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New Life for Old Structures, Iran (awarded 1999–2001)

In the last 100 years, Iran has endured a number of major upheavals such military take-overs, wars, and revolutions. In addition, in a context of widespread deprivation and rapid population growth, the need for more and better housing and facilities had become critical. While many new buildings were needed to accommodate the burgeoning population, authorities also realised that some of old solidly built structures could be rehabilitated or repurposed. Since traditional homes are often perceived to be inadequate for contemporary needs and unregulated development poses a risk, in 1988 the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development established a programme to stop the decline of the city centres throughout Iran. Recognising the need for urban regeneration through the restoration and reuse of historical buildings in a way that would benefit local communities and involve their participation, the programme of ‘new life for old structures’ was initiated. At the same time, private investors were encouraged to undertake parallel projects for the reuse of historical houses (Baker, 2001). The main objectives of the programme were to protect traditional building typologies - particularly the courtyard house - from the threat of demolition, while at the same time improving local living conditions and raising social awareness about the significance of the historical urban fabric. Most importantly, the projects would showcase Iran’s rich cultural and architectural heritage as well as provide opportunities for the employment and training of craftspeople.

Five Iranian cities have benefited from the programme through the rehabilitation and repurposing of architecturally unique buildings in their historical centres (Baker, 2001). For example, in Yazd, a bathhouse has been transformed into a popular restaurant, and a fine Qajar religious structure has become a community arts centre. In addition, four residential buildings in Tabriz now house Sahand University’s School of Art and Architecture, and the Tofighi House in Zanjan has been turned into a Martyr’s Museum and Memorial Centre. Examples of innovative and adaptive reuse of buildings in Isfahan include the conversion of one of the city’s oldest houses into a religious seminary, a house dating from the Qajar period was repurposed as a school, and two Qajar houses became guesthouses.

The restoration work was undertaken by the Ministry of Housing’s Urban Development and Revitalisation Corporation (UDRC), which has, since 1997, operated as a corporation, 51% of which is private investment. In addition to the projects in Isfahan, Yazd, Zanjan, Tabriz, and Boushehr, the UDRC has over thirty ongoing urban revitalisation projects in twenty- one cities, in collaboration with the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organisation (ICHO) of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. The ICHO is responsible for identifying, registering, and restoring historical buildings, complexes, and structures (Baker, 2001). The UDRC’s main goal is to raise awareness of the cultural value of extant historical buildings while demonstrating their commercial and practical viability for possible private investment in neighbourhoods. By exploiting the current differences in urban land value and property prices, the UDRC is trying to create the appropriate conditions for sustainable regeneration of the historical fabric while generating much-needed employment opportunities.

Al-Abbas Mosque Restoration, Yemen (awarded 2002–2004)

Set in the highlands of Yemen 40 kilometres from Sana’a, the Al-Abbas Mosque dates back to the turbulent last days before the overthrow of the Sulayhid Dynasty, which ruled Yemen from 1046 to 1137 (Baker, 2004). The village of Asnaf is 1.5 kilometres to the south of the mosque; both lie within the territory of al-Yamani-al-Sufla tribe that is a faction of the Haw- lan-al-Tiyal (Yavuz, 2001). Inscriptions in the interior of the mosque reveal that the construction date was the month of Dhu al-Hijra in the Islamic calendar, year AH 519 (AD 1126) and that Sultan Musa bin Muhammed al-Fitti was the founder, while Muhammed ibn Abul-Fath ibn Arhab was the builder. The mosque is named after a holy man, known as ‘Abbas,’ who is believed to be buried there (Yavuz, 2001). Additionally, the presence of ancient relics dating to the 2nd century suggests the previous existence of a sacred building on the site in the pre-Islamic era. While the mosque sometimes functions as a meeting place and a tribunal to resolve tribal problems, it is also a pilgrimage spot: local women leave votive offerings at the tomb of Abbas. Every stone joint and crevice is filled with small pieces of paper inscribed with the women’s prayers. Curiously, women are the main guardians of the mosque, something very unusual in the Islamic world.

The Al-Abbas Mosque is a small rectangular structure, with its longer side running in the direction of the qibla in Makkah to the north (Figure 3.7).

Restoration of Al-Abbas Mosque, Asnaf, Yemen, by Marylene Barret, Abdullah al-Hadrami

Figure 3.7 Restoration of Al-Abbas Mosque, Asnaf, Yemen, by Marylene Barret, Abdullah al-Hadrami

Source: © Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Reha Gunay (photographer)

The interior of the mosque is divided into four horizontal bays with three rows of columns, two in each row. The mosque has two entrances, one at the centre of the south elevation on the midrib axis. The other entrance is on the west elevation and off-centre to the south corresponding to the third columnar bay from the north (Yavuz, 2001). The mosque’s most important architectural feature is its elaborate coffered ceiling, which is in complete contrast to the building’s modest exterior. The ceiling’s twenty-two caissons are covered with intricate decorations, carved and painted in tempera, on a wooden support. The number of steps in each caisson increases towards the mibrab, and the caisson directly in front of the mihrab has seven steps, signifying the seven strata of heaven. In addition, there is an inscribed frieze around the mihrab and a triple-band frieze around the top of the walls that continues the decorative scheme of the ceiling (Baker, 2004). There are eighty different geometric and floral motifs on the ceiling which, although traditional, show Sassanid, Fatimid, and Ghaznavid influences.

By the 1980s, the ceiling was suffering from rot and the number of worshippers at the mosque fell dramatically. In 1985, the Yemeni Government’s General Organisation for Antiquities asked the French Centre for Yemeni Studies in Sana’a for help to repair the mosque. As a result, the ceiling was dismantled with funding from UNESCO and taken to the National Museum in Sana’a. The 1990 Gulf War and the outbreak of civil war in Yemen in 1994 brought the project to a halt. During this time, members of the Flelwan tribes voiced fierce opposition to the removal of the mosque’s ceiling. In 1996, Marylene Barret of the French Centre was asked to return the roof, and the Yemeni architect Abdullah Al-FIadrami was commissioned to work with her to reinstall the ceiling complete the restoration project (Baker, 2004).

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