A former designer for Zaha Hadid and developer of climate-responsive façades. Saman Saffarian

He spent his childhood in war-torn Tehran and rural Moravia. His desire to learn about art and architecture brought him to the US, the Netherlands, and to the city of Brno. After becoming a student of the world-famous architect Zaha Hadid in Vienna, he spent a few busy years as a lead designer in her London studio, before making a volte-face from practice to research. In Stuttgart, he studied how to make façades respond to a changing climate. Nowadays, he teaches at the Faculty of Arts and Architecture at the Technical University of Liberec.

Read the story in Czech translation here.

His Prague studio has a welcoming feel: it is housed in a ground-level, glass-walled office near the Florenc bus terminal, so that passers-by sometimes peek inside out of curiosity, or pop in to ask for directions. Two young designers are working assiduously at their computers. The space itself reveals a lot about their boss, Saman Saffarian: displayed on a table are 3-D scale models of Karel Hubáček’s Ještěd Tower and of the notorious ‘Octopus’ – the never-realised project for a new building of the National Library by Czech architect Jan Kaplický. Both are an inspiration to Saffarian, who embraces the legacy of these two architectural visionaries.

“They created buildings in a completely different way. Kaplický wasn’t some chaotic artist who woke up in the morning, kissed by a muse. There was a system to what he was doing. I loved going to his lectures,” recalls Saffarian, whose professional outlook was ultimately much influenced by yet another luminary of contemporary architecture – Zaha Hadid, the world-famous British architect of Iraqi descent.

They were on very close terms at one point – he was one of a dozen designers to whom the studio boss would assign projects she wanted to personally oversee. As a result, for instance, Miami, Florida, has a skyscraper that he helped design and in Taiwan a bridge is being built according to a project devised by a group of architects he headed. Saman Saffarian, however, is averse to megalomania – he seems even more passionate when talking about small-scale installations and undertakings that turned out exceptionally well: the installation in the fire station at the Vitra factory near Basel (on the site of Zaha Hadid’s own first realisation) or his research projects.

One of them is hanging over a desk in the studio: a large visualisation of a railway station with a so-called kinetic façade composed of large sheets. These can move around to protect the building from overheating or provide shade. It is façades like this one – aiming to combine the aesthetically pleasing with the functionally sophisticated – that Saffarian studied and developed during his Marie Curie fellowship in the German city of Stuttgart. “This building doesn’t exist, though. Sometimes we like to make things that don’t yet exist – even when there’s no client. When we can, that is. So that we don’t lose the knack,” Saffarian smiles.

When I was a kid, there were no parks or playgrounds

Saman Saffarian’s interest in architecture, urban design, and buildings dates all the way back to his childhood. He was born in 1981 in Tehran, at the time of the Iran-Iraq War. His parents – a Czech mother and an Iranian father – had moved there before the conflict broke out. As a young engineer, his father had been sent as part of military service to the Czechoslovak town of Mohelnice, to the Moravian Electronics Works, where he met Saman’s mother.

“Compared to the unfree, totalitarian, and sealed-off communist Czechoslovakia of the time, the state of Iran was free, liberal, and open to the world, so that my mum later moved to Tehran to join him,” Saffarian describes.

All that began to gradually change, however. First came the Islamic Revolution, the war with Iraq, then the revolution in Czechoslovakia, and its accession to the EU…

“My mum’s words keep ringing in my ears: Even if you feel you’re totally safe and sound, remember that it’s all just temporary,” says the 41-year-old architect.

As a child he witnessed bombing and the extensive destruction unleashed by the war, but he also saw the then nine-million strong Middle Eastern metropolis rapidly get back on its feet amid a construction boom.

“When I was growing up, there were no parks, slides, or playgrounds: it was unsafe. After the war, construction work was happening all over, fast, and right outside our door. I’d look down into the construction pits of those tall steel-frame buildings and I can still recall many details: workers cutting up a huge steel section on the pavement, welding the pieces together, lifting them up with a crane…” Saffarian reminisces about his childhood fascination with the city. “Tehran’s past goes back only about a hundred years, so the place doesn’t cling to any historical identity. It’s alive, they were constantly bulldozing, building, expanding,” he describes.

Even when playing with Lego, he would invariably seek out the pieces he needed to build a city: airports, police and fire stations, roads… “This has stuck with me, to an extent. Taking certain components and re-assembling them to make something new,” he says.

Later, he was inspired by his older brother – now a biophysics professor – who went to study in the US on a scholarship. The then 17-year-old Saman, too, yearned to study overseas, but he gravitated towards the arts. “I liked playing the piano, painting, model building. And the feeling that I could travel and discover something new suddenly brought out a lot of tenacity in me,” he explains.

He therefore spent his holidays diligently preparing for English exams: his parents travelled with him to Turkey so that he could take the language test, since it was impossible to sit the exams in Iran due to the country’s hostile political relations with the US.

He passed. At the age of seventeen, Saman Saffarian received a scholarship and went to spend a year in the US. “It was only later that my parents told me they were worried for me but didn’t want to stand in my way and stifle my motivation and drive,” he recalls.

Although the campus in Kansas, a somewhat insular college town, did not match the America of his dreams, it allowed him to fully pursue what he really enjoyed: the study of art, architecture, calligraphy, painting, sculpture…

On his return he suddenly viewed cities through different eyes, and, for a change, he was smitten by Prague – a place he had known only in passing, as a stopover on visits to his grandparents in Radnice, a Moravian village not far from Mohelnice.

“All of a sudden, I appreciated the architecture and value of historic Prague. You can see the Gothic there, the Baroque… I was suddenly surrounded by all the things I’d been learning about on the far-off American campus. What’s more, it had the same vibrancy as Tehran, although on a smaller scale. And I’d just turned nineteen. So, of course, Prague wasn’t all about history and art for me,” Saffarian laughs.

From the US to Brno. You pick up the language somehow…

There was one thing, however, that he had his mind firmly set upon: the study of architecture. Two semesters passed before he was eventually allowed a transfer from the American college to the University of Technology in Brno (BUT). “My beginnings there were hard because of the language: I graduated secondary school in Farsi, then I rapidly taught myself English, but I’d never written a word in Czech until my first lecture in Brno, sometime in October 1999. I didn’t know, for instance, how to write a brick in Czech,” he says. “Throw a kid in at the deep end, however, and they quickly learn to swim. That’s how it was with me.”

In retrospect, he sees the four years in Brno as a very enjoyable, nuts-and-bolts introduction to architecture in a setting that still took pride in its functionalist tradition. “We were taught how to design architecture so that it wasn’t too formal or sculptural, but which made sense in terms of function and had that little extra something. It was a clearly defined world where we learned engineering, blueprinting, the building code, thermal insulation…”

Kaplický, and then Hadid

Nevertheless, he kept feeling drawn to the world of contemporary architecture. His first attempt to enter it was with Jan Kaplický. “While doing my BA, I attended a few of his Prague lectures. And then, in 2004, there I was standing in the London drizzle, clutching my portfolio, in front of the iconic pink steel gate of Future Systems. Jan Kaplický turned up, and he was very nice, too, but had to rush and admitted they didn’t have enough commissions to warrant hiring new employees. So, I had a quick look around his studio and said goodbye.”

Instead, Saffarian left on a scholarship to the Netherlands – an internship was compulsory after the four years and his bachelor project at BUT, and he chose to travel abroad through the Leonardo da Vinci funding programme, seeking employment in the Netherlands. “In 2000, Rem Koolhaas, a famous Dutch architect and writer, was awarded the Pritzker Prize, and Dutch architecture was top drawer: I wanted to see and experience it,” he explains.

He spent nearly a year in Rotterdam, working in architecture firms with a friend, and – were it not for one chance encounter – he might have stayed there even longer. “I was having a whale of a time. I’d work late into the night, and on weekends, too. I had an agreement with the company that if I put off my graduation, they’d keep me on, and I’d be able to get a more substantial role in the studio. I came back to the Czech Republic for the holidays, leaving everything behind in Rotterdam – my computer, the table and chair I’d got at a Saturday flea market…”

Those possessions were left behind for good. While he was visiting his mother’s homeland, a schoolmate invited him to join her on a workshop in Vienna, at the famous University of Applied Arts, ‘die Angewandte’. Of course, Saffarian was interested and he tagged along.

It was only during this three-day ‘workshop’ did he find out, however, that the event was really an entrance exam to study under Zaha Hadid – a fact that was to set him on a new path.

Fighting for a different truth. In a white man’s world

By then, Zaha Hadid’s fame was already widespread among architects, but she also aroused a lot of passion. “I was quite familiar with her work, not least because she, too, won the Pritzker in 2004. I also knew the architecture community was split on Hadid. She was a powerful presence, didn’t mince words, and what’s more, she was a woman – and a Middle Eastern Muslim one at that. In a profession dominated by influential white men with clearly defined notions of what architecture is and isn’t,” the architect remembers. “I felt her strength in that she went and fought for a different truth,” he adds.

At the Viennese workshop, Hadid was represented by her assistants. At the time, Saman Saffarian was seasoned by his work in the Netherlands, where he had spent a lot of time building architectural models. “I was always building models from paper, plastic, steel, waste materials, twine… I’d use whatever you could take and build an architectural model out of,” he describes. Hence, he passed the three days of exam sessions unstressed, with ease, and – along with a handful of others – was admitted onto the course.

He sees it as a turning point, a moment when everything changed. He became a student of Zaha Hadid’s. 

Whereas previously he had been attending a technical college that had given him a solid grasp on the fundamentals in a range of fields, he now found himself at a school where he was to learn the masterstrokes – die Angewandte Kunst Wien – as a member of the studio of a distinguished individual, and where he would spend three more years, from 2005 to 2008.

“It was a very tempting path, one whose existence we’d often forget under the burden of operational, rational, and methodological considerations: the path of beauty, of aesthetics.” Studying under Zaha Hadid, moreover, was a move that also dovetailed with the work of Jan Kaplický, whom Saffarian had long admired. “The two approaches are closely related: there’s beauty, but also the skill to design the actual structures,” he adds. 

It was around this time that Kaplický’s bold, blob-like design won the competition for a new building of the National Library in Prague. When the project was aborted due to political interference, Saffarian considered it a huge error and an affront to the jury.

During Saffarian’s time there, Zaha Hadid would personally visit the studio maybe four times a year. And the student was working and learning so diligently that he eventually got degrees both in Vienna and in Brno, while supplementing his income by designing and blueprinting apartment buildings in the Austrian capital.

Among the cream of the designer crop

He graduated just as the worldwide economic crisis was breaking out, around 2008. He set off back to London, again in search of employment. He had his sights set on the studio of Kaplický’s former co-worker Amanda Levete, when he was approached at a Levete lecture by Patrik Schumacher from Zaha Hadid’s studio. They knew each other from Vienna. “He asked me what I was doing in London. I admitted I was looking for a job and he invited me to his office. I came in on Monday and by Wednesday I’d started working there,” he recalls. He stayed on for six years.

He had an advantage – able to think as a designer, he had also mastered the technical side of the trade. “I was offered a choice: since you’re capable of both planning and designing, you can either take on a project that might be perhaps four years in the making, and spend the whole time doing that, or you can join a team where you’ll be designing new buildings all the time,” he enumerates. He selected the latter. “It was more of a challenge, I wanted to nourish my inner self that was yearning to do design. That’s usually more complicated, it requires a bigger shot of innovation, more drive,” he explains.

And Zaha Hadid herself gave her subordinates a run for their money. In the then 270-employee company, she formed a select group of about a dozen designers whom she would put in charge of commissions and architectural tenders that she wanted to personally supervise. Saman Saffarian was in the group.

“She had a reputation for being tough on people. But we enjoyed it. It was very inspiring, thrilling, exhausting, and formative,” Saffarian relates enthusiastically. Did Zaha Hadid ever throw one of his designs back in his face? “You bet she did! She tore my sketches to shreds. She had such a keen eye that if you tried to cover up something in a model, something that didn’t work geometry-wise, and show it from a different angle, she’d always spot it right away and brush the piece of paper off. And we respected that,” Saffarian describes.

Whenever the boss appeared at her studio, everybody knew at once. “Right away, the three printers on each floor would start humming, because people were printing out stuff they wanted to consult with her on. We took it as a kind of sport: she’ll be here any minute, let’s get printing. And the gallery downstairs where she was receiving each team lit up with scented candles,” Saffarian recounts.

She was demanding in terms of both quality and speed – some projects had to be designed within days.

Saffarian has some remarkable structures to his name: he participated, for instance, on the design of a 62-floor residential skyscraper (called One Thousand Museum) erected in Miami, Florida, boasting an exotically curved exoskeleton composed of 5000 blocks of glass fibre reinforced concrete.

“When you look at the original sketch, you can clearly see it’s all there. The proportions were slightly changed later, due to Florida’s building code, which somewhat compromised some aesthetic aspects of the design. But a part of it did remain beautiful,” Saman Saffarian critically assesses the result.

He is particularly proud of the Danjiang Bridge that is currently under construction in the Taiwanese capital Taipei. The 920-metre-long bridge in an estuary, with asymmetrical pylons located closer to one of the banks, is the longest structure of its kind in the world. “It’s a cable-stayed bridge. It’s held up by the cables stretched tight between the pylons,” explains Saman Saffarian, sketching out the principle. The bridge looks as if it is floating above the surface, suspended mid-air with cables and pylons.

As lead designer, the bridge’s appearance was not his only concern, however. He also collaborated closely with engineers in Germany and with Taiwanese consultants, who saw to it, for example, that the design conformed to the philosophy of feng shui. “We had to make major adaptations to the bridge. The pylons, for example, had to stand on particular spots due to the river’s energy flow,” says the architect.

In hindsight, he is glad that he went all-in into the competition. “It was a great lesson. The project was my last at Zaha’s. I handed it in and a fortnight after I’d left the company we won the tender, which I see as a very nice conclusion to my work in London,” he reflects. He parted with the studio on good terms. The door at Zaha Hadid Architects was left open for him to come back any time he wanted.

The famous architect passed away in 2016. “About two months before that, I’d sent her birthday greetings. I didn’t dare write to her just like that, because you’d never e-mail Zaha without attaching a design. So I quickly modelled a little something. She was excited,” Saffarian recalls.

He says Zaha Hadid was strict with her people and would often berate them for rehashing old ideas or urge them to learn and practice more; her recognition and praise had to be earned. Such moments were always special. She was pleased, for instance, with a sculpture that Saman Saffarian designed to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Hadid’s first realisation – the fire station at the Vitra factory near Basel.

“Sure, a bridge or skyscraper is a massive thing, you can sense its weight and that’s fantastic. But designing something smaller like this sculpture, being close to the original creator who knows every curve and stair, drawing on the geometry of the original building, that can be even more challenging. Sometimes the significance of a thing isn’t a matter of size,” Saffarian believes.

Protecting buildings against the climate crisis

But he was yearning to be engaged in something over the long term, continuously, to get deeper involved, not to be constantly haring around. Throughout his time in London he had felt irresistibly drawn towards the company’s relatively unassuming, yet inspiring and progressive department called CoDe, which merged design and computation (CoDe is an abbreviation of ‘computational design’).

“What appealed to me was that the group was looking into the most advanced ways of applying programming to architecture. The newest possibilities in materials and manufacturing. They were also improving approaches to architecture through digital or computerised methods,” clarifies the architect. During his six-year tenure with Hadid, he never missed an opportunity to participate in CoDe’s projects.

“We were exploring new materials and various manufacturing processes – robotic or CNC. We were creating prototypes that showed how digital technologies could help us construct buildings more comprehensively, economically, or quickly,” he adds.

Therefore, when presented with the chance of a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions fellowship related to the InnoChain project, Saman Saffarian did not hesitate. The programme was to fund a dozen researchers in the field of civil engineering in several scrupulously defined areas – design communication, design simulation, materialisation, and manufacture. “Sure enough, I went for design materialisation. I just wanted to build,” smiles the architect.

It entailed something similar to what he already knew from the CoDe team – taking a concept and casting it into a physical, tangible form, but on the relevant architectural scale – not as a mere model.

So, having bid his farewell to London, he moved to the German city of Stuttgart for a four-year PhD course, to delve into a subject that had interested him since writing his thesis in Vienna: kinetic façades. At the same time, his choice was bound up with expectations of professional challenges as well as with the results of German precision manufacturing.

“I’ve always been interested in façades. A façade is just this one thin layer, but we make huge demands on it: not only do we require it to be technically functional – to provide good insulation, maintain a pleasant climate in the interior, screen out sunlight – but it must also look nice, reflect the state of society and convey a certain meaning,” he explains.

He became engrossed in efforts to find out how technology can help us design façades able to sense, scan, and monitor both the interior and the exterior, and adapt so as to save energy and provide comfort in terms of temperature and light. The technical term is ‘climate-adaptive façades’, and they are one of the ways of adapting our cities to the advancing climate crisis.

“Potential applications would be in largish hall-like structures – airports or exhibition spaces,” explains the architect, whose designs resemble futuristic cladding composed of movable sheets. “The next step would be to mount the sheets with solar panels, because when you’re shutting them to prevent the passage of sunlight, you can simultaneously generate energy.”

Suddenly, he had the opportunity to immerse himself in a world different to that of adrenaline-fuelled pinballing between assignments. “In Stuttgart, I ended up having to apply myself even more than I did at Zaha’s. But nobody was forcing me. I wanted to make a genuine scientific contribution and that wasn’t easy,” Saffarian explains.

The most difficult part, he says, was ‘re-calibrating’ his mindset to that of a researcher, which may seem to allow more time, but necessarily involves thoroughly and systematically studying one’s predecessors’ results so that they can be advanced further. His work was fuelled by a combination of techno-optimism and the awareness that he was creating something new, even though it came with the risks endemic to any sort of research – that the project might fail, or that it might not work as expected.

Of the several possible ways of designing intelligent façades, he chose so-called ‘active’ – i.e. human-operated – systems, triggered by activating a sensor or by pressing a button. The pliancy of physical bodies plays a part in his models, too, so that a given material reverts to its original shape after it has been flexed. “It’s about using the elastic energy stored in the material. That way you get movement in one direction for free,” he adds.

During his research fellowship, he also managed to translate his ideas from paper to exhibition halls: “I took part in several exhibitions: in Stuttgart, Copenhagen, and Barcelona, where we built huge, life-size, façade prototypes that were capable of movement,” explains the researcher, who refined their control system, panel orientation, as well as the detection of material fatigue. The cladding, moreover, is very lightweight. The subsequent paper – listing Saffarian as lead author – was later published as a chapter in a book titled Biometrics for Architecture.

“In research, once you’ve chosen the path of actually building something, rather than standing on the sidelines and commenting, or just drawing designs, you need to get into the corresponding level of detail,” describes Saffarian, adding that this path also involved figuring out how to make the model – 9 metres high and 6 metres wide – fit through the small doorway of the museum hall.

Saffarian’s work is therefore helping pave the way towards façades of the future: he has built a large, functional model, although he points out that a lot of work has yet to be done before it can be used for actual buildings – answering the question, for instance, how long the panels can perform and, by extension, how environmentally sustainable they are. “In research, it’s rare that you get to invent something, you’re mostly contributing to a collective undertaking,” he adds.

Signature approach rather than signature shapes

Saman Saffarian compares a doctoral degree to a driving license – graduating is like getting a license to do research. He is currently working at the Technical University of Liberec, where, until recently, he was Vice Dean for Science and Research. Initially, he gave occasional lectures there, invited by the school’s teachers, and in recompense he requested to be accommodated at Ještěd, the iconic communications tower above the city. Later, they won him over for a more substantial cooperation.

Among other things, he teaches his students to design with the aid of digital technologies: in his courses he uses virtual reality, for example, which his students have been experimenting with to see how to manufacture and assemble prototypes on a larger scale. At the moment, they are producing an academic case study on how to develop the area south of the centre of Brno with respect to future mobility – including, for instance, dedicated roads for bicycles or electric vehicles.

“We’re trying to think as if we didn’t have any boundaries as to legislation or property rights, to open more space for innovative solutions. Perhaps it will encourage public debate,” reflects Saman Saffarian. All of his teaching engages with innovation.

Simultaneously, he runs an architecture studio in Prague. What he appreciates about his current mix of activities is the equilibrium of roles, and also the great freedom, the autonomy it affords. “All of this is a tool that helps you do your work well, to move forward,” the architect thinks.

When asked to define his signature architectural style, he takes a long pause to reflect. Although his designs suggest a sense of beauty and inspiration echoing Kaplický’s organic shapes, as well as his experience with Zaha Hadid, he ultimately concludes that, in terms of form at least, his personal style is elusive. “Perhaps it might be the scientifically inflected way of doing architecture – we are constantly seeking something new. It’s important to understand the context and derive innovative designs and solutions from that,” Saffarian describes.

He illustrates his statement using one of the studio’s 3-D printed models: “We were approached to draw a sketch for a cottage in a protected area of countryside that has strict guidelines on how architecture ought to look, in order to fit in. So we studied Czech folk architecture, its tendencies and where they originated. Once we’d grasped its logic, we tried to assemble the motifs into something more up-to-date.”

He is holding up a model produced by variously interwoven and interlocking traditional pitched-roof shapes. It is ostensibly modern, yet on closer inspection, it strikes one as logical and well thought out. “The elusiveness of my signature style consists in precisely this. You can recognise it by the approach rather than by shape.”

In his opinion, architectural research is somewhat difficult in the Czech Republic, because it lacks a longer tradition here. “That’s why we should focus on smaller collaborations with larger entities, be they national or international. So we can show that we’re up to the task and gradually work our way towards large grants,” says the architect, who believes good research requires prolonged nurturing to bear results.

In the Czech Republic he also sees room for improvement with respect to research funding, legislation, and administration. One insight from his experience abroad is that the Czech scene would benefit from people appreciating curiosity and courage over certainty and safety. “The most important thing is creating an atmosphere in which people can work with passion. Not for academic titles, but so that their research topic becomes, at least for a while, the central goal of their lives,” believes Saman Saffarian.

Translated by Petr K. Ondráček

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