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Around the World in 365 Days of Geometry, Safoura Zahedi

Safoura is a Toronto-based, award-winning architect, artist, and design educator with diverse experience on projects in Canada and internationally. Her work operates at the intersection of art and architecture, where she explores geometry as a universal language of unity through merging traditional analogue design methods with contemporary technology and digital fabrication. Her interests in Islamic geometry have led her on a year-long journey of traveling across the Muslim world on a mission to expand her expertise through exposure to places, perspectives and techniques often overlooked in Western contemporary architectural discourse and design education.

We talk to Safoura about travelling the Muslim world, documenting sacred geometry, finding inspiration in traditional crafts and the future of Islamic art and architecture.

You have a desire and dedication to document the art of Islamic geometry. Can you tell us more about your project and why this is important to you?

I had an early exposure to Islamic geometry through family trips to my parent’s hometown of Isfahan, Iran. Isfahan is a focal point for admirers of Islamic architecture and geometry. My personal favourite was the dome in the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque. I would get lost looking up into its dizzying golden-ratio pattern that seemed to flow endlessly – I was hooked from a young age. This pattern, like much of Islamic geometry, is an effort to represent the harmony of our universe. Not many art-forms have the universal impact of feeling ‘Unity’.

Throughout my Western education I found the rich history of arts, crafts and architecture of Islamic regions was largely missing. I had to create opportunities to learn about and develop expertise on this work and along the way have at times had to educate my educators. Through my travels I have learned that this history is also not as celebrated as I had hoped in Islamic regions. We have much to learn from this rich body of work and I hope to contribute towards reintroducing it and its underlying philosophy into the design and architectural discourse and education.

The first step is re-exposing it to the world! Which is what I decided to do by sharing my travels through @365daysofgeometry

Why did you choose to focus on Islamic geometry?

Islamic geometry is about reflecting multiplicity in ‘Unity’ and ‘Unity’ in multiplicity. Nature, the universe and our souls are both infinitely complex and at the same time one. Geometry as an artform is a visual reflection of this Islamic and universal philosophy.

The potential to use this universal design language as a reminder of Unity in an overwhelmingly disparate world is what draws me to it.

Unfortunately, today the spiritual art form of Islamic geometry is often reduced to a capitalist ‘branding’ for ‘Islamic Art’ and ‘Islamic Architecture’ with no understanding or reflection of the philosophy underlying it. I hope to address this and return to a design approach rooted in an understanding and application of Islamic philosophy.

What intrigues you about Islamic architecture?

Architecture is not just a structure but a reflection of the culture, people and society that created and lived through them over time. Monuments capture both an aesthetic moment and how a people lived and expected to live in the future. As a designer, the physical and visual elements of Islamic architectural monuments help transport and connect me to that history. I imagine the diverse number of people that may have occupied a space, built it, enjoyed it, experienced the bad and the good of life. Buildings hold rich stories from our ancestors and if we listen closely, we can learn from their wisdom.

How many countries have you visited to date?

To date, I have visited 26 countries. But I try not to look at travel in terms of the countries I have been to and must knock off my bucket list. A lesson I have learned through my travels is how beautifully aesthetic languages permeate borders, people, and cultures. As you move in space and time you can see the influence of one culture and aesthetic language on the other. Tracing the cross-pollination of ideas and techniques is often what gets me most excited!

Do you believe the preservation of Islamic architecture is important? Why do you think understanding our past helps our future?

The short answer is, yes! I believe all historic monuments should be celebrated and preserved. These are buildings that served humanity historically and can continue to do so by sharing lessons from the past. At the same time, it’s important to evolve and innovate from these lessons and look at our current needs and how we can develop contemporary art and architecture based on Islamic principles but in our contemporary context.