and other deconstructivist architects. Today, one has the impression that literary eloquence can hide design shortcomings, or perhaps the clients, unable to perceive the translation of literature into concrete realizations, think that this literature, with all the respect it expresses towards culture and the environment, is actually reflected in the works produced.

For various reasons, contemporary Iranian architecture is obviously undergoing a crisis. Poor planning and research, lack of useful social foundations, inappropriate regulations and norms, lack of a professional ethic social consensus, lack of criticism, weakness of execution guarantees on the part of construction organizations and guilds, low professional service wages below international standards, lack of specialized factories producing advanced materials and equipments, low technological levels, lack of skilled construction workers and experts, poor execution of construction details, wavering university education, flawed architecture competitions founded on relations and influence, and many other problems, have prevented our architecture and urban planning from progressive as they should.

Our cities have become filled with buildings, which neither say anything nor represent any enhancement in terms of form, identity or construction. They are more structures, whose areas and surfaces guarantee the flow of trade and capital, yet they are built everyday here and there in our cities by avis entrepreneurs. These speculators and constructors, the so-called "besaz-o-befroush" (build & sell), these bureaucratic climbers, buying building permits and architect signatures, buying density, height and floors from municipalities, are and have always been in the past decades the real mason master-wolves of our built cities and environment, acting generally without any consideration for human principles, pollution, neighborhood, town equipments or the citizens' right.

On the other hand, are renowned architects, just as Western stars, spend their time designing striking models and emulating the latest imported fashions, and our young architects, having no access to true architecture, have turned to computerized three-dimensional images, to paper-based graphic architecture, which can give them a sense of progressive, international taste even if they cannot build.

However, the effective urban and social architectural production is done out of these two spheres, because one is after renown and the other is slumbering in a virtual world, whose very advanced spatial dynamism can hardly be realized given the technological limitations prevailing in the country and therefore remains a pictorial aesthetic dream.

The inescapable fact is that many "Southern", developing and Islamic countries urgently need a socially useful, standardized, progressive architecture, which they have unfortunately been deprived of owing to political, economical and managerial crises.

In the end, the globalization of related factors is a reality that can no more address single-minded behaviors, because another entity carrying all the new phenomena and ideas of the world and embodying a composite, pluralistic, present-day personality has taken shape next to its own regional personality.

On the one hand, today's man is filled with elements and memories of his own environment and, on the other, he lives in a world, in which many philosophical, legal and economical values have spread their hegemony in a uniform process of development.

Our minds are faced with different layers of the realities of today's world and equally concerned with globalism, regionalism and glocalism. In the domain of architecture, they are accompanied by images and models that require a perfect knowledge of one's indigenous issues, while they also need the evermore refined scientific know-how and philosophical insight of the world at large.

What will the identity of this architecture be? Even in the name of pragmatism, will another world, or the neighborhood output of different cultures, save us from the perils of hybridization?

However, it appears that, at the end of the tunnel, while embracing all the new scientific gifts and thoughtful ideas of a larger world, we find light; not only a social enlightenment, but at least an architectural expression of our own, sincere and true to the country.

Growing out of our hearts and bringing men across the planet closer together, this bridge will eventually pave the way towards an immense wealth, whose main essence will be an exchange and multiplicity of view's whereby phenomena will fly across different lands, as so many birds of paradise, disseminating fresh news.


Research: Architecture


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