Iran-bound

Earlier this year I received a travel grant from the Iran Heritage Foundation to visit Iran to look at patterned and sculptured brickwork.  I went on the 22nd of November and came back on the 13th of December.  I visited Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, Yazd, Kashan, and Tabriz.  I’m happy to report that Iran is no evil empire.  The people are friendly and kind and the only time that I was in danger was crossing the road (regardless of whether the light is green or red, everybody just goes!).  The brickwork was fabulous too—not just the old stuff, but the new stuff as well.

Pomegranates, not onions.

No similarities between the scary mannequins and me whatsoever.

This coffee table was presented to the Shah of Iran’s wife, Farah Diba, by Australia’s Governor General, Sir John Kerr.  I couldn’t see any grog stains on it though.

The culture of martyrdom.

Iran Heritage Foundation Grant Report: Patterned and Sculptural Brickwork in Iran
Derham Groves

I visited Iran between the 23rd of November and the 11th of December 2010.  My primary purpose was to look at patterned (i.e. 2-D or flat) and sculptural (i.e. 3-D or raised and recessed) brickwork.  I visited Tehran twice, Isfahan, Shiraz, Yadz, Kashan, and Tabriz.  Most commercial, domestic and public buildings in Iran are made of fired bricks.  These buildings are either solid brick or brick veneer (it is sometimes difficult to tell which).  I also saw lots of very old mud brick buildings, especially in Kashan.  I gave a lecture on Australian polychrome brickwork (i.e. the use of different coloured bricks to delineate figures or patterns) at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran and also at the Tabriz Islamic Art University in Tabriz.

Throughout Iran fired bricks are generally very good quality.  In Yadz I visited two neighbouring brick factories.  One produced extruded bricks that were fired in a huge Hoffman kiln, which was nearly a kilometre long.  The other factory produced pressed bricks that were fired in a less sophisticated downdraught kiln.  The sizes of bricks seem to vary throughout Iran.  A common or standard brick is approximately 210mm long x 95mm wide x 55mm high (this particular brick was measured in Isfahan).  Half-height bricks (210mm x 105mm x 40mm, also measured in Isfahan), known as “Roman” bricks in Australia, and a wide range of unusually shaped and sized bricks, which occasionally are glazed in blue or incorporate small squares of blue tile or mirror, are very popular throughout Iran.  And some very old buildings have square fired bricks, such as the Arg-e Karim Khan, an old citadel in Shiraz (230mm x 230mm x 50mm), and the Arg-e Tabriz, an ancient (ruined) fortified mosque in Tabriz (175mm x 175mm x 50mm).

As most of my work to date has focused on polychrome brickwork, (illogically) I expected to see more of this in Iran.  But Iranian brickwork is almost exclusively monochrome—the vast majority of bricks being yellowish-buff in colour.  The small amount of polychrome brickwork I saw was rather docile compared to that seen in Australia.  However, in many respects monochrome brickwork is more challenging to design than polychrome brickwork because all that the designer has to play with are the patterns of the bricks and mortar, known as “bonds”, and the effects of light and shadow.

Bricklaying is generally of a very high standard in Iran.  Bricklaying techniques that require a high degree of skill, such as arches, corbels, perforated brickwork, and vaults, are routine throughout the country.  I also observed many different types of brick bonds, including basket weave, header, herringbone, Flemish, and stack.  Interestingly, to emphasize the horizontality of brickwork, the vertical mortar joints or “perpends” are very frequently eliminated and the bricks simply butt jointed, and occasionally slithers of blue tiles are pushed into the bed joints as well.

In Iran it appears that traditional bricklaying skills are effectively passed down from one generation of bricklayers to another.  However, there is a recent trend to use materials such as concrete and steel especially for commercial and public buildings, which is driven by the speed of development, the need to ‘earthquake-proof’ buildings and current architectural fashion.  This may eventually lead to an erosion of bricklaying skills, as has happened in Australia over the years.

I anticipated seeing a lot of decorative brickwork on old and historic buildings and I was not disappointed.  The Arg-e Karim Khan in Shiraz, for example, has large continuous diamond or diaper 3-D patterns around each buttress at the four corners of the citadel, which ‘jump out’ due to them catching the light and casting shadows.  Some mud brick buildings also have this sort of decoration, such as the minaret at the Jameh mosque in Kashan.  Also the variety and intricacy of the 2-D patterns on the inside of the brick domes of the bazaars and mosques is truly amazing—circles, diamonds, hexagons, squares, stars, triangles, etc.  At Shahid Beheshti University I met Dr. Tehrani, an expert on the construction of brick domes in Iran, who gave me a CD of his research on the brick domes of the Masjed-e Jameh mosque in Isfahan.

I was surprised by how much decorative brickwork I saw on modern buildings.  For example, two impressive early 20th century brick buildings I saw were the redbrick building next to the former Senate (and now the Assembly of Experts) in Tehran, and the National Museum of Iran also in Tehran.  The former building is approximately 85 years old and has very elaborate brick friezes, columns and curlicues, which are perhaps best described as “Baroque”.  The French architect and archaeologist André Godard designed the redbrick National Museum of Iran in 1937 (but it looks decades more modern than that).  It has ‘spiky’ round columns made of specially shaped bricks and a huge parabolic vault or “iwan” at the entrance.

Many contemporary buildings have friezes and panels of 2-D patterned and 3-D sculptural brickwork on the balconies (not only the sides, but also underneath), fences, parapets, and spandrels.  In the case of houses, it appears that the more elaborate these decorations are, the more prosperous the homeowners are.  This was particularly evident in Shiraz where some of the most elaborate panels and friezes on houses I saw were in the obviously well to do district near Shiraz University.

My trip to Iran has sparked several ideas.  Over the next year I shall survey and reassess Australian monochrome brickwork, which was very popular in the 1950s and 1960s, but fell out of fashion soon afterwards.  The students in my architectural theory seminar at the University of Melbourne, where I teach, will design some monochrome brick walls based on the Iranian examples I saw and the Australian examples I shall find, and then apprentice bricklayers from a local trade school will build a selection of the architecture students’ walls.  I shall also design a specially shaped brick based on those I saw in Iran, and hopefully a local brick company will make a test batch of these.

Generally speaking, the Iran I experienced was totally different from the Iran you see on the six o’clock news.  The most dangerous thing I did in Iran was cross the road (regardless of whether the light is green or red, people just go!).  And the most frightening things I saw in Iran were the mannequins in the menswear stores (they were truly scary!).  Everyone was extremely helpful and very kind to me, especially Ms. Yalda Sourani, Ms. Sepideh Masoodinejad and Dr. Morteza Mirgholami.  I also wish to thank Mr. Richard West, Mr. Craig Hinrichs, Austral Bricks, and the Iran Heritage Foundation for their assistance.

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