Persian Architecture Symbolism Explained by Shiraz Architect Samane Zare
Persian architecture has been inspiring other cultures since the beginning of recorded history. As one of the oldest occupied places on earth, Persia developed a distinctive style and techniques of building influenced by religion, mythology, and art.
Since 1935, the country of Persia has been known as Iran, and today the two names are often used interchangeably. Politics, location, and the surrounding community are all factors in who refers to themselves as Persian or Iranian. Many are proud to refer to themselves as Persian, connecting to their ethnic roots.
Architect Samane Zare has been inspired by the architectural styles of her hometown of Shiraz, and in the city of Bushehr, where she studied architecture, as well as the Iranian capital of Tehran, where she got her master's degree. Samane's work incorporates the best of ancient traditions with the new, modern styles.
In this conversation with Samane, she shares her expert opinion on different styles, how patterns have evolved over time, and her personal favorite features. Enjoy this look into the world of Persian architecture!
The Inspiration of Borujerdiha House
Meg: How did you first become interested in architecture?
Samane: Well, first of all, I think living in Shiraz is enough to inspire interest in art, history, and nature. I mean, imagine seeing the tomb of Hafez, Jahan-nama garden, and Karim-Khan citadel in less than half an hour as I was just walking home from school.
To describe these historic sites in more detail, the Tomb of Hafez, commonly known as Hafezieh, is a memorial structure in memory of the celebrated Persian poet Hafez. This tomb, its gardens and the surrounding memorials to the other great figures are a focus of tourism in Shiraz.
Jahan Nama garden is another one of the most famous tourist attractions in Shiraz. This large walled garden has been arranged in the classic Persian gardens, four broad avenues, bordered with orange trees, cypresses and roses converge on an octagonal stone pavilion at the centre.
The Arg of Karim Khan is a citadel located in downtown Shiraz. It was built as part of a complex during the Zand dynasty. In the past, the citadel was sometimes used as a prison, but today it is a museum and a public plaza surrounds it.
With this background, when I was 17 and there was a single year left to choose a field of study, we had a trip to Kashan city and saw the Borujerdiha historical house. From the moment of entering this unique house, the features of Persian architecture could be seen. Throughout it, decorations with intricate and considerable details were used.
Borujerdi House is an example of a wealthy Kashan family residence of the 19th century. This house, besides being an outstanding masterpiece of Persian architecture, also has a story. It was said that a merchant from Kashan fell in love with a girl from an affluent family. To impress her family, he dedicated this house to the girl, who became his wife. The construction took 18 years and 150 craftsmen—no wonder it is one of the most impressive buildings of the city. From the moment of entering this unique house, the features of Persian architecture could be seen.
After some stairs, we reached the main courtyard, where paintings and acrographies that are known as aesthetic masterpieces of Iranian art could be seen. Each part of the house narrates a historical legend. By entering each space, a pleasant story is envisaged in the mind. For example, in one hall the story of Lily and Majnoon can be seen in its unique paintings, and in another hall, the story of Yusuf and Zulaikha.
Entering any part of the Boroujerdiha house is a wonderful and valuable experience, but the turning point of this experience for me was when I entered the “Sard’ab” in the basement. Sard’ab is a room that was built underground in the regions where the weather is so hot to stay away from the earth’s heat while also being cooled by windbreaks. Sard’ab used to function as a refrigerator in ancient times, where food and water were stored to keep it cool.
Since this house is located in a desert city and the weather was really hot, when I opened the Sard’ab door, I was faced with such fresh air that I closed my eyes for a few moments and enjoyed the touch of coolness. That was an incredibly pleasant experience that made a deep impression on me. I inquired about the cause for this air and realized that architecture could create such a pure, unique, and pleasant experience.
Principles and Designs of Persian Architecture
Meg: Persian architecture is beautiful and distinctive. Can you share an overview of some of its principles and design elements and how they evolved historically?
Samane: What is known today as the principles of Iranian architecture include five concepts: human scale; introversion; materials and module-based design; self-sufficiency; and avoidance of futility.
In Iran, rooms are referred to according to the ratio of doors to large tall windows, such as a three-door or a five-door room.
A three-door room is usually considered a bedroom. The width of the room was constructed based on what is needed for sleeping space, nothing more!
In the traditional Iranian lifestyle, people sleep on the ground, so niches are constructed at a height so they can be used as tables or as a console table.
Introversion is rooted in the culture and character of the Iranian people and its purpose is to create privacy, the cause of which can be found in the dominant climate of Iran.
As the prevailing climate of Iran is arid and semi-arid and a large part of the country is desert, which has considerable heat, this climate affects people’s lives. In these areas, they generally took refuge in the heart of the earth to escape the heat, minimizing contact with the outside environment as much as possible. Instead, there is a tradition of creating a central courtyard with tall trees and a pond to create the desired climate.
A module is a unit that exists between the components of a building and is expressed through geometry. Modules are subject to many factors such as the use of the building, the number of users, and the type of materials.
Self-sufficiency means prioritizing resources, so construction is done faster, and the building is compatible with the surrounding nature, and the building materials are always available during renovations.
There are four necessary conditions for avoiding futility. First, there must be a goal. Second, the design must be in dignity and of the size required. Third, the design needs to have already been tested and proven to work. Fourth, the design must have logic and beauty.
The Advent of the Arch and Muqarnas
There is a great variety of Persian architectural elements, some of which are found in most historical buildings and some are used according to the climate of each region. In the following, some of these elements will be introduced. The advent of the arch method is in fact an innovative response to the limitations, such as the lack of solid and elongated wood faced by the ancient method of beams and columns.
The dome as a kind of arch has a long history in Persian architecture too, especially in wide openings, which has become more popular. The iwan is a rectangular entry hall that usually consists of an arch, closed on three sides and open towards the hall. Iwan are open to the flow of air, and they prevent the annoying sunlight.They are extremely important as one of the Persian architectural elements and give the building prominence and glory. It is a focal point for various decorations of the building as muqarnas, brickwork, and tiling. These elements continued their significant trend towards growth and perfection until the Islamic architecture and even after that.
From research into ancient structures, we can understand that in the beginning, ornamented vaulting designs called muqarnas were used to convert a square plan into a circle. So muqarnas played a practical role at first and over time. The use of better and more advanced facilities in architecture eventually turned muqarnas into a decorative element.
"We can imagine that the first creators of this art form observed the natural shapes of icy and calcareous stalactites inside caves. The art of nature inspired the concept of chandeliers and early Persian architects adopted the idea for both interior and exterior surfaces of the buildings, using gypsum bricks or cement to achieve the effect." Muqarnases are usually used on recessed surfaces of the corners under the roof. In each row, the ledges are placed in front of their lower row to meet at the center of the door.
Kasra Arch in Ctesiphon
Meg: Could you describe specific buildings that exemplify Persian architectural elements?
Samane: The Kasra Arch is the most prominent example of heritage of the Sassanid Empire in Ctesiphon, which was the capital of ancient Iran. This historical monument with a height of 30 meters is the tallest man-made brick arch and is 365 meters long and 275 meters wide, which is extremely amazing in its kind. This building was built not only to show advanced engineering but also to represent the power and wealth of the kingdom.
Inside the arch shell, clay pipes have been installed at regular intervals, which are thought to have been installed in order to hang the lights. Ctesiphon palace and especially its magnificent iwan was a place for important and public meetings and also for traditional celebrations such as Nowruz in the presence of the Sassanid emperor.
Soltanieh Dome in Zanjan
The American expert on Persian art Arthur Opham Pole said the Soltanieh Dome is very strong and full of spirit. After the Santa Maria church in Italy and the Hagia Sophia in Turkey, the Soltanieh Dome is the third tallest dome in the world, and the largest historical one in Iran. Soltanieh has been recognized by UNESCO as the largest brick dome.
The Soltanieh Dome had been a source of inspiration for architects in the construction of the Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence Cathedral) in Italy, and also the Taj-Mahal of India. Another surprising feature of this structure is its weight of 1600 tons, which has been standing for over 700 years and has subsided only 8 centimeters!
The dome skylights acted as a clock to tell time. At noon, the light shines in through the main hole of the dome, signaling the call to prayer. The light shining from the large windows indicates the hour and through the small windows demonstrates the minutes. This is one of the extraordinary, very intelligent, and distinctive features of its architecture.
Aali Qapo Palace in Isfahan
Evidence shows that iwan was used in aristocratic houses and religious buildings in pre-Islamic periods. In the Islamic era, the use of iwans in various types of architecture, such as mosques, schools, and Caravanserai has become common, and in recent times has been used in palaces and government buildings. Iwans are classified into three types based on the roof covering: iwan with an arch cover, iwan with a flat cover, and a combination of a columnar and arched type. The arched example is like the Kasra Arch mentioned before, so here I will refer to the columnar example, the Aali Qapo palace.
This building is located on the west side of Naghshe Jahan Square and in front of Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque. It is 48 meters high and has 6 floors that can be reached by a spiral staircase. On the third floor, there is a large iwan that is based on 18 tall pillars. These columns were covered with mirrors at that time and a ceiling with large plates decorated with paintings and wooden elements was placed on top of it. In the middle, there is a beautiful pool of marble and copper, the symmetry of which is reflected in the decorations of the ceiling. Shah Abbas, the 17th century king of Iran, is said to have watched polo and other performances at Naghsh Jahan Square from Aali Qapo Iwan.
Shah Mosque in Isfahan
Muqarnas is an art form used under domes or half domes on iwans. In fact, muqarnas is a kind of three-dimensional and prominent embodiment of geometric patterns and Girih tiles of Iranian architecture and art. Muqarnas are adjacent to important buildings of the Safavid period such as Aali Qapo palace. Shah mosque is located on the south side of Naghsh Jahan Square in Isfahan within the Safavid state. The main door is located on the south side and below the majestic muqarnas.
The seven-color tiling of the muqarnas of the entrance iwan is one of the most beautiful examples of tiling art of the Safavid era.
Continual Evolution of Persian Architecture
Meg: I understand that Persian architecture is distinct from other Islamic architecture. How so, and why?
Samane: It seems that such a comparison is not possible because Islamic architecture does not exist as a special style separate from Persian architecture. Iranian architecture has been a continuous architecture that has gone through different periods from the far past and has had its own special effect in each period in accordance with the requirements of that period.
Just as we had Persian architecture in the Achaemenid, Sassanid, or Safavid periods, there is also Persian art in the Islam era, and when looking at the Islamic buildings, we understand the Persian architectural background. Take mosques as an example, they are nothing but Sassanid fire temples; a rectangular plan with a dome.
In fact, we are extremely proud that our architecture is a continuous one that has come from the past to the present and is a special technical method that has progressed over time and follows its past.
Respect For Nature Prominent in Persian Architecture
Meg: The patterns of nature are a feature of Persian architecture. Can you share what some of these patterns are and how they are used and how they evolved?
Samane: Empathy and respect for nature have deep cultural roots, and the peaceful coexistence of humans, architecture, and nature in the traditional architecture of Persia is quite evident. One of the first examples is the Anahita Temple, which was a place to worship and reverence water.
After that, we can refer to the lotus flower, which was the symbol of immortality in ancient Iran. As this flower was the only one that appeared inside the silent swamps. The patterns of this flower have been used as a symbol of purity, peace, and happiness in Achaemenid buildings, including Persepolis.
In later periods, plant patterns have been widely used in the colorful tiling of domes and iwans. In general, a variety of decorative motifs can be used; animals, plants, and geometric patterns.
The foundation of geometric and plant motifs is on the circle. The circle is the perfect geometric shape and the Islamic art is a picture of perfection, so geometric and plant motifs are always associated with unity in diversity and diversity in unity. Each branch in turn is divided into other branches and the repetition of the reciprocal curve lines is alternating, rhythmic, and unlimited and creates a balanced and free design. This pattern was first seen in the pre-Islamic period and has been perfected in the Islamic period.
Incorporating Persian Colors in Pottery, Tiling, and Glass
Meg: I find the use of color especially beautiful in Persian architecture. Is there a philosophy behind this? Are there a couple of buildings that you feel really make particularly good and harmonic use of color?
Samane: Color and light are the main elements that have played an important role in traditional Persian architecture since the past. The use of shadows and colors together gives a mystical feeling to space, especially religious ones such as mosques.
The use of color in Iran is so prominent that there are some colors known as "Persian colors" in the world. For example, one of the colors that is abundant in traditional Iranian buildings is Persian blue, which is also known in Iran as Azure blue. Azure color is one of the most widely used color in tiles and pottery of Persian art. This color has been used a lot due to the existence of azure mines in Iran.
The use of color has been extremely popular not only in tiling and pottery but also in a colored glass of Orosi. These windows are often made of wooden nets with very delicate and beautiful geometric patterns in the form of knots using pieces of colored glasses. They are usually made in such a way that they cover the entire outer surface of a room. Orosi windows allow enough sunlight to enter the room, no less and no more.
Psychologically, the different colors of these glasses and the creation of the unique light have different effects on humans, and each color next to the other neutralized the intensity of this effect and adjusts the appropriate amount. Most of the colors used in Orosi are azure, red, green, and yellow and each has a distinct psychological effect.
Another masterpiece of using colors is the Nasir Al-Molk mosque. It is known as the Pink Mosque and is one of the most beautiful mosques in Iran in terms of tiling and muqarnas, the play of light and color giving it a unique beauty. No one can see the wonderful view that falls into the nave, floor, and columns after the sunlight passes through the colored glass, in any painting.
The main feature of colored glass is to reduce heat and sunlight by creating different colors. The colors bring up a sense of relaxation and reduce environmental stress. In the past, some people believed that these glasses kept the insects away and prevented them from entering the house.
Persian Gardens, a Piece of Heaven
Meg: Gardens, fountains, and pools are features of Persian architecture. Can you share some of the history behind this, and a couple of examples you really admire and why?
Samane: What is known as the Persian garden today is the garden based on its architecture and constituent elements such as geometric structure, water, and trees with the middle pavilion mainly prevalent in the Iranian and surrounding areas influenced by its culture. In Iranian literature, it was called Paradise.
The Persian garden has three unique designs: first, it is located in the water path. Second, it is surrounded by high walls. Third, there is a summer mansion with a pool. These three characteristics distinguish Persian gardens. The Persian garden of Pasargadae is considered to be the model inspiring these characteristics.
The design aesthetic of Persian carpets are world renowned and the garden is a major theme of many Persian carpets. As the Perisan art historian Arthur Pope wrote: "the garden is the most important subject of interest to Iranians and can be seen in almost all Iranian rugs in a glorious and vivid way. Persian carpet is more a garden rather than a carpet; next to the central ponds, the trees are beautifully planted and decorated with flowers."
In the Iranian mind, the garden is an allegory of a piece of heaven that brings comfort to the body and peace to the soul. For example, Shahzade (Prince) Mahan is a flourishing and pleasant garden in the heart of the desert and is located on the ancient Silk Road. "It is one of the perfect Persian gardens, with ingenious engineering using sloping to direct water from the Ghanat and Tigran Rivers. One of the features of such gardens is the unique and spectacular display of water in a stepped manner and both in horizontal and vertical levels. Seeing tempesting water, ponds and fountains are an emphasis of the axes perpendicular to the main axis and together with the vegetation provides unique views.
In this garden, various fruit trees can be seen and in front of the mansion, ponds and fountains have created a pleasant experience. Water for the garden is supplied from the small Tigran river. Due to the hot weather in the summer, the gardens of arid and desert cities have always been important. The main factor that always gave vitality to Persian gardens was the flowing water that moved in the sloping and spiral streams and made the garden air extremely pleasant. Besides that, they often create a steep and noisy flow of water that can be heard throughout the garden and give a sense of freshness.
Calligraphy: Meaningful, Instructive, Honorable and Sacred
Meg: Calligraphy is another beautiful feature of Persian architecture. Can you share some history and context for its usage, and single out one or two buildings you admire?
Samane: One of the most attractive and diverse architectural decorations of Safavid period buildings are Nasta’liq inscriptions which have been executed in different ways in buildings with various uses such as a mosque, school, palace, house, bazaar, caravanserai, and bridge. These inscriptions also contain valuable information such as descriptions of buildings, founders, architects, and artists, the identification and introduction of which leads to the clarification of background information in the history of Persian architecture and calligraphy.
Such inscriptions have been common in Persian buildings since ancient times. An inscription left in 1510 by one of Persia's greatest rulers, Darius the Great, describes the extent of his Empire in geographical terms. Another example is Bistun inscription which is the largest one in the world and the first well-known Iranian text from the Achaemenid period, which is located on the Bistion mountain near the Kermanshah city. This inscription is one of the most important and famous historical documents during the Achaemenid period and even in world history.
Going back to relatively modern history, during the Timurid and Safavid dynasties in the 15th - 17th centuries, one of the most common methods of decoration was muaraques, which was widely used for inscriptions. After that, the seven-color tile, due to its simpler execution method quickly replaced it in the implementation of the Persian architectural decorations.
In general, the nature and beauty of the inscriptions depend on various factors: text and content, type of calligraphy, composition and materials type, precise and delicate execution. Among all, content and type of calligraphy have an irreplaceable role. Calligraphy is inherently meaningful, instructive, honorable, and sacred. The architect honors and sanctifies the building by placing calligraphy on everything.
The Inscriptions of Isfahan Grand Mosque
Isfahan Grand Mosque, also known as the Atique Grand Mosque, is a historical monument of Isfahan. It was originally made of raw clay but was replaced by brick to increase stability. In the inscriptions of this mosque are written the king's names such as the Seljuk king, Shah Abbas Safavid. The names of seven ministers and advisers are also recorded including Khajeh Nizam al-Mulk and Mohammad Hussein Khan Sadr. The names of nine founders and twenty artists and calligraphers are also engraved in the inscriptions. These inscriptions are made of plaster and bricks and are decorated with calligraphies such as Kufi, Slat, Nasta’liq, and Banai and some verses from the Quran.
Architecture of Shiraz, Bushehr and Tehran Shape Samane's Style
Meg: Your own portfolio is stunning. How would you characterize your own work?
Samane: "As mentioned before, I grew up in Shiraz city, which has amazing history, culture, and art, from Persepolis to countless gardens." Courtyard houses with iwans facing the lush and enchanting courtyard are the main features of the residential texture and traditional architecture of Shiraz.
I studied architecture in Bushehr, which has a unique historical context and its buildings have such beautiful architecture that in addition to emotional symmetry, instead of strong geometric symmetry, a symphony of colors is shown on its doors and windows. The variety of semi-open spaces that are compatible with the climate and the existence of the sea as a natural attraction has caused it to have a different architecture from other cities.
After that, I lived in Tehran to get my master in architecture. This capital city is actually the cradle of contemporary buildings of Iran. The architects have expanded the boundaries of traditional architecture and used traditional elements of Persian architecture in modern designs, from the symbolic freedom tower to the beautiful museum of contemporary art, and also the city’s theatre.
Living in such cities and gaining these different experiences along with the knowledge that Persian architecture is the appropriate one to the context, made me find out the background and context of each project, and to try to design every plan from its origin and all my effort is to be able to do this.
Light and Climate of Shiraz Inspire Designs
Meg: Your work seems to combine contemporary design with Persian elements and you make great use of light. Can you share about how you approach the traditional while having your own style?
Samane: Shiraz has a moderate climate and generally has optimal conditions. Using natural ventilations enhances climatic comfort, making the use of mechanical air conditioning less significant. And since the sunshine in Shiraz is neither low nor scorching, and in winter the temperature rarely drops below zero degrees celsius, it can be concluded that use of the large openings not only does not harm the comfort of the building’s occupants, but also causes us to use maximum natural daylight and minimize the need for artificial light.
Therefore, it is possible that buildings and even apartments in densely-built urban blocks can be designed in a way using the most natural light. This is the first principle that we extremely try to consider in all of our projects. As in the old buildings of Shiraz, tall and large windows have been used.
Since in Persian architecture, the function and design appropriate to the climate has been a priority and the patterns that we know as Persian elements have been derived from these concepts, so the same concepts can be used in today’s buildings, not just the same element.
For example, traditional houses in Shiraz featured central courtyards with trees and greenery that provided a favorable temperature and freshness. Since a large part of daily life took place in the courtyard, this space was usually larger than the enclosed areas of a residence. If we consider this model based on the needs and function of today’s homes, then we have to bring the yard within the closed space, meaning we design homes that have an interior courtyard.
As just vertical photo could show the central void, I choose this. But there is another photo of this house either
Samane's Favorite Projects
Meg: Can you single out two or three of your projects and the goals for each, and how you achieved those goals?
Samane: I have worked at Shaaroffice for four years and that makes me proud to be part of such a team. I‘d like to describe three of our projects which have strong concepts of Persian architecture elements and also have been focused on local architecture.
Pazira Gasht Travel Agency
This project was a renovation of a commercial unit into a travel agency. Besides the spaces that were needed for the new usage, such as workspace, management room, and service spaces, the owner considered a warm and intimate workspace different from common office styles. Since this travel agency is mainly associated with foreign tourists and this office is a platform for them to get acquainted with Iran, we decided to use traditional materials and Persian motifs in design. Due to the project location, near the traditional buildings of Shiraz, especially the Zandieh complex, where brick is widely used, the main material has been considered to be brick.
During the design process, we were looking for a symbol to represent the use of the office as a travel agency that would be connected to the whole world, which led us to a world map. This map of the whole world was executed in pixelated glazed bricks on a brick background. In the end, the result is a reminder of different cultures can come together all over the world.
The floor also has been covered by azure glazed tile, which the idea was inspired by the Pink mosque. Finally, by improving the sidewalk and creating an integrated glass wall, the maximum visual connection between inside and outside of the agency was created.
Qavam al-Din Pavilion
With the holding of Qavam al-Din Shirazi competition workshop in Afifabad Gardens, there was a need for a pavilion for the professors and judges.
As the pavilion should meet the requirements of the organizing committee to create an official space, a space of sincere companionship, a conference space, and a cafe for catering; the design should be done in such a way that a space is a fabric but at the same time distinct from each another
Considering the proximity of this pavilion with the Afifabad garden, the main idea was given from Afifabad garden as a general Persian garden. The main communication axes and plots around were the best option for creating desired desires, as well as allocate each plot to be assigned to one of the functions.
Pavilion's walls were designed based on the visual communication with the outside. two bodies based on internal activity (meeting space and dialogue space) and also proximity to the entrance of the garden and ticket box, were designed semi-rigid with wooden twisting blades, and panels of the entrance side were semi-rigid and transparent.
On the ceiling of functional spaces, the combination of fabric frames, wooden blades, and slimi-slabs were used to experience a different kind of playing light and shadows during a day and beautiful views to the sky.
The ceiling of the corridors is designed differently from the ceiling of the quad-spaces, in the form of movable tents with the possibility of opening and closing, which act as the separators of the function.
Tiss Conceptual Civic Center
This project was a conceptual competition designed for beautiful everlasting spring harbor, Chabahar in Systan and Baluchistan province, Iran.
The subject of this competition focused on a proposal for a concept design to build a smart city developing future cities on the Oman sea line border of Iran.
Tiss is a city designed to attract the investors and entrepreneurs to live in; so the neighbor center of the city become the subject of the architectural competition.
The goal of our design was to create a smart city neighborhood center that respects the importance of local architecture and cultural customs.
To fulfill this goal, we needed a unique strategy of flexibility and smartness.
It is clear that the need to communicate is an ongoing necessity--but society changes over time, and so smartness means the ability to forecast the future needs of a city and citizens. Being flexible is required in order to tolerate inevitable changes is a real need.
To translate this concept into architecture we came up with some other design techniques:
Plan libre lets us build a structure to adapt itself to changes – the main concept of sustainability.
The whole project was designed around flexibility with the only fixed place being the “holy place” to worship; intentionally we avoid using religious forms to construct a place of gathering and meditation for all. We think it is the real meaning of flexibility and tolerance.
To sum up; we think the presence of humans is the only means of sustainability and that presence will be required for smartness in the future.