At the Center of Iranian Upheaval, a Soft-Spoken Architect

Win or lose, the disputed Iranian election marks a return to politics for Mir Hussein Mousavi, the reform candidate who challenged the ruling party. Mousavi was a hardcore activist in the Iranian Revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1979, and he served as prime minister until 1989.


So what’s he been doing the past 20 years? Mousavi spent his two decades out of politics reinventing himself as a designer and painter. He taught at Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran, and in 1998 he became president of the newly founded Academy of Arts. All the while he was painting a mix of figurative and abstract works (some of which he sold to pay for his presidential campaign) and designing public buildings.


By all accounts, Mousavi has a temperament more suited to an architect than a president. He is a soft-spoken intellectual not given to thundering pronouncements or speechifying. He likes to stay home and watch movies. He may not be a charismatic firebrand, but he’s in good company as a statesman-designer.


It’s hard to say if Mousavi is a good architect. According to a report on Archinect, he cites the Italian designer Renzo Piano as a major influence. “He takes some elements of modern Japanese architecture, and American postmodern, and then puts them in the context of Iranian architecture,” a relative told The New York Times. Judging from the work shown here for a Tehran museum I would say he’s something like the Robert A.M. Stern of Iran, a sophisticated classicist who knows how to adapt traditional design for institutional use.

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