The Underground Classrooms of Future Architects

, , Leave a comment


In the film, Dr. Mitra Kanaani, a professor and director of the NewSchool of Architecture and Design in San Diego, outlines the challenges one group of architecture students faced

A film about the Baha’is of Iran and their commitment to education and resilience despite hostility from the leaders of the Islamic Republic has attracted thousands of public votes in the 2019 American Institute of Architects Film Challenge (AIA Film Challenge), which this year focuses on the theme of sustainability.

The five-minute film, The BIHE: Using Architecture Education as a Means to Create Resiliency and Sustainability in a Community, focuses on the Baha’i community’s architecture program, which is taught in makeshift classrooms because Baha’is are banned from attending higher education in Iran.

The film opens with images of classrooms and studio sessions in living rooms, offices, kitchens, back yards or in the basement of houses. In the classes, which people from the Baha’i community generously offer up to support and promote education and celebrate the ethos of learning, students can be seen using various design tools (T-squares, drafting boards, compasses and engineering protractors). Because classrooms are set up mainly in informal environments, they do not meet the normal standards of an architectural learning environment.

The Establishment of the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education

Since Iran’s Revolution in 1979, the Baha’i’s of Iran have been deprived of their legitimate citizen’s rights, among them the right to pursue higher education. In 1987, the Baha’i’ community, as an assertive and at the same time non-combatant and peaceful solution, established a university, the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE). On numerous occasions, Iranian authorities have raided various departments of the university and its classrooms and laboratories, confiscated learning materials and resources, and in many cases sealed the rooms so people could not gain access to them. Throughout the years, the BIHE has sustained its work, granting degrees at both graduate and undergraduate levels for a range of majors and disciplines.

In the film, Dr. Mitra Kanaani, a professor and director of the NewSchool of Architecture and Design in San Diego and a contributor to the development and growth of the BIHE’s architecture program, tells the story of the deprivations and challenges one group of architecture students faced, and their pursuit of education and progress.

The AIA Film Challenge

The film has now been entered into the AIA Film Challenge. For the last five years, the American Institute of Architects has organized the competition to connect art and the film industry to architecture, with the ultimate goal of raising awareness about the current environmental and societal issues in the world today, and the challenges that humanity and the world face. It invites architects to come together with filmmakers to produce a short documentary film on a specified topic. This year’s theme is how architecture plays a role in promoting sustainability and resilience within communities.

Since the inception of the Architecture Department at the BIHE 15 years ago, Kanaani, a fellow of the American Institute of Architects, has contributed extensively to the development of its educational program, teaching as a Global Associate Faculty member and representing the institute outside Iran.

A number of film entries have been selected for the second phase, which is currently at the public voting phase.

View the film, and cast your vote.

IranWire spoke with Mitra Kanaani about the film.

This years’ AIA Film Challenge topic is “sustainability.” Can you explain how your film related the concept of “sustainable architecture” with the current condition for BIHE architecture students?   

In general, the meaning of sustainability relates to various aspects and ways that societies can establish sustenance on planet earth, and how architecture promotes and contributes to this vital goal for humanity.

The major goal of the film we submitted for this competition is to depict the resilience and sustainability of a group of minorities, and the manner [in which] they have been able to resist and overcome the imposed obstacles to their advancement by way of utilizing the most peaceful approach possible. This peaceful solution has been executed by members of the community possessing and demonstrating deep passion, and with high aspirations for excellence and advancement, who have taken charge of providing higher education for young people who have been deprived of their legitimate right to higher education because of their personal beliefs.

What did the filmmaking process involve? How long did it take to produce?  

From the time the competition was announced, and after decision-making with my friend and former student Nasim Rowshan, who is also a graduate of the BIHE architecture program with a Masters’ degree from Yale, we only had two weeks to the deadline for submission of the film. I started drafting the script and developed a tentative scenario for the film, while Nasim focused on gathering and selecting pictures, videos and visual documents and drawings of some of the thesis projects from her own and other students’ personal archives.

The second step was inviting and connecting with Mr. Arash Rod, and seeking his collaboration to use his expertise for technical skills in film-making. Indeed, he manifested his high technical skill with limited access to resources and materials. The main focus of the film, and inherent in the subject of this film, is the rendition of the most peaceful approach and amazing resilience and resolve of the BIHE architecture students in their relentless striving to attain the highest goal for personal advancement, irrespective of the imposed obstacles put in their path.

It seems as though sending a humanitarian message to the audience warranting equity, equality and justice using architecture as a tool might be a challenging and difficult task. What are your thoughts on this?

Naturally it is. However, I think we have been successful in sending this humanitarian message. The film begins with images of a group of students gathered in a small residential unit. It addresses designers and architects who have prior experience of a typical and mainstream environment for teaching and learning about architecture, and seeks their opinion about [what it is like to see] enthusiastic architecture students receiving architectural instructions in the basement or in the back yard of a house, or learning in constant fear of getting arrested while being educated in an office. None of these settings are considered proper environments for education.

Most likely, such a story about a minority group learning architecture in such a setting and in such circumstances is not acceptable in any other part of the world; the film demonstrates explicitly the conditions that a group of students faces, crammed together, sitting on the floor and occupying almost every bit of space in a tight residential setting, trying to carry out their design exercises with limited, substandard, as well as insufficient, educational resources and equipment.

However, regardless of the uncommon setup and conditions of the BIHE teaching and learning environment, these students take part in these sessions with a high degree of enthusiasm and move forward — without holding any high hopes and expectations for their future advancement and employment or job prospects.

How did you become an architect?

Before talking about myself, I would like to mention that the Baha’i’s of Iran, throughout the years, have been involved in and devoted to promoting Persian art and Iranian cultural heritage. They have been instrumental in promoting modernization and contributed to the development of a dynamic trajectory for the construction of a new infrastructure for a progressive country. The Azadi Monument, which symbolizes modernity and has remained one of the most beloved masterpieces of architecture for Iranians, is designed by one of the [country’s most] famous architects, Hossein Amanat, who is a Baha’i’.

As for me, I was raised in a family of architects. My grandfather, Abbas Farahmehr, was an architect/engineer and one of the three educated professionals in his field who had a major role and active participation in the construction of our new country. He was my role model and had a major influence in the formation of my mindset and lifetime goals as a youth, when I was selecting a major for my future career. He was instrumental in the development and construction of the country’s first roads, bridges and tunnels, such as Veresk Bridge and Kandevan Tunnel. As a well-educated practitioner of his time, following the methodology of the Bauhaus school of design for their prescribed blueprint of modernity, he was the one who introduced the skeleton structural system in his architectural design concepts of the new buildings, and the usage of steel structures, particularly in the daring design and construction of major institutional and large-scope projects. He served as a consulting architect/engineer for Prime Minister Seyyed Ziaedin Tabatabaee and Prime Minister Ghavam-Saltaneh during their tenures. His advanced designs and construction of the tea factories in Lahijan belonging to the early years of Pahlavi’s era have for many decades served the tea production industry of the Gilan region and the entire country.

Do you hope to use this competition as an opportunity to share the challenges of these young students with the wider world?

[With] the production of this film and participation in this competition, [we aim] to manifest the long and hard strivings of a group of minority citizens in the country, whom for the past 40 years have been deprived from reaching their high ambitions for personal advancement and progress. However, the world has evolved to a point that no reality and fact can remain uncovered and undetected. In this five-minute film, by focusing on the architecture program of the BIHE, we have tried to explicitly narrate, and vividly portray, the real story of a group of discriminated young minority citizens who have been working hard with deep passion and high ambitions to excel, and under the most unfavorable conditions, to learn to become decent and competent architects to serve their homeland and the world beyond.

Is the architect major regularly being taught and offered at the BIHE? Are you involved in teaching? 

Yes, 15 years ago I was informed through Mr. Hossein Amanat about the demand for an architecture program at the BIHE. As an experienced architect/educator who has had extensive experience with running and accreditation of architecture programs, I was asked to participate in the development of the program and its goals and mission, as well as its educational requirements. The first draft of the architecture program content was developed according to the existing architecture program content and the educational requirements enforced in the country. Based on my recommendations, it was transformed for more compatibility with the current architectural programs of the Western world and selected advanced institutions. This meant the design concepts for the BIHE students included integrative design, research methodology, and emphasis on developing deep understanding of and ability for design skills required for environmental resiliency and sustainability.

When did your interest in developing an architecture program begin? When did you feel the need for such a program emerged?

It was in 2005 that the first group of students was admitted to the architecture program of the BIHE. Starting in 2010, the first graduates finished the program; some of them were researching and working under my direct design supervision on their thesis projects. Throughout the years, most of my teaching design and research has been conducted long distance.

During the years, as representative of the BIHE architecture department outside of Iran, I also prepared an 80-page document seeking validation from the International Union of Architects (UIA) at UNESCO, and the National Architecture Accreditation Board in the US. The BIHE’s architecture program’s pursuit of validation, due to the lack of endorsement by the [Iranian] government, did not bear fruitful results with the UIA. However, in 2015, the executive director of the UIA forwarded a letter expressing support for the performance of the BIHE Architecture Program, and acknowledging the success of the program in nurturing capable future architects.

With respect to the BIHE students, throughout the years, we have strived to pave the way for some of the ambitious, passionate and talented graduates of the BIHE, to find a way to advance themselves by being admitted to prominent architecture programs and institutions. Among the graduates of the BIHE is Nasim Rowshan, who graduated a couple of years ago from Yale University with a distinction and is recently employed in the New York branch of Grimshaw Architects, currently one of the most prominent architectural firms in the world. Nasim worked with me in the production of the AIA Film Challenge, along with Arash Rod as the technical director.


Leave a Reply