Ambassador of Design

Winner of the 2006 Austrian Architecture & Environmental Design Award, Armin Daneshgar Combines Persian and European Technique

On The Town | Hossein Nababi | December 2007 / January 2008

The fitness center of the newly renovated Iranian Residence in Vienna designed by Armin Daneshgar (Photo: Daneshgar Architects)

By the time Dr. Armin Mohsen Daneshgar was finished with restoring the basement of the Iranian embassy’s residence, it was unrecognizable. What had been a dusty deposit of relics of our past had been transformed into sweeping panels of white and saffron orange, elegant wedges of shape and color that divided the space into a lounge area, a fitness center, and a sauna, feeling both immense and intimate.  It was a dramatic contrast with the rest of the building, transcending the past, a leap from the classic, old-style of the residence into the future. And what was most surprising was the ingenuous, playful feeling it would give anyone walking in – a true detachment from daily worries.

An assistant professor and lecturer at the Viennese Institute for Architecture and Design and winner of the 2006 Austrian Architecture & Environmental Design Prize from the Austrian Lebensministerium, Daneshgar now runs his own firm, Daneshgar Architects, an increasingly high profile, futuristic enterprise based in Vienna. And it’s this office that really caught my attention.

The building where the 38-year-old Iranian architect both works and lives is embraced by a strip of yellow saffron color, embroidered with delicate calligraphic schemes that have become Daneshgar’s signature. The connection between his Persian roots and European know-how is central to his work. Having grown up among Oriental art and architecture and influenced by his family’s saffron business, Daneshgar belongs to the new generation of architects, on their way to building an international reputation. So far, his record is considerable: from lecturing and teaching 11 courses at the TU Vienna, promoting the Institute for Architecture and Design, as well as organizing student competitions and workshops, he never seems to slow down. In 2007 alone he has been involved in building projects in seven countries: the United Kingdom, Sweden, Malaysia, Germany and of course Austria and Iran. All in a surprisingly short time.

It was at the end of 1992 that Daneshgar first came to Austria to complete his studies, writing a Master’s thesis on design and the Internet, entitled "Architecture goes online," under the guidance of British star architect William Alsop, head of the Viennese Institute for Architecture and Design of the Technical University. For a while he went to the US and taught design courses at New York University and then took a position under Alsop in Vienna in 2000. He has been teaching design courses at TU Vienna ever since.   After winning first-place prizes in architectural competitions, the moment came for setting up his own architecture company, the "One Man Show," as Dr. Daneshgar calls it.

The mixture of Oriental influences and European education gave his business an edge, a secret recipe that brought unquestionable success. In this East-West connection, the architect brings back his childhood memories of fantastical light-shadow formations made by sunlight reflecting in the geometric ornaments of mosques, layered onto his experience as an adult of Western architecture methodology.

He employs the notions of light, shadow and space, redefining decorations and extracting a new object out of them, while playing with architectural motifs. Together the ideas form a mystery of calligraphy, playing with Islamic architectural themes. "It is a very simple matrix. I do use this mathematical formula in my own works,"  Daneshgar proudly admits. But the secret of success still needs to be found in "the affectionate color of saffron" – as his family had managed for saffron plantations  for generations, it had an irrefutable influence on him: "Like i n my cooking style, I do add saffron into my architecture presenting my architectonic loyalty to the father."

With this remark, the man in front of me proved once again the sensibility recognizable only in a true artist.  And as with every artist, he is never completely satisfied by his creations, which he describes as far from perfection.

"It’s simply like an integral in mathematics," he said. "One can only come near and try to stand as close as possible to the most perfect situation." And of course, just as in every artist’s case, there have been plenty of obstacles.

"In Austria it is not easy for an architect coming from abroad to get commissions, because you don’t have the contacts," Daneshgar confessed sincerely. While the quality of his work has attracted developers and investors, he has yet to land a major contract in Vienna. Abroad, however, he has been very successful. He is currently working on a private villa in Berlin, office buildings in Munich and London and a shopping mall in Iran.

His open attitude helps a lot, and Daneshgar makes no secret of the fact that he is willing to get involved in anything creative, "even when it involves the design of a spoon or an ashtray." It is easy to imagine this childlike, fresh spirit that animates him responding so intensely: "Everything is fun, because there are no differences in the basic concepts of design."

Architecture requires patience, however, as with growing a tree. And as with the life cycle of nature, there is a life cycle in architecture. Buildings don’t last forever; as an architect, one has a responsibility to raise the level of building paradigms, replacing the old with the new, earlier concepts with improved creations. Failures in design lead to architectural disasters, and it is the architect who is the first to be blamed.

Daneshgar takes his role as teacher and mentor seriously: "We are each the ambassadors of our professions," he claims. It’s a way of spotting new talent. He is strict on drawing exclusively with pencils for a better understanding of the scale, no laptops allowed. He has also created a workshop for small children, to encourage thinking about space and its use.

So does he have any advice for the  "architect wannabe?" "Do not wear black," he laughs. But he’s not really kidding. According to Daneshgar, an architect should never be conceited. "Architects should be aware of their position. You can learn more from a simple construction worker than from a cabinet minister."

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