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Interview with Dr. Mohammad Gharipour

Dr. Mohammad Gharipour is an associate professor of architecture at Morgan State University, a partner institution. In addition, Dr. Gharipour is the director and founding editor of the International Journal of Islamic Architecture. On March 9th, 2015, Dr. Gharipour came to Indiana University to give a talk for the CEUS Colloquium series, entitled "Pavilions in Persian Gardens: Context, Design, and Function." Prior to his talk, IAUNRC Graduate Assistant Alexander Zakel got a chance to talk with Dr. Gharipour about his career, his work, and the urgency of architectural research.

 

I’m here with Dr. Mohammad Gharipour. I’d like to start by talking a bit about your educational background.

I have a master’s degree in Architecture from the University of Tehran and got my Ph.D. in Architecture and Landscape History from Georgia Tech in Atlanta. I have taught at different universities including Southern Polytechnical State University, Georgia Tech, UNC Charlotte, the Maryland Institute College of Art, and, currently, Morgan State University in Baltimore, where I teach courses on Architecture and Landscape History at the School of Architecture.

How did you come to be interested in Architecture to begin with?

As a student in middle school, I was quite interested in architecture, not because of the fanciness of the forms and designs, but also because of the complexity of architecture, such as factors that are behind architecture that normally we don’t see. That part of architecture, that nothing is predictable, was probably the most fascinating for me. A building is not just about material or construction, but also about the people living in the area, the social context, and the political context. So, in a way, a building or any piece of architecture is a result of these complex layers of history and context.

 

Within the field of architecture, what is your specific area of interest?

In the twelve years since I began working on my Ph.D., I have been working on Islamic architecture. My dissertation was primary on Persian gardens and pavilions, which I will also be discussing in my talk todayI have also worked on different topics in Islamic architecture; my first book was an edited volume on bazaars in the Islamic world, while another was a collaborative work on calligraphy in Islamic architecture. In my work, I try to look at architecture at different scales. For example, in the bazaar book, I look at an established typology in urban contexts, while in the calligraphy book, I tried to see connections between art and architecture. I try to move between macro-scale, or city-wide, and micro-scale, which is more like ornamentation.

Prior to beginning my Ph.D., I was the editor of a well-known architectural journal in Iran called Abadi. When I came here, one of my dreams was to launch a similar publication, as there aren’t many publications in the field of Islamic architecture. Because of this passion, in 2012, I founded the International Journal of Islamic Architecture, which is currently in its seventh issue. The journal is now being sponsored by the MIT School of Architecture and the Agha Khan Program and is now one of the major publications in the field of Islamic architecture. We try to put equal emphasis on the history, theory, and practice of architecture.

My personal interest within this is the continuity of architecture – I mean, what’s the point of studying 16th century traditions of architecture? How can we use this knowledge in order to enrich our architectural heritage? If you travel to the Middle East nowadays, you can feel this sense of missing architectural identity, that you would see in older buildings, but that is absent in many contemporary projects across the region. The journal is trying to fill that gap by bringing practice to the attention of historians and theorists. We are trying to create a dialogue between these groups, which we feel is largely missing from current discourses on architecture.

What is your current work about?

In the past two or three years, I’ve begun working on a project about non-Muslim sacred architecture in the Islamic world. One part of that research has been the concept and architecture of synagogues. The result of that research, which was recently published by Brill, includes chapters on churches and synagogues in the Middle East and North Africa as well as some “Invisible sacred sites” that are very dynamic and defined by local residents, rather than simply being the footprint of a building or a specific construction. The book that I edited, the result of a project that I started about five years ago, actually tries to highlight this contribution that non-Muslims made to so-called “Islamic architecture” in the Islamic world. We try to see how tensions and collaborations across cultures resulted in forming and developing different types of sacred architecture.

Since then, I’ve also been working on a project about the synagogues of Esfahan. With the help of friends and colleagues, I have been documenting these buildings. This is now an NEH project, where I will hopefully finalize the results and publish it in 2017.

Are there any future research opportunities that you are pursuing?

Nothing specific at this moment. The synagogue project will likely take a long time, as there hasn’t really been any significant research into this particular area, despite its importance. However, parallel to this volume on synagogues in Iran, I’m also working on a volume on synagogues in the Islamic world, working with a group of scholars writing chapters on synagogues in, for example, Cairo, Tunis, and the Ottoman world. I feel that there is a lot of potential for the topic, and not just scholarly potential, as many of these buildings are endangered. Indeed, because of political conflicts in Iraq, three of the buildings discussed in my section have been destroyed by terrorists, which shows how urgent it is to document these buildings before they disappear. It’s a very rich architectural heritage that has been ignored or marginalized due to a variety of factors, including the political situation and a lack of resources.