How to find houses in a country of privacy

A country of privacy and how to lift the curtains
11/11/2016 Lena Späth

The obligatory veil for woman is a common topic when foreign media writes about Iran. It is inside and outside the country highly debated and this is not the place to take a stand on it. More interestingly in Persian houses the veil finds its equivalent in the form of curtains. They save its inhabitants from too intrusive looks of neighbors and pedestrians. Iranians live and have always lived a culture of inside/outside due to political and social conditions. In Scandinavia you can follow people’s lives easily while passing by a street. In Iran you will hardly spot a figure through a window. Some perfect the separation even by covering all windows with newspaper.

The value of design

You can easily imagine that this atmosphere doesn’t make it easy to find houses to portrait in a book. Houses where actual Iranians live in. The documentary photography book Iranian Living Room has undertaken that adventure previously and with a huge success. I don’t know how difficult it was for the photographers but for my project one factor is making the search even harder: the design. Iranian Living Room has a documentary approach but my book will showcase great examples of traditional Iranian architecture with a modern design approach.

Some years ago most people didn’t value things made in Iran too much. They wanted products made in Europe or the U.S. Since my first trip to Iran I am not leaving the country without visiting at least once the Friday market in downtown Tehran. In a parking lot you find nomad carpets, old postcards, knitted socks from Kurdistan, tiles and handmade ceramics. Back in 2009 my friends were asking me why I bought stuff there when I could go to IKEA, Zara and others back in Germany. Nowadays more and more people buy Iranian goods and design or become even creators themselves. The trend is seen also in the growing number of galleries and shops selling Iranian crafts and the converted traditional houses in Kashan, Yazd and Esfahan.

Tinder as a research channel?

This is also where I started my research: Tripadvisor. I went through all hotels looking for newly renovated ones. Knowing that there was a new restoration wave in Kashan I was still astonished how rarely architects made use of real traditional materials. They mostly fell back into the cliche of french baroque. All the way I would encounter this problem again and again. For this reason I had to broaden my research approach. It then looked like this:

  • Own contacts
  • Social Media (Pinterest/Instagram/Facebook/Tripadvisor)
  • Architecture or design blogs and websites
  • Travel, history and architecture books
  • Couchsurfing
  • Google Search and Picture search
  • Galleries and handcrafts shops

So far results have been mixed. Tripadvisor and a search for desert homes through travel agencies has been a good source for hotels. Instagram has been also a really good source, first to find places by only searching for hashtags and secondly to get in touch with like-minded people which after I contacted them via direct message or their homepage recommended places. Through Pinterest I also came across some smaller hotels.

One of the more disappointing sources was Couchsurfing. Initial I thought local people with an interest in architecture or design would be helpful, so I texted those ones. But after I spoke to some and after one man sent me virtual roses and his latest religious song via Whatsapp I discarded Couchsurfing. I will try to find an alternative way. Instagram and local travel guides can be an option.

Couchsurfing had and obviously still has the problem that people started using it for dating rather than sharing a place and meeting travelers. The nowadays notorious dating app Tinder proved for my case useful. My friends make fun of me that I am using Tinder for business. But it is an easy and free way to advertise your project. Of course in my case only to a male crowd but that’s already 50%. Recently one Iranian architect told me through the app about his latest project at the Caspian Sea. I still need to check it out in person but it seems promising. In case it makes it into the book no jokes anymore, please.

Why personal connections are crucial

Both design and Iranian websites were especially valuable for modern homes but are lacking two things. First you rarely see the actual interior of a house and how it was decorated and you have no contact to the owners or tenants. In Iran the personal connection is often crucial as the home is important as a safe space. Still I choose it to get an overview over current projects and got in contact with the architecture offices.

Same is true for the architecture guide by Thomas Meyer-Wieser which provides a really good intro and overview of Iranian architecture. It covers some private houses but mostly public ones. The book will be available in English from May on, so make sure you order a copy when it’s out.

One of the most valuable sources was by far businesses: Galleries, art shops and stores of home decor often know their clients and function as a meeting point. I either approached them through my own contacts or went directly into the stores. Both ways worked really well. I found a lot of houses in Tehran through this way.

After two months of research both upfront and now also on-site my new list with a new emphasize would look like this:

  • Own contacts
  • Galleries and handcrafts shops
  • Social Media (Pinterest (Hashtag)/Instagram (Hashtag and people)/Facebook (Groups)/Tripadvisor (Hotels/Restaurants)
  • Architecture or design blogs and websites
  • Travel, history and architecture books
  • Google Search and Picture search
  • Couchsurfing

The two months confirmed my earlier belief that personal contacts will be crucial. Iranian life happens behind veils but people are happy to open them for you.

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