Tehran’s Architecture

Tehran is not a city one typically thinks of when considering architecture. The city has been known for its somewhat chaotic and piecemeal skyline, housing some 10 million people. Following the Islamic Revolution, the assumption is that there would not be room for modernisation amongst its skyline aside from religious monuments, but this is not the case. Whilst traditional Persian architectural elements persist, some with heritage status, a new wave of ultra-modern buildings has swept across the city, and it is home to skyscrapers such as the Tehran Tower.

The ancient period of Iran’s architecture is both pre-Islamic and post-Islamic. The Achaemenid and Sassanid periods saw buildings consisting of multicoloured mosaic tiles, domes and arches as well as ornate decorative elements such as the stucco. During the Safavid dynasty from 1500 to the 1700s, mosques, palaces and shrines were built. The city of Tehran was chosen as the capital of Iran in 1796, under the Qajar dynasty, and was a walled, gated and fortified citadel containing the main municipal buildings. 

The Golestan Palace in Tehran, previously the royal palace of the Qajar dynasty, is a UNESCO world heritage site and is an example of the ancient traditional architecture contained within the citadel, as is Nīāvarān palace. During this Qajar period architecture was ornate, with tiled geometric designs, mirrors and motifs, and included religious buildings such as Sepahsālār Mosque.

Pahlavi Modernism

In the 1940s, the Pahlavi dynasty came into power, bringing with it the opening up and modernisation of the city. Reza Shah ushered in elements of Western civilisation alongside more traditional references to the ancient history of Iran. This resulted in his founding of the National Monuments Council to preserve and restore historical monuments, as well as replicating ancient features in new buildings, resulting in a pluralism of styles. However Pahlavi also pulled down city walls and destroyed ancient buildings, getting rid of the citadel to create more open, public spaces. 

Reza Shah hired European-schooled architects and urban planners such as Vartan Hovanessian, Mohsen Forughi, Ali Sadegh and Gabriel Guevrekian. Wide boulevards were constructed further to the Road Widening Act and the state purchased homes to achieve this end, with Tehran becoming a network of wide avenues. The first skyscrapers were built in Tehran by 1941. 

Austrian American urban planner Victor Gruen had a significant influence on the city during the Pahlavi era. Gruen, who had been known for his design of US shopping malls, devised a master plan for Tehran in the 1960s under invitation by the government and in line with the top down modernisation programme.

The city of Tehran under Reza Shah became a city of public life in contradiction with the traditional Iranian culture and home life, which was previously private and introverted. Home life took place behind closed doors, and public life was kept to a minimum. There were few public spaces to congregate and to express openly. Over time, the culture became more extrovert, due to Western cultural influence. Entertainment venues and other public places were erected such as parks, cinemas and squares. Sporting stadiums and free primary and secondary schools were created, leading to a new urban middle-class. 

The Senate House built in 1955 under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, was designed by Heydar Ghiabi and Mohsen Foroughi. Ghiabi studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. It consists of modular concrete squares on the exterior, giving an impression of transparency, and is featured on the reverse of Iranian 100 rials banknotes. 

The Azadi Tower, a Tehran landmark, was also commissioned under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as part of the ‘White Revolution’ programme, and was completed in 1971. The building was designed by Hossein Amanat, an Iranian-Canadian architect who graduated from the University of Tehran. 

Islamic Revolution

Disillusion with the Pahlavi regime and the increasing Westernisation of Iran led to an Islamic Revolution in 1979 under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The result was a refashioning of infrastructure along the lines of Islamic faith. Buildings with non-Islamic symbols were demolished and the Committee of Cultural Revolution was formed to promote Islamisation of governmental bodies, with many architects leaving the country. The subsequent Iran-Iraq war also added complexity to the landscape. Following the war, new architecture began to emerge, with modern and international styles taking to the fore. The Navvab project was a large municipal project in post-revolutionary Iran, linking the north and the south of Tehran, consisting of high-rise apartments and bringing a distinctly modern aesthetic to the city. 

Whilst Pahlavi-era projects were halted, the architects that emerged following the 1979 revolution were trained by the previous generation, who in turn were trained in the European style during the Pahlavi period. It was also impossible to halt the influx of Western aesthetics due to globalisation. Many of the Pahlavi-commissioned projects also remain as landmarks in Tehran. The Milad Tower, or Tehran Tower, is an example of a Pahlavi-era commissioned project that was completed after the 1979 revolution. Opened in 2007, it is one of the tallest buildings in the world. 

Millennial Iran

More recently, new millennial Iranian architects have begun to contribute to the skyline. One example is Leila Araghian, who designed the Tabiat Bridge when she was 25 years old, with completion of the bridge in 2014. 

In particular, following the lifting of economic sanctions in 2016, new constructions have begun to take place. Next Office, Ayeneh Office, TDC Office and Keivani Architects are all part of the new wave of ultra-modern architecture sweeping through Tehran since the lifting of sanctions. The nascent contemporary architecture in Tehran does not necessarily have the design freedom of Western cities, due to the political and cultural factors that constrict the city. 

Since Donald Trump came into power in the United States, tensions between the US and Iran have heightened. This has led to the withdrawal of the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the nuclear deal). Whilst Iran is involved in such political and economic tensions, as was seen during the Iran-Iraq war, it is likely that the development of the cities will take a back seat. Architects will continue to build, but urban renewal might not be at the top of the agenda for Iran whilst the nuclear deal hangs in the balance. It will be interesting to see how Iranian architects navigate their desire for modernity in design with respect for the Islamic tradition and political uncertainty in post-revolutionary Iran.

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