No matter how much one has heard about the current explosion of kitsch, the reality shocks, all the more so that this was a land once plentifully blessed with infallible taste in artistic production. It is true that the change in the present landscape had begun earlier, but it has reached unbearable proportions by now. The lack of norms or the lack of observance of existing norms are also proving to be a great strain on rare resources. There were warnings, of course, but who gave a damn when money was hanging from trees that were felled so that more could gush forth from mushrooming towers of concrete and glass?
The high-rise monsters in undefined styles, without any sense of harmony or proportion or architectural sense, and unrelieved by a tree, are at least thrice damned: as eyesores, as a strain on water resources, as annihilators of trees and green space, but very much a boon to the pockets of ignorant self-made builders in league with the bazaar and the top hierarchy. Built by profiteers with the philosophy 'Build and God will provide', many recent constructions are destined to become slums, more difficult to raze than the makeshift concoctions of yesteryear's slums.
A European resident referred with sarcastic euphemism (an oxymoron?) to the mushrooming fantasies as 'the fruit of the creative imagination of Iranians let loose'. For not only is there no urban logic in many of today's constructions, but the buildings have drawn superficially on every conceivable theme, with pseudo-post-modern and mirrored glass often incongruously blended with little understood neo-Classical themes like cornices, columns and balustrades, often turned upside down — a trend that had already begun way back in the 1960s.
I have never seen such a concentration of kitsch and vulgarity, not even in China at the turn of the last millennium, when everything old was being pulled down in favour of facades covered entirely with white bathroom tiles, and garlanded, as in Iran, with garish neon. The mushrooming of highrises and the ornateness of motifs blindly drawn from a widespread repertory express the frustrated dreams of the many, for whom, I venture to guess, vulgarity might be a substitute for the lack of colour in clothes and the want of fun and freedom.
There are fantasies galore. In Tabriz, where a modern five-star hotel, complete with a façade of blue mirror-glass and a glass elevator to hoist you to the top (with a high-cholesterol sarshir breakfast to die for — and die of), sprouts from a hill, it overshadows a villa constructed at the base in the style of a Greek temple whose marble reliefs have been copied impeccably well, but in stucco version. Not far from it, the delightful octagonal pavilion of Shahgoli in the middle of a lake was torn down and rebuilt without any charm, while all around it a park full of concrete and steel and all too visible lamps is being laid out.
On the Caspian coast villas are mushrooming at an incredibly rapid pace, all the way up to the heights of Kelardasht [See: not too shabby], in a bid to transform the coastline into a touristic haven, all this at the expense of the lush forests which were home to a rich variety of plant species and animal life, and in the clearings, to rice paddies citrus and tea plantations (some of these cultures have now been transferred to other regions). Had the plunderers of the land bee satisfied with occupying the confiscated gardens and villas of Tehran, the self-made builders would have missed the opportunity to cash in on money poured into the myserious bonyad coffers.
When the revolution occurred, the property of the possessed was considered legitimate booty and a recipe for overnight wealth, notwithstanding the simple calculation that the possessions of a few thousand could not enrich forty million people overnight. The rabble were let loose on the natural resources of an arid country. Flora and fauna were legitimate prey, even in national parks where the last of rare species had been protected with love. Later, they began to cut off the trees of the Golestan Forest National Park in Gorgan to erect villages on the site, but nature took revenge by unleashing flash floods. With no tree trunks to contain the flow of water, the houses were uprooted and carried away. Instead of the natural flora and fauna of the country, there are now a plethora of stucco and plastic versions.
And nothing is as absurd as the sickly palm trees in light green plastic with twinkling fairy lights, often placed as an afterthought to one side of a square without apparent rhyme or reason. Are these artificial trees the result of a literal reading of the Koran's verses in praise of the palm? Or is this the poor man's imitation of Dubai's lavish bad taste? Or was there something else? Sure enough, upon my return to Europe, an Egyptian friend confirmed that the same epidemic had occurred in Cairo, but people had complained and the plastic palms were removed. It turned out that someone from the emirates had been making big money by selling each of the trees (probably produced on the cheap in China) for eleven thousand dollars apiece.
Our ideals had been the cypress and the plane, so often celebrated in verse and in prose. In Iran the palm tree grew only in the south, the plateau was famous for other species — planes and poplars, willows and oaks, cypresses and elms, acacias and the hardy aridity-resistant tree called ar ar. The plane trees of Tehran were so impressive that they were written about by the Italian traveller, Pietro della Valle, four centuries ago
Author 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”.