Iran’s Architecture: Beyond Mystiques, Monuments, and Mullahs

Reports from the Field by • 09/14

Event: Iran Old and New — Architecture from Cyrus the Great to the Present
Location: Center for Architecture, 09.01.10
Speakers: James McCullar, FAIA — Principal, James McCullar & Associates Architects; Ali Akbar Saremi — Architect & Professor, Tehran University; Mahvash Mehr Afshar — Head of Board of Directors, Tavon Consulting Engineering, Tehran; Noushin Ehsan, AIA — Chair, AIANY Global Dialogues Committee;
Introduction: Theodore Liebman, FAIA — Principal, Perkins Eastman
Organizers: AIANY Global Dialogues Committee

Sheikh_Lotfallah_Esfahan

Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque, Isfahan, Iran.

Nicolas Hadjisavvas

Since the 1979 Iranian revolution replaced the secular Pahlavi dynasty with a Shi’ite regime, Iran’s government has been frequently in the news, but the nation’s culture, history, and architecture have been largely invisible to Westerners. Contrary to some expectations, creative design is alive and well in Iran; the national heritage inspires a loyalty that runs much deeper than politics.

Iran and AIANY have strong ties; James McCullar, FAIA, past president of AIANY, has traveled there extensively. McCullar’s slides from Persepolis and Isfahan provided a historical background through the Islamic conquest and the rule of Safavid emperor Shah Abbas, who moved the capital to Isfahan in 1598 and began an extensive building program. Noted for its four-gated Naghsh-e Jahan Square, several mosques (particularly the Shah Mosque and the Friday Mosque, probably a 14th-century building), the Grand Bazaar, a well-preserved synagogue, and other features built during and after the city’s ascendancy under Shah Abbas, Isfahan offers timeless lessons in urban planning and sustainable construction appropriate to a demanding arid environment.

Ali Akbar Saremi, architect and professor at Tehran University, continued the chronology through the 19th century, when Iranians traveled to France and England to study military engineering during a war with Russia, expanding intercultural exchanges and bringing eclectic effects into Iranian architecture that would last into the next century. European and Persian influences mingled, Saremi noted, affecting Iranian ornamentation, housing, and furniture.

Tehran arose under Reza Shah Pahlavi to become a world-class city by the 1940s, with modern railroad and government buildings and a new university. Saremi came to appreciate abstraction and the International Style, going on to doctoral work with Louis Kahn at the University of Pennsylvania. Pointing out features of contemporary Iranian buildings, he expressed the view that there is no such thing as Islamic architecture, despite contentions with authorities over whether a certain building or façade is “Islamic enough.” Islam is a religious and ideological system, Saremi said, not a structural vocabulary. The regime may change, but Iranian design practice cannot be reduced to essentialism.

Mahvash Mehr Afshar, the head of the board of directors at Tavon Consulting Engineering, speaking largely in Farsi (translated by Noushin Ehsan, AIA), devoted attention to the condition of women in Iran and distinguished their social challenges from the professional climate. Gender prejudice may keep her from being a judge or singing in public, she observed, but it has not prevented her from heading a major architecture firm. “Persian women don’t go with the flow,” she said; “they create the flow.” She and other Iranians are involved in a long fight for freedom; as Saremi observed, architects anywhere must deal with demands imposed by the powerful. Yet one suspects, or trusts, that the living legacy of a culture that has sustained itself since the days of Zoroaster will ultimately persevere.

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