2013. Vol.3, No.3, 230-237
Published Online July 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/sm) http://dx.doi.org/:10.4236/sm.2013.33031
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
An Inquiry into Cultural Continuity and Change in Housing:
An Iranian Perspective
Rafooneh Mokhtarshahi Sani, Payam Mahasti
Department of Archite ct u re, Eastern Mediterranean University, Famagusta, North Cyprus
Email: r.mokhtar firstname.lastname@example.org
Received March 3rd, 2013; revised April 26th, 2013; accepted May 11th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Rafooneh Mokhtarshahi Sani, Payam Mahasti. This is an open access article distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any
medium, provided the original work is pr operly cited.
The arrival of modernization has had an adverse effect on current Iranian housing architecture; as such,
that it is now finds itself in a difficult predicament. Therefore, various national architectural conferences,
in addition to individual investigations, have been focused on the renewal of Iranian housing architecture
over recent decades. Whilst these examples have not culminated or resulted in defining a clear Iranian
trend and style in housing with recognizable characteristics, it would be useful to explore some of the
more successful examples in order to obtain an overview of what has been done in Iran in this respect
during recent years. Accordingly, the study has focused on identifying the architectural characteristics of
Iranian houses, which have been modified and used in the present designs. In this study, through a com-
parative typological analysis of the different traditional Iranian housing types, their main characteristics
have been categorized. The categorization later applied for the analysis of the contemporary houses de-
signs. The results of this investigation have shown that, in contemporary samples, although the idea of
Iranian traditional houses has remained; the concept of traditional houses has been altered and changed.
Keywords: Housing Typology; Identity; Cultural Continuity; Iran
In the field of architecture, housing has always played an
important role in respect of defining cultural values, providing a
sense of belonging and in the issue of self-esteem. In the con-
temporary architecture of developing countries, however, these
significant considerations have often been neglected. The ad-
vent of modernization, the accompanying rapid changes, the
ever increasing migration from the villages to the cities, and the
urgent need for more housing to accommodate the migrant
population left little time and/or opportunity to give sufficient
thought to the aesthetic issue of ensuring that new buildings
were built in such a way as to include and demonstrate aspects
or features of the traditional architecture. Thus, invariably, not
only have the new building materials and technology been
adopted from modern Western architecture, but the architec-
tural design has also been imported
As a result of these practices, most new buildings, including
housing, demonstrate almost no sense of connection to or of be-
longing to the Iranian culture. During recent years, however, as
a result of the gradual awareness and recognition of the prob-
lem of detachment from traditional values and the resultant
consequences, of this strenuous efforts have been made towards
the revival of some cultural and architectural concepts. Such
tendencies, however, have not been limited to Iran. In fact, as
Lin (2002) states, the shift of the intellectual emphasis from
modernity (homogenizing processes of cultural imperialism and
Westernization) to post-modernism (fragmented global cultural
transformation processes) has been important in developing
countries. In addition, the concept of regional identity has al-
ways had positive implications, partly because of the implicit
assumption that it connects and brings people and places to-
gether, and provides people with shared “regional values” and
improved “self-confidence” (Passi, 2002). Those considerations
are especially important in the current housing arena since, as
Rapaport (2007) states, identity, social relations, status and the
like, have become more varied, flexible, and dynamic.
Consequently, researching and examining traditional regional
values and identifying cultural manifestations in the country’s
architecture has been one of the major aims of Iranian architects
during recent decades. Such an investigation is especially help-
ful in the field of housing studies, since there is a general lack
of literature and/or academic interest or research being carried
out in the field of contemporary housing in Iranian architecture.
According to Lawrence (2005), residential buildings are con-
structed in order to meet a wide range of requirements. Thus,
the monitoring of the characteristics of housing objectives and
preferences over time is one of the most important aspects in
the construction of housing. The aim, therefore, of this study is
to analyze how the design of the general house type has
changed in Iran over recent years.
In attempting to establish the common ground required to
marry the traditional values with contemporary needs, it is nec-
essary to research, identify, and describe those architectural
productions, which demonstrate the combined regional, tradi-
tional, and contemporary needs and values. At the same time, it
is necessary to outline some general definitions that apply to
traditional Iranian houses. Then through a comparative analysis,
the architectural characteristics, which have changed or contin-
ued to live in present designs, will be addressed.
R. M. SANI, P. MAHASTI
Method of Study
In this research, typological analysis of traditional and con-
temporary houses in Iran is used as method of study. A com-
parative typological analysis of the different traditional Iranian
housing types is been made and then synthetized in a chart that
is been later applied for the analysis of the present contempo-
rary houses designs. In studying traditional houses, samples
have been selected from the two main types of Iranian houses:
introverted and eccentric types. To study, the introverted types,
the typology of houses in cities of: Boushehr, Shiraz, Yazd, and
Zavareh has been studied. The Eccentric types are studied in
Gilan region and villages of Masouleh, and Abyaneh (Table 1).
For analysis of present houses, four recent housing projects
were selected for investigating the issue of continuity and
change in Iranian houses. The selection of contemporary exam-
ples identified for the purposes of this paper attempts to dem-
onstrate the diverse approaches and forms that characterize the
current styles of Iranian houses, however, it makes no claim
that these samples are definitive examples. Although these
examples have not been entirely successful in the endeavour (to
combine the past and the present), it is, nevertheless, worth ex-
ploring them here, since, as previously stated, there is so little
literature available on the issue of contemporary housing in Iran,
from this perspective. As an empirical research, the study relies
on observation of selected samples. The result of analysis indi-
cates the architectural characteristics, which remained the same
or changed in contemporary houses in Iran (Table 2).
Matrix of typology of tr a d itional houses in Iran, amended by author (Memarian, 1992).
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 231
R. M. SANI, P. MAHASTI
Characteristics of continuity and change in contemporary houses.
Shushtar new town (1978) Sadri residence (1999) Vanak hous ing (1989) Gonbad hou ses (2000)
Room as a flexible unit
Use of traditional proportion
Brick covered facades
Inward looking desi g n
Courtyard is change d to
Use of corridor to represent
Traditional arche s are
altered to modern arches
Courtyard is changed to front
Balcony is inspired from
Traditional inward looking
design is changed to outward
Use of Iwan (veranda)
Courtyard is change d to
entrance yard and a garden
Brief Socio-Cultural Background
The problem with contemporary architecture in Iran accord-
ing to some scholars, lies both in the level of technical/labour
skills and with some Socio-political factors (Diba, 1991). To
explore the contemporary efforts, it is, thus, necessary to pro-
vide a brief historical background of those socio-political fac-
tors, which have affected and been involved in the formation of
the Iranian culture.
Currently Iran is often introduced as the only Shiite Muslim
state in the world. The Shiite belief system, however, has been
Iran’s chosen state religion since the Safavid period (1501-
1736). Safavids initially belonged to a Sunni Sufi religious
brotherhood in northwestern Iran (Cleveland, 2004; Keddie,
1998). When they came to power, however, they became Shi’a
(Bosworth, 1996). The transformation of the state religion from
Sunni to Shiite has been viewed mostly as a political act, in
order to differentiate Iranians from other Sunnis of different
nationality and/or their Arab neighbours (Morgan, 1999; Ata-
In view of that, it is probably true to say that the Safavid
leaders established the foundation of today’s Iranian identity.
During the Safavid period Iran enjoyed rapid progress in all
things cultural, social, and economical. Isfahan, the Safavids’
capital, had a carefully planned urban centre, richly decorated
mosques, royal palaces, luxurious private residences, and a
large bazaar, all in a lush garden setting (Cleveland, 2004).
After the Safavids, Iran came under the control of short last-
ing dynasties until the rise of the Qajar dynasty in 1794. Under
the Qajar period Iran was not able to achieve or experience the
same strength, prosperity, and progress as it did during the Sa-
favid period. The relationship between Iran and Europe during
this time developed rapidly; Western influences went beyond
the ambassadorial and began to influence the life of Iranians
(Banani, 1961). During this period, although in contrast to
many other Middle Eastern countries, Iran never experienced
direct colonialism, the West had developed a major influence in
almost every aspect of life in Iran (Cleveland, 2004). During
the Qajar period Iranian architecture also experienced a clear
decline (Diba, 1991); many European architectural elements
and ornamentations were applied to the architecture of this pe-
riod, consequently towards the end of this period Iranian archi-
tecture became, a kind of hybrid in some ways of Iranian and
During the Pahlavi era (1921-1978), Western culture and ar-
chitecture was taken as a role model (Diba & Dehbashi, 2004).
However, there were some efforts made to establish and main-
tain an Iranian national identity, so during this period, the Ira-
nian Pre-Islamic cultural characteristics recalled (Cleveland,
2004; Keddie, 1998). Many public buildings which adopted the
style and design of Pre-Islamic Iranian architecture, were built
in this period, such as, e.g. the National Police Headquarters
(1933), Hassan Abad Square (1935) and Maidan Mashgh (1931)
(Diba & Dehbashi, 2004). The name of the country was even
changed from Persia to Iran, the land of Aryans, which was the
name formerly used in the Pre-Islamic pe riod.
This tendency to build in the Iranian style, was seriously
challenged following the Islamic revolution of 1978-79 (Diba,
1991). The return to Islamic values, as well as the developing
respect for Iranian cultural identity has been a major influence
in Iranian architecture since the Islamic revolution (Diba &
Dehbashi, 2004). Thus, whilst researching and identifying tra-
ditional Iranian architectural characteristics, many architects
have also been committed to integrate, in a creative and accep-
table way, the past with the present, the historic with the mod-
Iran is a large country of diverse climates, diverse cultures
and diverse ethnicity, and, consequently, has a variety of tradi-
tional/vernacular architecture. Such diversity is particularly no-
ticeable in traditional houses. Generally, traditional Iranian
houses are categorized within the two main types of “intro-
verted” and “ecc e ntric” types.
Introverted Type (Mainly C e ntral Part of Iran)
Introverted type houses typically are courtyard houses (Fig-
ure 1). Whilst this type of house was found predominantly in
the central part of Iran, in cities such as Shiraz, Yazd, and Za-
vareh, it could also be found in other parts of the country. The
courtyard house style and design was developed significantly
during the Safavid period in particular (Oliver, 2003). During
this period, Isfahan, the capital city of the Safavids, expanded
rapidly to become one of the biggest cities in the world. Hous-
ing and residential areas were, naturally, the main part of any
such urban development.
During this period, the larger houses usually had two court-
yards; one was the main courtyard, which led to the main en-
trance of the house. The second courtyard was for use by the
women of the house, known as the “andaroni”. The entrances to
the houses were usually very simple with little or no embel-
lishments. The front door opened onto an octagonal, small re-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
R. M. SANI, P. MAHASTI
Introverted type, traditional courtyard house, Lariha
House—Yazd, Qajar perio d (1870). Photo: Author.
ception area, known as the “hashti”. This space generally led
into a long corridor, which connected it with the courtyard. A
more modest dwelling may have had a kitchen, latrine, several
personal rooms, and a joint family room opening onto only a
single court (Oliver, 2003).
The courtyard represented the heart of the house and all
closed spaces around it were indirectly related to it, generally
connected by semi-closed spaces (Haeri, 2002). For privacy and
protection from the heat, the presence of a pool and trees was
intrinsic features of almost all kinds of courtyard houses in hot
arid regions. These interior courtyards played an important role
in modifying the hot climate. They also served both as light-
wells, in a building-type, in which the use of exterior windows
is restricted, and as air-wells into which the cooling, dense,
night air sinks. The courtyard also permitted outdoor activities,
providing protection from the wind, dust and sun (Petherbridge,
1995). As well as a courtyard and a pool, most of the traditional
houses also had an Iwan (veranda).
During the Safavid period, the main façade, which looked
onto the inner courtyard, had a large opening in the middle and
two smaller ones on both sides. During the Qajar period (1794-
1925) the layout of traditional houses was more or less similar
to that of the Safavid period; however, as a result of the devel-
oping relationship between Iran and Europe, the first signs of
western taste could be detected in the buildings of this period.
For example, sometimes a house had an architectural embel-
lishment or decoration which showed carved images of human
beings, or it had, within its construction, the type of half-circle
arches and small round openings, which were somewhat remi-
niscent of and similar to the European architecture of the 19th
Eccentric Type (Mainly Nor thern Part of Iran)
The eccentric type houses in Iran could generally be found in
areas that their climate is friendlier (Figure 2). The vernacular
architecture in many settlements in north and west of Iran fol-
lows the eccentric type of housing. There is no courtyard in this
type of houses, and their architectural elements, differ from re-
gion to region. However, there are some characteristics, which
are more or less common between all different types of eccen-
tric houses. Characteristics such as outward looking general
layout and frequent use of Iwan (veranda) to integrate outside
and inside are the main common features. In this type of houses,
openings are larger and looking toward outside.
Comparison of Introverted and Eccentric Types
One of the important aspects of Iranian traditional houses is
Eccentric type, Masouleh Village.
their adaptation to culture and climate. Courtyard houses were
developed mainly in central part of Iran to protect their users
from harsh climate conditions such as high temperature, low
humidity, and sandy winds. In addition, the socio-cultural en-
vironment of the central parts of the country, which was based
on maintain ing the maximum privacy, wa s encouraging th e use
of courtyard houses too. The majority of houses in these re-
gions are introverted. All spaces and their openings were or-
ganized around the central courtyard with slightest or no con-
tact with outward. Such design solution would reply both cli-
matic and cultural needs of residents to be protected from the
outside. Yet, semi open spaces such as Iwan were typically
open to courtyard. Iwan is vaulted space with one side fully
The eccentric types of Iranian houses, however, showed an
entirely different design approach. These types of houses,
which were generally developed in Northern part of Iran, were
oriented toward outside. The climate condition in these regions
is moderate, humid and with plenty of precipitation. Therefore,
there was no need to protect the residents of house from out-
ward conditions. There are almost no central courtyard houses
in these regions. Houses have had direct relation with outside.
Semi open spaces such as Iwan could be seen in these regions
too; however, they are open to the outside of house. The so-
cio-cultural atmosphere in northern part was and still is differ-
ent from central part of Iran. Culture would encourage disclo-
sure rather than enclosure and privacy.
Overall, the introverted and eccentric types of traditional Ira-
nian houses demonstrated significant differences in space or-
ganization, use of semi open and open spaces, and architectural
elements. Though, since introverted houses were spread in
much larger area than eccentric type, the traditional Iranian
houses generally are known as courtyard houses.
The modern movement in architecture began to evolve
around the time of the First World War in Europe (Sudjic &
Beyerle, 1999). The ‘Modern houses’ in the world were born at
almost the same time. These houses had plain unornamented
walls, with large areas of glass, whilst internally separate rooms
were replaced by a continuum of space made possible by a
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 233
R. M. SANI, P. MAHASTI
structural frame. The resulting “open plan” reflected a new
openness in living, the gradual breakdown of old social hierar-
chies, and a reduced dependence on servants (Weston, 2002).
Later, this modern type of housing became commonplace all
over the world, although this international style was gradually
adapted and transformed according to the climatic and cultural
requirements of d ifferent regions (Weston, 2002).
Modern houses, because of the sought after image they repre-
sent, have been universally accepted worldwide, even if the
construction itself fails to be supportive of any given culture
and to integrate the issues of privacy, lifestyle, religion, etc.
(Rapaport, 2007). The modern housing style has also been
viewed in Iran as the ideal image for a dwelling since the arri-
val of modernization in Iran. Consequently, the traditional Ira-
nian house layout has become almost forgotten and more or less
obsolete. This general rejection and lack of knowledge in re-
spect of the traditional houses, however, was not confined only
to Iran and Iranian architecture. Modern houses were developed
in the service of a new vision for living, to fulfill the dream of a
new world rebuilt from the ground up on new aesthetic, social,
and political principles (Weston, 2002).
Thus, in many countries, including Iran, modern houses rep-
resent the new conception of the world. In addition, as Laurel
(2003) states that, at the present time, the balance of power
between designers and design users has undergone radical
change. Designers cannot dictate their taste and preferences to
the purchasers or the residents; a reciprocal dialogue, in respect
of the design process, between them and the designers has been
created and encouraged. For example, one of the main chal-
lenges for architects in Iran was designing according to the new
construction rules, which were established after arrival of mod-
ernization. According to the newly established rules, which are
still in use for all cities in Iran, constructors are allowed to lo-
cate their building only on 60% of north side of each plot. As a
result of such regulation, the organization of houses and image
of cities have been changed in Iran. (Figures 3 and 4)
City of Hamedan, housing layout prior to new
City of Hamedan, housing layout after new con-
Overall, although modern houses layout has also been ac-
cepted and utilised enthusiastically in Iran, the last decades
have seen a search for cultural manifestation, and various ap-
proaches have been tried. Those efforts can be categorized wi-
thin two periods after arrival of modernization in Iran. The first
period, contains the work of architects from the beginning of
Second Pahlavi period (1941-1979) until Islamic Revolution
(1979). The second period starts from the Islamic Revolution
and continues until present time.
To explore the contemporary houses, in the following section
four samples have been selected. The samples are all belonged
to the second period (1979-onward) of search for cultural man-
ifestation in residential architecture of Iran. The selection of
houses was based on their diverse approaches in compromising
between past and present of Iranian architecture. Although,
these houses are nationwide well-known cases of Iranian con-
temporary houses, they are neither the only valuable examples
nor they have been entirely successful in marrying the past and
Sample One: Shushtar New Town—Khuzestan, 1978
Architect: Kamran Diba
During the first period, the more thoughtful approaches to-
wards the construction of the contemporary Iranian house can
be found in the works of outstanding architects, such as Kam-
ran Diba, Hoshang Seyhon, Farmanfarmayeyan, etc. The work
of Kamran Diba in designing a new city (Shushtar) in the
southwest of Iran is the earliest example (Figures 5 and 6).
General view from New_Shushtar. Photo:
Aga Khan Award for Architecture/Kamran
Plan organization of houses with courtyard.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
R. M. SANI, P. MAHASTI
According to the “technical review of Shushtar New Town” to
the Aga Khan Award for architecture (1986), New-Shushtar is a
residential community for 25 - 3 0,000 people. The new town has
had to integrate different income groups, although it was de-
signed primarily for company employees. The design of the
whole town and its residential districts has attempted to rede-
fine the traditional approach. Diba (1980) explains the tradi-
tional houses of this region based on the arrangement of four
rooms separated by the cross formed vaulted Iwans. He explains
that the central intersection was a courtyard, which in desert
areas could provide more pleasant cooling effect (Diba, 1980).
Diba (1980) then goes on to explain that the design of New-
Shushtar follows the general pattern of traditional Iranian ar-
chitecture, which assumes its form in relation to the local cli-
matic constraints and conditions, available local technology,
and the customs and culture of the region. Individual houses
have thick walls, small windows on the shady side of the house,
usually facing a small inner courtyard. Diba (1980) describes
the courtyard as a place for water, plants, blue sky, stars, cool-
ness and as: “a room with the sky for a roof”, “an oasis that
becomes the image of paradise”. Houses have box-forms with
variations in height and relief. Facades are simple and rectilin-
ear. In the designing of these houses, the focus was to preserve
the traditional concept of the room as a flexible unit, by pro-
viding large spaces which are multi-purpose and potentially
divisible (Diba, 1980).
The first phase of the project was completed in 1978, and in
1986 it attracted the third Aga Khan Award Master Jury’s ap-
preciation. Over the last twenty years, the design of this project
has also inspired a number of other new-town projects in Iran.
The housing of New-Shushtar was internationally acclaimed
and recognized as offering an alternative approach in respect of
the issue of mass housing (Derakhshani, 2004).
During the second period, after the Islamic revolution, vari-
ous approaches have been tried to marry the traditional charac-
teristics with contemporary needs in housing design. The most
popular approach to linking the past with the present, however,
has focused on the exterior image of house. As Diba explains:
“The most fashionable cladding material is pale (light beige)
brick, which gives buildings a link with traditional architecture”
(Diba, 1991). Following samples are some of the more suc-
cessful efforts after the Islamic revolution in Iran.
Sample Two: Sadri Residence—Isfahan, 1999
Architect: Mohamad Reza Ghanei
In the design of this house, the familiar Iranian traditional
house characteristics of courtyard and pool have been used
again. The building is divided into two parts, a public, and a
private area. According to the designer, a narrow corridor,
which could be seen as resembling the tiny twisting, traditional
streets, connects these two parts (Figure 7). The house, how-
ever, has large exterior glass windows (Figure 8). The essence
of the courtyard has been preserved in this house, although the
identity of the courtyard has been altered to that of a front yard
(Figure 8). Whilst the house has an acceptable modern appear-
ance, the main characteristics of Iranian traditional houses have
been retained in its design.
Sample Three: Vanak Housing—Tehran, 1989
Architect: Kamran Safamanesh
This housing complex contains five apartments with com-
Schematic plan with passage at the middle,
front and back yard and pool.
Yard view, Sadri residence, Isfahan. Photo: http:
ion_id=11857&image_id=164130 © Aga Khan
Award for Architecture/Mohamad Reza Ghanei.
mon facilities such as swimming pool, courtyard, and play room.
The apartments have different designs. This complex is used as
a reference and teaching model for architectural students in Iran
(Diba, 1991). The presences of the yard and pool as well as the
proportions of the openings (doorways and windows) are remi-
niscent of traditional Iranian houses, although in this complex
the courtyard is, in fact, designed as a front yard. The design of
the frontal façade makes a reasonable link with the past, with
the presence of the Iwan, (balcony) in addition to use of a large
opening in the middle with two smaller ones on both sides
(Figure 9). The style of the windows and an elevated skyline is
reminiscent of the traditional house design. The inward looking
construction and design layout of traditional courtyard houses
has, however, been altered to a somewhat outward looking
contemporary house (Figure 10).
Sample Four: Gonbad Houses—Gonbade Kavus,
2000 Architect: Firouz Firouz
These two houses have a common entrance yard and a gar-
den area with the swimming pool at the front. The concept of
the traditional courtyard in these houses has been altered to
present and include an entrance court and a garden area (Figure
11). Brick has been used as a familiar traditional building mate-
rial, except in the construction of the yard and the pool. The
size of the windows and openings are small and look onto the
garden. They are protected by a deep Iwan (veranda) which
also overlooks the garden (Figure 12). The cubic form of these
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 235
R. M. SANI, P. MAHASTI
Façade organization with Iwan and
large openings at the middle, and small
openings in both sides.
Yard facade, Vanak housing. Photo:
d=2461) © Aga Khan Award for Ar-
houses resembles that of the traditional houses (Figure 13).
People envision the environment in which they wish to live.
One expectation of people in respect of contemporary housing
in Iran as well as any other developing country is that it should
be related to the modern image of life. At the present time, this
is one of the main reasons for people abandoning the traditional
house style for house forms that communicate modern identity
and status. On the other hand, since the modern identity for
Iranian houses is not defined yet, many existing contemporary
houses are demonstrating an eclectic type of architecture, which
is not satisfying even the taste and expectations of their users to
Front and entrance yards.
Use of veranda.
Gonbad houses, Gonbade Kavus. Photo: h ttp://archnet.
&location_id=11887 © Aga Khan Award for Archi-
be the “home”.
Thus, the appropriate response to the construction of con-
temporary housing should respect both the contemporary needs
and the cultural requests. Through combining essential charac-
teristics of the traditional houses with the new elements of mo-
dern houses, it would be possible to offer solutions in contem-
porary housing construction.
In this study, the contemporary sample houses reflect some
of the characteristics of traditional houses, although the idea of
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
R. M. SANI, P. MAHASTI
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 237
traditional house has been altered and changed into modern
image of house. In the examples, the western notion of house
and the contemporary Iranian way of life has been integrated
with traditional architectural characteristics. The earlier exam-
ples of contemporary Iranian housing style such as the design
of the city of New Shushtar were primarily based on traditional
characteristics, whilst the latter examples were altered and
transformed to follow the design of the modern contemporary
house type. There are some certain traditional features, which
have been transformed and used again in contemporary houses.
For instance, although the essence of courtyards is used in
many contemporary examples, they have been changed to front
yards, entrance yards, and back yards. Use of Iwan (veranda)
and arrangement of opening in the façade of housing are the
other main traditional features which through alteration, are still
used in contemporary designs.
However, in order to understand the full effect of modernity
and change on the contemporary Iranian houses, further studies,
which examine and assess samples of other traditional housing
types, will be required to follow this one. This study aimed to
set the scene and point the way for further research on housing,
especially in developing countries, which, inevitably, experi-
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