The call for a return to pre-modern values in architecture dates back to at least 1960s if not earlier. Animated by anti-colonialist sentiments and a sense of disillusion with the omnipresent Western Modernist values particularly in non-Western countries, a range of ideological stances calling for a return to origins emerged in, among other disciplines, architecture. This is exemplified in the work of, for example, Hassan Fathy, who developed an architectural language which gives the impression that modernity and modern urbanisation have never been around. It is, however, after closer associations between these ideological stances and ruling powers that a return to origins is institutionalised and recognised as official architectural discourse. Post-revolution Iran is a case in the point here. A return to forms of vernacular and traditional architecture had been theorised and exercised by key figures such as Kamran Diba well before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But it is after the revolution that a revival of the country’s ‘golden-age’ Islamic civilisation and thereby its built environment culture is seriously in the agenda. Pre-modern towns of central Iran were seen as utopias and praised for their introversion, non-aggressive engineering, climate-responsiveness, and the small paradises of water, greenery, and geometrical perfection they enclosed and protected. Architectural elements and their construction order were seen as closely associated with divinity and a model to follow if we were to rebuild a divine civilisation. This mode of thought made its way to the heart of the establishment‘s vision for the nation’s new built environments; so much that it was written into law that the paradigm of Iranian-Islamic architecture and urban design is the one to follow in the country’s future developments.
Located at the heart of Iran’s capital, Abbas Abad hills were bizarrely left undeveloped before the revolution leaving the new government with the perfect opportunity to develop an entire urban block in the middle of its capital according to its vision. Scrapping all previous master plans for the area, it was re-planned as a cultural district including parks and multiple cultural and leisure public buildings and amenities: a master plan which, with some exceptions, was delivered as intended. Interestingly, however, almost none of the structures and landscapes in the area resemble any associations with national Islamic traditions of built environment, with the only exception being the Iranian academia complex which, ironically, was never completed. References and associations presented by other buildings are quite different: from hi-tech to old-school functionalism, to Frei Otto-style lightweight structures: anything but traditional Islamic.
This paper examines various explanations for such a significant deviation from the establishment’s officially prescribed design paradigms at its most unexpected heartland. Is it quite simply about the lack of actual authority? Is it that non-traditional buildings can be seen as empty signs which, with reference to Roland Barthes and Ernesto Laclau, can represent any form of power including that of an Islamic state? Is it that the state implicitly believes in the power of contemporary architecture in rendering progressive the state of a nation? Or, are there potentials even in the most state monitored architectural projects to defy the power and resist its demanded forms of representation? The answer is probably comprised of a mixture of all these, but what Tehran’s new cultural district showcases is that in a world in which architecture is usually and rightly deemed to be increasingly engulfed by the will of power, be it economic or political, there still lies the possibility of an architecture of resistance, even when it comes to representations of power.