The contemporary architecture of Iran is predicated on the impact of Europe in the late 19th century and modernism in the 20th. Since 1980, the expression of Islam in building has played a major role.
The Qajar dynasty (1794-1925) maintained cohesion by emphasizing the Persian values of Shiite Islam. The dominant public buildings were religious: mausoleums, shrines, and, most importantly, mosques. They formed the foci of the mahalla or residential neighborhoods, determined the city fabric, and continued long-standing building traditions. Around 1850, the Persian elite who traveled to the West introduced European-style Palladian villas into the urban landscape. They began to make spatial changes by eliminating traditional elements, such as the hashti (the octagonal transitional space), and by installing indoor bathrooms and mechanical heating (using kerosene). New materials, such as steel and concrete, changed the architecture, and new housing forms, such as row houses, appeared. Persia also became a focus of study in the West, known through publications such as the American Arthur Upham Pope's eight-volume Survey of Persian Art (1938).
Discontent with Iran's rulers erupted in the early years of the 20th century, leading to the "constitutional revolution" of 1905-11, supported by the British and the Russians. After a bloodless coup d'état in 1921, Reza Shah formed a republic and launched the country's reconstruction and modernization. He established a strong centralized government and, like Atatürk of Turkey, moved toward secularization, regarding religion as a force that hindered progress. The traditional Islamic and metaphysical thought of the late 19th-century Qajar dynasty gave way to the introduction of Western scientific and rational ideas coupled with new economic and political considerations. However, unlike Atatürk, Reza Shah not only maintained monarchy (he was crowned in the Citadel in 1925) but also used history for his own ends. In architecture, he revived a consciousness of ancient Achaemenid glory in an interpretation of the newly rediscovered sites of Susa and Persepolis. He also initiated grand urban projects while demolishing in the 1930s symbols of the Islamic past, such as the wall and 12 gateways to Tehran. Many of the buildings of the Citadel (Arg) were replaced with new public structures, such as ministry buildings.
The capital city of Tehran well illustrates nationalist and secular aspirations. The plan imposed a grid of streets on the dense existing city patterns and provided separation of vehicles from pedestrians. It changed the scale, accommodating new modes of transport and multi-story apartment buildings. The planners used the new maidans, or squares, as focal points of axial layouts and as symbols of modernity instead of as centers of activity for the neighborhood's inhabitants.
From 1921, the state was the most active patron of architecture, which changed with the influx of foreign architects. Among the first were the Frenchmen André Godard (1881-1965) and Maxime Siroux (1907-1975), who arrived as archaeologists but soon started to design buildings. Siroux restored historic buildings and designed a number of schools that displayed sensitivity to climate, materials, and local customs. Godard became the first director of the Iran e-Bastan (Archaeological) Museum (1929-36) and its architect. He also planned Tehran University in 1934, the first in the country based on a Western model, and Siroux designed its Medical School. Other works in the rationalist modern mode followed, including the School of Fine Arts by Roland Dubrelle and Mohsen Foroughi. Another pioneering architect was Nikolai Marcoff (1882-1957) from St. Petersburg, who introduced the use of plate-glass-and-steel frame construction. He designed, among other buildings, several churches and the Bank Melli (c. 1928) in Tehran. The building used the crenellated roof derived from traditional palaces as well as Zoroastrian symbols, such as the Eagle of Ahura. Marcoff referred to Achaemenid building again in his monumental Triumphal Arch (c. 1930).
The mid-1930s marked the beginning of modernism in Iran with its cubic forms, new materials, and buildings raised on pilotis (stilts). The Viennese architect Gabriel Guevickian (1900-1970) came to work in Iran in the mid-1930s, having been the secretary-general at the first congress of CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne) in 1928. Guevrekian's buildings for the ministries of foreign affairs, justice, and industry and new building types, such as the Tehran Theatre, were built between 1934 and 1937. Among the local architects trained either abroad or in the recently established School of Architecture, Vartan Avanessian (1896-1982), an Armenian from Tabriz, was perhaps the most prolific. His designs include Reza Shah's palace at Sadabad and apartment buildings and cinemas in Tehran. On his return from France in 1936, Mohsen Foroughi (1907-1982) worked on a series of buildings for Tehran University. Other significant architects were Keyghobad Zafar (1910-), who studied at the Architectural Association in London, and Hoshang Seyhoun, who graduated from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1948. The latter designed modern buildings that also referred to Persian vernacular architecture, as in the Mausoleum of Nader Shah in Mashad.
After Reza Shah's abdication in 1941, his son Mohammed Reza, the self-styled shah of Iran, furthered the cause of secular modernism during his reign, which lasted until 1979. Architecture as a profession finally came fully into being. The journal Architecte, founded by the architect Iradj Moshiri, appeared around 1937; a decade later, the Society of Iranian Architects was chartered.
Under the Pahlavi reign (1925-1979), Iran experienced a growing commercialization of agriculture and crafts, especially carpets. The most important economic sector, oil, was nationalized during the 1951-53 prime ministership of Mosaddeq, making available a tremendous source of income for state projects. The shah's "White Revolution" of 1962 inaugurated a program for the establishment of new towns and buildings. In 1971, the Borj-e Azadi, the inverted Y-shaped Freedom Monument close to Tehran Airport, was built, commemorating the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire along with lavish celebrations at Persepolis. Other religions besides Islam also constructed religious edifices, the most impressive of which is the modernist Armenian Cathedral (1964-1970) in Tehran by Mirza Koutchek.
The modernizing nation-state, boosted by oil money, embraced modern architecture with its cubic forms, large windows, lightweight steel structures, flat roofs, and thin walls. Small builders, the besaz-o-befarowsh (build and sell), flourished, as did major architectural practices, such as that of Abdolaziz Farman-Farmian and Associates. The number of architects who built architecturally significant buildings remained small, and many of them were trained abroad. Among these, the most distinguished are Kamran Diba (1937-) and Nader Ardalan (1939-).
Diba's work in Iran, under the name DAZ Architects, consists entirely of institutional works in concrete and brick. Jondishapour University (1968-1976) in Ahwaz, the Garden of Niavaran (1970-1978), and the Museum of Contemporary Art (1967-1976) in Tehran illustrate his concerns. Arguably, Diba's finest work was that of Shushtar New Town (1974-1980) in Khuzestan, a remarkably designed settlement that is spatially and architecturally elegant and focuses on intensifying human interaction.
From 1972 to 1979, Ardalan's Mandala Collaborative produced a number of important works. These include the Iran Center for Management Studies (1970-1973), now Imam Sadegh University in Tehran, designed when Ardalan was working for Farman-Farmian, and the Master Plan for Bu Ali Sina University (1975) in Hamadan with Georges Candilis. Ardalan also wrote about Iranian architecture, geometric order, and Islam in an influential publication, "The Sense of Unity," coauthored in 1973 with Lalch Bakhtar. Both Diba and Ardalan have worked outside the country since 1979.
Other prominent architects working in the shah's Iran were Djhanguir Darvich, who designed the Farahabad Sports Center in Tehran; the Aratta Collaborative of Farroukh Essalat, the University of Mashad; Cyrus Hessamian, an elementary school in Shiraz; Ali Amanar, the Cultural Heritage Office (1980) in Tehran; and Mehdi Kowsar, several Brutalist buildings. At the same time, many foreign architects, such as Roche and Dinkeloo, Maxwell Fry, and Jane Drew, realized works all over the country.
In the 1970s, building was spurred even further by the success of OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries), which was able to restructure the vital oil market in its favor. This caused a worldwide oil crisis, and as building production slowed in the West, it boomed in the Middle East, attracting architects from all over the world to the region. Many influential architects from the West cannibalized preconceived images of Islamic architecture, sometimes as an easier way to satisfy clients. An increase of rural-to-urban migration and the decrease in oil income in Iran due to pressure placed on OPEC by the West aggravated the economic situation, and a major cutback in construction around 1977 brought massive unemployment, adversely affecting the population and architectural production.
The notion of expressing an Islamic identity through architecture for states with majority Muslim populations spread in popularity around the same period, becoming a political and cultural rallying cry to distinguish Islam, usually from the secular West. Islamic and regional modernist styles vied with each other for recognition as the "authentic" expression for architecture in several countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia. Equating the country with the religion reinforced the notion of Islam as a cultural force as well, intertwining the realms of the religious with the secular.
Opposition to the shah's regime by Ayatollah Khomeini's followers, beginning in 1977 with the slogan "Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic," led to the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79. The grievances behind the revolution were as much socioeconomic as cultural. The social historian Nikki Keddie wrote in the American Historical Review (no. 88), 1983, "Far more than the Qajars, the Pahlavis were perceived as tools of Western or Westernized powers, chiefly the United States and Israel. There developed amongst the alienated a search for roots and a return to 'authentic' Iranian or Islamic values." The Iran-Iraq war that lasted several years, beginning in 1980, reinforced parodic Islamic ideas but adversely affected the building industry.
Iran questioned the symbols of modernism, denigrating everything from the shah's time and promoting "Islamic" architecture. In the mid-1980s, this unfortunately led to a pastiche of badly interpreted elements, such as the dome, the arch, the enclosed courtyard, and even stained-glass windows. The school of architecture in Tehran that had promoted modern architecture succumbed to the stylistic modes of Postmodernism, high-tech design, and traditionalism and became the purveyor of an eclectic design approach. Architecture for new buildings paid lip service to historical Islamic building in formalistic terms and use of materials but without any real interpretation of its intrinsic principles. Architects and teachers alike discussed at length issues of identity and culture but built very little of note despite the explosive growth of the cities.
Tehran's population reached 10 million by the mid-1990s. New major infrastructure works were undertaken: expressways, a subway, and a sewage system. The old maidans were redesigned, and myriad small urban plots turned into gardens with curious fountains and murals depicting revolutionary themes. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the architecture seemed to convey a sense of celebration and populism. The mausoleum dedicated to Imam Khomeini and built on his death in 1989, with its iron structures and onion-shaped domes covered with glazed tiles, is the most obvious expression of this Postmodern atmosphere. A design competition for Farhangistan, the Academies of the Islamic Republic (science, medicine, and language), drew on stereotypical Islamic architectural elements, especially the chahrbagh (the quadripartite garden) in the winning project by the Naqsh-i Jehan/Pars Consulting Group, headed by Seyyed Hadi Mirmcian. Another competition project for the Great Historical Museum of Khorasan, Mashad, by Dariush Mirfenderski, refers to Kalat-1 Nadiri, a palace-fortress built by Nadir Shah at the end of the 18th century.
Reflecting a different aspect of contemporary architecture in Iran, Ali Saremi, a modernist of Tajeer Architects, abstracts past elements and archetypes to produce modern buildings. The Afshar Residence (1976) and the Jolfa Residential Complex (1985), using both concrete and brick, illustrate his approach. The Bavand Consulting Group, headed by Iradj Kalantari and Hossein Sheikh Zeyneddin, one of the largest architectural practices in the country, designed in the same vein the Faculty of Engineering (1984-90) at Imam Khomeini University in Qazviti. Faryar Javaherian used a similar approach in an apartment building at Farmaniyya. The Al-Ghadir Mosque (1988) in Tehran by Djahanguir Marloum is among the most successful syntheses of tradition and modernity.
The architectural profession has very little influence on decisions in building and operates in an atmosphere of uncertainty. The struggle continues between a symbolic 'Islamic architecture,' referring to some notion of the past, and the desire to be 'modern.' The social and religious aspects of architecture and urbanism dominate the rhetoric of politicians and professionals. The production of high-quality architecture is impeded by the complexity of procedures, speculation, and outdated technology applied to new building types. In general, the architecture in Iran remains in a state of great flux, although a few strive to create interesting work, and a sense of idealism exists.
Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.2 (G-O). Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.