Gisue Hariri: Architecture as Total Art

12/22/2016 01:44 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2017

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Credit: PAYAM STUDIO, NYC

With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the West Asia Council has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavour. We examine lives and journeys that have led to significant achievements in the worlds of science, technology, finance, medicine, law, the arts and numerous other endeavors. Our latest interviewee is Gisue Hariri.

Gisue Hariri is the Co-founder and Principal Design Director of Hariri & Hariri Architecture- an architectural firm established in 1986 in New York City with her sister Mojgan that has been touted as one of the most progressive firms of our generation. For nearly three decades, the firm has imbued conceptual, residential, commercial and institutional projects with its own unique brand of sensual modernism. In 2010 the firm was included in the prestigious Architectural Digest ʻAD100,ʼ and selected for inclusion in the Guggenheimʼs ʻContemplating the Voidʼ exhibition, a celebration of Frank Lloyd Wrightʼs landmark museumʼs 50th Anniversary.

Gisue and Mojgan Hariri have been honored with numerous awards including the '2015 American Architecture Award' from The Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design, the American Academy of Arts and Letters 'Academy Award for Architecture' and inducted into Interior Design Magazineʼs ʻDesign Hall of Fameʼ in 2006. The firmʼs designs have also been featured in numerous exhibitions and publications worldwide including the Museum of Modern Art's landmark "Unprivate House" exhibition, the National Building Museum-Washington DC, the Deutsches Architektur Museum-Frankfurt and the Museu d' Art Contemporani de Barcelona.

Who is Gisue Hariri? Can you tell us about your background and formative influences?

I was born in Iran and came to America and studied architecture at Cornell University in the 1970"s.I have been active as an architect for over three decades. Our firm"s projects run the gamut from luxury residential developments and hotels to bathroom accessories to single-family houses to high-concept, high-tech experiments. I have devoted much time to teaching since 1987 to emphasize the importance of the academic and philosophical context of professional practice. I have been an Adjunct Professor of Architecture at Columbia University, a Visiting Critic at Cornell University, and have lectured at McGill University and the Parsons School of Design.

Please tell our readers about your design principles and philosophy? And what particular aspects of your work have been shaped by your Iranian background?

Growing up in a desert the environment tends to strip everything down to the essentials without diminishing its extraordinary presence and beauty. While it is outwardly harsh, one intimate with its nature finds sensual lines and magnificent vistas that embolden the senses and a void that is constantly being tested and carved by the fierce winds. We always try to understand the essence of each project and begin our work with original concepts. Sensitive to each environment we built upon, we make sure that each project is simple, efficient and environmentally sustainable and culturally relevant to the people of that location.

Iran's rich cultural heritage in arts, music, literature, poetry and sciences - all brought together in its extraordinary architecture - was certainly influential in my development and it remains a long shadow under which I find myself. Every summer we would visit my grandparents in Isfahan. My father's hometown is one of the few places in the world that leaves one with astonishment and awe. It is a city of amazing Persian gardens and magnificent blue-domed mosques and palaces mostly built by Shah Abbas the Great in the 17th century. There are pedestrian bridges like no other in the world with picturesque, organic bazaars, and a host of smaller but exquisite mosques and pavilions. Isfahan is truly the museum of Persian architecture. The tactility, materiality and use of arts and crafts throughout our projects - regardless of scale - are what we carry within us, borne of experiences in Isfahan. The use of geometry, craft, and technology is apparent in all our projects. Inspired by the renown Persian polymath figures like Omar Khayam, who was a philosopher, mathematician, astronomer and poet, and who also wrote treatises on mechanics, geography, mineralogy, and music, we developed our holistic approach to design and architecture.

You have in many ways expanded and redefined the standard definition of architecture in the holistic approach of your designs? Can you tell us more about this?

For nearly three decades, we have focused on a holistic approach to design, ranging from master planning and architecture - to interior design, furniture, lighting, product design and recently jewelry. Our approach is rooted in a firm belief that design is fundamental to improving the quality of life and, with an integrated and unified approach, architecture can become a total work of art. For us Architecture cannot be defined as one thing, style, philosophy or "ism." It is the amalgamation of many things which, at their best, help us define who we are today and who we might become tomorrow. It's the means of comprehending and encountering the invisible, where beauty, sensuality, functionality, technology and philosophy connect the body and mind. Great architecture is one that challenges our perception of life and living, helping us in finding an alternative mode of seeing and acting upon the precious landscape.

You are known as an innovator of cutting-edge materials and digital technology that are integrated into futuristic yet organic designs, from luxury residences like the iconic Sagaponac House [link] in Long Island. How would you describe your work/style and how is this represented in your design?

We believe in architecture that gives people the pleasure of exploring space, offering an experience of uncovering something and discovering something new. The seemingly simplest things in life are actually the most complicated, magical and extraordinary. What is important is to create memorable experiences, moments and structures. Residential buildings are environments for nurturing life. It is not merely about profit and sales.

Could you take us through some of the projects your firm is currently working on? And can you tell us about your most successful projects?

Currently we are working on a variety of projects from a mixed-use residential/retail project in Xi'an, China, that includes three towers that are each 30 stories high, to a residential development in Cape Cod, a master plan for a 140 acre property in upstate New York, including a main house, guesthouse, tool shed and gym. The firm is also involved in numerous commercial and residential projects currently in development in West Asia, including Iran. Through dedication to the research and construction of innovative ideas, the firm has been commissioned for a number of high profile projects, including, as you noted, the first of numerous homes by internationally acclaimed architects gathered by Richard Meier and the late Coco Brown for the "Houses at Sagaponac" [link] development in Long Island, New York.

Additional celebrated recent projects include the $80- million Sternbrauerei Salzburg (a world-class residential development in Salzburg, Austria) known as "The Jewels of Salzburg." On the product side we have an acclaimed Swarovski "Crystal Palace Collection" chandelier, "Kryptonite" couture jewelry collection; and the recent "Best of Year" "Crystalline Bath" collection for AFNY.

What is your ultimate goal when it comes to your work? What do you want to be remembered for?

Architecture is not about making flamboyant forms or structural gymnastics but to create environments that expand the emotional possibilities of place, offering a wider range of human experiences. It is important to find your inner voice. If architecture is ultimately the articulation and manifestation of our experiences, then we should see differences in how each gender designs. I believe women architects will change the field of architecture and I would like to be remembered for my contributions as one of the women architects who is pushing the boundaries of field.

In what ways has being a woman in your industry been challenging? Is there still a glass ceiling that women need to break through in the field of architecture?

Women are still a minority in the field of architecture in general, regardless of their ethnicity. When my sister and I were studying at the Cornell Architecture School in the late 70's-early 80's there were very few women studying with us and no women teaching us. There were very few women practitioners that we knew. So, my first commitment was to teach and be present in the studios while working simultaneously to get some projects. We have to nurture and create opportunities for women in architecture, as I truly believe that women have a lot to offer the field. We need to be mentors to and sponsors of younger women architects. According to the Architectural Record essay by Sarah Williams, [link] men still largely control architecture's higher reaches. And they are more likely to suppport younger men as mentors. My advice to both men and women in a position to award projects is to recognize that it is their responsibility to find and recognize women in architecture. Similarly, the media have a responsibility to publish and introduce the work of women architects to the larger public. Society as a whole has a responsibility to create equal opportunities for women architects. Finally, women have a responsibility to support one another rather than competing with one another. Until we respect, recognize and appreciate women's contributions to the field of architecture we cannot change the "boys' club" culture that exists globally in the field.

What is the most challenging project you have ever worked on and why?

Our " Jewels of Salzburg" project has been one of our most challenging. This project, which we won in an international competition, is important because we were the winners among the world's best known architects such as Souto Moura (Portugal), Snøhetta (Oslo), Kengo Kuma (Tokyo), Yamaguchi (Osaka), Toshiko Mori (NY), Delugan-Meissl (Vienna), Langhof (Berlin) to name a few. This 80 million-dollar mixed-use development demonstrates our holistic philosophy, as we have designed the master plan, the architecture of the six new buildings containing 100 luxury Apartments, renovation of existing historic vaults, some of the interiors, and the main landscape elements as well. It is, however, neither the scale nor the challenges we confronted with the city agencies and the building codes that make our Salzburg project significant. It is the relationship between architecture and nature that we have created, a dialogue and meditative experience we have carved at the edge of the rock wall, which guides and invites the public along a creek on the edge of the site, while providing privacy for those living there.

As I noted earlier, for us architecture is much more than the construction of buildings; it is where our dreams transcend realities of life. It is a commitment that will carry you to places you had never dreamed of and knew could exist before you began. Finally, this project is one of the very few new constructions permitted in the historic city of Salzburg, offering Mozart's birthplace a destination for the architecture of the 21st century.

If you were to be awarded your dream project, what would it be?

I think a cultural facility or a museum would be great! The arts have always had a special place in Iranian identity. Like our wonderful Persian food, Iranians are unable to survive without our music, poetry, literature, art and architecture and without them there would be no Iranian soul. In fact, the arts may be the best way to promote Iranian culture, community and image around the world. It is my mission and wish to create a place, a "farhang sara" (house of culture), or cultural center in major US cities that our large community of Iranian-Americans can call home. Our heritage is so rich, our artistic community is so gifted, and yet our voices seem to be lost in the cacophony of daily political discourse. Political winds will shift but our creative contributions will remain forever as a beacon of who we are as a people, paving the road for a better future for our children and the next generation of Iranian-Americans.