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After 25 years
Part 5

July 28, 2004

Here and there in Tehran one can notice attempts by an architect to draw inspiration from more traditional motifs and translate them into harmonious reinterpretation, as in the friezes of geometric brickwork that ornament some of the apartment buildings and luxurious villas. But in the absence of urban planning to harmonize standards and norms, these remain exceptions, the excuse being that brick has become costly. Surely not more than the mirrored glass facades which will soon collect dust, crack and break, leaving their occupiers in the cold, but giving the builders another excuse to pull down their carcasses and rebuild anew.

Not everyone, however, is critical of what I find abhorrent. Some people actually equate the new vision of Tehran with progress. The weekly sweeper who comes to do floors in my mother's house is thrilled. 'Why don't you come back to live here now that Iran is abad?' I replied that to me, abadi (meaning literally 'irrigated place') never amounted to an asphalt jungle, but to shaded gardens. He must have regarded me as a hopelessly retrograde nostalgic who truly deserved to have been dispossessed.

He has his reasons to be happy, since he lives in the former slums of Tehran, into which admittedly the best of construction efforts have gone. Instead of the miserable hovels without basic amenities (and I know what I say, since I had submitted some damning reports on these slums with a plea for urgent action), they now have row upon row of neat housing with patches of lawn and flowerbeds in front. Abadi has thus come to the underprivilged quarters of Tehran, though poverty has not disappeared from many remoter regions, and wherever it has, it has come at a cost in environmental terms that might eventually spell disaster as in the case of the Golestan Forest.

For nothing is done according to plan and careful study. If the Caspian coast looks good in terms of climate and landscape for development, so be it, development there will be, whatever the consquences. Nor is the razing of old houses and gardens a thing of the past. There are those who still live under the threat of being dispossessed and seeing their house and garden give its place to another highrise.

Such is the case with an island of bliss in the middle of Tehran, with sepia photos, calligraphied farmans and other delightful reminders of the past, plastered on the walls and to which, moreover, one is led through a garden with trellised arches drowned under well-tended flowering vines. It happens to belong to the family of a famous chronicler of the constitutional revolution of 1906, but is constantly threatened by the adjacent Harasat (which, in case you do not know, means a place that is full of Security men). The fear of dispossession is still so present that in some cases beautiful old houses are torn down by their very owners and the land is sold off before the government agents appear.

Vandalism wrought by builders and much more inadmissibly by owners has occasionally mobilized citizens and journalists to undertake action and stop the demolition of what little authenticity and charm have survived. My own house was bull-dozed so quickly that I thought its old tiles were gone forever until, on a trip to Peshawar in Pakistan, I happened to see two of them displayed in the Afghan bazaar. (I knew they were mine, because of their size and the rare portrait of a female, Taj-saltana, on one of the tiles).

Even UNESCO has stepped in to prevent the razing of a Safavid caravanserai in Isfahan, where builders intend to erect a shopping centre. The international agency has threatened to remove that jewel of a city from the World Heritage list, and thankfully, for now, progression on the work has been arrested. In an article written last autumn I mentioned that in the Meydan-e Arg in Tabriz, archeological work had been stopped by the Minister of Housing who planned to erect a large mosalla prayer hall to celebrate the memory of 'the Imam'.

I went to Tabriz and beheld the monster; its green-painted skeleton of steel beams and gigantic air-conditioning ducts has so taken over the square that whatever remains of the Arg -- still impressive enough -- has been pushed back as though forgotten by time. Even in a place like Tabriz, which has suffered from earthquakes, this building will resist the blow of death it deserves. That privilege is not given to everyone in Iran, as the recent disaster in Bam sadly demonstrates.

In Tehran, there are so few reminders of the past, that most of the young are not even aware of what is Persian, even less of the potential of our architecture and its ability to serve as a realistic model for innovation. For our architecture, both extant and extinct, is a real treasure-house of ideas that can be adapted to the needs of today. A team sent by the United Nations to assess the damage incurred by old monuments as a result of Saddam's bombing , were amazed at the wealth and beauty of the architecture, even though pockmarked like Swiss cheese by the war. But the young, who are dying to discover the authentic Persian, have little idea of it.

One of these who came to visit me was impressed by my mother's living room as a paragon of Persian atmosphere, while, apart from Qajar miniatures on the walls and some carpet bolsters lying here and there, it has fake English furnishings and a non-descript style in its architecture. Nor are his generation much better acquainted with the arts of the world. I gave some old books to a girl who studies at the Faculty of Fine Arts and she screamed with delight upon seeing reproductions of European masters whom she studies without being allowed to see any illustrations of their work. These tattered old books, the source of an unspeakable joy, will no doubt bring about a breakthrough in her artistic work.

Why is there such a discrepancy between that which experts are doing for preserved monuments and that which is done by the mollarchy or their entrepreneurs? Lack of education in the arts is partly to blame for poor taste, and the degradation of taste is a reflection of the values and standards of the bazaar whose occupants, one would think, should have been inspired by the vaulted alleys within which they dwelt. They have been building with official blessings at a rapid pace but without consulting experts.

This bazaari class, whose ideal is to make quick money without investment nor risk, and who therefore resented the rapidly expanding industrial class of the former era, are, together with those who occupy posts without a minimal qualification, the main beneficiaries of the revolution. So you have the lethal combination of bazaar and former slum-dwellers to set the esthetic and environmental standards for the future of Iran. Haphazard building activity is motivated by greed much more than by need.

And nowhere is bad taste and poor construction as visible as in some of the newly-built mosques, erected by marginal elements to flatter the centres of power and to prove their devotion to God in the hope of obtaining a lucrative deal or the licence to stir up mischief. These new mosques have been faced with badly-made tiles in the drabbest colours like mud-brown, dark green and mustard yellow, formerly reserved for cheap public baths or slaughterhouses, and all this underneath a shiny tin dome. I did not even wish to see the interiors. Anyway, for lack of devout visitors, they are mostly empty.

Not even the greatest masterpieces are safe in the hands of mollas. The glaring exception to the good preservation of monuments are significantly the sacred complexes like Mashad and Qom, which are directly under the superivision of the bonyad foundations, those devouring dynosaurs that swallow up more than half of the national budget without giving the slightest account. So is it that the original beauty of many a splendid mosque is ruined by the disgraceful taste of a mollarchy devoid of the wherewithal to fully appreciate the proportions of graceful arches and the delicacy of masterpieces in faience which are replaced by newer ones bearing inscriptions in memory of dead ayatollahs.

Inside they are full of crude mirrorwork, and outside they are garlanded with garish neon lin pinks and slime greens. In the days when devotion really mattered, rulers employed the best architects and craftsmen to build the masterpieces we know. No more today >>> Part 6 >>> index

Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian was born in Tehran in 1940 and studied in Iran and Switzerland. In Iran she was on the committe of a number of organizations, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Women's University. She also did volunteer work for the Deparment of the Environment, where she planned education for schools and TV on environmental subjects. Since the Revolution she has been focusing on research and writing. Her latest appeared in The Journal of the Society for Iranian Studies (Summer/Fall 2000) called "Haft Qalam Arayish: Cosmetics int he Iranian World".

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By Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian




Book of the day

Crowning Anguish
Taj al-Saltana, Memoirs of a Persian Princess 1884-1914
edited by Abbas Amanat

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