Behind the Veil

The face of Tehran is changing as traditional notions of private and public mutate and architects look abroad.

For the Western visitor, Tehran can feel disorienting. The steel and glass baubles that dominate New York and London are few and far between, swallowed by a beige expanse of brick and concrete. The architecture of Iran’s Islamic past is conspicuously absent, too. Instead, Tehran unrolls as a carpet of freeways, office blocks, peeling murals, fluorescent butcher shops and malls. Nobody, not even Tehranians, is certain what Tehran’s built identity really is, or what it is trying to become.

The temptation, as always, is to turn to the past for answers. Many attribute the capital’s identity crisis to the 1979 Revolution, in which 2,500 years of monarchic rule was replaced by a new Islamic Republic. But ask an Iranian where this potpourri of cultural identities really started, and they’re likely to dig deeper.

‘Western influence began long before the revolution, in the ’60s and ’70s,’ architect Ahmadreza ‘Reza’ Hakiminejad tells me. It appeared first through residential projects in the north, the city’s most affluent area. Cradled by the Alborz mountain range, those lucky enough to escape the heat of the plain inhabited a rich oasis of parks and villas with little trace of Iranian roots. Among these are Gio Ponti’s Villa Nemazee, built in the early 1960s and currently threatened with demolition.

Other Tehranians draw the line further back. ‘Everything in Tehran from the 18th century to now is Western, not Iranian,’ according to Masoud Taghavi, editor-in-chief of the Iranian architectural magazine Hamshahri. The elite’s taste for classicising architecture culminated in a series of palaces in the northern suburbs, including the 1930s White Palace, used by the last Shah as a summer residence, and the Modernist Niavaran Palace completed by architect Mohsen Foroughi in 1968. The Shah ruled from behind the severely abstracted columns of its facade for just over 10 years.

What began in palaces bled into a full-blown importation of ’50s and ’60s American city planning. But ‘it makes no sense, this imitation of Western urban design’, Hakiminejad says with a chuckle of disbelief, ‘for a city that still struggles to understand the concept of public space.’

However blurry the timelines of Iran’s internationalisation may be, there’s no doubt that it’s more powerful now than ever. The reformist movement – introduced in 1997 by then-President Mohammad Khatami and further encouraged by Tehran’s current mayor – and the recent relaxation of sanctions have cultivated the right social and economic circumstances for unprecedented levels of global connection.

Contemporary Tehran is best characterised as an assemblage of competing visions for an increasingly internationalised capital. Even so-called ‘public’ space is being attempted: eager to win public approval, President Rouhani has spearheaded a number of government-funded leisure sites including the Tabiat Bridge and public parks. Tehranians are quick to put the potential of these spaces to the test, and it’s not uncommon to see skateparks where young girls rollerblade next to boys, and women-only parks that enable Tehran’s growing female workforce to take their afternoon lunch breaks without the hijab.

Indeed, the wealthy Iranian preference for Western design has seemingly trickled into all aspects of city life in recent years. This has not always been a straightforward process, however: in 2012, Tehran’s Stock Exchange held an international competition to design a new home. Alejandro Aravena won first prize, but his brick-screened structure, sparkling with integrated stock tickers, has yet to be begun.

As always, the domestic realm is proving the most reactive to Iran’s shifting sociopolitical climate. Contemporary villas have swapped columns for extravagant abstract forms that symbolise the international elite of the present day. The more modest architecture of middle- and working-class housing has also developed an obsession with the facade in recent years. ‘Because the way we work has changed, the way we live must also change,’ Taghavi urges. ‘The global economy and Western design influence dictates how we should live and design our buildings.’

Is Tehran’s most recent architectural evolution only skin deep? The bulk of new residential projects is not new-builds but rather facelifts: unremarkable apartment buildings of four or five storeys cloaked in complex, attention-grabbing exteriors by young architects fresh out of school and equipped with the latest software. Double skins, perforated brick screens and rotating sunrooms that draw on technology developed for theatres and car showrooms are among the novelties that speak of a new techno-utopian vision for the city.

At their most simple, the double skins of these facades feature a screen of material enveloping double-glazed windows. These skins come in a variety of materials – from brick to wooden slats – and are typically static, sometimes protecting a small balcony. They offer privacy, protection from the sun and a sense of individual space.

‘The facade brings us comfort,’ a second-floor resident of Admun Design and Construction Studio’s 2015 ‘Cloaked in Bricks’ building suggests. ‘I can sit on the balcony and enjoy the view without being seen.’ Thanks to parametric design software, the brick facade does away with mortar. Instead, its design was developed by a program that determined optimal angles for the brick given the angle of the sun and each apartment’s proximity to the street. The final result feels light, airy and restrained from the inside while presenting a dramatic public face.

More daring (and more costly) apartments operate in what one studio, TDC Office, refers to as the ‘fourth dimension’: time. Their moving facades treat the material like a curtain, allowing residents to adjust the degree of visibility from the street. In creating a semi-enclosed space in which Iranian women can experience fresh air and the sensations of the public sphere while remaining out of street view, they are free to let their hair down, so to speak, forgoing the hijab mandated by the government.

These new facades speak of a shifting social climate with a new desire to both see and be seen. But given the exorbitant price tag of these projects, we must ask who is this future Tehran really for – the minuscule percentage of the population that can afford to live in such apartments? When these architects develop a fusion of architectural heritage and traditional values of Iranian culture with new technology to embrace the challenges of contemporary urban life, which history do they mean, and to whose benefit? Have we really come that far from the palaces of Niavaran?

And what do these new projects contribute to the urban fabric shared by all? While building sanctions are being lifted, the real damage has often already been done: most clients renovating their multi-storey apartment blocks have built them on the site of their parents’ house (Iranian culture views residences as living structures, with each having a ‘life span’ of 30 or 40 years). When a mid-size apartment building pops up on a lot intended for a single-occupancy house, the result is intense and rapid densification.

For all these architectural conditions, many of Tehran’s newest apartment buildings are actively responding to their local condition rather than ignoring it. Bucking the extrovert tendencies of many new facades, Ayeneh Office’s 2015 Andarzgoo Residential Building deals with the shared issue of a cramped location in a completely internalised way. It turned its back on the 8m-wide alleyway that the building faces, instead focusing its energies on the production of indoor balconies. These slot into different areas of each apartment in an effort to shake up how living space is structured, while also inverting traditional ideas of interior versus exterior domestic space. The facade is of low-key, muted materials which have been carefully selected to offset subtly the dirt, noise and cramped quarters of the street in an unusual combination of stone-cut granite and wooden slats.

Contextualised by urban density and the threat of homogenisation, the need for individualism in architecture is just as important for working- and middle-class housing projects that cannot afford such luxuries as stained glass and masonry. For some projects, brick becomes a crucial design element that at once folds its practical appeal into a rich aesthetic heritage and cultural symbolism. The sensory qualities of brick are so well known within Iranian culture that there is even a term that fuses its networked pattern with its phenomenological qualities of shadow, light, and texture: Fakhr o Madin.

Sometimes this is achieved as directly as simply treating the facade like a screen. TDC Office’s 2015 Saba Apartment offers its occupants an enclosed balcony behind a 2.5m-tall curtain of saturated wood that can be opened and closed at will. The result is a type of architectural theatre in which private life and street activity intermingle, and the undulating skin of wood invigorates and unifies the apartment complex with a pattern harking back to Persian designs. Vernacular references can sometimes be a bit flashier. The 2016 Orsi Khaneh building by Keivani Architects elevates the ornamentation of its second skin into a polychromatic play of refracted light. With its combination of stained-glass blocks and slatted timber, the design draws inspiration from its namesake, the traditional orsi window.

Context is of no consequence to other luxury projects, such as the controversial £9 million Sharifi-Ha mansion constructed by Next Office in 2013. Three of its seven storeys incorporate pivoting wooden volumes, which can be rotated out of the framework in order to fluctuate between extreme introversion and extroversion – either conspicuously spotlighting its inner domestic scenes or giving the street view the cold shoulder. Next Office principal Alireza Taghaboni caused a stir when he claimed the project was ‘grounded in need rather than luxury’; while it may respond to elite needs for conspicuous display, it certainly has little grounding in the Tehranian context and would be equally at home in California.

40 Knots House by Habibeh Madjdabadi + Alireza Mashhadimirza
Habibeh Madjdabadi, one half of the duo behind the 2016 Aga Khan-shortlisted project 40 Knots House, is more sceptical about the value of international architectural trends for Iran’s built culture. Her project shaved thousands from its proposed budget by developing an innovative approach to the facade’s assembly as a communal act: by enlisting local labour who assembled the facade without any set design, it was quick to produce, entirely unique and comparatively cheap. ‘Iranians don’t play a significant role in new technologies – technology and science are in the hands of few countries. We must be opportunistic in the cultural value of craftsmanship versus its affordability.’

When I discuss the implications of projects such as the 40 Knots House for the future potential of Tehran’s urban planning with Hakiminejad, I detect a glimmer of hope. ‘Socially and structurally, Tehran is a disaster … but when I see projects like this – an exceptional dot in the city – I feel optimistic about its future.’

He’s not alone: a recently instated facade committee plans to set and implement new policies to ensure Tehran’s new face is truly an upgrade – for private life, and the life of public space.

(Published on: Architectural Review )