Modeling Tehran

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Dariush Borbor is an architect, urban planner and researcher based in Tehran. Educated in the United Kingdom and Switzerland, he has made significant architectural contributions to cities throughout Iran. Among his works, one can count 7 master plans, numerous monuments, and a slew of articles on topics ranging from building in hot, dry climates to Iran’s wine culture. He spoke with Atossa Araxia Abrahamian in Washington DC about Tehran’s quickly changing urban landscape and the challenges of defining a national architecture.

The Majalla: You are a prolific architect and have studied both urban planning and architecture extensively. Can you give me a small rundown of when Iranian government agencies began to pay attention to the way urban areas were set up?

There was no urban planning in the modern sense before 1965. It was around 1965 or a little before that the Ministry of Housing established a special department for planning. It was during this period that the ministry handed out several master plans to various consultants. As one of the people responsible for promoting professional urban planning in Iran I was hired as one of the consultants. I have done seven master plans in Iran so far.

Q: Does this master plan have any bearing on aesthetic considerations?

No. It only gives a general outline of how a city should be developed in the future. It doesn’t go into the details of buildings and styles. From that point of view the plans have been useful.

Q: Tehran has famously onerous traffic jams. Is this a failure on the master planner’s part?

Actually, Tehran has a good road system, in spite of the traffic. Traffic jams are primarily due to a lack of parking and bad driving. Additionally, the traffic grid is not finished. Once it is I think it will end up improving things.

Q: And what about models? Did Tehran model itself on any other cities?

No. As a rule, a master plan doesn’t model itself on anything. It gives a broad outline of what traffic should look like, where there should be low and high intensity zones, and so on. It’s a very general idea that isn’t based on any existing city. The planning process is difficult and long. Urban planning doesn’t happen overnight; it can take decades.

Q: Unless it’s Dubai?

Yes, of course. But Dubai has been able to do that because there was nothing in its place to begin with. Not to mention, the area’s population was quite negligible.

Q: What role do demographics play in Tehran’s urban development?

Tehran was once, believe it or not, a city of about three million people. There was an exodus during the Iran-Iraq war, which turned it into today’s city of eight million. Wars have strange results, such as migration and very often, population growth. The Iranian population grew quite a lot because of that, whereas now it has stabilized at around 70 million. This has been the main reason for sudden growth, which has particularly been a big problem in Tehran. Usually growth is gradual and somehow cities cope, but with such sudden growth they are unprepared and it causes serious problems.

Q: As Tehran grew to accommodate the population, were buildings designed in a particular style? Did the last Shah’s government push towards a Western aesthetic, as he was known for doing in other areas?

Tehran has never been a city with a great deal of architectural merit. Architecturally speaking, modern Iran has gone through a few stages. For example, in the 30s and 40s, the modern architecture of Iran was based more or less on a few Iranians who went and studied at the Beaux-Arts in Paris.

In the Reza Shah period, many German workers were responsible for some of the buildings, and they were built on a grandiose scale in an attempt to remodel the ancient system of building in Iran—Takhte Jamshid (Persepolis) and so on. There was the Tehran railway station, the Bank-e Melli (Central Bank), the Central Police office, and certain other buildings that were built with the traditional Takhte Jamshid columns and other characteristics specific to this style. So in Reza Shah’s time, one can say that there was in fact an imposed central government style, which was built by the Europeans, but meant to imitate the ancient Iranian system of architecture. They’re very good buildings–very solid and still standing.

In the last 50 or 60 years there has been an ongoing conversation about the possibility of creating an “Iranian” or an “Islamic” style. But nobody knows what an Islamic style should be! In this respect, what they call Islamic architecture is a misnomer; there is no such thing as Islamic architecture.

Q: Most people think of mosques or minarets.

But even mosques are not Islamic. The style came from Sassanian times. Because the Arabs had no architects, they hired Iranian architects from Syria up to Spain. Maybe minarets are not Sassanian, but even those, we don’t know their origins.

During the early Islamic period, there actually were no mosques—Muslims prayed in converted Zoroastrian temples, and many of the famous Iranian mosques of today, like the Jameh of Isfahan, were built on Zoroastrian temples. We know this because many of them have been excavated.

The whole idea of there being an Islamic style is inaccurate. People speak of Islamic medicine, architecture, all sorts of things, but I think it’s the wrong term. We don’t have Christian architecture other than churches. Why Islamic? An Islamic style has yet to be developed.

Q: So there may not be a definitive Islamic architecture, but is there such a thing as un-Islamic style? There seems to be un-Islamic everything nowadays; most of these aesthetics are equated with the West and almost by default considered un-Islamic by hard-line clerics. Is this the case in Iran?

Actually, no. Ever since the revolution, 21st century modern architecture–-like the buildings you see in Western cities—has developed at a faster pace than before in Iran.

Architecture is very difficult to impose; it’s almost impossible. You can only impose styles in certain highly dictatorial regimes. In the Reza Shah era, they created more or less a dictatorial architecture, built by Germans, but only for public buildings.

This correlation between harsh regimes and architecture can also be found in China, Italy, Germany and the USSR. But the only thing the Islamic Revolution prompted, architecturally speaking, was more mosque building—and even some of these look very modern! So I don’t think we can say that there has been an Islamic revolutionary style in the past 30 years.

Q: Has there been an initiative to preserve a certain character of buildings, a local style?

There’s talk of keeping the “vernacular” of certain areas and certain styles, but these are very difficult things to define and control. And consequently there is a lot of talk but nothing happens.

In certain areas, like Isfahan and Yazd, there are active efforts in this area. There’s a strong public opinion of the subject, partly because these places are very scenic to begin with. But generally speaking, Iran is not moving towards a particular style. I don’t think it happens in many countries.

Q: Has the green (ecological) movement become as much of an institution as it is in, say, the US or Europe?

People are certainly conscious of it; it is difficult not to be. However, it is seen in very superficial ways: A lot of companies have changed their neon signs from red to green and advertise their claims to be green, and so on. But the green movement is, in Iran, rather like this idea of an Islamic style—it’s still very basic and consists of talk only rather than a functional reality. Of course, it is desirable to move in a direction that is more green, but with so much going on, it’s difficult to carry out real reforms.

Q: This works on so many levels.

Exactly. We all talk about it and have good intentions, but when translating it into real concepts, what is a green movement? Similarly—what is a green building? There are certain criteria—natural resources, carbon neutrality, sunroofs, etc., but the whole thing is more of a concept. There are some efforts to use different energy sources, but in Iran it’s moving quite slowly. Add on the nuclear issue and you run into even more problems. But even though progress is slow, it is certainly catching on. 

Interview conducted by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian


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