Eastern Enlightenment

A postgraduate trip to Isfahan laid the foundations for ABK’s office and its ethos, says Peter Ahrends


Peter Ahrends

John Donat

In the mid-1950s, having graduated from the AA, Richard Burton, Paul Koralek, John Donat and I, together with Mireille Burton and Liz Ahrends, bought a second-hand Land Rover with roll-down canvas sides and a two-wheel luggage trailer, intent on heading east through Europe to Turkey and eventually to Persia.

Our mode of travel to what were then regarded as remote areas was unusual, but it gave rise to an extraordinary variety and depth of experience as well as compelling insights into wholly unfamiliar cultures. Despite little sense of formality or finesse, our enthusiasm seemed to encourage an opening of doors and a trusting acceptance of our mission.

Arriving in Isfahan unannounced, these six student scruffs knocked on the door of AA-educated architect, Ali Bakhtiar. In a spontaneous gesture of hospitality, he immediately offered to give over a good part of his inner-city house to us. We stayed for many weeks, making the central area of the city the focus of our studies.

We were drawn to Maidan Square, and the remarkable mosques and palace, but it was the winding route of the covered bazaar that I found most compelling. This vivid alignment, buzzing with market life, formed a stretched but containing route from which you’d come upon a variety of significant public places – an accommodation of the intense daily ordinariness of the city’s well-being.

“The turquoise-tiled drum and dome expressed the significance of Islam – message and architectural form establishing a clear and powerful unity”

Markets carry this dynamic energy in our secular lives; in Europe they are often in a covered hall, near the edges of a square or simply formed by open stalls along a set of streets. But in Isfahan the market was an enclosed route, a long string of variegated beads – brick vaults, spatial volumes in shaded daylight, cool in spite of the heat.

Geometrically this seemingly casual alignment formed its own thing rather than announcing what was to come next, whether mosques, caravanserai, public baths or lateral off-shoots between the matrix of houses grouped around unseen courtyards. The singular and fascinating power of this alignment etched itself into my mind.

Much of the land we crossed, moving from city to city, was plateau-like, scrubby but not quite a desert, and often ringed by distant mountains. In the village of Natanz (destined to become a major Iranian nuclear facility), we saw straw-reinforced mud bricks being laid in sweeping curves for sun-drying before being used to repair the mosque. Just a few people, skilled in traditional techniques, transformed mud into bricks and then made domes, from the base to the apex, without the need for centering, with fluent ease. In its decorated luminosity, the turquoise-tiled drum and dome expressed, in that remote place, the significance of Islam – message and architectural form establishing a clear and powerful unity.

“The language of architecture contains loose couplings or even disconnectivities that lie beyond the specifics of historic cultures”

Seeing the power of these hand-crafted forms, and appreciating the traditional mosque layouts and compositions (though ignorant of their religious content), I was drawn to their clarity. First, it seemed to be a story of exteriors and interiors, and sometimes the essential qualities of the light, earth-coloured brick-built geometric masses in contrast to the laid-on colour-brightness of the decorated outer layer of faience tiles; intricate messages of stunning turquoise beauty. Second, there was the functional meaning of the community-serving rectangular courtyard, an open gathering place set beside the intensity of the dome’s religious interior focus. Together these two aspects seemed to offer an understanding of the value of a place of secular social assembly adjacent to the world of Islam.

Let’s say that the language of architecture contains loose couplings or even disconnect-ivities that lie beyond the specifics of historic cultures. In the ten years since the human genome was first mapped we’ve learned that the global spread of our genetic connections provides a binding sense of who we are as a species – so perhaps it wasn’t surprising that these new cultural glimpses resonated in my young mind. The enduring lesson is that the broad sweep of the Modern Movement in architecture should not be thought of as either a representation or an exclusion of historic cultural strains.