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The Transnational Transformation of Architecture Practice: Iranian architects in the new geography of professional authority, 1945-2012

  • Author(s): Roudbari, Shawhin
  • Advisor(s): AlSayyad, Nezar
  • et al.

In the past decade, Iranian architects have mobilized professional institutions--such as magazines, awards, professional bodies, and workshops--to transform their profession and to extend their exposure beyond Iran's tightly controlled borders. To do so, they established connections with foreign architects through travel, migration, networking with expatriate communities of architecture students and professionals, and exchanging information through the Internet. By investigating these actions, I use this study to reveal subtle yet significant aspects of transnationalism in the architecture profession. The case of architecture practice in Iran--a national context isolated through political and economic sanctions by the global community as well as practices of censorship by organs of the Iranian state--emphasizes a range of formal, informal, and underground practices engaged by professionals and their institutions in the process of transnationalism. In this way, the case of Iran serves as a barometer for the transnationalization of the architecture field globally.

Methodologically, this investigation demonstrates that the study of globalization of a profession must account for ways that profession is defined in various national contexts. In the case of architecture, this means that an understanding of the globalization of the field of architecture cannot operate under any single (nation-based) definition of the architecture profession--a multiplicity of national definitions of the architecture field must be considered in order to grasp the myriad of ways a globalizing profession is shaped by the professionals participating in the process from other countries--even those countries as politically and economically isolated as Iran.

The transnational space is one in which architects produce and consume professional knowledge and acknowledgement. I distinguish between individual and institutional transnational practices. The former involves the movement of individuals across borders and offers them embodied experiences. The latter are a set of connections between Iranian institutions and foreign actors that offer a more symbolic transnationalism--what I call transnational credibility--to Iranian architects who participate in those institutions. I identify the ambiguity between the individual and the institutional forms of transnationalism as a driving factor in what I claim to be the destabilization of established structures of professional authority in Iran.

Building on these tenets, I suggest the following arguments: first, architects' transnational practices are leveraged for professional power under the guise of credibility through claims of transnational exposure. I conclude that this credibility takes the form of transnational capital and that in the context of Iran's complex relationships with things foreign, Iranian architects' self-constructed transnational capital carries significant purchase power in markets of symbolic capital exchange. Second, transnationalism, as an institutional mode of operation in the profession today, carries with it the risk of stunting the growth of critical engagement within design professions in developing countries by promoting superficial engagement with "global" architecture. Third, transnational practices are decentering the geographic locations of recognition and authority in the profession in Iran and globally.

In making these claims, I show ways architects in Iran, and Iranian architects around the world, mobilize institutions to garner professional and political power. Theories of the globalization of architecture tend to depict a force that is as a set of practices and ideas driven in large part by a dominant core and dealt with by peripheral communities of professions in developing countries. In contrast, the transnational perspectives advanced in this dissertation show ways that bottom-up practices engaged by actors scattered around the world complicate the dominance of that core.

To highlight this transnational perspective, methodologically, I gather evidence from documents in more marginal spaces of global knowledge exchange: weblogs, design competition websites, informal communications between architects in Iran and communities of expatriates in North America and Europe, and magazines. I pair this archival research with in-depth and open-ended interviews with architects in Iran and in cities they migrate to in a multi-cited ethnography.

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