Published in 2A Magazine Issue #45 – Summer 2020

The Dilemma

oday, the world and our Middle East urban centers are facing unprecedented problems that ultimately threaten their very existence and that of all life on

Earth. The challenges include cascading crises of climate change, environmental degradation, increasing social and economic inequality due to authoritarianism and the erosion of liberal democracy, dense urbanism and vast human migratory struggles, and the exponential development of disruptive technologies that must be addressed by new insights and strategies in which the built environment and cultural relevance play important roles.

To meet these existential challenges globally, but much less in evidence in the Muslim world, a series of world conferences, declarations and publications in the west came into existence in the 1970’s that commenced researching the causes and possible mitigations to these crises. What has prevented the Islamic world from realizing such dilemmas earlier and developing strategic mitigations and what may be future actions for positive change? My personal experience and responses to this question forms the basis of this essay.

One is jolted into sudden awareness to higher levels of consciousness from the general slumber in which we humans normally exist. Certainly, this is how I became awakened in jerks and ‘prise de conscience’ to confront reality and ultimately after some five decades to be provoked and guided to help draft in ascending stages the Architecture, Culture & Spirituality Forum (ACSF) Declaration of Transcendent Human Habitat. Here is the short story of how it happened to me and I am sure that those with whom I have had the honor to share and

traverse this path have had their own respective tales.

It was not until 1968 to 1972, after my return to Iran after 18 years of residence and academic training in America, and through the intensive immersion in the research and coauthorship of the book, The Sense of Unity, the Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture – that I was made more aware of certain traditional Persian worldviews that were based upon perennial metaphysical knowledge of the spirit that resides in both the tangible and intangible aspects of the universe. I became interested to find the root seeds – Zawq (the inspired visions) versus the mundane drive toward the building of utilitarian shells. I came to believe that Architecture is not the product of just materials and functional purposes or only the ways of social and economic conditions, but the phenomenal expression of the spirit of changing ages. From that time, this sense has been vitally ingrained and I began to appreciate that the quality of timeless architecture cannot be measured, but depends upon the presence of an atmosphere of elegant and transcendent material expression of this hidden spiritual dimension in the built environment. But, why was this quality so absent in the contemporary built environment?

The second awakening was occasioned by the findings and pronouncements of the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, whose motto “Only one earth” led the late Eskandar Firouz, Director of the Department of Environment of Iran, to commission my firm, with lan McHarg of WMRT and Buckminster Fuller as consultants, for the master plan of the Pardisan Ecological project in Tehran. ( Figure 1) In the Islamic world, this project was one of the first based upon environmental sustainability. This brought to me a vivid consciousness

of man’s place in the universe and the troubling, growing threats and possible mitigations to the environmental degradations of our cities, the air, water, nature and the earth.

A third stage precipitated from the 1974 International Conference of Architects in Persepolis, which I had helped organize and resulted in a significant conference resolution for action: “The Persepolis Declaration for an International Code of Human Habitat.” Subsequently, over a two-year period in collaboration with Harvard’s Dean Jose Luis Sert, Moshe Safdie, George Candilis, and B.K. Doshi with UNDEP advisor George Kandreki, I was privileged to head this international research team that resulted in the book Habitat Bill of Rights that was sponsored by the Ministry of Housing of Iran and published in Tehran in 1976. On behalf of the authors, I had the honor to present the book at the 1976 First UN Habitat Conference in Vancouver, Canada. The book was well received and very highly praised.” It selt set forth fresh, and objective qualitative criteria at different urban scales from Dwelling, to Cluster, Neighborhood, Community and the City in the hope that some of the damaging trends that had become commonplace development policies might be averted and a new period of more enlightened, holistic urban development for all income and cultural groups could be realized. Of course, up through the 1980’s, the above research document provided guidelines for my own international practice, including 

several master plans for new towns in Iran, as well as the many architectural projects in the Middle East, Europe and North America.

However, the 1974 World of Islam Conference in London and the Aga Khan Award for Architecture program starting in 1977 and their many related, excellent publications brought a renewed consciousness in both the East and West about the value of Islamic philosophy and its arts. In Iran, architects in response to this need for authentic, indigenous documentation of Iranian cultural values, belief systems and aesthetic theory there began to proliferate a new scholarship by Iranians about Iran. Iranian architects commenced designing buildings provoked by the Zawq (the inspired visions) of perennial aesthetic values of Iran. These included teachers such as Mohammed-Karim Pirnia” , Darab Diba and architects such as Houshang Seihoun, Hadi Mirmiran, Nikkhesal and Parvin, Kamran Safamanesh, Iraj Kalantari and Hossein Zeineddin. Two recent publications cover this topic well: the first is Contemporary Architecture and Urbanism in Iran’ by Professor Reza Shirazi that documents personal interviews with Hossein Amanat, Kamran Diba and myself, while Architectural Dynamics in Pre-Revolutionary Iran’ by Mohammad Gharipour provides a more holistic view of the development of Persian architecture by studying both the internal and external forces and themes that influenced some of the key architects in the late twentieth century. 



Perhaps, also encouraged by the success of the AKA process, a series of significant conferences and award events commenced in Saudi Arabia in which I became pivotally involved. Due in part to my previous research publication on the Masjid i Haram in 1976 and being on the Steering Committee of the AKA, I was invited to present a paper at the International Conference on Islamic Architecture at Dammam University in 1979. An even larger group met again in Medina in 1981 at the Arab City Symposium organized by the Arab Towns Organization and Ismail Serageldin of the World Bank. In these conferences, I encountered the rare few from the Arab world who were academic and professional defenders of environmental and culturally relevant design and planning, such as the three venerable architects: Hassan Fathy, Mohammed Makiya and Rifat Chadirji. There, I also met and discussed with noted architects Architects Abdel Wahed El-Wakil and Bisem Hakim or still younger Saudi architectural graduates from American and UK universities such as Saleh Al-Hathloul, Jamal Akbar and Mishary Al Naim (Al-Benaa Magazine), who were researching the structural changes in Muslim society, identifying the quality of the traditional built Islamic environment and developing guideline interventions. 8

My interest was caught by Saudi architect Ali Shuaibi, who was strongly criticizing the current building scene in the Middle East, as he later wrote in Unkept Promises. The dismay he verbalized was due to the overwhelming, low quality of contemporary architecture and urbanism being constructed. It was compounded by the general lack of consciousness about ways out of this dilemma represented by the speakers from the many Islamic and western countries. It was evident that more workable qualitative guidelines were necessary to preserve the cultural heritage, direct and enhance the future built environments of the now prosperous and fast developing Middle East cities. Regrettably, such guidelines as operational tools for

municipalities and development agencies to guide future growth never fully came into existence from the 1980s up to the year 2000, or even when they were adopted, rarely applied in practice.

Commencing in the new century and continuing until the present, the situation in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states regarding environmental sustainability began to change and there was a glimmer of hope. In 2006, masterplan studies for Masdar City, which is now under construction and claims to be the first carbon neutral and zero waste city in the world was commissioned to Foster + Partners. Meanwhile, the Estidama sustainability rating system, a government initiative developed by the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Authority, was being initiated and was formally launched in 2010. Not to be outdone, other GCC countries began to emulate, albeit not in substance. However, these sustainability-oriented criteria were all based upon social, economic and environmental considerations, leaving out the critically significant dimension of the cultural and spiritual. (Figure 2)

Personally, after twelve years of architectural and planning practice in Kuwait and the GCC, I returned to Boston as a Research Fellow at Harvard Center for Middle East Studies and co-authored the New Arab Urbanism – The Challenge to Sustainability and Culture in The Persian Gulfo in 2010 with anthropologist Dr. Steven Caton and landscape architect Professor Gareth Doherty. This twelvemonth research grant entailed fieldwork and focus-group interviews in Kuwait, Qatar and UAE centered on the sociocultural context in which urbanism and the new architecture was taking place. To the questions: “What extent were “green” planning principles and cultural identity being considered?”, our findings regrettably showed that neither of these considerations were having any significant popular impact on government leaders or the public.


Fortunately, a major outcome of this effort soon came in 2011 when an agreement was signed between Msheireb, a subsidiary of Qatar Foundation, and Harvard GSD to undertake a three-year research project entitled (Persian) Gulf Sustainable Urbanism (GSU) related to the Past, Present and the Future of this region. The first phase of this holistic, multi-year, cross-disciplinary, cross-border study that I co-directed focused on the Past – the traditional urban sustainability of fourteen cities of the region prior to the Oil Boom of the mid-1970s – and was completed in 2013.” Here in one of history’s most fabled lands where it is said that the first world civilizations came into being, the research documented how and why human settlements first came into existence here and more specifically what were the varied, yet common ground, holistic, adaptive characteristics of their sustainability. The recently published A3 size two volume set of 900 pages, highly illustrated research documents the principles, meanings and methods that these traditional urban habitats and their life styles manifested and provided potential valuable understandings and insights into modes of survival for future generations of this region. Deja vu, the subsequent phases never took place and the Khaleej Region has continued in building its unsustainable future cities spurred on by vast financial incentives and motivations.

At the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015, 193 countries adopted a new global development agenda, “Transforming Our World”: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. UN SecretaryGeneral Ban Ki-moon said, “The seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are our shared vision of humanity and a social contract between the world’s leaders and the people.” (Figure 3). Meanwhile, I was invited in Tehran to advise the UN-Habitat’s City Prosperity Initiative (CPI) 12 program and became a member of the Board of Middle East Regional Center-Best Leadership Practice of UN Habitat (MERC-BLP), in preparation for the HABITAT

III UN Conference of October, 2016 to develop guidelines to implement these goals. Again, my contribution was to introduce the important role that Culture and Spirituality should play in this important initiative. However, finally, these criteria were not included. Formalized by the world in the Paris Agreements within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, dealing with greenhousegas-emissions mitigation, adaptation, and finance, it was signed in November, 2016.

But, as recent political history attests, progress on the Paris Agreement has been uneven across regions and countries. In particular, the unfortunate reality is that the U.S announced its intentions to withdraw from the Agreement in 2017, provoking Persian Gulf oil production and world oil consumption to increase, causing world carbon emissions to actually rise, resulting in global environmental sustainability and culturally relevant standards to greatly decline, especially in the GCC.

The Challenge

To help meet the ever-increasing existential challenges to our broader built environment, the Architecture, Culture & Spirituality Forum ( – dedicated to addressing the spiritual dimensions of the built environment came into existence, which I was invited to join in 2009. ACSF is a non-profit, multidisciplinary, multifaith, and international organization of scholars, educators, and practitioners based in the US that has been researching, discussing, defining, publishing and nurturing how it might be possible to generate a spirituality inspired and sustainable framework for constructing and preserving the world. We gathered during our Fifth Annual Symposium in 2013, held at Harvard University (Figure 4), to discuss what may be the deeper reasons for this global decline of the built environment and causes that have prevented us from realizing more effective strategies to achieve

beautiful, inclusive cities? Although the idea of humans being stewards of the earth occurs throughout the Bible, particularly in Exodus and Corinthians, and the Quran 14 strongly exhorts its followers to be vicegerents of the earth and uphold this trust with deep responsibility, the question arises why have these key Abrahamic traditional tenets of humankind been forsaken in modern times, in specific reference to the more affluent, contemporary societies, in both non-Muslim and Muslim countries?

After much deliberation, the answer for our group became very clear. What has been missing in the modern history of environmental design and planning theories and practice has been the exclusion of culture and the ‘s’ word-spirituality -, moral courage and ethical principles in man’s contemporary, limited worldview to its relationship to nature, which has been progressively sacrificed at the altar of material determinism commencing with the Industrial Revolution that has now spread globally. Given the remarkable legacy of volunteered accomplishments of the ACSF members in their published research and practice, we concluded that it was the right time for the Forum to move forward with more universal perspective of humanity, to research comprehensively and prepare a holistic, ambitious and tangible set of products of what we had learned and possible contributions of new directions and criteria to resolve the problems. We reached an agreement on how spirituality may be openly studied without being trapped by religious discourse or dogma, while acknowledging that the standards of traditional research methods should maintain the highest standards as well as humbleness, self-criticism, and care. The work would approach slowly, systematically, and rest on solid foundations in order to guarantee a substantive study of spirituality in architecture.

The in


itial step towards accomplishing a tangible document to achieve this goal was the establishment of a small group of volunteers to research and define what is meant by the ‘spiritually transcendent’ in the design of the built environment, and identify exemplary case studies and practitioners that follow such examples. From 2013, five ACSF members pursued this research topic and produced a joint paper titled “Transcendent Architecture – A Pilot Study of Works, Conditions & Practices’ to (TA). The paper was presented in June, 2014, at the sixth ACSF Symposium at Trinity College, University of Toronto, Canada.

This TA research was presented, debated, and the symposium participants comments were recorded. From 2015 a proactive period of informal explorations and dialogues with relevant world organizations (e.g., AIA, UN Habitat, UNESCO, etc.) followed so that ACSF TA objectives, findings, qualities, and principles could be shared, feedback received and advanced for the benefit of international societies and the next iteration of this search. Finally, in 2017 the ACSF Executive Board tasked four of its members with formal research and preparation of a charter or

manifesto on this subject. The ultimate outcome was the ACSF Declaration of Transcendent Human Habitat that was formally adopted by the Board and presented at the ACSF Eleventh Symposium held at Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Arizona, US, on May 16–19, 2019.

Methodology and Process

It was clear from the beginning that, in order to succeed in our efforts, the most critical decisions were to agree on (1) the scope and schedule of the work and (2) a creditable methodology to operate our research and findings that would allow us to work and communicate despite our living very globally far apart. We resolved this challenge by adopting what can be best described as a combination of a “Delphi method” and a “jazz improvisation” for our asynchronous exchanges that included periodic Skype dialogues for our direct conversations. It was resolved further that the research framework would be structured upon human habitats with three focus areas: worldview, principles and criteria.

Since dwelling is how worldviews are inevitably expressed in everyday life, human habitats were proposed to be one of the most effective methods for taking concrete steps toward the spiritual development of the human community. Grounded on a practice and phenomenological-based vision, we provide the following generative processes for the creation of new settlements and for revitalizing historic towns or heritage districts. This interconnected and interdependent vision towards creating built environments that represent, instill, and support a reverential and enlightened engagement with the world is proposed by considering people inwardly (self) and relationally (with all living beings and earth) when designing. All action should pay close attention to the human being as a physical body with certain material needs and as a spiritual being with higher aspirations — its scale and proportion should be the measure of all built environments — applications should work progressively and interactively at various scales within the design of dwelling unit, cluster, neighborhood, community, and city, and in relation to the natural environment.

A “tree of life” study model of the ACSF Declaration (Figure 5) was used to visually illustrate the initial framework that was structured upon a vertical ontological axis with three descending levels of intangibility commencing with worldview (intangible) followed by principles (more tangible); and with criteria (most tangible) at the base; resulting in a transcending cone shaped “Cypress tree” (Sarv in Persian).

We present this ACSF Declaration of Transcendent Human Habitat (Figure 6) to provide a framework embodying a worldview with principles and criteria for bringing about more effective and viable built environments within local, regional, and global contexts that are grounded on a transcendental and reverential perspective.


Concluding Remarks

Based on the universal Worldview, Principles and Criteria contained in the Declaration, I believe that selected existing regulations and codes (such as the Congress for the New Urbanism, UN-HABITAT CPI, and other complementary, international guidelines) can be enriched by the integration of the Declaration to help create built environments that represent, instill, and support a reverential engagement of the world and cultivate human spirituality. With specific reference to Islamic cultures and in particular to Iran, the Declaration, which generically upholds basic Islamic beliefs, may be translated and carefully integrated into existing Municipality and development regulations.

We welcome all wisdom and insights concerning the transformative planning and design of the built environment that peacefully, effectively encourages and enhances positive transformational change within individuals, communities, and society at large towards achieving harmony with our physical, emotional, social, and cultural dimensions; inspires and facilitates the emergence of a future worth inheriting; responds to the particularities of time and place while dynamically adapting to circumstances to ensure resilience and viability; and does all this while supporting the spiritual nature of our humanity. Recognizing and advancing the role of transcendence in the built environments will significantly enrich the quality of life for present and future generations.