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In the spotlight: Pamela Karimi

What were your first thoughts when you saw the call for applications for the fellowship?

I was intrigued by the work of one of my colleagues, Dr. Daniel Barber, who had previously received this research fellowship. In particular, I was captivated by how he articulated his arguments concerning architecture and the climate crisis within the framework of the apocalypse. His perspectives sparked my interest. 

As an architectural historian, my interest lies in the ways our built environment can protect us in case of an environmental disaster. I am also interested in how lesser-known modern and contemporary architects have drawn from traditional building methods to reduce fossil fuel consumption. 

In my native Iran, the term “apocalypse” is commonly invoked in the context of environmental catastrophes, such as earthquakes, whether they occur or are anticipated. Thus, my focus shifts from the term's traditional religious connotations to an exploration of environmental disasters, encompassing both natural and human-induced catastrophic events. 

Pamela Karimi

What does the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse mean for you?

Having experienced the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988 as a child, the concept of the apocalypse doesn't seem far-fetched to me. Additionally, the current and ongoing trauma inflicted by poor leadership in some parts of the Middle East serves as a stark reminder of how fragile our civilization is, and how easily our achievements can vanish. 

What is your fellowship trying to achieve?

I am in the process of writing a book, provisionally titled Survival by Design: Desert Architecture at the End of the World. This book sheds light on a critical, yet often overlooked, chapter in the history of modern environmentalism. As the 20th century progressed, a growing reliance on fossil fuels and contemporary environmental management technologies contributed to the erosion of sustainable building traditions. Against this backdrop, the oil crisis and the emergence of a countercultural environmental movement sparked a resurgence in Iran’s ecological architectural practices. My book highlights Iran’s avant-garde role in environmental design during these unstable times, presenting the innovative ideas and design solutions of a diverse assembly of architects, philosophers, and Sufi scholars. Their contributions, though critical, have remained largely unrecognized. My aim is to bring attention to these groundbreaking efforts that continue to offer valuable insights and solutions for contemporary environmental challenges.

How does the fellowship project build on or connect to your previous career or biography? 

As an art and architecture historian specializing in the Middle East, my work often navigates the intersection of conflict and environmental calamities, such as earthquakes, that the region frequently endures. This focus naturally steers my research towards the repercussions of disaster on architectural spaces and cultural heritage. For instance, one of my co-edited volumes, The Destruction of Cultural Heritage: From Napoléon to ISIS, explored the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage. In a forthcoming book, Women, Art, Freedom: Artists and Street Politics in Iran, I explore the dynamics of art and activism within the context of political upheaval and examine how the creative class uses various peaceful tactics to respond to government aggression towards civilians.

My current research expands into the environmental dialogue, with a particular interest in how architecture can contribute to humanity's survival. This exploration involves studying a wide-range of projects, from innovative shelter solutions for earthquake-prone areas to refugee settlements and architectural design proposals for lunar habitats. I am especially intrigued by the way these design projects draw inspiration from the principles of desert architecture.

What do you hope to take with you from the project and its results?

The research opportunity at CAPAS has been hugely useful to me. It has provided me with the valuable time and space needed to reflect on my topic and further refine my ideas, drawing on the extensive literature that my colleagues and I have explored together. Before engaging with the reading group activities, my outlook was relatively narrow, mainly centered on resources within the domains of architecture and media studies, particularly where they intersect with environmental studies. Now, I am motivated to embrace a more comprehensive approach, taking into account a broader spectrum of socio-political and even religious issues.

What are the aspects you are looking forward to at CAPAS?

Our regular group meetings have reshaped my approach to environmental concerns. For example, I've learned to move beyond merely considering the Anthropocene to embracing the concept of the noosphere. This shift has been pivotal for my study. It has guided me to focus on a critical era from the 1960s to the 1990s, during which environmental challenges were often seen not as setbacks but as opportunities to build communities united by a shared faith. This faith manifested in various ways, sometimes drawing from the spiritual aspects of Abrahamic religions and at other times from Eastern philosophies, highlighting a cyclical view of time and history. 

Additionally, I've realized the crucial need to steer clear of idealizing local cultures and practices. I've also learned the value of incorporating perspectives from diverse fields to enhance our theoretical approaches.

Above all, “apocalyptic thinking” has encouraged me to think about time from a geological perspective and to consider space in planetary dimension. Thinking through these broader scales has enabled me to look for design solutions that have facilitated centuries of sustainable living, rather than temporary fixes. Viewing architecture through the lens of the apocalypse encourages me to place it within the longue durée of its development. For instance, for centuries, wind catchers have provided cooling in desert environments, and the underground qanat system has delivered water and moisture to residences in the most challenging climates. These innovations are the result of centuries of experimentation and refinement, and they warrant a more serious examination by historians.

To get some practical advice: What would be the three things you would definitely need in a post-apocalyptic world? 

To be honest, there isn't a list of three things on my mind. There's really just one thing that stands out as most important to me. Those among us who have navigated the aftermath of wars and the challenges of forced immigration understand that survival hinges not just on physical tools or resources, but on a mindset that fosters hope and resilience. While my research focuses on the tangible aspects of survival through design—practical means and tools—I also believe that the essence of our humanity plays a crucial role in our survival. I would prefer to face the end as a knowledgeable individual rather than as a merely well-nourished and comfortable one. 

This is a concept that is vividly illustrated in the realm of science fiction, notably in Lucifer's Hammer, a novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, published in 1977. This apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narrative reveals the terrible consequences of a comet's collision with Earth, triggering global devastation, including tsunamis and earthquakes. A key theme of Lucifer's Hammer is preserving human civilization's legacy, highlighted by the symbolic gesture of burying books. This underscores the vital importance of intellectual heritage in rebuilding society.

What are some of your favorite pop culture references to the/an (post)apocalypse?

While my primary research area is Iran, I broaden my perspective to place Iranian architects and innovators within the global context of post-WWII developments. I explore their influences and delve into the cultural landscapes where specific design concepts were either developed by Iranians alone or through collaborations with experts worldwide. Set in this context, in addition to studying actual architectural design projects, I also explore the representation of the built environment (see my CAPAS lecture on YouTube). In particular, my research explores the depiction of arid lands and desert architecture in science fiction across a range of films and novels, drawing inspiration from the literary and cinematic versions of Dune, as well as Star Wars. These sci-fi narratives often envision humanity's (post-apocalyptic) future amidst vast deserts, blending elements of fantasy and science fiction to create compelling otherworldly environments (such as far away planets). Notably, Star Wars, which straddles the line between myth and science fiction, utilized the stark landscapes of Tunisia—locations such as Djerba, Matmata, Medenine, Tozeur, Chott el Jerid, Nafta, Jemal, and Bouhlel—to bring its alien worlds to life. My interest extends beyond the aesthetic and imaginative appeal of these works. I explore the political implications embedded within these narratives. Drawing from the insights of various historians, film, and literary critics, I expand upon the link between imperialism and science fiction. Following in their footsteps, I look into themes related to the future of humanity, otherness, colonization, empire, and the dynamics of power.

Architect and art historian Pamela Karimi currently holds a professorship at UMass Dartmouth. Her primary field of specialization is art, architecture, and visual culture of the modern Middle East.

CAPAS Lecture by Pamela Karimi