The Saddest City in the World

Tehran and the legacy of an American dream of modern town planning
Thursday 2 March 2006.


The capital of the Islamic republic of Iran gives you the rare chance to glance at the ruins of a long lost civilization, but at the same time still easily get its architects on the phone. Fly over the city and you will see how from its ultradense center, the city flows upwards and outwards toward the west, oscillating between clearly planned geometry and total fractalized sprawl. There seems to have occurred a strange kind of netting of the megacity at the foot of the Alborz mountains in an elliptically shaped mold. After a while you will notice that between the immense snaking highways, the valleys of greenery and the cauliflowerlike structures of boulevards with apartment buildings, there is a coherence that is clearly designed. After a few days you will discover that the garish wallpaintings of martyrs that have died in the Iran-Iraq war, actually hide the ghostly remains of swanky corporate office buildings. Struggling through the crazy Asian traffic of the city, you might just see enormous concrete ziggurat structures rising out of the mess of five to seven story buildings of which this enormous urban sponge is made.

The modernist Tehran of the sixties and seventies has often been described as the product of the Shah of Irans quest for instant modernization and westernization of his country, of his megalomaniacal belief in himself as the torchbearer of the Persian empire of Darius and Xerxes, with Tehran as his new Persepolis. Its projects are ultimately described as the misguided obsessions of an estranged dictator with delusions of grandeur. The building hysteria that reached its peak in the seventies was seen as the most visible expression of the Shah’s “White Revolution”: the package of populist governement interventions, extreme-modernization, neo-Xerxian self-aggrandizement and Savak thuggery for which Mohammed Reza Pahlavi wrote the manifestoe in 1962. This is probably all true; but the lost civilization that Tehran bears the urban traces and architectural monuments of, is actually not the court of Reza Pahlavi and Farah Diba and their forefathers in 500 years B.C.; but that of the extra large and ultramodern, totally organized and perfectly planned entrepreneurial and democratic American City.

In 1966 the Iranian government asked the American firm Gruen Associates to draw up a comprehensive masterplan for the city of Tehran together with the Iranian masterarchitect Abdolaziz Farmanfarmaian. Gruen was just one of hundreds of private firms that swarmed to Iran in the wake of the American Governments deep engagement with the Pahlavi régime. Gruen’s plan formed the framework for the satellite towns, apartment complexes, office buildings, parks, palaces, highways, road systems and other facilties built in and around Teheran between the middle sixties and the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Victor Gruen represented a generation of foreign born American architects who believed thoroughly in modernist urban planningand architetcure and in the use of modern technology to solve nearly all problems, but who at the same time were looking for a twentieth century equivalent for the communitarian ideal of the premodern city: the city with a heart. It was in this context that the Viennese Gruen, invented the shopping mall, so that American suburbs would have have a social and comemrcial heart, where people could walk around, shop, meet and act out their communtiarian instincts. As a townplanner Gruen also belonged to the underestimated American tradition of the planned community. With Clarence Stein as their godfather, American planners and architects developed a separate strand of new towns from the original model by Ebenezer Howard. The American New Towns were always greener, less dense and more automotive than the European ones, and always imbued with a special American sense of entrepeneurialism, individualism, the frontier and local democracy.

Gruens diagram of the ideal metropolis from 1964 was a straight descendant of the diagrams of Ebenezer Howard: an enormous flowerlike structure, repeating itself inwardly as you come closer. The organic hierarchy of families, neighbourhoods, communities, towns, cities and the metropolitan core are held together by an elegant tracing of highways, embedded in a flowing of parks and other green landscapes. Around the metro core there revolved ten cities, each city consisting of ten towns around the city center and each town consisting of four communities around a town center, with lastly each community consisting of five neighbourhoods around the community center. In the fifties and sixties Gruen got to build several parts of his ideal metropolis. He built metro cores of metropolises with his urban renewal projects for cities like Fort Worth or Dallas with their huge highrises, peoplemovers and subterranean shoppingcentres; he also built community centers with his many malls in the flowing suburbs of the mid west. And he built entire new communities and towns with his projects for Valencia, California and the campus of Louvain la Neuve in Belgium. Gruens Ideal Metropolis was realized only in fragments that had no spatial connection to each other. The commission by the Shah of Iran to draw up the Tehran Comprehensive plan gave Gruen the chance to realize his metropolis in the scale and the way it was meant. The petro-dollar driven White Revolution provided him with the autocratic power and the ridiculous amounts of money he needed.

Gruens plan for Tehran can be described as the diagram of the ideal metropolis stretched out over the city of Tehran and pulled in a western direction along the foothills of the Alborz mountains, thereby forming something between a central city and a linear one. And yes; it was built up of ten cities; yes the green landscape would separate the cities from each other and create the backdrop for the extensive network of flowing highways. And yes the cities would be subdivided into towns, which would be built up of communities, made out of neighbourhoods. The diagram was not only adapted to the geology of the city, but also to its social-economic structure: the traditional north-south divide in a high lying rioch part and a low lying poort part, was repeated in the new communities and towns planned by Gruen around the core of Tehran. The whole city - old and new - was to be cut open by a network of green valleys, that came down from the mountains or were just cut straight through the existing urban fabric. The immense network of highways and public transport would be embedded in these lush green corridors. Not only did the Tehran Comprehensive Plan foresee a detailed management of the typologies, the services, the public facilities and especially the densities of the new city, it also carefully choreographed its growth. The city was given growth boundaries that were expanded every five years, in order to maintain its coherence every step of the way.

Architects and planners were brought in to flesh out the plan. Gruen and his Iranian partner AbdolAziz Farmanfarmaian planned the satellite developments around Tehran using the lacy, open geometry of highways, underpasses, cul-de-sacs, meadows and parks that determined the American New Towns of the sixties and seventies; in the southern parts of Tehran however, they used the orthogonal design principles used by the Greek planner Doxiadis for his plans in Baghdad and Islamabad some years earlier. One of the most impressive features of the New Tehran is the immense landscape park Pardisan in North Tehran again. It was designed by the famous American ecologist Ian McHarg; whose humanitarian, utopian vision of designing communities by giving acentral role to nature had been prepared in projects for the Potomac river and the New Town of The Woodlands, Texas. In Tehran McHarg designed a huge park that contained microecologies representing the five major climate zones in the world. It seemed that while Isfahan laid claim to being “half a world”, Tehran wanted to recreate the ecological richness of the whole world in one park. The project was finished against gargantuan costs, relying as it was on the counterintuitive idea of realizing the northern European climate and the desert in one limited space. We could see Pardisan as the ecological descendant of the bas-reliefs of Persepolis, with their endless parade of tribes coming to the capital of the Persian empire, to offer to the emperors exotic animals coming from all parts of the known world. But most of all, Pardisan throws some light on the metaphysical Americanism of the Gruen plan. The idea to create an enormous planned community, around an artificial recreation of the history of the world, was not only shared but nearly realized back in the United States by Walt Disney. Disney’s plans for Epcot, the experimental community around Disneyworld, were explicitly inspired by Gruens Ideal Metropolis diagrams. Had Disney not died, the Gruen metropolis might have been realized twice.

There are few examples of a megacity being tamed by a single idealistic planning vision like Tehran; and there are few American cities where the planning ideas being developed in the universities and offices were carried out to such an extent as in Tehran. See for example the project for Shahestan Pahlavi, a gigantic new centre planned by the planners of the English new town Milton Keynes together with the American firm of Jacquelin Robertson - employing for a while Noor, the future queen of Jordan, as a landscape designer. This megascaled project was one of the first ones to reintroduce the monumental ponderous postmodernist urban design for which American academic designers became known in the eighties. Just one element was realized: the more than two hundred meter high television tower. “But then”, as Jacquelin Robertson expressed it, as if he were a bit player in a rather bad movie about central european dynasties “ my client lost his throne”.

What happened after 1979 can be described as a condensed version of how the orderly roman garrison town with its cardo and decumanus is eaten up by the unplanned picturesque chaos of the mediaeval city, witness Paris or Split, or how the Dutch or Spanish colonial town is overrun by the megacities of which it was the seed: Jakarta or Mexico City. In these cities centuries went by and generations followed each other before the original source code of the city was forgotten and all traces seemed to have disappeared beneath the new layers of the urban palimpsest, waiting for the historians to dig them out again. In Tehran however, this process happened in the space of ten to fifteen years and the forgetting of the source code was an ideological decision.

Tehran confirms that the shape and the quality of cities are much more determined by the way big plans fail, than the way they succeed. A plan can be a trigger for developments that its designers would never have been able to foresee. This phenomenon is such an integral part of urban development that we should try and analyze how it works, and why. The Tehran Comprehensive Plan by Gruen and Farmanfarmaian had functioned for more than ten years; it had provided a structure that guided decision making processes for smaller building projects through out the city; it had produced an enormous amount of very large housing, commercial, office and infrastructural projects and it gave a perspective for the development of the city in the near future. After the Islamic revolution the plan was treated as a detestable legacy of the worldly regime of the Shah. At the same time it was the only plan they had. After the revolution an attempt was made to make a new plan; this plan was rejected by the city. One of the reasons was that the government provided no financial resources to implement this plan. The city then made the choice to go on with the old plan and to generate their own income. The TCP plan provided them with a reliable source of income because it made such precise statements about which kind of building densities were allowed at which locations. The city could then sell of these densities to individuals and companies who wanted to maximize the usage of their plots but found themselves stopped by the still officially valid plan. One of the other ‘amendments’ made after the revolution was to completely abandon the five year intervals in expanding the city and just go straight to the 1991 end-boundary and leave it there. In this way much more land could be sold and much less planning needed to be done. Also the idea of organizing the city in ten centers, divided in smaller sub-centers was largely abandoned. The control of densities and services that this system required would only hamper the selling-off of excess densities. The strategy of the municipality was quite brilliant in a nihilist sort of way: hanging to a plan that they do not believe in, in order to collect money by selling off the excess densities, was much more manageable, than creating a new plan, that they would have to believe in, support, implement and pay for. It seems that sometimes a bad plan is more useful than a good one.

With the money squeezed out of the original plan, parts of the infrastructural system could be built, a process that can be witnessed all through the city. One of the main projects is the Navab street development; a gigantic Hausmannian cut, straight through the old part of the city in order to connect it to the Imam Khomeini airport to the south, another megaproject rooted in the Victor Gruen years. The Navab street development, with its monumental post-modern building walls on either side of the multilane highway, dwarfing its hinterland of streets and alleys, is paid for by the selling off of the excess densities in other parts of the cities, turning former leafy suburbs into extremely dense and impenetrable traffic-traps. Navab street is the perfect expression of the abandonment of any illusions about coherence on the scale of the whole city. The cityscape of the contemporary Tehran can be read as the result of masterplan that has been forced to eat itself up.

Sometimes it is possible to visit parts of Tehran where architecturally the original urban concept can be experienced in an more or less complete way: like a tiny quarter of historical streets, left over in the middle of a modern metropolis. Ekbatan, the highrise community built near Mehrabad airport, offers you just this. Ekbatan phase one was desgned by the Gruzen partnership, a staunchly modernist American firm with a legacy of federal housing projects going back to the thirties. Ekbatan consists of a double row of apartment buildings that are U-shaped in plan and are stepped down towards a central spine with a shopping centre that measures a couple of hundred meters. The space inbetween the U-shaped blocks is taken up by beautifully kept up parks and gardens and by swimming pools. The apartments are spacy, ultramodern and the architecture is of a polished kind of brutalism. The shopping center is possessed by a kind of humanist modernism that could be Scandinavian. This would make sense, since Gruen and his fellow travelers to Iran were at that time quite influenced by the Swedish satellite towns around Stockholm, like Vallingby. The shopping center is a strip of three stories, with openings and vistas cut through it at sharp angles, thereby creating views through the parks and the apartment blocks, and sometimes triangular floorplans for the shops. The shops are a wonderful combination of the shopping mall and the bazaar, electronics and okra shoots, perfume and hundreds of cheap handmade tin cups. The interiors of the apartments have been described as “without any exception a mix between Ziggy Stardust and Louis XV”. There is hardly a Mullah, an Ayatollah, a martyr or a-deer-representing-iran-being-gored-by-the great-satans-US-and- UK-bleeding to-death-in-the-desert-kind-thing in sight. It is all normal, happy and entrepeneurial and the modern architecture, despite its megascale, forms the perfect backdrop to the western-asiatic hybrid of modern Tehran: just like Gruen and Gruzen foresaw it?

But Ekbatan also bears the traces of the hopeless tragedy that this city is immersed in; it starts out innocently enough. You visit people in their apartments and use the toilet: you can hardly sit down because the toilet itself is turned the wrong way inside the room. All the toilets in Ekbatan were turned around so as not to face Mekka. It becomes slightly melancholic when you realize that the swimming pools are empty because the guardians of the Islamic revolution do not permit swimming in public. It gets strangely scary when you ask the government appointed blockmanager if it is possible to go up on the roof to take pictures. You step into his neon-lit office, with pictures of the ayatollahs staring at you, and he and three other men with a three-day beard and a bad suit first refuse to answer you and then start making phonecalls while one of them seems to block the door. The real reason we found out later: Tehran is not only one of the youngest cities in the world; it is also the capital of the country with one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Young girls, who find themselves particularly suffocated by the deathly greyness and the banal evil of this religious police-state, hurl themselves of the roofs of this and other International style monuments on a daily basis. It is at moments like these that you realize that Tehran, with the fragments of an American Persepolis rising above the bustle of honking cars, messy construction sites and millions of people going about their daily lives, is the saddest city in the world.


Ali Madanipour, Tehran, the Making of a Metropolis, Chichester 1998

Esfandiar Zebardast, Do Plans Matter? Managing a Metropolis with two directives for more than a Decade; The Case of Tehran City, Paper presented at the International Conference for Integrating Urban Knowledge & Practice, Gothenburg, Sweden, May 29 - June 3, 2005

Jeffrey W. Cody, Exporting American Architecture 1870 - 2000, London 2003

Steve Mannheim, Walt Disney and the Quwest for Community, Burlington 2002

Jeffrey Hardwick, Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of the AMerican Dream, Philadelphia 2004

Victor Gruen, The Heart of our Cities; the Urban Crisis: Diagnosis and Cure, New York 1964

Tirdad Zolghadr, Iran: Architektur und Revolution; Die Betonklotze von Ekbatan, WoZ-Online, 20.6.2002