Architecture as The Manifestation of The Pahlavi’s Political Power, by Amini Niloofar

Updated: May 20, 2018

In this paper, I will discuss the way the architectural and urbanistic projects patronized by the Shah of Iran and his wife to support Pahlavi regime. The ‘labor division’ between the couple was the solution to serve different audiences. Since, in the urban environment, individual knowledge needed to incorporate social and physical transition in order to harmonize with the dynamic change of the city.


In this regard, shah who wanted to be strong at home and make Iran the regional superpower, had introduced a process of modernization from 1960s on. He thus chose for economical and industrial progress, but at the same time wanted to incarnate the moral authority related to more traditional values. On the other hand, the Queen, who studied architecture at École Spéciale d'Architecture in Paris, realized urban planning and architecture were a tool for reform and for the cultural modernization requested by the intellectual and social urban elite, and were a tool for control as well. Thus, the regime did introduce a smart labor division between the Shah and the Queen. To harmonize the dynamic change of Tehran with its citizens, Queen was asked for intervening in a progressive way in the cultural domain.


Such paradigm shift that took place by the way of the manifestation of a “state feminism” and of “high art” was not coincidental. They were both integral to the same ideological agenda: that of “modernity” itself. While shah moderated it by legitimizing his own discourse of modernity via Iranianizing Western thinking, which means the nationalist form of modernity.


In this regard, west side of the main anti-shah/discontent street, Shahreza Street, was decided to build the Shahyad (Shah’s Memorial) Tower (1966-1971), for the occasion of the 2500-year celebration of the Persian Empire. The Shah proclaimed, “we Persians may be able to merge, in a new and harmonious form, our antiquity and our modernity.’’ Toward the Great Civilization, ‘’this monument is designed to become the heart of a whole new urban development project in the capital that will transform this part of west Tehran. A large park, several shopping centers, new housing and office estates and one or two large hotels was planned to be constructed around the square turning it into a real center of the capital’’. The scale and design aimed to demonstrate the continuity of power in Iran and strengthen the image of the Shah as a traditional builder and ruler. The Shahyad Tower erected at the entrance of Modern Tehran, was at the same time a starting point for Pahlavi to transform Shahreza street, into the Bourgeoisie boulevard. Since, this street, where several universities were/are located there, was/is the place for student’s socio-political gathering. The exceptional political sociality of the street was intended to control indirectly by building new commercial centers, introduced a new – but apolitical – modernity: not a discursive, political modernity, but promoting consumption via modernization.


The modernization towards the image of Pahlavi ‘Great Civilization’ however, couldn’t resist against promoting contemporary arts and culture. In this regard, one year after starting to design the Shahyad project, Queen patronized the cylindrical modernist building of the City Theatre (1967–1972), in the same street.


Yet, the Queen’s projects, a few large-scale and governmental-funded cultural buildings, realized by Iranian architects, with a background in Western architectural culture, exceptional. Not only because formally they lacked continuity with the traditional building style, but because these ‘cultural centers’ were programmatically revolutionary, and because – as the architects themselves were well aware – introduced a new kind of public-political space in the city. The Queen’s architectural-artistic pilot projects were understood by them in semi-political/cultural projects as signs and symbolic gestures to the domestic urban enlightened elite.


It became quickly clear, though, that these symbolic projects of the Queen were unconvincing or insufficient to ease the discontent and fulfill the demands of the social and intellectual elites for democratization. Furthermore, according to prime minister Hoveyda, ‘the cultural activities of the Empress neither affect the masses.’ Progressive milieus, then, started a revolution in the aforementioned street, that went against the regime and its private dynastical power myth as such, and at the same time against the timid cultural modernization Queen impersonated.

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