Like the clothes we wear, the buildings and spaces around us influence the way we think and reveal a piece of our identity to those we invite in to our homes- our personal spaces. And like fashion, architecture is, like Chanel once said herself “a science of measurements.” From United Nude’s Rem D. Koolhaas, to Charlotte Eskildsen’s minimal Bauhaus-inspired designs, some of the world’s finest designers have studied architecture or have been inspired by it.
One of my favourite architects is Shirine Zirak. French-Iranian architect and interior designer Shirine Zirak is known to incorporate the best of two worlds; combining Persian sophistication with the savoir faire of modern French architecture. Having grown up in a family of doctors, she would be the first to pursue a career outside the realm of medicine. Drawn monuments and technical drawings instead, she discovered her passion for architecture. A calling she would pursue ambitiously from that moment on. Today Shirine holds not one, but three diplomas in architecture: Architect DPLG (1990), Interior Designer in (1993) and Architect for Historic Monuments in (1995), making her one of the few among her peers to hold all titles within her profession. She launched her own company in Paris, in 2007, and has been Karl Lagerfeld’s personal architect and interior designer ever since. I sat down with her to talk about the place and purpose of beauty in Iranian culture and lifestyle, her friendship with Karl Lagerfeld and of course, architecture.
Mrs. Zirak, you are French – Iranian. How has growing up bicultural influenced your life?
Growing up in a bicultural environment influences each and one of us in different ways. As for myself, I have very good relations with my clients thanks to my Iranian culture. I believe that Iranian culture gives one the good quality of sociability, it makes you a good listener- and I also believe that my Iranian side has highly contributed to my refined taste in life. On the other hand, my perfectionism and admiration of elegance are attributes of my French side.
Where does your fascination for architecture and interior design come from? When did you know you wanted to go in to architecture?
Coming from a family of doctors, you can imagine that architecture was not a path predestined for me. I didn’t really know which direction to follow after college but I always liked to sketch on anything I used to find, particularly surreal graphic elements and everything in my direct environment- and I have always been interested in the history of art and architecture. One day I went to a school of architecture to register one of my friends, and while I was there it sort of became a revelation for myself. I saw all the models, the drawings and plans around me, and I was just fascinated…then I registered my friend…and myself! And so it began! Today I hold three degrees in building; one in architecture, one in interior design and one in heritage architecture and have worked in all three subjects for a very long time, but my passion goes for interior design.
They say architecture is a men’s world. How is the position of women in the field of architecture today?
It’s a fact that architecture is a man’s world, well in its major parts anyway. It’s something that you can notice especially on construction sites or in meetings. You would be surprised however, to see how female delicacy, as opposed to men’s, encourages respect towards women in this field.
Looking at Iran and the study of interior design (as well as architecture), I’ve always wondered why so many Iranian women choose to go in to this field. What is your view on this?
No matter where in the world, you need a unique kind of ‘sensibility’ to work with interior spaces, because these are spaces that have a strong influence on our daily lives. That is why more women are attracted to interior design, as opposed to architecture and construction, where men tend to feel intuitively more at ease. As for Iran, there are also a lot of women with good taste, who self-proclaim themselves as interior architects without any formal training. That kind of surprises me, because interior design is not just about choosing furniture and lights!
There is another factor to bare in mind. When you go to Iran, you will notice an obvious cult of beauty. From the very ancient architectural monuments of Persia to the most recent aesthetics and trends carried by women in current-day Iran, we live in a culture of beauty where we like to “welcome others with beauty”- when we meet people or invite people in to our homes. And this is something that is also apparent in the way we present ourselves to the the outside world through our clothing, our carpets, foods, and even so in our interior design.
Different aesthetics apply in different places. What can you tell us about modern architecture and building in Iran?
The strength and beauty of architecture has been part of our history for more than 3000 years. We have always had excellent architects in Iran, but city landscapes changed drastically due to the savage urbanism that took place after the revolution; one that had no respect to any rules of aesthetics. In the last decade however, Iranian architects have been paying more attention to the concept of building and they are more aware and attentive towards the different ways to build. Today, with modernisation and with Iran once again opening up to the world, you can see many places with architecture that looks a lot like what we used to have before the revolution. I appreciate the work of architects that are able to use the language of traditional Iranian architecture and modernise it. This is actually what I like to do myself; experimenting with traditionalism, preserving the traditional by transforming it in a modern language, using technology.
You are Mr. Lagerfeld’s architect and interior designer. How do you experience working with Mr. Lagerfeld?
Mr. Lagerfeld contacts me to work with him on the development of his projects. This is how we’ve worked on various prestigious projects together (restaurants, offices, luxury residences) and we are currently working together on two towers in Taiwan, of each 40 floors. I’ve also worked on the interior design of the Chanel studios – and Mr. Lagerfeld’s office. He trusts my taste and contributions in each of the projects we work on. I am very honoured that he has chosen me to be his architect, knowing that he knows a lot of architects and interior designers out there.
What is so far your fondest memory of working with Mr. Lagerfeld?
What is precious to me is that he has really trusted me with everything throughout the years and that we have always been on the same wavelength. I remember one time during a materials presentation for a big project, where he pointed out to me that he didn’t like the choice of a certain material I had made for a particular place- then on the same afternoon he called me to say “I trust you, let’s do what you showed me today” and he let me continue with my initial idea. This was really a very important moment of trust and recognition for me.
Coco Chanel once said that architecture and fashion design are very similar, both being a science of measurements. Working closely with Mr. Lagerfeld, would you say you agree?
Yes absolutely! To work in either of these fields, one requires a strong artistic sensibility. Whether it’s architecture or fashion, both fields are artistic jobs occupied with questions of form, proportions, materials, colours and the use and purpose of embellishments. And some very important fashion brands today are directly inspired by architecture. Chloé for example, one of their recent collections was inspired by Le Corbusier.
Are there any young architects you are currently following?
I had an opportunity to work with Mr. Mozafari Vala, a young Iranian architect with a very modern style. He is now one of the most popular architects in Iran.
You have worked with some of the greatest in the field of architecture, among them Christian de Portzamparc and Jacques Garcia (for 11 years!), what advice would you like to pass on to young women and aspiring architects?
Architecture and interior design are artistic jobs that you must love from the bottom of your heart. You need to love it because like many artistic jobs, it demands a lot of investment and a lot of sleepless nights from you. And, don’t be afraid to express your creativity and use your imagination. Very often, even the craziest ideas are possible to build.
This interview was pitched and conducted for The Tehran Times by Leora Sameni.