Two architects, who work in conflict areas, on their role as designers

Shiny Varghese
Iranian-born architect, Yasaman Esmaili, urban designer Joana Dabaj, moughal architecture, british architecture, indian express news

Yasaman Esmaili's mosque-library project in Dandaji, Niger.

The Sacred and the Secular

The mosque was melting. Made from adobe (mud bricks) decades ago, the structure was waning in its appeal for the elders of the village in Dandaji, Niger. There were talks about tearing it down to make way for a concrete one. Niger-born architect Mariam Kamara had heard of it in 2015 and immediately knew she had to save it. She spoke to her friend and collaborator Iranian-born architect Yasaman Esmaili. Together, they brainstormed ways to save the structure built by a master mason, winner of an Aga Khan award, and thought of introducing a library there.

In her talk last year at the Design Idaba Festival, Kamara had contextualised its purpose. While Niger has the youngest population in the world, the youth has limited access to education but a lot more to religion — being surrounded by groups such as Boko Haram, and countries such as Male and Libya, the risk of them being radicalised is very high. So the architects chose to renovate the old mosque into a library, and with help from the original masons, they also built a new one. It was also their way of juxtaposing secular knowledge with religion, says Esmaili. For the students, it became a magical place where they could find refuge.

Iranian-born architect, Yasaman Esmaili, urban designer Joana Dabaj, moughal architecture, british architecture, indian express news

Iranian-born architect Yasaman Esmaili.

One of Esmaili’s first projects, while she was a student in the US, was a girls’ school in northern Afghanistan. It’s here that connections were made with other architects. Esmaili with three others began a design collective, united4design, where she met Kamara. Her own firm, Studio Chahar, has been involved in projects in Iran, Turkey, and Africa. “Often in architecture, the emphasis is on form. But to me, it’s about the spaces we occupy. As architects we can’t put ourselves first, we have to see how people will occupy them. I found that in the school, and I felt that’s how it should be,” says Esmaili, who works in London and Tehran.

Aware that she comes from and works in areas of conflict, Esmaili says, “I am from such a place but one doesn’t think like that because it’s home. I want to show another view of these places, which have a scope for life and joy.”

Building Bridges

In the agricultural area of Lebanon is Bar Elias, a transit town between Beirut and Damascus. It is also one of the most vulnerable localities because of the many Syrian refugees, who have made this their home since 2011. The existing tensions between the different nationalities — Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian — haven’t made it easier. Living out of tents and a lack of safe public places were other issues residents had to contend with. That’s when architect-urban designer Joana Dabaj, Founder-Principal Coordinator, Catalytic Action, with her team and local researchers arrived on the scene in 2018. “We felt the need to create a common ground, which could only happen in a neutral space like a street,” she says. So through workshops, they gave the street a shaded space with benches and place for people to gather.

Iranian-born architect, Yasaman Esmaili, urban designer Joana Dabaj, moughal architecture, british architecture, indian express news

Architect-urban designer Joana Dabaj.

“At these workshops, we had a Lebanese participant who said, ‘I have never sat down with a Palestinian and a Syrian and had a conversation before’. A Syrian in his 70s, who was initially apprehensive, said he felt needed again, that he too could imagine a future for his grandchildren,” says Dabaj.

Born and raised in Tripoli, Lebanon, Dabaj went to the American University of Beirut for architecture. Later, she realised she was more keen on the process of design rather than the finished product. That’s when she joined The Barlett School of Planning, London. “For me, it’s important to make people feel comfortable, and that’s the most challenging part about my job,” she says.

Iranian-born architect, Yasaman Esmaili, urban designer Joana Dabaj, moughal architecture, british architecture, indian express news

Joana Dabaj's project, Ibtasem playground, in Lebanon.

In 2014, Dabaj co-founded CatalyticAction, a design studio that empowers communities and creates meaningful spaces. Through collaborations with UNICEF and local NGOs, Dabaj has been building schools and playgrounds in Lebanon and Syria. “A lot of what we do is about enhancing social relations and being facilitators. We work with children to create safe spaces for them, and if we don’t think of these transition times now, their childhood will be removed from them,” she says.