PAAIA Interviews Award-Winning Architects Gisue Hariri and Mojgan Hariri

SILICON VALLEY, Calif. – Gisue Hariri and Mojgan Hariri were born in Iran, and they came to the United States to pursue higher education. After graduating from Cornell University School of Architecture, they established Hariri & Hariri Architecture, a New York-based multi-disciplinary architecture and design firm. The sisters are celebrated as two of the most accomplished women in American architecture and design, and they are described by critics as one of the most progressive and out-of-the-box firms currently working in the United States. Their projects run the gamut from luxury residential developments and hotels to bathroom accessories to single-family houses to high-concept, high-tech experiments. For the Hariris, design is a holistic, boundary-less enterprise ranging from master-planning and architecture to interior design, furniture, lighting, product design, and jewelry.

Through 30 years of dedication to the research and construction of innovative ideas, the firm has been commissioned for a number of high profile projects, including the now iconic Sagaponac House, a world-class residential development in Salzburg, Austria known as ‘The Jewels of Salzburg,’ a mixed-use residential and retail project in Xi’an, China, and numerous commercial and residential projects currently in development in the United States and the Middle East.

The Hariris have been honored with numerous awards including the ‘2015 American Architecture Award’ from the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design, and the 2005 “Academy Award for Architecture” from American Academy of Arts and Letters. They were inducted into the ʻDesign Hall of Fameʼ in 2006 by Interior Design Magazine, and in 2010 they were named as one of today’s greatest talents in Architecture and Design by the prestigious Architectural Digest. In 2014, they were also included on the Design Power-100 list. At this year’s IA-100 retreat in Silicon Valley, they were presented with a Career Achievement Award for outstanding professional accomplishments. PAAIA recently had the opportunity to interview Gisue Hariri and Mojgan Hariri about their backgrounds and impressive careers.

PAAIA: How has your Iranian heritage and cultural identity influenced your ambitions, career path, and life in the United States?

Gisue and Mojgan Hariri: Growing up in the desert, the environment tends to strip everything down to the essentials without diminishing its extraordinary presence and beauty. While outwardly harsh, one intimate with nature finds sensual lines and magnificent vistas emboldening 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 build upon, we make sure that each project is simple, efficient, and environmentally sustainable.

Iran’s rich cultural heritage in arts, music, literature, poetry and sciences, all brought together in its extraordinary architecture, was certainly influential, and it is a long shadow under which we find ourselves. 
Every summer we would visit my grandparents in Isfahan. Our 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 others in the world and picturesque, organic bazaars, and a host of smaller but exquisite mosques and pleasure pavilions. Isfahan is truly the museum of Persian architecture. The tactility, materiality, and use of arts and crafts throughout our projects regardless of scale and program are what we carry within us from the visits to Isfahan.

PAAIA: At the IA-100 Silicon Valley Retreat, you both received the Career Achievement Award. In your acceptance speech, you said “the political head winds may be strong, but PAAIA has shown what we can achieve when we work together for a common purpose. The more we involve ourselves in American civil society, the more we can make a difference in our adopted country and around the world.” What do you believe is the most important step Iranian Americans can take to involve themselves in civil society?

Gisue Hariri and Mojgan Hariri: We believe that the United States has provided us with amazing opportunities to individually grow and demonstrate our exceptional talents, yet as a community we have often fallen short of supporting and lifting up one another. Let’s not forget that human beings are members of a whole, in creation of one essence and soul. We are all one, and part of the same thing. With some exceptions, we have often fallen short of supporting each other and promoting common causes that get us recognized as a whole. PAAIA has shown what can be achieved when we work together for a common purpose.

PAAIA: Many of the projects created by Hariri & Hariri Architecture have won awards for their use of innovation and creativity. Where do you draw your inspiration for these original designs? Have any of your projects been inspired by your heritage?

Gisue Hariri and Mojgan Hariri: The use of geometry, craft, and technology is apparent in all our projects. We were inspired by the renowned Persian polymath figures like Omar Khayam who was a philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, and poet. He also wrote treatises on mechanics, geography, mineralogy, and music which we developed as our holistic approach to design and architecture.

PAAIA: What have been some of the most important moments of your careers, some of the most important projects, and where do you see yourselves and your business going in the future?

Gisue and Mojgan Hariri: Hariri & Hariri architecture’s work has been featured in numerous exhibitions and publications worldwide, but one of the most important moments for us was inclusion in the 1999 exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark “Un-private House” exhibition, showcasing our Digital House project investigating the nature of domestic architecture in the 21st century. This project and exhibition introduced us as entrepreneurs and visionaries to the public at large. Another important moment for us was inclusion in the Guggenheim Museum’s ʻContemplating the Voidʼ exhibition, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wrightʼs landmark museum.

We have been commissioned for a number of high profile projects, including the now iconic Houses of Sagaponac development in Long Island, New York. Additional celebrated recent projects includes the $80-million Sternbrauerei Salzburg (a world-class residential development in Salzburg, Austria) known as ‘The Jewels of Salzburg’, a mixed use residential/retail project in Xi’an, China, an office and residential building in Dallas’ new Arts Center, a residential development in Cape Cod, and a one-of-a kind ʻRock Crystalʼ chandelier and jewelry collection for Swarovski. The firm is now involved in numerous commercial and residential projects currently in development in the US and the Middle East.

We look forward to working on a variety of projects including hospitality, cultural projects, and museums in the near future.

PAAIA: Which projects do you take the most pride in, and what projects do you feel will have a lasting impact or influence on the field of architecture?

Gisue Hariri and Mojgan Hariri: Sternbrauerei, or Jewels of Salzburg, is a luxury residential and multi-use complex in Austria. It is currently one of the largest all-encompassing projects Hariri & Hariri has taken on, and is considered to be one of our most successful and challenging endeavors.

We won this project in an international competition, and it is important to us 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 ‘mixed-use’ development also demonstrates our “holistic” philosophy, where we have designed the master plan, the architecture of the six new buildings, renovation of an existing vault, some of the interiors, and the main landscape elements as well. This project includes 100 luxury apartments, exhibition space, courtyards, a water creek and underground parking garage.

It is neither the scale nor the challenges we confronted that makes our Salzburg project significant. It is the relationship between architecture and nature that has created a dialogue and meditative experience. For us, architecture is 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 never dreamed of and knew existed 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 as an architectural destination in the 21st century.

PAAIA: This year, 2016, is the 30th anniversary of your firm Hariri & Hariri Architecture. What did it mean to you to receive the Career Achievement Award at the IA-100 Retreat?

Gisue and Mojgan Hariri: When we heard that we were going to receive the Career Achievement Award, we felt this was one of those lifetime achievement awards they usually give people who are already dead! I said “oh no, we should be getting a young architects award.” Well we are not at the end of our career, and on architect’s time, we are still pretty early in our careers and are really the young kids on the block.

We are deeply grateful for this recognition because this year is the 30th anniversary of our firm Hariri & Hariri Architecture, and anyone that suffers for 3 decades in any artistic and architecture field deserves a pat on the shoulder. The fact that PAAIA honored us took on additional significance because it came from our own Iranian American community.

PAAIA: Historically, architecture is a male-dominated field. In your acceptance speech for the Career Achievement Award at the IA-100 retreat, you said “Iranian American women constantly amaze everyone with their strength, resilience, intelligence and determination. What better way of building bridges between communities than recognizing Iranian women’s contribution and asking them to lead the march?” How have you managed to overcome the challenge of working in a male-dominated field, and what would you say to other Iranian American women dealing with the same challenges in other professions?

Gisue and Mojgan Hariri: Unfortunately, women are still minorities in the field of architecture in general regardless of their ethnicity. We, as a community, have to nurture and create opportunities for women in all fields and professions, including architecture. We need to be mentors and sponsors to young women architects. According to the architectural record essay by Sarah Williams, men still largely control architecture’s higher reaches. They are more likely to lavish attention on younger men. My advice to both men and women in positions of influence and awarding projects is to recognize that it is their responsibility to find women in architecture. The media has a responsibility to publish and introduce the work of women architects to the larger public. Society as whole has a responsibility to create equal opportunities for women.
Finally, women have a responsibility to support one another rather than competing with one another. Until we respect, recognize, and appreciate women’s contribution to the society, we cannot change the “boys club” culture that exists globally in all fields.

PAAIA: During your acceptance speech for the Career Achievement Award, you mentioned that the arts have always had a special place in Iranian identity. What more do you think the Iranian American community should be doing to support the arts?

Gisue and Mojgan Hariri: We truly believe that the arts have always had a special place in Iranian identity. Like our wonderful Persian food, Iranians are unable to survive without Persian music, poetry, literature, art and architecture.

It is in our DNA, and without it there is no Iranian soul. We challenge our community not to forget those artists who struggle to nourish and sustain our common soul. The Iranian American community must support artists. In fact, the arts may be the best way to promote our culture, community, and image around the world. Great art and architecture cannot exist without great patrons. It is my mission and wish to create a home or a cultural center in major cities where a large community of Iranian Americans can call home. Our heritage is rich and our artistic community is so gifted yet our voices seem to be lost in the noise 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.

PAAIA: In your acceptance speech, you said “Our heritage is so rich, our artistic community is so gifted, yet our voices seem to be lost in the noise of daily political discourse.” Do you feel politics and the arts can work together to help create a better future for not only U.S. –Iran relations, but the rest of the world as well?

Gisue and Mojgan Hariri: Politics and the arts can certainly work together to exhibit not only the history and wealth of the Persian art and culture, but also the modern and contemporary art and artists in Iran and abroad. Our arts will bring a positive cultural exposure and juxtapose the daily political media coverage showing Iranians as a backward, fanatic, religious people dwelling in the past. It will show the rich culture of Iran, its modern art, the art of the 21st century, and its internationally awarded and respected artists. As Iranian Americans, we take pride in being part of two amazing cultures simultaneously. We admire figures like Shirin Neshat, Christiane Amanpour, Elie Tahari, among others, for their contribution and solid presence. Art and architecture is a global language that connects humanity and brings us together as one community.

PAAIA: Please tell us about some of your most recent projects and work, including the exhibition at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery and your next book in the leading architect series.

Gisue and Mojgan Hariri: We are proud to be completing two beautiful projects in Iran. A commercial office tower in Argantine Circle in central Tehran based on Persian geometry and latest technologies. 
What makes this 12 story-office tower iconic is its double skin exterior. The inner skin is all glass, and the outer skin is a shading devise made of aluminum and fabricated with the aid of 3D-laser cutting technologies. The pattern chosen for this outer facade is inspired by cosmic symbol and motif of a mandala. This symbol is used in sacred arts especially in Iranian music and architecture. This pattern often used in Persian architecture is based on the intersection of the circle and the square, symbolizing the connection between the heaven and earth. Interpreted and abstracted, it becomes a screen shielding the direct sun and heat from entering the interior spaces, providing a sustainable environment.

This project is our gift to our country of birth, and we hope that it inspires young Iranian architects to create better quality and more meaningful buildings by looking inward to what their own culture offers them rather than always looking out to the West and copying others.

Another recent project is a villa located on a steep hilly property in an affluent town 30 minutes from central Tehran, Iran. The site offers the views of Jajrood River basin located in the southern part of central Alborz mountain range. It is the view of the majestic mountains and the Jajrood River, one of the main sources of water for Tehran Metropolitan region that makes this place magical and unforgettable. Conceptually the villa takes form of a sculpture on top of the hill.

We are also completing a book with the Images Publishing Group in their Leading Architects Series which is due in the bookstores in May 2017. We are ending 2016 and starting 2017 with a great exhibition at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York City.

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