Moussavi’s love of architecture goes back to her childhood in Sari, a city by the Caspian Sea in northern Iran, where her parents, both academics, commissioned a local architect to construct their family home. She remembers going to design meetings as a toddler and watching concrete being poured for the foundations. During her early teens, Iran was convulsed by revolution. In 1979, when she was 14, the family traveled to England to visit Moussavi’s brother, who was at boarding school there; her parents enrolled her, as well, in an English school rather than risk taking her back home. “At the time, I just got on with it,” Moussavi says. “But looking back, it was really tough. Having to start from scratch like that makes you strong, because you lose the fear of change.”
Her mother and younger sister moved to England a year later, followed by her father. Moussavi went on to study architecture at the University of Dundee in Scotland—where one of her professors suggested she pursue an internship in the then tiny London office of the Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid—and at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London. She spent two years at Harvard, where she was taught by Rem Koolhaas, who offered her a job at his practice, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA).
While at OMA, Moussavi began a relationship with the Spanish architect Alejandro Zaera-Polo. In 1993, they married and set up a firm in London, choosing Foreign Office Architects (FOA) as a suitable name for a partnership between an Iranian and a Spaniard working in England. Together they won a series of prestigious international commissions, including Japan’s Yokohama International Passenger Terminal, and emerged at the forefront of the post-Koolhaas-and-Hadid generation of architects, whose work is defined not by an identifiable style but by experimenting with design technology to produce structures that are specific to their location and purpose.
Moussavi has developed the theoretical side of her work at Harvard, having returned there to teach in 2005 and becoming a tenured professor a year later—and in a series of books based on research conducted with her students. Each publication explores an aspect of digital technology and environmental concerns relating to architecture: The Function of Ornament was published in 2006 and The Function of Form in 2009; The Function of Style is due out next year.
When Moussavi and Zaera-Polo divorced in 2011, they dissolved FOA and set up separate offices. Zaera-Polo has since been appointed dean of the architecture school at Princeton University, and Moussavi has stayed in London, where she lives in Belgravia with the couple’s 11-year-old daughter, Mina.
Farshid Moussavi Architecture got off to a spectacular start by winning a commission for a major housing project at La Défense in Paris, followed by the critical coup of the Venice show (which draws on the research for the three Function books), and now, MOCA Cleveland’s opening. “It has been exciting,” Moussavi says. “First time around, you set up an office instinctively. Second time around, you are more conscious of how it should be.”