Photo: Mohammad Hassan Ettefagh

The Bridge of Nature

Tehran – a metropolis with about twelve million inhabitants, countless roads and noisy streets. Right in the middle: the Tabiat Bridge (Persian "Nature" ), a pedestrian oasis hovering above a highway. The award-winning bridge was designed by Leila Araghian. During a visit at ifa Gallery Stuttgart she talks about her inspiration, why people are fascinated by the bridge and the obstacles she faced with her project.

Interview by Juliane Pfordte, podcast by Siri Gögelmann

ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen): Let's imagine I was a visitor in Tehran and you were my taxi driver. What would you show me? Where would you take me?

Leila Araghian: It depends on what you are interested in. Tehran has many different faces that are all interesting to see: the old historic part of the city with the Grand Bazaar and the Golestan Palace, the former complex of the Qajar family. I would also take you to the steep area close to the mountains with all the teahouses and restaurants, which are another typical element of the atmosphere. If you want to see the whole city from the very top, I would take you to Milad Tower, the highest tower of Iran, from which you can enjoy a very beautiful view to the city. But of course, first of all, I would show you my favourite place at the moment: the Tabiat Bridge.

ifa: What makes it special for you besides being its architect?

Araghian: It's more than a bridge, it's a public place with benches and corners, where people can stay and spend some time. It's also the largest pedestrian bridge in the country. And for me the most interesting aspect: it is mysterious. It is designed in a way that every time you visit the bridge, by taking a different route, you can experience it in a new way and discover something different. It's not a bridge that crosses a river like the famous Khaju Bridge in Isfahan. It's something completely different.

ifa: Why exactly?

Araghian: A river has always been there, it's rather part of nature – something beautiful that gives life to a city. However, a bridge above a highway is built to take care of the cars, so that they can go faster. In Tehran, we messed up our city with highways, but we cannot heal it with bridges.

ifa: The Tabiat Bridge was your first big project It won awarded Architizer A+ award, a global architectural recognition. You were only 26 when you designed it. How did you get the idea?

Araghian: Actually, the inspiration goes back almost 11 years when I was crossing a bridge with my friend Alireza Behzadi. We discovered an old couch that somebody just had placed on the sidewalk. We dragged it to the middle of the bridge, sat down and looked at the river. At that point I realised that we normally are used to cross the bridge in one direction, but if we stop in the centre and look to the other direction we can experience a totally new space. And that state of mind was the first thing I remembered when I took part in the competition for the bridge.

ifa: You were still studying architecture at that time – quite popular among students. Have you always wanted to become an architect?

Araghian: It just happened. It's not that I was surrounded by architects. I didn't even know what architecture was, until I started studying it. I chose architecture, because all the other majors seemed soulless, rigid and "cold". For me, architecture was the most artistic one, but also real compared to other art disciplines like literature. You can't mess with gravity, a building has to stand up. You have to respond to all the forces of nature.

ifa: Talking about responding to reality: Alejandro Aravena, the curator of this year's Venice Architecture Biennale, criticised universities for not enabling students to find solutions for imminent global problems like poverty and population growth. Would you agree?

Araghian: Architecture is such a wide profession that it is impossible for an architect to take care of everything. Schools and universities are places to raise questions and to help students discover what they are interested in. But I agree that social aspects are not that much questioned in schools of architecture in general all around the world, at least as far as I know. We, as architects and urban planners, are responsible for people's lives. People are confined in spaces all the time, no matter where they are. Spaces affect us physically and psychologically. For instance, if the handrails on our bridge were too short, it would give you a sort of fear of falling down. If they were too high, it could give you a feeling of a prison. If we design bad sidewalks, where people fall down and break their legs, or if we don't provide enough parking spaces and people fight over them, it's all our responsibility.

ifa: Your work bears resemblance to the buildings of German architects like Günter and Stefan Behnisch or Frei Otto. Do you have any "design heroes"?

Araghian: I'm inspired by the Iberian architects like Alvaro Siza. I'm a fan of his work because of the quality of his spaces. They are minimal but at the same time they give you the chance to discover new spaces. In the field of membrane structures, of course, Frei Otto influenced me. I believe after him nobody has taken the field of tensile structures much further. The work he did 50 years ago is still on the top, he was a master.

Construction by Diba Tensile Architecture, Dreamland Theme Park in Isfahan © Mohammad Hassan Ettefagh
Construction by Diba Tensile Architecture, Dreamland Theme Park in Isfahan © Mohammad Hassan Ettefagh
Star shaft tent of Cologne's Tanzbrunnen by Frei Otto; Photo: Willy Horsch, HOWI (own work, CC BY 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons
Star shaft tent of Cologne's Tanzbrunnen by Frei Otto; Photo: Willy Horsch, HOWI (own work, CC BY 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

ifa: In 2005 you, still a student, co-founded Diba Tensile Architecture together with the friend you mentioned, Alireza Behzadi. One year later the UN imposed the economic and financial nuclear-related sanctions, amongst others. How did these sanctions influence your work?

Araghian: For us it was a coin with two faces. On the one hand, we had no international competitors. We started an industry in a market that was completely new and empty at that moment. It gave us the space to grow. But obviously we also faced difficulties. Once we needed to purchase software from Australia, it took them three months to authorise the project and to authorise us just to make sure that we were not going to build bombs with it. Other companies simply sent us an e-mail saying "Sorry, we're not interested to work with Iran because of the sanctions."
Last year, when we wanted to submit the bridge to an international competition – the World Architecture Festival – we could not even register because Iran had been taken out of the list of countries. I believe the whole idea of the sanctions was to isolate and to suppress us in a way that we become weak, helpless and hopeless. But looking at our bridge and all the attention it has received internationally, we managed to show ourselves to the world. It gives me a very good feeling, a feeling of power.

ifa: To what extent did this isolation change after lifting the sanctions in January 2016?

Araghian: Obviously, it cannot change overnight. At the end of the day, it is all about money and the banks take care of the money. Even though the restrictions have been lifted, most of the European Banks still reject money from Iran. We are now facing a very serious problem in our work because of this fact. Now we read a lot on how many delegations are visiting Iran from Europe and how many agreements are being signed. But especially the financial isolation is changing very slowly.

ifa: One of the leading questions of the current ifa exhibition "Giving Yesterday a Tomorrow" is how a society deals with its cultural heritage. How important is it for you as an architect to preserve the past, the cultural heritage?

Araghian: It's very important. There is this famous saying: "You can't go anywhere if you don't know where you come from." For me it's very painful to see all the old buildings getting ripped down just because the owner wants to build another shopping mall, which is happening a lot in Tehran. We could have kept a lot more architecture like old residential buildings if we had extended the criteria for buildings that are recognised cultural heritage.

Tabiat Bridge; photo: Mohammad Hassan Ettefagh

ifa: What would be your personal answer to Le Corbusier’s question: How can we give yesterday a tomorrow?

Araghian: I always say that I'm an amateur and an illiterate architect. I'm not very good at making philosophical statements. We are living in the future of our yesterdays and our yesterdays were the future of their before yesterdays. I believe in the fact that good architecture has to be timeless. It has to be accepted at any time and place responding to very basic human needs, the physical and the psychological ones. If we manage to do so, our spaces will be working at any time, in the present and in the future. Then there is no yesterday or tomorrow, but the simple possibility to live the moment and stay in the present.

ifa: … linger and stay in the present – something more needed now than ever, that people are invited to do at your bridge. Thank you very much for the interview.

ifa Gallery Stuttgart

Charlottenplatz 17
70173 Stuttgart
Phone +49.711.2225.173

Tuesdays – Sundays   12 – 6 p.m.
Closed on Mondays and on holidays

Exhibition catalogue

Giving Yesterday a Tomorrow... Iran: Architecture and Art Stuttgart: Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa). – 79 pp.

Giving Yesterday a Tomorrow...

Iran: Architecture and Art

Stuttgart: Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa). – 79 pp.