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Spiraling into oblivion
Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation's deteriorating masterpiece in Iran

By Nima Kasraie
June 4, 2004

If only Frank Lloyd Wright were alive to see this. How can great architecture simply crumble to ruins. While the shrine of Imam Khomeini continues to blind the visitor in awe and wonder (contrary to his humble abode in Jamaran), a modern and rare masterpiece of design quietly nears its final days in a suburb of Karaj >>> See photos

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation has three buildings in Iran recorded under its accomplishments. These are The Damavand Higher Educational Institute (presently Payam-e Nour University), the summer residence of Shams known as Mehrafarin Palace in Chalous (presently occupied by the local police), and the most prestigious and spectacular of them, the Morvarid Palace in Mehrshahr, Karaj, home of the deposed Shah's sister and her husband, Mehrdad Pahlbod - the then minister of culture and art.

Built in 1966, the project's construction was directly supervised by Wesley Peters, FLW's son in law and first apprentice, who did the calculations for his designs of Fallingwater and The Guggenheim Museum. Thomas Casey, who represented the FLW Foundation in the Middle East, and was also a senior Fellow at Taliesin, served as chief engineer for the project. Other Taliesin principals who contributed to the design and construction of the Pearl Palace were Stephen and Frances Nemtin, and Cornelia Brierly.

However, in view of its similarity to two other monuments constructed by FLW in the US, namely a Roman Orthodox Church in Wisconsin and the famous Marin County Civil Center in California (featured in the movie Gattacca), it has occurred to some foreign engineers and architects that Morvarid Palace in Iran may be one of the monuments initially designed by the American architect during his lifetime.

The diversity of the interior design, its raw materials, decorations, sculpture and paintings, along with the proportions of the space recall FLW's completeness of design. Furthermore, since the palace was originally designed for an oriental princess, the interior decorations are selected to suit the Iranian taste.

Models realizing the concept of "Door" and "Sun" are frequently applied, while most of the paintings and designs observed in the furniture, chandeliers and lights are full of circular designs. The diversity of the erected spaces and the internal connecting channels are marked by a particular boldness and creativity. A free inspection of the different angles of the palace from all perspectives - if allowed - will cause the visitors to praise what they witness.

In a video interview in January 1991, Wes Peters related the story of his visit to Iran with former apprentice Nezam Amery and the subsequent development of a design for the palace for Princess Shams. Peters described his relationship to the Princess and commented on her sense of grasping the philosophy of FLW. He presented a basic design made up of two intersecting domes with a series of other buildings clustered to form an enclosed space of nearly 50,000 square feet. A long rising spiral ramp culminated in the Princess's bedroom with a spiral ziggurat.

"Before she told us about what she wanted she sent me to see some of the historic spots of Iran," Peters said. "Nezam Amery and I went down to see Persepolis and Isfahan and a number of other beautiful sites and cities in Iran. I was very much impressed by the great tradition there."

"I don't usually like most domes because they're enclosed. But if you want to build a dome, I want to have one that's floating and has spaciousness and light" the princess explained. "[So] we made a model of the building," Peters related, and said the Princess was "absolutely taken up with [it]." The Princess then decided that everything should be specially designed with John Hill's participation, who designed the gold bedspread that cost $25,000.

The total cost for the entire project came to about $3.5 million. Peters recalled the initial presentation and the effect it had on the Princess. Suddenly she burst into tears and left the room. When she returned she explained that the drawings depicted the palace she dreamed of as a small girl, and she was overcome with emotion.

Unfortunately, the palace was finally recognized as an important monument deserving restoration, only after Iran's National Heritage Foundation registered it as a national heritage on May 26, 2003. The palace has been rapidly deteriorating over the years and is still currently used as a recreational base for Basij militias.

Because of almost thirty years of constant neglect, deterioration of the Plexiglas domes have led to massive erosion of the concrete structure. The dome in fact has suffered so much damage, that its collapse is imminent unless immediately attended to.

Currently, a simple cover over the dome and spiral sums up the efforts to preserve this architectural gem. When this author visited the palace in May 2004, the building did not even have persistent electricity as there was constant water leakage problems throughout the building. Hence the palace's refurbishment to grandeur is a tantalizing prospect, and its restoration a complicated one.

Born in 1917, Shams was the eldest child of Reza Shah from his second wife Taj ol Moluk. A Christian convert from Islam, her main responsibility was to direct the Sheer o Khorsheed foundation of Iran. Ironically, in 1984, the palace was sold to the Bonyad Mostazafan foundation upon the order of Iran's revolutionary court. Shams had two other palaces, one in California, and one in Spain. Following the revolution, Shams moved to the United States and died in 1995 at the age of 78.

From a pragmatic point of view, if Iranian officials wish to debase the memories of the Pahlavi era, then instead of ignoring magnificent edifices like the Pearl Palace, their preservation and introduction to the public will serve as a stark reminder of an era of grand corruption, helping further their cause. Furthermore, a worthy restoration of this masterpiece will surely generate millions of revenue from visiting tourists from abroad.

FLW is America's legendary architect after all. His legacy in a place as far as Iran is bound to draw numerous visitors. Especially when considering that tourism is the top candidate for succeeding fossil fuels as a national source of income in the future.

For example, one cannot stop from wondering that instead of building that grand but aesthetically brutal presidential reception quarters in Sa'd Abad, president Khatami could have hit several birds with one stone by restoring the Pearl Palace and using it instead to welcome his guests. The presidential guests would have been totally awed.

From an academic point of view, the diversity observed in the forms, spaces, colors and materials make this palace quite distinct from all other contemporary monuments of Iran. It is undoubtedly a priceless opportunity for architects, interior designers, decorators, civil engineers, and students to inspect and reflect upon.

Preservation of timeless monuments like these are a duty of any government, whether Islamic, Pahlavi, secular, or other. This is a treasure that must be protected and passed down to the next generations for them to remember their history. Not sadly neglected until it crumbles to oblivion >>> See photos

 .................... Spam?! Khalaas!

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By Nima Kasraie



DVD of the day

Frank Lloyd Wright
A film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

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