Iranian, Finnish and Philippine rooms coming to the Cathedral

The Philippine nationality room is currently under construction on the third floor of the Cathedral has a dedication date set for June 2019. (Photo by Jon Kunitsky | Staff Photographer)

When Nader Ardalan began designing the Cathedral of Learning’s new Iranian room in 2015, this wasn’t just a new task for the architect — this was about fulfilling a dream from his college years. Now, at the age of 79, he jumped at the chance.

“[Ardalan] was happy to give input,” Nationality Rooms Director Maxine Bruhns said, “because he lived with the belief and trust that they’d get permission to build the room one of these days.”

The Iranian room, along with the Finnish, is the latest to join the current 30 Nationality Rooms in the Cathedral of Learning. Committees have not yet begun construction on the Iranian or Finnish rooms and no date has been set for their completion. Iranian room committee chair Ali Masalehdan said he is hoping it will be within five years, which, compared to how long they’ve waited to create the room, isn’t long at all.

Ardalan was an architecture student at Carnegie Mellon University in 1959 when he accompanied his uncle, the Iranian ambassador to the United States at the time, on a tour of the Nationality Rooms. He determined then that there needed to be an Iranian room among them. But since the City lacked a vibrant Iranian community, the resources to create and fund a room didn’t exist. It remained a dream for Ardalan.

A new Philippine room is also scheduled to join the list of Nationality Rooms.  A dedication date of June 9, 2019, is set for the Philippine room, which is currently under construction. Funding for the Philippine room began back in 1999 before being halted in 2010 due to infighting among the Philippine room task force. Fundraising restarted in 2015, and between 2015 and 2017 the task force raised another $300,000 to reach their funding goal. Construction on the new room began in May.

Though creating a Nationality Room takes many years of fundraising, designing and construction, Bruhns said no one can create a Nationality Room without a strong community to surround them.

“There was no community [at the time], Ardalan never forgot that,” Bruhns said. “Now that [Iranian] people have formed good community here, [the room committee] counts on them to do this room.”

Ardalan credits the 1979 Iranian revolution with bringing most of the present Iranian community in Pittsburgh to the City, and said he met many members of the community in recent years who are interested in funding the room’s construction.

Masalehdan and Bruhns both agree that the local community of each culture is indispensable in funding rooms. Masalehdan said they plan to hold local fundraisers and ask members of the Iranian community in Pittsburgh to contribute to the room’s production. The committee also plans to advertise the room on national Iranian television to gather needed funds, which Bruhns said will likely reach $1 million.

“[They] need to beat the bushes,” she said. “You don’t raise a million just by playing around.”

The Finnish room committee is in a similar situation. Bruhns said the idea for a Finnish room began about 25 years ago and that it remains in the drawing stages until they collect enough funds. Assistant to the Nationality Rooms director, Maryann Sivak estimates the room’s budget at approximately $400,000, while the cost of the Philippine room sits at about $475,000.

Construction materials make up a significant portion of the difference in respective budgets. Each Nationality Room’s design architecture must pre-date the style in 1787, the year of Pitt’s founding — though Ardalan’s design includes elements from centuries far earlier, some from Iran’s pre-Islamic period.

Masalehdan said the room’s design reflects mostly architectural elements from the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as display cases with pre-Islamic artwork, glassware and woodworking. The room will feature a half-dome with blue tiling, and — much to Bruhns’ delight — a large, stained-glass peacock.

“I said, you’ve got to appeal to children! What’s wrong with a peacock tail?” Bruhns said. “[Committees] sometimes forget little kids and that they need something to focus on [when touring a room].”

Room committees strive to depict their culture, historically and authentically, using traditional materials. That means hundreds of intricately patterned, deep-blue tiles to cover the Iranian room — and for the Finns, hauling in loads of traditional lumber logs. Seija Cohen, the Finnish room committee chair, said they plan to recreate a traditional Finnish smoke house in their room design.

“The immigrants arriving in the 1800s and 1900s had made impressive history in this country, cultivating land for farming and building their traditional log houses which stood strongly against weather and time,” Cohen said.

Cohen also noted many local Finns were unsatisfied with the first room design, saying its architecture was too modern. It wasn’t until an Idaho-based historian specializing in Finnish log houses, Frank Eld, got involved with the project that room plans reflected the colonial-era log cabin construction. They will build the room under Eld’s guidance using original 100-year-old Finnish cabin logs using traditional Finnish tools, according to the project website.

Also included in building plans are elements of the traditional Finnish sauna, which for Finnish pioneers, Cohen said, even predates the log cabin. It’s her hope that this room will educate more Americans on Finnish history and culture.

“It was and still is like there is something missing,” Cohen said, “When the country who had pioneered most of the West and the East and had made progress on the development of the beginning of the independent United States did not have a room in the Cathedral of Learning.”

Masalehdan feels similarly about the Iranian room — saying Iranian culture has been influential in history and architecture.

“I think it would be a disservice to not let students know about another flourishing culture like Iran,” he said.

Both rooms, when complete, will be part of an attraction that already houses cultures and heritages from far-flung corners of the world.

“[It’s] the only attraction of our kind in the world,” Bruhns said, “where the immigrants build their culture into a classroom.”

Correction: Pitt was founded in 1787, not 1782. 

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