Landscape architecture, garden design, planting design and management - Rowland Byass

Polsheer House, Isfahan


New Julfa is the Armenian quarter of Isfahan, Iran's most magnificent historical city. Shah Abbas I, the greatest of the Safavid monarchs, transplanted the Armenian community here in the sixteenth century to give a boost to his new capital. As traders and artisans, they were intended as the entrepreneurial seed for Isfahan's economy. They might not have had much choice, but the Armenians did well: Abbas built them a huge cathedral and New Julfa contains several large merchants' houses. Today there is still a strong community of Armenians here, who have retained their language and culture. Even under the Islamic Republic their religious rights are guaranteed, and they are exempted from the nationwide ban on alcohol.

Wandering through these streets in search of an Armenian church, I came across something unexpected.

Yes, that's the British royal coat of arms, as (still) used by the Foreign Office.

Polsheer House is a remarkable place. With Persian, Armenian and European identities, it has been the headquarters of a trading family, served as the British consulate in Isfahan, and now houses Polsheer, a contemporary Iranian architecture firm. The story of this building is also the story of Isfahan and Iran - but not one that many people in the West are familiar with.

The pool in the central courtyard of  the restored Polsheer House.

Polsheer House (the firm's name combines the Persian for 'bridge' and 'lion' and is not the building's original name) is home to a leading Iranian architecture firm, founded by Mohamad Reza Ghaneei, an architect who has worked in Europe and the USA. Polsheer's work is informed by both international contemporary architecture, and at the same time rooted in Iran's own architectural and cultural heritage. Mr Ghaneei cites David Chipperfield and Norman Foster for their clean simplicity and clarity of architectural thought; and Louis Kahn for his brand of monumental modernism informed by diverse historical influences.

Polsheer House dates from the seventeenth century. It was built by Armenian merchants, the Aghanourian family, who owned it for seven generations. As well as being traders, the Aghanourians were for a period agents of the British government, when the building served as the British consulate. Hence the Victoriania scattered around the building's interior: engravings of portraits, buildings and steamships are pasted onto the walls amongst the traditional plasterwork.

Mr Ghaneei bought the building in 1987, shortly after the end of the Iran-Iraq war. At that time it was derelict and partly ruined. The original intention was to restore it as a centre for a cultural exchange program with Cologne university, until political problems put a stop to the program. So the building became the offices of his architecture firm.

The architectural heritage on which this building draws differs from the Western tradition in certain important respects. There are no axes defining movement through the building. Instead, circulation rotates around the central courtyard via an upstairs corridor, with the ground floor rooms opening directly onto the courtyard. Climatology is central to traditional Iranian architecture. Rooms on the south-facing aspect of the courtyard are designed to be used in winter, when the warmth of the sun is needed. The eastern (west facing) side, which receives cooling breezes and escapes the fierce heat of the morning sun, is known as Shahneshin - 'seat of the king'). The western range of the building facing east is blank, as this receives the morning sun in the hot Persian summer.

Mirrors are used throughout the royal palaces of Isfahan to bounce light into dark corners and magnify the light of candles. Here they are used in a similar, but more contemporary way, to achieve the same purpose.

The rectangular pool in the building's courtyard lies at the centre of the building, reproducing its rectangular form. Like the rest of the building, its restoration is informed by Iranian design, but announces itself as modern. The traditional peacock-blue tiles line its interior, but are punctuated with an asymmetric design that is very much of this time.

On the restored exterior of the building, the new downpipes directing rainwater off the roof are lined with blue glazed tiles. They reference the tile-lined water channels seen in Persian gardens, but here deployed on a vertical surface.

The planting in the central courtyard uses massed flowers arranged into patterns that evoke those of Persian carpets, a feature seen in many Persian gardens.

In the grandest of the reception building's rooms, crosses in the stained glass windows are a reminder of the original Armenian owners'  Orthodox Christian religion. The Renaissance-style paintings in lozenges on the ceilings and walls may have been painted by Dutch artists.

The long and complex history of this building is also that of Iran itself. It is colourful, multilayered and influenced by a variety of cultural sources, yet at the same time distinctively Iranian. Like much of Iran's extremely rich cultural heritage, it deserves to be better known.

UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards 2002: Polsheer House



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