The Architecture of Tehran: a Window into Iranian Culture, History

International symposium on Tehran architecture in Washington May 27

By Phyllis McIntosh
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- An international panel of architects, scholars, and urban planners gathered at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. May 27 for an in-depth look at the city of Tehran, especially how its cultural, social, and political evolution is reflected through its architecture.

The program was held in conjunction with the fifth biennial meeting of the International Society for Iranian Studies, held in nearby Bethesda, Maryland. The Tehran conference was also the first program in the Library's Islamic Cities Project, which aims to raise awareness of Islamic and Persian architecture and culture. Future programs will focus on two other Iranian cities, Bam and Isfahan, as well as on Katmandu, Nepal, and Cairo/Alexandria, Egypt.

From an insulated town of 15,000 when it became capital of Iran some 200 years ago, Tehran has grown to become one of the largest cities in the world, a sprawling metropolis of well over 10 million people that stretches from the mountains in the north to the deserts of the south.

Architectural scholar Mina Marefat, conference organizer and director of the Islamic Cities Project, described the early capital as "an inward-looking quintessential Islamic city" surrounded by walls and gates. A fortified citadel housing the government, an imperial mosque, and a bazaar formed the core of the city, while the mahallehs, or residential neighborhoods, lay beyond.

By the late 19th century, Tehran was looking more and more toward the West, and in 1873 Nassereddin Shah became the first Persian monarch to visit Europe. Although still a very traditional city, Tehran began to sport a "European veneer" in such new structures as a theatre that resembled Victoria and Albert Hall in London and the city's first public clock tower, reminiscent of Big Ben.

It was not until the 20th century and the Pahlavi dynasty that Tehran was literally opened up to the West, Marefat explained. In the 1930s, Reza Shah Pahlavi tore down the city walls and gateways, constructed wide boulevards and large public squares and circles, and superimposed a perpendicular grid of streets on the mazelike residential neighborhoods. The old walled citadel gave way to modern government buildings accessible to all.

During the reign of his son, Mohmammad Reza Shah, who ruled from 1941 until the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Tehran became a truly modern, even global city, Marefat said. Oil revenues and the Shah's fondness for all things Western fueled explosive growth and a frenzy of high-rise construction. "A veritable Who's Who of architecture," converged on Tehran to share in the Shah's plan for "the Great Civilization."

The grandest designs were for a massive urban park, the largest in Asia, that was to feature simulations of the world's five climatic zones and Shahestan Pahlavi, a five-million-square-meter city within a city that that was to consolidate government ministries in one location and provide a showcase for the Pahlavi dynasty.

"This was cultural intervention on a grand scale, the major project of the latter half of the 20th century," said architect Terrance Williams of Catholic University in Washington, D.C., who designed Shahestan Pahlavi. In his award-winning design, Williams said, he tried to show that Western technology could be combined with low-rise architecture that captured the essence of the region through creative use of light, water, and interior space.

Though Shahestan Pahlavi and Pardisan, the huge urban park, never got beyond the drawing boards, they still represent important milestones in architectural design and continue to influence projects around the world, Marefat noted.

But even in this golden age of expansion, the city still lacked adequate public utilities, a sanitary sewage system, and efficient transportation. Growth was unfettered by city planning or zoning regulations, although there was some effort in the late 1960s to draft long-range plans for controlled growth. An ambitious 25-year Master Plan called for development of a series of commercial centers, connected by freeways and a rapid transit network, that were to "act as dramatic punctuation marks and provide a sense of place within the larger city," said Fereshteh Bekhrad, a New York architect and urban designer who worked on the plan. Like the grand architectural projects, the Master Plan was never implemented, although the city did construct a subway system that opened in 2000.

With the Islamic revolution, Tehran once again turned inward and symbolically closed its gates to the West, Marefat said. The modern and the secular gave way to tradition and state-enforced religion. Hundreds of new mosques have sprung up, Islamic slogans and images proliferate, and public buildings have separate entrances for men and women.

Though still plagued by pollution, traffic congestion, overcrowding, and lack of adequate water and sewage systems, Tehran does continue to build. Among the impressive new structures are a massive, state-of-the-art oil industry complex and a 600-seat international conference center that was built in just six months to accommodate an upcoming Islamic conference, setting a new world record for speed of completion.

Over the years, Tehran has become culturally more complex as well. Wealthy residents still tend to live in the northern part of the city and the poor in the south. But the distinctions are no longer so clear, as a significant middle class has appeared, migrants from other cities have flooded into Tehran, and suburbs, virtually nonexistent in the 1960s, have sprung up around the city, said French geographer Bernard Hourcade, who is creating an Atlas of Greater Tehran.

Some speakers lamented Tehran's lack of a connection with its cultural heritage. Homa Katouzian, an Iran Heritage Research Fellow at Oxford University, called Iran "a short-term society," because unlike in Europe, the composition of Iran's ruling and property classes historically has not remained the same for more than a few generations. "The highly tenuous nature of life and possessions and extreme insecurity and unpredictability of the future did not encourage long views of life," he noted.

"It's often said that there are a million buildings in Tehran, none of which looks like the others," Katouzian said. "This may be an exaggeration but one that clearly depicts the realities. In the course of the last 100 years, Tehran has expanded enormously in terms of size and population, but there's very little left of what it was then." He added that newer buildings, just 20 or 30 years old and structurally sound, are often given the axe when they become a bit rundown or their design is no longer in fashion.

Iran in danger of becoming a "pick-axe society," where many political, social, and cultural institutions "are in danger of receiving the pick axe treatment according to short term whims," Katouzian said.

At the conclusion of the conference, participants briefly addressed the earthquake risk for a city of more than 10 million lying on a major fault line -- ironically on the same day that the latest earthquake in the region struck about 50 miles from Tehran. The speakers agreed that while cheaply-built mid-rise housing constructed during the boom times of the 70s and the lack of adequate building inspections are of concern, the greatest risk may come from the city's inability to respond to a major crisis and to reach people trapped in buildings on narrow streets.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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