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Portrait: Farshid Moussavi – Architectural Review

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Synthesising practice and pedagogy, Moussavi tackles difficult questions and produces an architecture that is as inventive as it is unpredictable

On a flight from Stockholm to London in the mid-’90s, I ended up next to Farshid Moussavi. We had both attended some international architectural symposium, the talking point of which had been Peter Zumthor, who, natürlich, disdained to embrace the conference theme or even talk about his work, and instead slowly recited a list of 13 Things That Gave Him Pleasure in his soporific Swiss-German accent. ‘Number four. Rain.’ I never found out what she thought of Zumthor’s list, or the conference generally as, back then, I was too tongue-tied to actually talk to her.

She was, after all, the Farshid Moussavi. The Farshid Moussavi, who, as one half of Foreign Office Architects, the practice she set up with Alejandro Zaera-Polo on leaving OMA, had erupted into global architectural consciousness with a stunning, competition-winning design for Yokohama Port Terminal. Seemingly coming from nowhere, Foreign Office, its very name connoting otherness while cocking a snook at the sclerotic British establishment, proposed an audacious, topographic recasting of a dockside pier as a new kind of public space, precisely faceted and folded like a giant piece of inhabited origami.

Designed in 1995, the futuristic Yokohama International Passenger Terminal showed how a cumbersome programme could intelligently manage flows while providing generous public space. Following the dissolution of Foreign Office Architects, the Iranian-born British architect founded her own practice in London, Farshid Moussavi Architecture

Credit:Satoru Mishima

Fast forward to post-millennial Venice and various Biennale vernissages, with Yokohama now built and Moussavi now with her own practice, Farshid Moussavi Architecture (FMA), consolidating a reputation as that rare thing, a ‘woman in architecture’. Scooting around the Giardini on scary platform sandals, serving looks among the sweaty scrums of linen suits, she invariably stood out. Even though, on occasion, her perpetually on-point footwear ended up chafing (the curse of Venice), her remedial blister plasters were always perfectly aligned, like a podiatric art piece. By then, I had actually talked to her.

In a career that has embraced building, teaching and thinking, deftly triangulated so that each feeds into and sustains the other, it’s impossible to define a Moussavi signature style. She is not a David Chipperfield or a Frank Gehry. Yokohama is nothing like the Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art, which is nothing like John Lewis Leicester or La Folie Divine housing in Montpellier. Her buildings can be florid, like John Lewis, wrapped in a gorgeous glass epidermis of ornamental curlicues, or they can be laconic, like the extension to the Zabludowicz Collection in London’s Kentish Town, contained in a monastically austere box made of long, thin Roman bricks. Each time she embarks on a project there is a sense of enquiry and starting anew, rather than relapsing into cruise control. And that, for her, is the point. ‘Each project is different,’ she says, ‘because it deals with different circumstances and a different set of possibilities; it has a different set of goals and ambitions.’ And, she adds, ‘I guess one thing that does carry through the work is an interest in micropolitics: finding the different scales at which architecture engages politics through its own means.’

Leicester’s John Lewis department store was one of the last projects completed under Foreign Office Architects

Credit:Satoru Mishima

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland opened once Moussavi had established her own practice

Credit:Stephen Gill

She is also forthright on being a ‘woman in architecture’. When, 10 years ago, the Architects’ Journal launched its awards programme to recognise the contribution of female architects, she delivered an agile and elegant polemic at the inaugural celebratory lunch, tactfully rejecting the need for role models, which, she implied, could be just as corseting in their unattainable representations of women. Drawing on Deleuze and Guattari, she reflected on how the presence of women in architecture had to be liberated from the dialectic of ‘women architects versus men architects’ and how women needed to be considered as different. She still stands by that today. ‘I’m interested in women’s difference, rather than women’s sameness to men,’ she says. ‘I’m interested in difference generally. And if women are different from men, then they should feel empowered to use their difference to be creative.’

For the fledging Foreign Office, the experience of Yokohama set a very high bar. Japan can be a hugely challenging milieu for non-Japanese practices, let alone a new and untested young partnership. ‘I would say it made us fearless,’ admits Moussavi, ‘because we started with such a large project in such an unusual set-up; we actually moved to Japan to do it. To begin with, it was tough, as a woman, but the Japanese like to make things happen and their building regulations are very sophisticated, enabling you to push boundaries.’ The flipside of this is the US, with its much more risk-averse construction culture. ‘It’s like black and white, exactly the opposite, you just have to follow the rules,’ she acknowledges. Despite these constraints, she still managed to implement her design for Cleveland’s Museum of Contemporary Art, conceived as a glittering cuboid pavilion, both meteorite and tent, a kind of tailored Dark Star, sheathed in elongated panels of black stainless steel. The reconfigurability of its interior was calculated to dissociate the experience of art from the notion that it can only be viewed in a gallery, disrupting the traditional visitor/museum relationship and grounding it in the micropolitics of everyday life.

Working in France with the same developer client, she has shown, first in Nanterre and then in Montpellier that affordable housing can be generous and detailed with care

Credit:Stephen Gill

Cross-section of Îlot 19 in Nanterre, France

Moussavi is now back in the US, building a new Ismaili Centre in Houston commissioned by the Aga Khan to house an ensemble of cultural, religious and social spaces for the Ismaili Muslim community. It forms part of a global network of similar buildings, each a set piece project and each freighted with the architectural ambitions of its particular era. But while London’s Ismaili Centre in South Kensington, designed by Hugh Casson and inaugurated by Margaret Thatcher in 1985, is characterised by a slightly self-conscious appropriation of Islamic motifs, FMA’s Houston version is a more subtle abstraction of geometric and spatial possibilities anchored within a garden landscape.

This transmigration of Muslim culture mirrors the geographic and experiential arc of Moussavi’s early life, which extended from the Caspian Sea all the way to Dundee. Brought up in Sari, in northern Iran, her family came to England in 1979 after the Iranian Revolution. She initially studied architecture in Dundee, a provincial Scottish city more famous for ‘jam, jute and journalism’ than its capacity to incubate radical architectural pedagogy. ‘At the beginning, Dundee was very far away and very cold and it was a shock,’ she recalls, ‘but I really loved my three years there. There was more of a technical aspect to the course, which in hindsight I think I benefited from. Every project had a design and a technical submission, with two different discussions.’

With a light steel structure and Persian motifs, the Houston Ismaili Centre is currently under construction

Her preoccupation with detailing, fabricating and how buildings are put together underscored her unorthodox curation of the architecture room for the 2017 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Usually this tends to resemble a bewildering architectural jumble sale, but Moussavi framed it through the more rigorous prism of construction coordination drawings. These convey how a building is to be assembled, uniting the different exhibits around the idea of architecture as an ‘instruction-based art’. It also showed how drawings intended primarily as technical documents could have an innate and curious beauty.

‘Over the course of a career that has seen profound convulsions in what it means to be an architect, she relishes the prospect of a transformative future’

Her practice continues to be energised by her parallel lives of teaching – she has been a fixture at the Harvard GSD for 15 years – and research, conducted through FMA’s FunctionLab and critically examining the discipline of design through its attendant tools and concepts. Her well-received publications on form, style and ornament are about to be joined by a volume on architecture and micropolitics. ‘Practice is where architecture finds its relevance,’ she says, ‘while teaching and research allow us both to fast forward, with observations that we might have, or speculate, in the absence of constraints that should be questioned.’ With her students at Harvard, Moussavi has been developing a particular focus on housing and adaptive reuse, areas where architecture can potentially be at its most socially minded. Recent speculative projects have included transforming Paris’s increasingly redundant parking structures into housing. ‘Thousands of Parisians are not using cars any more,’ she explains, ‘so there are car parks scattered all around the city on some really great sites.’ Over the course of a career that has seen profound convulsions in what it means to be an architect, she relishes the prospect of a transformative future. ‘I’d like to think that we are future-oriented,’ she asserts. ‘We act with the means of the present but with the future in mind.’

Constantly engaged in research, Moussavi is finalising work on a book about architecture and micropolitics, to accompany her previous publications on form, style and ornament

My final Farshid Moussavi vignette is of her hosting an evening workshop at her house in Pimlico for the New Architecture Writers programme. Scooting around, again in scary platforms, she dispensed delicious Persian food and chatted animatedly to the cohort of young writers of colour who will be the design critics of tomorrow, shaping a different kind of future. Perhaps, to begin with, they felt every bit as tongue-tied in her presence as I did on that plane, but over the course of the evening, through the warmth of her hospitality and conversation, she made sure that any youthful inhibitions melted clean away.

The Jane Drew Prize

A spirited advocate for women in a male-dominated profession, Jane Drew graduated from the Architectural Association in 1929 into a profession that was unwelcoming to women at best. She started her own practice after the Second World War, and her work played a substantial role in introducing the Modern Movement into the UK.

Last year, the prize was given to Kate Macintosh. Previous winners include Amanda Levete, Odile Decq, Grafton Architects’ founders Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, Zaha Hadid, Kathryn Findlay of Ushida Findlay and Eva Ji?i?ná.

The Ada Louise Huxtable Prize

Ada Louise Huxtable made history by being the first full-time architecture critic at a US newspaper when she joined the New York Times, and was later awarded the first Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1970. Ghanaian-Scottish architect Lesley Lokko won in 2021. Feminist writer Beatriz Colomina won in 2020. Swiss-French artist and architectural photographer Hélène Binet won in 2019. Sculptor Rachel Whiteread, former Serpentine Galleries director Julia Peyton-Jones and client and architectural patron Jane Priestman are the previous recipients of the accolade.

This piece is featured in the AR March 2022 issue on Bodies + W Awards – click here to buy your copy today

Lead image credit: Anne Purkiss / The Royal Academy of Arts

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