A Blueprint for Unity in Tehran

Architecture and isolation in Iran's capital

| March 16, 2006

The traditionalist message emanating from Tehran has largely obscured Iran's inner political discord from the rest of the world. Mina Marefat, in her survey of the city's history, argues that this tension comes from a long and complicated history of Iranian engagement with the outside world. Through much of the 20th century, under the strong influence of Western nations, Tehran was impacted by the economic and architectural trends that the larger world had to offer. Under Mohammad Reza Shah's guidance, Marefat reports, 'Tehran became an international epicenter for architects' who were '[e]nticed by the lure of Petrodollars.'

Tehran, like many major cities in the developing world, acquired a kind of bi-polar character: affluent and metropolitan areas sprouted up in the north, while the south remained a bastion of poverty and tradition. Essentially a class divide, the difference between north and south has come to represent, in the eyes of some, the difference between progress and tradition, liberalism and conservatism.

Poised directly between these sections of the city is Ekbatan, an enormous block complex that houses more than 70,000 people. Intended to be a paragon of massive, modernist housing, the project was completed just after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Suddenly, the complex became a hulking reminder of all that the revolution aimed to leave behind.

The revolution brought with it an emphasis on more traditional architecture, which today makes Ekbatan stand out more than ever. New mosques point to a traditional past, while the '70s era complex reminds the city of the liberalization that the revolution foreswore. The result is, Marefat argues, a city that straddles past and present, global and local.

Writing for Bidoun, Brian Ackley describes Ekbatan as 'its own self-sufficient neighborhood, providing the same conveniences that are offered by the city.' Ekbatan's residents could live entirely within the complex, and 'some even suggest that the city is a burden on Ekbatan.'

Tehran, Ackley reports, is fraught with 'resentments and tensions' that stem from the class disparities between north and south. Ekbatan, it seems, diffuses the problems: Its residents feel tied not to north or south but to Ekbatan itself. Paradoxically, the isolation bred by such mega-scale architecture is acting as an antidote to the tensions that an isolated, divided Tehran has created. As shut-off as Iran seems to be, the city's complex history is echoing still today, pointing a way out of its divisions.

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