Architecture, Matter, and Mediation in the Middle East,” in Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review (UC Berkeley Press, 2013).

Architecture, Matter, and Mediation in the Middle East,” in Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review (UC Berkeley Press, 2013).

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   TDSR VOLUME XXV NUMBER I 2013 45 Architecture, Matter and Mediation in the Middle East PAMELA KARIMI This article presents a series of case studies that capture aspects of how architecture may be informed and mediated by material things. Due to the historical burden of the architec-tural canon, material culture has not always merged easily into studies of Middle Eastern architecture. But instances are numerous in which buildings have been appraised vis-à-vis material culture. In this article, I foreground the place of material culture in the historiog-raphy of Iranian architecture, in particular. The range of objects that function as material mediators is vast, but I have limited the scope of my investigation in three ways. First, I look at objects that involve aesthetic design considerations, such as furnishings, decorative items, and applied imagery. Second, I look at three-dimensional objects whose functional capacity is more significant than their aesthetic value, such as wall claddings. Third, I look at materials that are conceived as immaterial due to their apparent indiscernibility in every-day life, such as pollution (caused by gasoline-burning engines) and dust (a pervasive real-ity in the desert). While materials like oil and dust might escape our attention, they play an important role in granting a unique identity to the built environment of the Middle East. Finally, I highlight the importance of technology and the emergence of immaterial, virtual pathways that mediate between people and their built environments. To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as the table is located between those who sit around it: the world like every in-between relates and separates men at the same time. What makes mass society so difficult to bear is not the number of people involved, or at least not  primarily, but the fact that the world between them has lost its power to gather them together, to relate and to separate them. The weirdness of this situation resembles a Pamela Karimi  is an Assistant Professor of Art History at the College of Visual and Performing Arts, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.  46 TDSR 25.1 spiritualistic séance where a number of people gathered around the table might suddenly, through some magic trick, see the table vanish from their midst, so that two  persons sitting opposite each other were no longer sepa-rated but also would be entirely unrelated to each other by anything tangible. 1 These are the words of Hannah Arendt from her book The Human Condition . Rather than arching over us, the material world hovers in the gaps that separate and contain us. Our relationship to space and its contents is one that beckons in-put, placing commoners in a position to disrupt the deeded structure. This dynamism among the people inhabiting a structure, the things that populate it, and the structure itself highlights the dynamic nature of the built environment, a condition that must be closely considered when examining architecture. Set in this context, architecture is not just a matter of architectonics. 2  In other words, the point of depar-ture for this article is the social dimension of space, which has otherwise often been presented as static and imposed.Since the publication of Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture  (1941) and Arnold Hauser’s Social History of Art   (1951), the scholarly melding of divergent foci into a single discourse implies, it would seem, an underlying indivisibility. Architectural historians have taken up diverse topics — from the complex interactions between designers and patrons to the objects of material culture that mediate between design and the consumer. And by doing so, the scope of their con-cern has gone beyond iconography, stylistic classification, and manifestations of the individual genius.This changed attitude is particularly manifest in areas of the world where architecture has come about as the project of shifting social orders rather than design innovations — places where architecture is a byproduct of a gradual bottom-up development, rather than a top-down process decided by experts. The former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries have recently provided such an animated domain for the study of material culture and architecture. These regions cre-ated distinctive spaces fashioned from ideological templates, such as monumental parade grounds and Red Squares. How-ever, rather than focusing on such edifices, many scholars, such as Svetlana Boym, David Crowley, and Susan E. Reid, have studied those things that mediated between the people and their state-designed architectural environments. The Soviet communal, according to Boym, was a site where oc-cupants transformed their predetermined spatial parameters through singular, oddly srcinal gestures. In particular, their desire to collect mass-produced, cheap consumer products, including rubber plants, presented a challenge and acted as a confrontation to socialist, utopian views. Boym thus depicted a space that was interrupted by this groundswell of collected, extraordinary, bizarre objects and furnishings, as well as by fields of ordinary experience. Following this logic, if we con-tinue to associate these spaces with socialism — or any larger socio-political agenda — we must take account of the shifting and multilayered interactions between things, people and architecture. 3 Consequently, one might also consider the work of Oskar Hansen, the Polish architect and a member of Team 10, who as early as the 1950s, attempted to create potential opportuni-ties for the “. . . user[s] to be able to change what [they have] been given, in line with the standards.” 4  Beyond being of in-terest among humanitarian designers, the notion of the us-er’s active involvement has been a topic of study for a variety of scholarly approaches to the built environment. These have ranged from Pierre Bourdieu’s anthropological examination of the Kabyl House to Constantinos Doxiadis’s consideration of people’s ways of life and their impact on their built envi-ronments, rather than following the “universal” standards of Modern architecture. 5 Due to its paradoxical relationship to the material world, the Middle East is an apt milieu for the study of matter and how it overlaps with architecture. Islam, the region’s domi-nant religion, encourages the belief that human reproduc-tions of the form of the deity — tangible renderings of the holy realm — reduce worship to mere idolatry. 6  This belief, which engenders a radical immateriality, has at times been so strong that in the early caliphate the imprinting of Qur’anic inscriptions on coins was substituted for the imprint of the caliph’s head, a practice carried over from Roman and Byzan-tine rule. 7  According to the anthropologist Bill Maurer, this practice of replacing representational images with the sacred word on the most worldly of objects, golden coins, implied a dissociation from the object basis of the material world. Its goal was to convince believers that the coins themselves were actually “countenanced” by divine authority. 8 This paradox from the early caliphate has lingered into our time, affecting how the material world is perceived and treated by contemporary groups in the region. Thus, in “War of Images, or the Bamyan Paradox,” the cultural critic Jean-Michel Frodon contended that the Taliban betrayed themselves, because in destroying the rock-cut Buddhas of Bamyan they too “did politics with images.” 9  As Frodon sug-gested, progress toward immateriality actually implies prior engagement with the realm of matter, disclosing an inherent contradiction — the impossibility of transcendence without first engaging materiality. In Daniel Miller’s words, “Just as there is no pre-objectified culture, there is no post-objectified transcendence.” 10 The paradox of coinage is likewise applicable to other in-stances where the materiality of the built environment inter-twines with things that, owing to their divine connotations, yield a kind of immaterial appeal. Consider, for instance, the epigraphy of the sacred words from the Qur’an that appear on the walls of thousands of mosques built throughout the his-tory of Islam (fig. 1 ) .   KARIMI: ARCHITECTURE, MATTER AND MEDIATION IN THE MIDDLE EAST 47 MATTER, MEDIATION AND ARCHITECTONICS In scholarship on Islamic architecture the dominant meth-odological concerns of the field have often prevented material culture from emerging as an area of emphasis, although there are some buildings that have been appraised vis-à-vis material culture. Gulru Necipo ğ lu’s study of paper scrolls and how their distribution influenced innovative architectural revetments at the time of the Timurids is a good example. 11  In The Topkapı Scroll: Geometry and Ornament in Islamic Architecture , she ex-plained how the process of transmitting architectural design became possible in the Islamic world between the tenth and sixteenth centuries via the agency of these large paper scrolls.Another significant study in this vein is Sussan Ba-baie’s exploration of the material constituents of the Safavid feasting ceremonies and their impact on the shape of the palaces of seventeenth-century Isfahan. In Isfahan and Its Palaces, Statecraft, Shi`ism and the Architecture of Conviviality in Early Modern Iran , she showed how ceremonial prepara-tions defined access and proximity to the king, and thereby established the physical contours of an institutionalized form of feasting that structured everything from the scheduled rhythm of eating, drinking and entertaining to the giving of food or wine by the king to a favorite subject. 12  Thus cultural practices ascended until they occupied the space traditionally occupied by the designer. Indeed, as a result of such habitual cultural practices, the talar   palace, a new typology in Islamic design, emerged. In contrast to previous practice under a different set of customs, it substituted the agency of ritual for the freedom of the designer to determine how people would circulate spatially. Thus, design took on a rebel character when it revolved around matter. 13 By the end of the nineteenth century, architecture again came to be mediated in Iran by paper items and kitchenware. However, this time the effect was literal, as exotic items — imported Turkish and Chinese earthenware and cheap European oleographic prints — came to animate the interior surfaces of upper-class homes. As their real use value faded, paper goods and kitchenware acquired exhibitionary value. As Karl Marx once noted, it is through such processes that a simple commodity, what may at first appear to be “a trivial thing,” may become “a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” 14  In this case, simple imported goods were turned into validated signi-fiers of high culture and taste. They were also able to fill the vacuum left behind in the absence of tradition (figs. 2,3 ) . 15 If exhibitionary value allowed bowls and oleographs to transform the late-nineteenth-century Iranian interior, in pur-suit of international high-culture norms, the early-twentieth-century home became devoid of all decorative items. Simultane-ously, however, demand for and appreciation of Persian carpets in Western (and, in particular, American) contexts provided the cultural imprimatur for carpets to continue to exist in wealthy Iranian homes rather than die out. Although walls were white and simple, and furnishings were predominantly imported, because of the pervasive presence of these carpets, an important tradition was safeguarded on the floors of these homes. 16 These examples show that, far from being influenced by top-down processes based on decisions of the state or the intervention of elite and ambitious architects, architectural design may often be driven by concern over such common items as food, paper, carpets, and cheap imports. And this notion that design results from cultural preferences, rather than rational choices, is echoed in the context of many cul- figure 1 . A modern mosque and huseyniyyah  in Isfahan, Iran. The facade is mediated by Qur’anic texts that are inscribed in both traditional and modern ways. They appear on both ceramic tiles and murals painted on the brick walls. Photograph by author.  48 TDSR 25.1 tures throughout history. Thus, Giedion, in Mechanization Takes Command  , described the world of material objects in the daily life of medieval Europe. Most domestic furniture at that time, he wrote, took its cue from monasteries; none of it was designed with attention to issues like “how the body might best relax in a chair.” 17 Similar observations were made by Mary Helms in her now more-than-twenty-year-old book Craft and the Kingly Ideal: Art, Trade, and Power  . Here, Helms explored the power ascribed to objects imported from faraway places, arguing that objects of long-distance trade become popular among elites not because of their use value but because they con-noted honor and power. By making this suggestion, Helms provided a new model for understanding how criteria for preference concerning designed objects are based in culture. Her conclusion is enlightening when seen in the context of societies that have benefited from an abundance of resources for producing a particular item, such as a chair, and yet have still sought to acquire a type that they deemed unique, imported from a distant, exotic place. 18  Like people, these objects have lives, whose meanings change in response to the different contexts within which they are found. 19 It is also important to remember how ordinary things have played a central role in great works of philosophy, includ-ing Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time , a book that discusses cooking pots, pitchforks and lampshades, allocating next to no discussion to higher culture. 20  This approach obliges me to enter into a dialog with other ostensibly distinctive Middle Eastern matters — namely, dust and petroleum. Below, I refer to these as “tacit matter,” things that are, in the words of Henri Lefebvre, at the same time “the most obvious and the best hidden.” 21 figure 2 . Interior view of the living room in Abrishami House, Rasht, Iran (circa 1910), with imported earthenware inserted into the masonry of the walls. Courtesy of Jassem Ghazbanpour. figure 3 . Details of a ceiling in Shahshahani House in Isfahan (circa the late nineteenth century), with framed oleographic prints or chromolithograps of European women. Courtesy of Jassem Ghazbanpour.   KARIMI: ARCHITECTURE, MATTER AND MEDIATION IN THE MIDDLE EAST 49 TACIT MATTER In the latter part of the nineteenth century England went through its industrial airborne pollution phase. 22  Experts at the time strove to solve the problem by cleansing buildings of soot and dust. 23  Dust, in particular, came to be seen as a cum-bersome residue that tainted everything. Already in 1851 the Crystal Palace boasted a structural feature whereby the wood-en planks that constituted its floor were left slightly detached, allowing for a curious vacuum which assured the removal of dust. 24  Yet, prior to industrialization, the dust and rust of the old and dilapidated had been romanticized in Great Britain.In The Ethics of the Dust  , John Ruskin praised the ar-chitectural works of the medieval world. With their dusts (which were, in his view, miniature variants of stones), these old, decaying buildings were deemed authentic. And, accord-ing to the architectural historian Jorge Otelo Pailos, in mat-ters concerning the conservation of old buildings, it was spe-cifically important to preserve them in their authentic form. 25  This desire to preserve the past exactly as it is was persuasive among art audiences, and, as a mentality, it was clung to most passionately by admirers of the art and architecture of the Middle East, the cradle of civilization and the site of biblical tales. Here, artists and photographers often attempted to de-pict decaying buildings when there were no human subjects around. In this way, they hoped their images would present a sense of near timeless distance.Noteworthy among those who traveled to the holy land was Francis Bedford, a British photographer who in 1862 accompanied the eldest son of Queen Victoria, the future King Edward. One of Bedford’s most notable coups was permission to enter the “Noble Sanctuary,” to photograph the Dome of the Rock at close quarters for the first time. By this time, the Dome’s srcinal gilt cupola had been stripped, yet its present bronze/aluminum cover was not in place; likewise, the Persian tiles that coated the building had fallen from its walls, exposing gaping plaster with nail holes. 26  Yet the shrine, beckoning to Bedford’s lens, had a mellow and grounded beauty. 27  Dust and rust turned the sacred building inside out, accentuating the concrete aspect of its existence rather than its religious and political connotations.If dust and rust were essential to the project of symboli-cally reconstructing the Middle Eastern past, petroleum has been important to envisioning its future. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, concessions for oil in the Middle East were held by foreign companies, which con-trolled the rate of extraction, ran the oil refineries, and super-vised exports to the world market. For both the locals and the British and American companies that generated fortunes from these activities, the endeavor truly did represent the gift of Prometheus — for its first product was kerosene for illumination. This was, however, soon followed by gasoline for automotive propulsion, natural gas for cooking and heat-ing, plastics for commercial products, and artificial fertilizers and pharmaceuticals to feed and heal the world’s growing population. However, like the later development of nuclear energy (another Promethean gift that promised unlimited energy and progress, yet also brought Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Chernobyl), petroleum turned out not to be a panacea. Rather, this gift has also brought sinister long-term conse-quences in the form of wars, social conflict, and environmen-tal degradation.Conflict first emerged in the oil cities of the Middle East in the form of social hierarchies, as neighborhoods segre-gated based on nationality, occupation and class. These divi-sions, set in place by the British, were initially deemed neces-sary because of the influx of a large number of rural migrants seeking work. But these problems lingered into later decades. When Michel Foucault visited the oil city of Abadan in Iran in 1978–79, he articulated the situation there in these terms: [T]he misery starts around the factory with a sort of subtropical mining village, then very quickly one enters the slums where children swarm between truck chassis and heaps of scrap iron, and finally one arrives at the hovels of dried mud bathed in filth. There, crouching children neither cry nor move. Then everything disap- pears in the grove of palms that leads to the desert, which is the front and the rear of one of the most valu-able properties in the world. 28 Later, oil poisoned the Middle Eastern cities’ traffic-heavy roads, and wreaked terrible havoc on the delicate environ-mental balance of the region.In Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials , a work of theoretical fiction about the Middle East, the philoso-pher Reza Negarestani reflected on the region’s “tacit mat-ters.” Included among his concerns were the petroleum of its basins, the dust of its air, and the stain of its old built environ-ment, as well as its rotting sun — all of which are, according to Negarestani, manifestations of “outside” forces. This so-called outside, characterized in Negarestani’s text by sorcerous cults during the Persian and the Assyrian Empires, in mod-ern times attracts fanatical jihadists and oil-thirsty capitalists toward each other in an unwinnable war, which is nonetheless capable of liberating the desert. 29  Indeed, the War on Terror has dragged the United States into a lopsided involvement with what Negarestani refers to as occultists, whose beliefs are ancient, incomprehensible, and oil-sullied. As Negarestani elaborates, “It is as if war itself is feeding upon the war ma-chines, leveling cities into the desert, seducing the aggressors into the dark heart of oil.” 30  Although a work of fiction, Cyclo-nopedia  bears witness to how humans slough off and relegate practical and moral responsibilities, assigning them to objects that act on their behalf, leading to social networks composed of human and nonhuman matters like oil. 31 To concur with Negarestani’s ideas, one can see how oil and dust have gone from serving as a subject for romantics,
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