By DONNA URSCHEL
Scholars, urban planners and architects speaking at a recent Library conference stressed the importance of honoring the heritage and culture of Tehran, the capital city of Iran, in creating its residential, commercial and government structures. The experts illuminated the city's cultural, social and political life as they examined the past, present and future of the city's architecture in a May conference at the Library.
Mina Marefat, an architect, architectural historian and urban designer, organized and chaired the event for the Library's John W. Kluge Center, where she was a former Rockefeller scholar.
"This is one of the first times the city of Tehran is the subject of a major conference in North America in perhaps 25 years," said Marefat, a director of the Islamic Cities Project, a program she initiated at the Kluge Center to raise public awareness of Islamic architecture and culture.
Richard Nelson Frye, a well-known scholar in central Asian studies and founder of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, launched the conference with a candid rebuke of the architectural development of Tehran. He said its leaders turned their backs on Tehran and looked toward the West—Paris, London and New York—for inspiration. "I think they abandoned Tehran," he said.
"Innovation, yes. But not slavish copying. Forgetting your heritage, forgetting your background is not recommended, to put it mildly," said Frye. Modern buildings in Tehran should maintain a Persian style and sensibility and "not be a copy of the bad architecture that sweeps the world in globalization," he advised.
"I think it's essential that the heritage of a people be preserved. If Wal-Mart came to Isfahan, what would happen to the bazaar?" Frye asked. He urged Iranians to work hard to preserve their identity.
Architecture and Culture
The next speaker, Homa Katouzian, placed Tehran's architecture in historical, political and social context. Katouzian, a social scientist, historian and editor of the Iranian Studies Journal of Oxford University, said there was "little order, harmony and consistency" in the architecture of Tehran. "These are manifestations of ancient features of Iranian society—the short-term society, or pickax society," he said.
Iran had a short-term society, because its property-owning classes would not remain the same beyond one or two generations, unlike traditional aristocracies in European societies. "In Iran, property and social positions were short term, precisely because they were regarded as personal privileges rather than inherited and inviolate social rights," Katouzian said.
There were no laws or entrenched traditions that made succession to power in Iran predictable or legitimate, and the leader had complete dominion over all his subjects. Life and possessions could be taken away at short notice without any formal procedures. In this type of society, there were no savings or accumulation of possessions for fear of plundering and confiscation. With no savings, there was no accumulation, and with no accumulation of capital, there was no ability to expand.
"This is why the industrial revolution did not take place in Iran; why the process of capitalization did not begin in societies like Iran," Katouzian said. This state of insecurity and unpredictability affected the types of buildings constructed throughout the history of Iran; the structures were not meant to last long.
In the third presentation, Marefat drew parallels between Tehran and Washington, D.C.: both were young capital cities in the late 1700s. Both experienced slow growth during the first century of their development, and both were transformed substantially with fractured attempts to modernize in the last quarter of the 19th century. Tehran was enlarged by Nassereddin Shah and Washington's infrastructure was rebuilt by Alexander "Boss" Shepherd, each in their own way inspired by Paris. Then again, in the early decades of the 20th century, both cities were intentionally redesigned, and each came to represent their nation as a whole.
But early Tehran was the quintessential Islamic city, Marefat observed. It always had a wall; a citadel, where the ruler and government buildings were located; a mosque; a maidan, which is an open-space area; the mahalleh, or neighborhoods with housing; and a bazaar. "The city had an interesting characteristic: it was surrounded by 114 towers, corresponding to 114 suras [chapters] of the Koran," Marefat said.
In Persian architecture, the interior spaces matter more than the exterior. "The fundamental shape of the 19th century Persian house remained as it had been for 4,000 years. It predates Islam and has a lot to do with cultural phenomena and the environment," she said. The houses featured an interior courtyard as an oasis with water at the center and trees.
Influenced by the West, Reza Shah reshaped Tehran in the 1920s when he tore down ancient walls and 12 gateways. Streets were created to open up the city—"an opening to the West," Marefat said. In the 1960s, Reza Shah's son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, continued his father's policies, and Tehran's growth exploded. High-rise buildings began to appear.
"The inward orientation of the city completely transformed to an outward orientation," Marefat said. Tehran was a continuous construction site until a revolution created the Islamic Republic in 1979. Tehran today is one of the world's largest cities, with a metropolitan population of 13 million.
Plans and Projects
The next four speakers discussed specific architectural projects in Tehran's past: the Tehran master plan, the Harvard plan for Tehran, the Shahestan Pahlavi plan for a massive urban center and the preservation of Oudlajan.
New York urban designer and architect Fereshteh Bekhrad discussed the city's first master plan, which he worked on for nearly three years. The plan was adopted in 1970 but never implemented.
Bekhrad said the primary objective of the plan was to relieve problems in the city, which had no zoning regulations to control land use or density. His plan would have decentralized the city by creating 10 new regional centers, each serving 500,000 people. Separated by landscaped open spaces, each community center would have had its own commercial, employment and industrial complexes. The plan that was adopted later created 22 different city sections.
Exactly 30 years ago, Theodore Liebman, a New York architect, saw
pictures in an architectural magazine of modern office buildings planned
for Tehran. He thought that the cultural and architectural heritage
of Iran should be looked at more closely and that Western architectural
models, technology and symbols should not be adopted blindly.
Under the auspices of the Harvard Institute of Economic Development, Liebman moved to Tehran to help relieve the housing crisis. He said he was concerned that the wrong types of residential development might transform the housing crisis into a social crisis. "It was very important to relate to Tehran authorities that higher density could be achieved through low-rise alternative configurations," he said.
After developing a housing prototype for the Harvard plan, he was able as a private architect to build several housing developments in the city.
Terrance R. Williams, the director of urban design and associate dean for graduate studies in the School of Architecture and Planning at Catholic University, discussed another grand project in Tehran that was designed but not built—Shahestan Pahlavi. In an area two-and-one-half times the size of Central Park, the shah wanted to build 17 government ministries, millions of square feet of office space, two national banks and an embassy compound.
Williams and 14 other urban designers, planners and architects from New York City's mayor's office went to Tehran to create a plan, at the invitation of the shah. "The shah believed that the only people who could deal with the superheated financial climate of Tehran were the John Lindsay people of New York City, who had been dealing with New York developers," Williams said.
The team immersed itself in the history, culture and climate of Iran and found how important it was to integrate the new architecture into the environment. "The challenge for us then was how do we convince the shah that you can use Western technology while still protecting that which is valuable in your own culture. And we were able, with time, to develop a 20th century Iranian architecture that was low-rise. As an earthquake zone, Tehran was not a place for high-rise buildings," he said.
Keyvan Khosravani, an architect and designer educated in Iran and based in Paris, could not attend the conference but sent his paper, which Marefat read. He described his efforts in the 1970s to save the old neighborhood of Oudlajan from redevelopment by Tehran's authorities.
"The project could have made 60,000 people homeless and could have caused human and cultural damage," Khosravani wrote. "I couldn't let this happen."
He launched an unprecedented historic preservation movement in Tehran to save Oudlajan. "To reverse the decision of the authorities, we needed to use the media. After a series of radio broadcasts and a 10-day art show featuring my serigraphs of traditional Persian architecture, we celebrated victory," Khosravani said in his paper. "We had proven that architects and friends together could mobilize and save the cultural heritage of Tehran."
Present and Future
The next group of five speakers discussed the present and future states of Tehran's architecture.
Bernard Hourcade, a geographer from France, discussed the territorial dynamics of Tehran. Tehran changed profoundly after 1979, he said, and the composition of the population now is very different. Migrants moving to Tehran are not coming from villages but from medium- and large-size Iranian cities. This "new elite" is a sophisticated middle class with a sense of their own identity, he said.
Hourcade said Tehran is a postmodern city, and the dichotomy of East-West does not apply. No model exists for Tehran, so the future of the city is not clear, he said.
Ali Reza Sherafati, an Iranian architect, discussed architectural education. In Iran today 10,000 students are enrolled in 26 different schools offering undergraduate and graduate degrees in the study of architecture and design. The professional study of architecture in Iran dates back 140 years, when the first Iranian student went to Paris for instruction and returned in 1864. But the first professional school of architecture was not founded in Tehran until 1939. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the education system was closed for three years, while teacher training and schools were revamped to correspond with the new social and religious norms.
"Today the architecture program is very popular. Architecture is considered a good profession in Iran, and there is an increase in the number of female students, who are now well beyond 50 percent of the university population," Sherafati said.
Iranian architect and planner Iradj Kalantari discussed his design for the future Oil Industry Headquarters, a series of five buildings to house four oil companies and the Oil Ministry. The Abassabad site is the same place once targeted for the Shahestan Pahlavi.
"The scale of the project is unprecedented, intending to accommodate 80,000 people," Kalantari said. Besides offices, there will be shops, a supermarket, theaters, restaurants, a bank, a prayer hall, day care and a first aid center. "We embrace the potential of providing a building formation that acts as a sentinel, a campanile, for this precious district and for the city," he said. Much of the architectural treatment incorporates the use of solar energy, using a brise soleil screening device as well as reflective glazing and mechanical sunscreens.
Yahya Fiuzi, an Iranian architect who practiced in the United States for 18 years before returning to Tehran, discussed the construction seven years ago of the Tehran International Conference Center. Needing a conference center to accommodate an important Islamic summit, Iranian authorities asked Fiuzi to build the new center in a hurry, based on his 1978 drawings for a music performance center. Fiuzi agreed and embarked on "the creation of one of the most incredible building projects—start to finish in six months."
Because of the time limitations, the design team resorted to simplicity. With a team of young architects and a construction crew that worked around the clock, Fiuzi met his deadline and set a new standard for construction in Iran.
The conference concluded with a panel discussion and a brief question-and-answer session that focused primarily on Tehran's vulnerability to earthquakes. Marefat discussed the need for the city to put in place an overall architectural policy that takes into account the environmental conditions and the fact that Tehran is on a major fault line.
The assembled architects and scholars concurred that a strong earthquake could devastate Tehran. Although many buildings could withstand the violent tremors, low-cost residential buildings constructed three to five stories high during the 1970s could collapse. The catastrophe would be compounded by the narrow streets of many neighborhoods, especially in the southeastern part of the city. Emergency crews would not be able to reach certain areas in time to save victims.
"One of the reasons I had for organizing this conference was to recognize problems, including the fact that Tehran needs to do something about being on an earthquake fault line," Marefat said. "Tehran is a global city and its problems are global too."
Donna Urschel is a freelance writer in the Washington area.