Meet Our Cover Star: British-Iranian Architect Farshid Moussavi

BY Rebecca Anne Proctor / Jan 24 2018 / 15:25 PM

A step inside her London home reveals her love affair with minimalist, exacting forms, while a conversation reveals the theories behind her award-winning structures

Meet Our Cover Star: British-Iranian Architect Farshid Moussavi
Photography by Sebastian Boettcher
Farshid stands next to her bookcase. She wears a dress by Vetements

Situated on Belgrave Road, known for its stately air and one of London’s only examples of Victorian neo-Byzantine architecture, is the residence of architect Farshid Moussavi. Both sides of the road are terraced with stucco-fronted houses, endowing the street with an elegance reminiscent of a former era. Step inside Farshid’s abode and this historical outside world is immediately juxtaposed with the architect’s love for minimalist, practical design. Petite vivacious and passionate, Farshid, 52, is one of the world’s most innovative architects and theorists.

And like the dialogue that runs throughout her architecture, a constant discourse can also be found amidst her contemporary home: multi-use sculptural wooden benches, Pierre Poulin furniture and blocks of white space decorated at times solely by rays of light. “I don’t like decoration though I enjoy playing with form, even when one form over the other allows you to do more, so if [my home] is perceived as minimalistic, that’s partly because I don’t think it needs to do any more, and partly because of the fact that I hate clutter,” she laughs. “The furniture that I have moves so that the space can be changed. When I am at home I like to open my mind up rather than close it. I find that when I am surrounded by too many things, my mind will be on the things rather than the world outside.”

Farshid Moussavi London Home

Farshid in her London home wearing a dress by Vetements

Like her architecture, which has seen the Iranian-born British architect design some of the world’s foremost structures, including the Cleveland Museum of Art, Victoria Beckham’s flagship store in London, and the award-wining Yokohama International Ferry Terminal in 1995, Farshid’s home is intellectually-driven. “My walls are blank and white because that’s really good for light in the room,” she says. “Light bounces well off of white walls. Light in a space is really important. I don’t have any art on them because I spend my entire day looking at the images and the last thing I want is more visual stimulation when I come home, so I enjoy the tranquillity that white walls bring to me.”

Farshid immigrated to London in 1979, and trained in architecture at Dundee University before going to Genoa to work for a year at the Renzo Piano Building Workshop. Returning to London, she enrolled in the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, before attending the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. Subsequently, Farshid worked in Holland for three years at Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA)] before setting up her own London practice.

Farshid Moussavi London Home

An interior view of Farshid's contemporary minimalist abode

“Looking back I think my surroundings in Iran, a country very rich in architectural heritage, must have influenced me,” recalls Farshid. “I don’t think there was one moment when I made the decision to become an architect. It was probably brewing subconsciously. Architecture felt attractive to me because it combines an artistic, humanistic side with a more practical, technical side.” Her eponymous architecture firm, Farshid Moussavi Architecture (FMA) constantly tries to meld the two. In her words, the firm “constructs unique human experiences for buildings and how they transform their context, regardless of their scale, budget or location.”

Farshid Moussavi London Home

A view of the monumental staircase inside the Museum of Contemporary Art of Cleveland designed by Farshid

Since 2004, Farshid has focused on the relationship between the construction and experience of built form. She believes that buildings influence a human being’s daily experiences, as well as the affections they develop. In order to move an individual’s experience away from routine and open them up to new forms of action, architects need to provide buildings with new influences.

Moreover, FMA collaborates with a network of specialists from other fields, from engineers to sociologists, economists and artists. “Through this collaborative model, individual elements of buildings are interrogated for their performance at many different levels to generate buildings that are functionally relevant in multiple ways, and formally complex and surprising,” she states. Just look at her design for the Cleveland Museum of Art, which marked her US debut and was completed in collaboration with Cleveland-based architects Westlake Reed Leskosky: the six-sided building features faceted walls dressed in mirrored black stainless steel, a work of art itself.

Farshid Moussavi London Home

An interior view of the Victoria Beckham flagship store in London designed by Farshid

In 2014, Farshid designed Victoria Beckham’s flagship store, entailing an overhaul of three storeys of an existing Georgian building in London’s West End. “I thought it was a wonderful challenge when we were approached by Victoria Beckham because she didn’t have a retail space yet, so it was about producing a new store, as well as a spatial identity for a new brand,” explains Farshid. “It was also about asking the question: What is a store in the 21st century? When a brand trades successfully online, why do they need a store and what is the store to do? So we designed it more like a gallery where customers can come and feel the brand in more ways than what online shopping can allow.”

The store features concrete floors and a ceiling covered with mirrored stainless steel – a material Farshid uses extensively.  “Architecture is caught in tension between the requirement to coalesce a building’s multifarious parts into an aesthetic system, and a platform for practicalities of the everyday that it arranges,” explains Farshid. “It is in-between form and function, in-between aesthetics and practicalities of everyday life.” For this reason, she believes architecture has the power to be “creative [political]”, altering the way people perceive and enact within a space. “FMA believes that great architecture can be inclusive as a social or common good and be socially sustainable, to enable individuals with different norms, desires and habits to use it.”       

Farshid Moussavi London Home

Farshid sits on a bespoke modular wooden bench in her Belgravia home. Lilac trousers, coat and navy top, Chalayan; Shoes by Vivienne Westwood                  

Farshid is also Professor in Practice of Architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. “I do not look for balance, I embrace imbalance, so in the half year when I am teaching, the balance shifts to my academic life, and in the half of the year when I am not teaching, the balance shifts to my professional life,” she states. “I think at all times they feed each other, I don’t go and teach about purely theoretical issues, I take issues that I find in my practice and use them in a projective way in teaching and research.”

In conjunction with her teaching, Farshid has published three books: The Function of Ornament, The Function of Form and The Function of Style – which propose that architecture’s creative potential stems from finding ways in which structure, form, ornament, function and style can relate to one another. “We live in the 21st century and we now need to think much more transversally,” says Farshid. “The three terms – ornament, form and style – have very much defined our notion of aesthetics. In order to bring a creative [political] agency to these, rather than use them purely ‘decoratively’, we need to connect them with the idea of function or everyday practices we undertake in buildings.”

Stalwart, resolute and determined that Farshid is, not to mention her string of accolades – a multi-time winner of the prestigious RIBA International Award, special prize for best work in Topography at the ninth Venice Architecture Biennale (2004), Enrich Miracles Prize for Architecture (2003), and Kanagawa Prize for Architecture (2003), among many others – it is not easy to strike a balance between her demanding career and a personal life.

Farshid Moussavi

Farshid walks in Belgravia wearing a Kimono-style dress, Comme de Garcons; Platform heels, Victoria Beckham; Vlock-colour socks, Armani

What is needed to survive, says Farshid, is “to be determined and not accept stereotypes or role models when it comes to arranging your life. Whereas men in architecture have role models in the profession, there are very few female role models in architecture. This makes female architects uniquely flexible.” Farshid often goes into meetings where she’s the only woman in the room, but it doesn’t bother her. She accepts that this is something that comes with being an architect, at least for the time being. “It must be refreshing for the men to have a woman there too. Frankly, they probably want more women in the room,” she laughs.

Being creative and making a difference is most important. “As I’ve grown older I am aware that the clients who come to us value creativity. If we are able to put ourselves in the position of an outsider, we can begin to look at problems from a broader perspective and see possibilities that we might not otherwise recognise. So, thinking as an outsider empowers creativity. But if you are a woman in a male dominated profession, or if you are practising in a place where you were not born, or practising in a place for the first time, this outsider position is a given,” she notes.

Farshid is busy with projects including an office tower in London, a children’s toy department for Harrods and an art gallery extension. “It’s a good mix, each one being so different; we transfer what we have learned from different types and scales of projects into new projects,” smiles Farshid. “We need to make aesthetic and practical decisions, or, form and function decisions in tandem, and interrogate what values or differences we bring to a certain project or context.”