Yasaman Esmaili Studio Chahar

Quickly glancing at the resume of Yasaman Esmaili, one would not necessarily guess she works as an architect. Diplomat or crisis intervention specialist would seem a more realistic bet. Over the past several years, Esmaili took part in three remarkable projects—one in Afghanistan and two in Niger—that saw her deeply collaborate with local communities. She […]

Yasaman Esmaili Studio Chahar
Hikma Religious and Secular Complex Courtesy James Wang

Quickly glancing at the resume of Yasaman Esmaili, one would not necessarily guess she works as an architect. Diplomat or crisis intervention specialist would seem a more realistic bet. Over the past several years, Esmaili took part in three remarkable projects—one in Afghanistan and two in Niger—that saw her deeply collaborate with local communities. She did this while splitting her time between the U.S. and her native Iran. “It was not a deliberate choice”, she says. “My work is simply based on the opportunities that I have encountered.”

Born in Tehran in 1985, Esmaili received her Bachelor of Architecture from Tehran University in 2008. With a full graduate fellowship, she continued her education in the U.S. at the University of Arizona, earning her Master of Architecture degree in 2011. Afterward, she went to Arcosanti and worked with the late architect Paolo Soleri, developing digital models of some of the experimental community’s buildings. “At that time, the utopia of Arcosanti was already defeated by the capitalistic suburban growth of the Phoenix area,” Esmaili recalls. “Yet the presence of such a bold approach in the middle of its opposing energies was very impressive.” Esmaili says her first-hand experiences in Arcosanti, with its utopian beliefs and contemporary failure, had a great impact on her. She kept the faith that architecture and community could go hand-in-hand to create public good.

She got the chance to put that idea into practice when she continued to the University of Washington in Seattle for a Master of Science in Architecture degree. There, Esmaili also became a lead member in a student group that was specifically formed to design and construct the Gohar Khatoon Girls’ School in Masar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. The international, interdisciplinary team (which included among its members architects Elizabeth Golden and the late Bob Hull and Elizabeth Golden) worked closely with the community and authorities in Masar-i-Sharif—albeit largely remotely, via Skype calls and local builders—until the project opened in 2015. Even before that, she was on to her next project: Esmaili and three design team members from the Gohar Khatoon Girls School project set up a separate platform for collaborative work—called united4design—and started working on their next project in Niamey, the capital of the African country Niger.

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The project came about through one of united4design’s partners, the Niamey-born Mariam Kamara who offered to facilitate the project. The city faces a housing shortage, one partially due to its preponderance of traditional low-rise adobe buildings. In response, united4design devised a multifamily project which offers greater density (as compared to traditional Niamey housing) while still referencing pre-colonial regional typologies. They achieved that balance with modern compressed earth blocks (ECBs), concrete, and adobe construction techniques along with only slight tweaks to the traditional layout of Niger residences. Kamara made several initial site visits and assembled a construction, then the project continued via video calls and other project management software. The building was finished in 2015, almost simultaneously to the Girls School in Masar-i-Sharif.

A second project in Niger followed, one that used the same construction teams and remote communications, though this time, Kamara and Esmaili served as lead designers. The community of Dandaji, a small village in the Western part of the country, was planning to tear down its old mosque, and replace it with a new one. Working closely with local representatives, the architects developed a proposal to build a new mosque while keeping the old building and transforming it into a library and social gathering space. By combining secular and religious features, the project created a lively center for the entire village—men, women, children, believers and non-believers alike. Bagdad’s “Bayt al-Hikma,” the “House of Wisdom” built by Islamic scholars in the 9th century C.E., served as a historic reference. As with the two projects before, the “Hikma” in Dandaji was the result of intense negotiations with the Dandaji community, a process that included training local masons in adobe-enhancing additives and erosion protection techniques. Such knowledge would undoubtedly benefit future buildings in Dandaji and in 2018 Hikma won the silver medal at the Global Holcim Award for Sustainable Construction.

These three projects and her experiences at Arcosanti have defined Esmaili’s approach to architecture. Meanwhile, she has started her own office, called Studio Chahar—a Farsi expression meaning “four” that appears in many Persian architectural terms: in “chaharrah” (the intersection of two streets), “chaharsoo” (the center of the bazar), and “chaharbagh” (a Persian garden). It seems interesting that Esmaili chose an Iranian term; does she consider herself an Iranian architect? “Yes I do. I believe my design process is deeply influenced by the main principals of Iranian architecture as defined by architectural historian Karim Pirnia: to do more with less, to design for the people, to be inward-focused, to look for innovative building solutions, and to focus on localities in the design and building process.” To Esmaili, these principles are not just a historic reference, but an important basis for her contemporary global practice. “They help me [create] resourceful, responsible interventions and interactive spaces that grow with the culture and adapt, instead of imposing my personal vision on to the world.”

So far, Studio Chahar isn’t a physical office. It travels with Esmaili as she splits her time between Teheran and her new U.S. address in Boston. Her current projects include developing earthquake-resistant designs for an Iranian architecture competition and setting up “Color My Home,” a program for refugee children in the U.S. The latter is a collaboration with the open-source online platform Architecture for Refugees that sees Esmaili working with displaced children and youths. Through architecture and poetry workshops, the program helps children trace their migration routes, helping them re-imagine both the homes they’ve left behind and how they’d like to live in the future. Though “Color My Home“ will not lead to any physical structures, Esmaili says she’s still following her chosen path: to foster intense communication between professionals and amateurs around questions of need, design, and intercultural exchange. “Maybe with the experiences from my projects, I could act as a linkage between places that don’t communicate often and enough. I am sure that design and art can shift misunderstandings between countries and cultures.”

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