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At the Center of Iranian Upheaval, a Soft-Spoken Architect

Win or lose, the disputed Iranian election marks a return to politics for Mir Hussein Mousavi, the reform candidate who challenged the ruling party. Mousavi was a hardcore activist in the Iranian Revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1979, and he served as prime minister until 1989.

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So what’s he been doing the past 20 years? Mousavi spent his two decades out of politics reinventing himself as a designer and painter. He taught at Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran, and in 1998 he became president of the newly founded Academy of Arts. All the while he was painting a mix of figurative and abstract works (some of which he sold to pay for his presidential campaign) and designing public buildings.

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By all accounts, Mousavi has a temperament more suited to an architect than a president. He is a soft-spoken intellectual not given to thundering pronouncements or speechifying. He likes to stay home and watch movies. He may not be a charismatic firebrand, but he’s in good company as a statesman-designer.

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It’s hard to say if Mousavi is a good architect. According to a report on Archinect, he cites the Italian designer Renzo Piano as a major influence. “He takes some elements of modern Japanese architecture, and American postmodern, and then puts them in the context of Iranian architecture,” a relative told The New York Times. Judging from the work shown here for a Tehran museum I would say he’s something like the Robert A.M. Stern of Iran, a sophisticated classicist who knows how to adapt traditional design for institutional use.

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