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Are thawing relations with Iran an opportunity for architects?

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As Benoy leaps on the UK’s first trade mission to Iran, British-Iranian architects discuss the potential opportunity the world’s last untapped oil-rich economy represents

Benoy chair Graham Cartledge was among a small cortege of business leaders to attend last month’s ceremonial reopening of the UK embassy in Tehran. Cartledge – a regular participant in such high-level government delegations – joined foreign secretary Philip Hammond on the first major British trade mission to Iran since the country agreed to curb its nuclear programme in July.

The UK government is understood to be planning a second mission before the end of the year, and Hammond has said economic sanctions could be lifted as soon as next March.

It is very early days, but I’m sure that work will come out of Iran

So what could the nascent Iranian market mean for UK architects? Is it a realistic prospect or are the cultural and economic barriers too high?

British-Iranian architect Mouzhan Majidi, chief executive of Zaha Hadid Architects and former chief executive of Foster + Partners, is among those convinced that the country presents ‘huge opportunities’ for architects based here.

‘It is very early days, but I’m sure that work will come out of Iran,’ he says. Zaha Hadid Architects has previously had to turn down work in Iran because of sanctions, and Majidi adds that the firm is watching closely as events unfold.

‘We’re still very cautious about jumping in,’ he adds. ‘We want to see how difficult or easy it’s going to be to work there.’

Fellow British-Iranian architect Mehran Gharleghi of London-based Studio Integrate, is also excited by Iran’s apparent rapprochement with the West.

‘Without a doubt the doors of a massive economy are about to open,’ he says. ‘Iran’s construction scene is quite active; there are a lot of buildings and infrastructure projects being built. There is a huge desire to work with international firms, especially within the private sector.’

But a third British-Iranian, Omid Kamvari of London-based Kamvari Architects, thinks differently. After setting up an Iranian office he recently won a contest for a new mixed-use development in Tehran and Kamvari believes breaking into the market will challenge UK firms, not least because Iran’s own massive architectural workforce may restrict opportunities. ‘There are 250,000 architecture students and 850 universities offering architecture courses,’ he says, ‘which means there are a lot of local architects.’

Low fees will also see international firms struggle to compete, he predicts. ‘We regularly fail to win work in Iran due to this as it becomes a question of quality of services provided, which is lost on the majority of investors.’

Nevertheless, Kamvari believes international firms that do their research may prosper in the country thanks to factors such as its booming housing market and appetite for new infrastructure.

The view from Portland Place

‘The reopening of the British Embassy in Iran clearly marks an important milestone in international relations, and the RIBA is exploring theopportunity this provides to engage with its professional counterparts. Members thinking about working in Iran will be aware, however, thattrade sanctions remain in force and should take appropriate advice. The current turmoil in global markets is a reminder for members tomanage their commercial exposure, wherever they may be working.’

Peter Oborn, RIBA vice president international



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