LONDON — In private life, Farshid Moussavi is Mrs. Alejandro Zaera-Polo. Professionally, she keeps her maiden name. As a couple, the two work together in their own London-based company, Foreign Office Architects Ltd. They are young and ambitious, both high-speed workers, effective and efficient. Through their own efforts and initiatives they are becoming recognized for their imaginative concepts and originality, an architectural team to be watched.
Mobile phone clamped to her ear, Farshid hurries through the noisy streets of London, intent on her next appointment, her current presentations, and the plans in her head. She said: “I was forced very early to be independent. I was sent to boarding school in England when I was 14.” She came here on her own from her native Iran. Her family home was in Shiraz, the ancient place in legend and poetry of nightingales and roses, music and story-telling.
Farshid is dramatically intense in appearance, speech and action. At school she was a clever child who did well at science, and who liked to use her hands. Her interest in architecture grew without definite pattern. “I could draw well. I mixed the technical physics and discipline with the artistic side. I cannot tell clearly how architecture came about for me,” she said.
In London and Europe, Farshid visited a plethora of solid architectural masterpieces dating back hundreds of years. She admired beautiful and enduring palaces and castles, cathedrals and abbeys. Once she had decided the way she wanted to go, she entered Dundee University in Scotland to take her first degree in architecture. She began her professional record in the Rengo Piano Building Workshop, Genoa. On her return to London she took a diploma in architecture from the Bartlett School, University College. She crossed to the U.S. to study for a master’s degree at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. She met Alejandro, from Spain, who became her husband.
“We were both students, and both working,” Farshid said. On the introduction of their professor, they went to Rotterdam to work there in the Office for Metropolitan Architecture. They accepted an opportunity that came to them to teach in London, and moved again. At the same time they decided to open their own office, Foreign Office Architects. That began their most exciting and most speculative period.
“Teaching helps you to distance yourself and give a good perspective on the work you do in the office,” Farshid said. She has been teaching for the last nine years at European universities in London, Belgium and Holland, and at the American universities of Columbia, Princeton and California. “I used to travel a lot more before I had our baby,” Farshid said. She dovetails her responsibilities so neatly that from this autumn she is accepting a professorship at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.
Study and teaching led both Farshid and Alejandro from the classical and the historic to their own innovative, modern architectural designs. Whilst appreciating old structures in red brick and gray stone, they have moved forward to the use of contemporary materials and forms. They entered international competitions in which they were often short-listed and were twice second-place winners. In 1994 they submitted their designs for the Yokohama International Ferry Terminal, and out of 750 competitive entries won the Grand Prize.
“We both worked on it,” Farshid said. “We were lucky to have the right ideas at the right time, and to have the jury recognize our ideas.”
For several years then, Yokohama became part-time home for the couple. They came and went each month between England and Japan, ensuring that the project be completed to meet the deadline of the World Cup last summer. Farshid said: “The terminal is like an airport, one building but more than one brief. It includes a multipurpose hall for civic use, and a roof plaza that is a big public parking area.” Farshid’s baby daughter was born during the most hectic time of the couple’s overseeing the construction of the ferry terminal. Looking back on their triumph Farshid said: “Winning the competition for the terminal shaped our lives. The ferry terminal became a very important part of us. During the construction, Japan was so wonderful we haven’t really realized yet that it has finally ended.”
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