Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Pre-Islamic Architecture of Iran
Architecture is one of the fields in which Iranians have had a leading role. According to evidence, the history of architecture and urban planning in Iran dates back at least to 10 thousand years ago. Iranians were the first to use mathematics, geometry, and astronomy in architecture. Tepe Sialk, an important ziggurat near Kashan, built 7000 years ago, represents one such prehistoric site in Iran whose inhabitants were the initiators of a simple and rudimentary housing technique.
Iranian architecture left a profound influence on the architecture of old civilizations. Professor Arthur Pope wrote: "Architecture in Iran has at least 6,000 years of continuous history, examples of which can be seen from Syria to north India and Chinese borders, and from Caucasus to Zanzibar."
The scope and width of Architecture in pre-Islamic Iran is so vast that it merits its own separate discussion. Each of the periods of Elamites, Achaemenids, Parthians, and Sassanians were creators of great architecture that over the ages has spread wide and far to other cultures.
The ruins of Persepolis, Ctesiphon, Jiroft, Sialk, Pasargadae, Firouzabad, Arg-é Bam, and hundreds of thousdands of other ruins documented in only what is today Iran may give us only a distant glimpse of what contribution Iranians made to the art of building.
Post-Islamic Architecture of Iran
The fall of the Persian empire to invading Islamic forces ironically led to the creation of remarkable religious buildings in Iran. Arts such as calligraphy, stucco work, mirror work, and mosaic work, became closely tied with architecture in Iran in the new era. Archaeological excavations have provided sufficient documents in support of the impacts of Sasanian architecture on the architecture of the Islamic world.
Many experts belive the period of Iranian architecture from the 15th through 17th Centuries to be the most brilliant of the post-Islamic era. Various structures such as mosques, mausoleums, bazaars, bridges, and different palaces have mainly survived from this period. In the old Iranian architecture, semi-circular and oval-shaped vaults were of great interest, leading Safavi architects to display their extraordinary skills in making massive domes. Yet while the architecture of Ottoman Turks was philosophically intended to illustrate grandeur in scale, that of rival Safavi Isfahan had a more smaller but refined elegence to it. It was the craftsmen of this school in Isfahan that ended up building their ultimate masterpiece, the Taj Mahal of India.
Domes can be seen frequently in the structurae of bazaars and mosques, particularly during the Safavi period in Isfahan. Iranian domes are distinguished for their height, proportion of elements, beauty of form, and roundness of the dome stem. The outer surfaces of the domes are mostly mosaic faced, and create a magical view.
According to Dr. D. Huff, a German archaeologist, the dome is the dominant element in Persian architecture. Professor Arthur U. Pope, who carried out extensive studies in ancient Iranian and Islamic buildings, believed: "The supreme Iranian art, in the proper meaning of the word, has always been its architecture. The supremacy of architecture applies to both pre-and post-Islamic periods."
An investigation into post-Islamic architecture in Iran reveals how architecture was in harmony with the people, their environment, and their Creator. Yet no strict rules were applied to govern Islamic architecture. The great mosques of Khorasan, Isfahan, and Tabriz each used local geometry, local materials, and local building methods to express in their own ways the order, harmony, and unity of Islamic architecture. When the major monuments of Islamic Iranian architecture are examined, they reveal complex geometrical relationships, a studied hierarchy of form and ornament, and great depths of symbolic meaning.
Traditional Residential and Urban Architecture of Iran
Being situated on the edge of deserts and arid regions, Iranian cities typically have hot summers, and cold, dry winters. Thus Iran’s traditional architecture is designed in proportion to its climatic conditions, and more than often, the unique fabled artistic background of Persia makes up for the seemingly lack of natural resources and beauty. The existence of hundreds of traditional houses with handsome designs even today amidst ugly apartments in Iran's hasty modernization projects is testament to a deep heritage of Architecture.
Iran's old city fabric is composed of narrow winding streets called koocheh with high walls of adobe and brick, often roofed at various intervals. This form of urban design, which used to be commonplace in Iran, is an optimal form of desert architecture that minimizes desert expansion and the effects of dust storms. It also maximizes daytime shades, and insulates the “fabric” from severe winter temperatures.
Islamic beliefs coupled with the necessity to defend cities against frequent foreign invasions encouraged traditional Persian residential architects to create inward seeking designs amidst these narrow complicated koochehs, weaving tightly knit residential neighborhoods. Thus the house becomes the container as opposed to the contained. These houses possess an innate system of protection; they all have enclosed gardens with maximum privacy, preventing any view into the house from the outside world. Hence residential architecture in Persia was designed in a way so as to provide maximum protection to the inhabitants during times of tension and danger, while furnishing a microcosm of tranquility that protected this inner “paradise garden”.
Neighborhoods in old Persian cities often formed around shrines of popular saints. All public facilities such as baths, houses of mourning (tekyehs), teahouses, administration offices, and schools were to be found within the neighborhood itself. In addition to the main bazaar of the city, each neighborhood often had its own bazaar-cheh as well (i.e. “little bazaar”), as well as its own ab anbar (or public water reservoir), which provided the neighborhood with clean water. Qazvin, for example had over 100 such reservoirs before being modernized with city plumbing in modern times.
When visiting Kashan in 1993, the chairman of UNESCO remarked: “Kashani architects are the greatest alchemists of history. They could make gold out of dust”. Indeed, almost all of Kashan’s masterpieces, as in many other parts in Iran are made of humble, local, earth.
Like many other cities throughout Iran, stucco was the most widespread method of ornamentation in Iranian houses. One reason was the relatively cheap price of the materials used (like gypsum for example) that don’t require a high temperature to be transformed into plaster. This is an important consideration in places like central Iran where wood is relatively scarce. Another reason is that it is easily shaped, molded, or carved. Thanks to stucco, a wall of crudely fashioned stone blocks or raw brick, gives an impression of great luxury. Thus stucco owes its luxurious appearance to the skill of the craftsman. And with a tradition of stucco technique going back to pre-Islamic Iran, this is an art fully mastered by Persian craftsmen, as seen here.
Earthquakes in Iran leave massive destruction. Most of Iran’s remaining traditional houses date from the post-quake eras during the Qajar period. Despite the efforts of architects to build resistance to earthquakes into their works, hardly anything remains from the spectacular Safavi palaces or anything prior to those as recounted by French and British explorers in many parts of Persia.
Almost all traditional Persian houses were designed in order to satisfy the following essential features:
- Hashti and Dalan-e-vorudi: Entering the doorway one steps into a small enclosed transitional space called Hashti. Here one is forced to redirect one’s steps away from the street and into the hallway, called Dalan e Vorudi. In mosques, the Hashti enables the architect to turn the steps of the believer to the correct orientation for prayer hence giving the opportunity to purify oneself before entering the mosque.
- Convenient access to all parts of the house.
- A central pool with surrounding gardens containing trees of figs, pomegranates, and grape vines.
- Important partitionings such as the biruni (exterior) and the andaruni (interior).
- Specific orientation facing toward and away from Mecca.
Furthermore, Persian houses in central Iran were designed to make use of an ingenious systems of wind catchers that create unusually cool temperatures in the lower levels of the building. Thick massive walls were designed to keep the sun’s heat out in the summertime while retaining the internal heat in the winters.
Persia's distinctive artistic heritage with efficient yet ancient technical know-how thus created houses and spaces whose features were aesthetic talars and roofscapes with intriguing light wells, as well as intricate window and mirror works, paintings, reliefs, and a beautifully crafted iwan amidst comfortable residential spaces in hot desert regions.
Whereas the geometrical rigor seen in the works such as those in Safavi era Isfahan invoke the perfect order of the celestial world, the vegetal ornamentation realized in the interiors of houses, testify to the Persian love of gardens. And the stucco carvings, frescoes, and paintings executed by royal craftsmen, exemplify the level of Persian aesthetics.
Famous Modern Iranian Architects
- Kava Massih of Berkeley, CA. (featured on "Architecture" magazine in 2002).
- Nader Khalili of CalEarth Institute. Founder. Featured on LATimes and NYTimes.
- Bijan Armandpour, LA, CA.
- Mark Vaghei of Atelier Architects.
- Hariri and Hariri. One of the more famous of the Iranian American Architects. Their projects have been introduced by Steven Holl.
- Nadi Jahangiri of M3 Architects.
- Farshid Moussavi (link 2) of Foreign Office Architects. Probably the most successful. See his proposal for The World Trade Center. His works have been presented by Toyo Ito.
- Mehrdad Yazdani
- Kamran Diba
- Fariborz Sahba. A Bahá'í architect who designed the famous Lotus temple in India.
- Society of Iranian Architects and Planners
- Persian gardens
- Architecture of Kashan
- Architecture of Qazvin
- Architecture of Yazd
- Architecture of Isfahan
- Memaran, a Persian language online Architecture magazine
- Watch "Isfahan the Movie" on QuickTime Player to see superb example of Isfahan architecture.
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