Gisue Hariri and her sister Mojgan, came from Iran to the United States in the 1970s to study architecture and now run their own highly successful firm, Hariri & Hariri-Architecture. Totally unafraid of the highest of high technology, one of their best-known projects was their Digital House, a ‘conceptual project’ where dinner can be prepared with the help of a virtual chef from your favorite restaurant to be shared with guests who live thousands of miles away, a house where the bedrooms are equipped with a dream recording device to capture ‘the flight of the dreaming mind’. An architectural concept that is both terrifying and exciting in equal measure, we may have been expecting to meet a cerebral eccentric with a taste for sci-fi fantasy fiction – instead we met an elegant, very warm mother of two who served us peach pie and delicious coffee.
We have been reading about you and it’s really quite fascinating. You, and your sister Mojgan, who is also your business partner, are both Iranian-born. We want to know about you coming to this country.
I came to the United States in ’74 after I had completed my high school education and it was college time. I grew up in an environment where the Empress, Farah, she had already been studying architecture at the Sorbonne in Paris, so there was a new kind of thinking that women should go for higher education. There was almost no thinking twice about coming to the U.S.
I once interviewed a very young Iranian woman who was a filmmaker, Samira Makhmalbaf, and it made me wonder, well, what kind of country is Iran? Is it a place where women are horribly oppressed and don’t get anywhere at all, or is it a place that produces leading female filmmakers?
[Sighs] … It’s a place of a lot of contradictions. I think that ultimately that is what my conclusions are. People are extremely intelligent, intellectual, artistic, the literature is 2000 years old, I mean nobody can compete with it, so is art and architecture. So like it’s in everybody’s blood. No matter what has happened and how many changes in terms of politics and regime changes, somehow the Iranians have continued. In that sense it is an amazingly provocative place.
It must be hugely frustrating for you then, when you have the view of Iran that is currently offered in the media.
Yes … you constantly want to correct people. But I tell you when I came to the United States, the point of view was 180 degrees the other way. I entered college and everybody asked me if my father owned an oilfield! Or was I related to the royal family?
Within five years of education in college, it all turned around. I had the FBI coming to our university, to Cornell, and checking all the Iranians’ paperwork.
What do you miss about Iran?
I think I miss the kindness of people. There is a tremendous amount of support that not only comes from your immediate family but from your extended family. There is love there.
Can you talk a bit about how your culture influences your work?
[Laughs loudly] That is a difficult one! I think in general both Mojgan [her sister and partner in their firm] carry this kind of contradiction in our work. It’s very obvious.
Are you a compulsive worker?
I love what I do. But I wish there was more time that I could spend equally with my kids.
How do you deal with the guilt?
I try to shift, you know, do a concentrated amount of work in a period of time, then I have it out of the way … there are weeks that I sneak out very early and pick them up to do fun stuff.
I read somewhere that there can be screaming in the office between you and your sister.
Yeaaah! Well, if I had a partner who was not my sister, we would be more polite to one another! We grew up a year and a half apart. So from whenever I remember myself, I remember being with my sister. I have now another sister who is ten years younger.
What sort of house did you grow up in?
Very warm. I grew up in the southern part of Iran. My family is from Isfahan. My parents were not very much design-oriented. So I’m always surprised how aesthetics and equilibrium and color … I mean how did that somehow become so important to both of us.
Do you have any answers for that question?
I have no idea. I feel maybe it’s more the influence of the architecture and the craft that was around us. There’s a certain organic feeling … mysteries … and down to earth also.
What about mathematical Islamic rigor in architecture?
A lot of Islamic architecture is a mixture of the Persians and the Moguls … it’s very mixed, very layered and beautiful. That I think is our contribution essentially to the world of architecture. We have learned to create kind of minimal architecture that is not minimal. This is not minimalism at all. It’s as if you imagine monasticism and absolute opulence coming together … in a very comfortable way.
So opulence doesn’t frighten you? It frightens me.
Opulence doesn’t frighten me, no. I’m not talking about over-the-top, but opulence in terms of exaggeration with materials, craft, something very exquisitely made.
Your firm is famous for your ‘Digital House’ and I have to say, it worries me!
[She laughs] I find as I get older I am really upset about the way we are moving more and more towards a visual culture and further from a literate one. The house, with its ‘digital skin’ with information seeping into you all the time, it upsets me!
[Laughs again] I don’t know if it is the technology that is upsetting you or the way the culture is reacting to technology. My point of view is that technology has only helped and advanced our comfort and our environment and the way we live. Ultimately it comes down to you as a person as to how you interact with that.
I used to think that but now I think that it is removing us from experience.
I feel coming from my background that is very experience-orientated, very tactile, very earthy, yes, we will definitely lose all that, and it’s going to be a pity. But I see it part of an evolution, and we will gain other things … I am very, very optimistic about it.
We are dealing with things that to me are magic! These are things that if you read in a book, you would think it would never happen. And to have that in my lifetime, it’s like when the first light bulb was invented and people didn’t have to light candles!
Well, I suppose you can’t take away from these things that they have liberated us …
Otherwise we’d all still be farmers … and I would have a burqa on!