Design for all nations
Cultures combine in architectural elements
Published: Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Updated: Wednesday, September 23, 2009 17:09
Mina Marefat works to encourage architects and laymen alike to recognize that the civilizations of Greece and Rome are not the only sources for inspiration in American architecture. Middle Eastern influences have played into the palette as well, though those influences may at times be so subtle that they are more difficult to recognize.
Across the globe, artists and artisans trade ideas and concepts. The end result is a mutt-ish culture that doesn't always make all its ancestral roots obvious.
Marefat came from Iran to America to get her master's in architecture and urban design at Harvard just a few months before the 1979 Iranian revolution began. She attended school simultaneously at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pursuing a Ph.D.
"When I was studying for my Ph.D., I became very aware of the significance of architecture as a mirror of culture," Marefat said. She wrote her dissertation on modern architecture in Iran. Her studies have also focused on the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, who had drafted a design for a new urban center for Baghdad in 1957. In the process, she said, she began to see how important and pervasive architecture really is and how much the 20th century, thanks to developments like the Industrial Revolution, represented a global exchange of ideas in architecture.
Now a licensed architect and urban designer practicing in Washington, D.C., Marefat continues to lecture, to teach, and to work on educating others about architecture. She was an advisor to a retrospective exhibition on Frank Lloyd Wright for the Guggenheim Museum, which was shown in New York this summer and is now being moved to Bilbao, Spain. At 6 p.m. on Sept. 28, Marefat will present a lecture titled "Transcultural Imagination: Frank Lloyd Wright in Baghdad" at UC-Denver.
"I came to America with a very specific desire to learn more about American architecture," Marefat said. As part of that process, she became conscious both of the cultural definitions of America and of the roots of some of those cultural influences—including those in the environment we have built around us. "I started looking at buildings all around me and realizing ‘oh, this is from the Middle East.'"
"I could see that borrowing from the past was a normal thing, and people acknowledged that borrowing from Greece and Rome was a normal thing, but not borrowing from the Middle East."
During the oil crisis, jobs were scarce in America, but, she said, "countries that were oil rich such as Iran became an architectural playground."
By the 1970s, many American architectural firms were working overseas, capitalizing on available work for clients including the then Shah of Iran.
"So there was an internationalization of architecture firms, and many of the architects who traveled abroad brought back those influences," Marefat said. Even the architect for the World Trade Center in New York had traveled in the Middle East and was acquainted with Islamic architecture.
This idea-swapping habit isn't anything new. Throughout the centuries, cultures have traded material goods as well as artistic content with one another. Gothic architecture shows Moorish influences. Domes known in cathedrals throughout Europe were imported from the Middle East.
"I think cultures enrich one another," Marefat said. "You have an expansion and a growth that occurs as a result of the hybrid developments."
In times of war, when cultures are clashing but are coming in close contact with one another to do so, Marefat said, the arts will often flower: the Crusades led to the
Renaissance. Architecture, like any other art, responds to its cultural environment.
"It's very important to realize that architecture is like a language; it reflects cultural phenomena," she said. "It's not a static thing, so it is impacted by the political, social, cultural events of the time."
Simultaneously, a larger historical context informs it.
"There was a huge cultural interchange that occurred in a longer time spiral that we can't see with our current vision because we're so much influenced by the present events," she said.
That's part of why it may be so difficult, given the current political climate, to look at architecture and appreciate the homage it pays to design elements from Islamic nations.
For her lecture at UCD, Marefat plans to tackle a more bite-sized version of this architectural analysis.
Wright had traveled overseas for decades before receiving a commission to design an opera house in Baghdad, which turned into a civic complex for the city's center. Marefat's lecture will look at, "how he discovered and interpreted the arts of the East and how he applied it in his work, both directly and indirectly, and how he was able to envision a new architectural perspective as a result of it."
Philip Joseph, professor of English at UCD and director of the Colorado Center for Public Humanities, organized Marefat's lecture as part of a series on Islam and America this fall. A previous lecture series on religious practices in America had raised questions on how Muslims are surviving and adapting in the American context, so Joseph took a look into the matter.
"I started doing some very basic research on the field, Islam in America, which is a burgeoning field in the humanities, and decided to go down that road and explore how Islam and America, two entities that are often seen in opposition to one another, are being reconciled in the art that's being done today," he said.
This past summer, the disputed election in Iran and the violence that followed seemed to lend momentum and relevance. People seemed to tighten their grip on the idea that the world is divided, with Islam on one hand and the West on the other, Joseph said, and they saw these two civilizations as irreconcilable.