Museums and Memorials of Iran 1935 to 1979 By Nader Ardalan

Fellow, Center for Middle Eastern Studies Harvard University

This is a brief review of five decades of the architecture of museums and memorials designed in Iran during a period of major cultural transitions. It may be instructive to also review the four major architectural trends or theories that were also in play worldwide during these times that impacted Iran during this period. They commenced with the influence of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in France, where many of the Iranian architects studied and whose teachers helped establish the first school of architecture in Tehran. Next to come was the International Style of the Modern movement in architecture, which had a minor influence in the first of these five decades, but grew steadily to replace the Beaux-Arts school. Subsequently, the Post-Modern movement and then the Critical Regionalism approaches in the late 1970s influenced architectural thinking in Iran.  

It was not until 1940 that the Faculty of Fine Arts at Tehran University came into being, merging the Kamal al Molk Ghaffari School of Industry, Crafts and Arts with the School of Architecture instituted by the French Architect and Educator, Andre Godard. Here the influential role played in architectural education in Iran of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts of Paris came to the forefront. Led by Andre Godard and his colleagues, they designed and supervised the construction of major portions of Tehran University Campus and voluntarily taught architecture from 1940 to 1945. Godard served as the first chair of the Faculty of Fine Arts from 1940 to 1953, with Mohsen Forughi, an Iranian Architect, Beaux-Arts graduate and scholar of Iranian traditional architecture, serving as the leading Iranian faculty member.  

It would be instructive to begin this essay with the architectural design approach and buildings of Andre Godard, which had a pivotal impact on Iranian architectural thinking.  In 1935 Godard designed the Iran Bastan Museum in Tehran, which stands today as one of the most original contemporary interpretations of the architectural heritage of Iran. In this stark, rectangular two storey volume of russet colored brick, he carved out a grand parabolic entrance gateway reminiscent of the historic Sassanian Ctesiphon Vault, with brick detailing of robust elegance.

During this early period, because of the relatively slow economy and the necessities of post-war reconstruction in Iran, only token architectural and city planning gestures could be afforded. This period produced mainly symbols of a growing national identity. These were images of a glorious past, such as newly built or renovated memorials of national heroes, poets, and scholars, each of which contained in some associated way a small historic museum or library component. A prime example of this typology was the Hafezieh Memorial Pavilion and Gardens in Shiraz designed by Andre Godard. 

The memorials of the period from 1950 to the 60s were principally small and for the most part well crafted artistic conceptions that attest to their Iranian designers’ educational formations in pre-war Paris. In this respect, the unique accomplishments of Mohsen Forughi and Hushang Seyhun stand out. Seyhun graduated from the Beaux-Arts Paris in 1950 and returning to Iran designed in 1951 the iconic, granite clad Ibn-e-Sina Memorial in Hamadan. Mohsen Forughi, with the collaboration of Kubad Zafar and Ali Sadeq, who followed Forughi’s characteristic Neo-classical style, designed and completed the Saadi Memorial in a beautiful garden in Shiraz. The few concessions to Persian architectural traditions included tall stone columns, ceramic infill panels and a turquoise dome placed over the main sanctuary.   

 Meanwhile, monuments continued to be built around the country. Hushang Seyhun designed the Nader Shah Memorial in Mashad; the Khayyam Memorial and the Kamal-al-Molk Memorial in Neishahpour. Seyhun also renovated and added a museum to the Ferdowsi Memorial in Tus, while Mohsen Forughi designed the Baba Taher Memorial there. 

But of all these monuments, it was the Shahyad Monument, built in 1971 on the occasion of the 2500 year anniversary of the Iranian Monarchy that has had the most lasting impact in Iran. It continued the Ecole des Beaux-Arts line of monuments dedicated to renewed cultural identity, but with a dramatic Post-Modern approach. Designed by the Iranian Architect Hossein Amanat, the structure attempted to unify three major periods of Persian history by combining the Sassanian parabolic vault of Ctesiphon with the pointed Islamic arch in a contemporary construction of concrete and travertine. Conceived within the Roman tradition of the triumphal arch, it also housed a museum and has served as the symbolic gateway and place of public gathering in the capital city.

As these events indicate, Iran consciously drew on the highest levels of world technology and expertise in the late 1970s. A kind of “Critical Regionalism” approach to architecture was at this time developing, particularly in many parts of the emerging nations of the world, including Iran. This theory of design strived to counter the placelessness and lack of meaning in Modern Architecture by using contextual forces to give a unique sense of place and meaning. It encouraged emphasis on topography, climate, light, tectonic form rather than scenography and the tactile sense rather than the visual adapted to the specific conditions of the regional setting and context.  Critical regionalism was different from regionalism which simply tried to achieve a one-to-one copy or correspondence with traditional vernacular architecture in a conscious way without creatively partaking of the opportunities of the contemporary world. 

An important example in Iran of the “Critical Regionalism” approach was The Museum of Contemporary Arts, a 5,000-square-meter complex built in a park in Tehran. It included galleries, a movie theater, a library, and an exhibition hall that is spatially organized to create a space for dialogue. The museum literally steps down into the ground in a spiral of circulation, thus creating a roof top garden to accommodate sculpture and minimizing the obstruction of views to the park from the street. Sculptural works of Charles Moore, Karl Schlemminger and Parviz Tanavoli have been placed unto these roof forms and the surrounding landscape, while inside some of the works of the world’s leading artists are housed. This museum was originally designed in 1966 in the office of Kamran Diba in collaboration with Nader Ardalan and John Major, but only finally completed in 1977 (See Diba, K. Buildings & Projects, Verlag Gerd Hatje).  This building is a composition made with exposed architectural concrete, natural stone, and roof mounted light catchers (Nurgirs), surfaced in copper, that filter natural daylight to the galleries below. Overall, the design was inspired by traditional elements of Iranian desert architecture of Kashan and the contemporary work of Le Corbusier and Jose Luis Sert’s Maeght Foundation Museum in France (See Bastlund, K., Jose Luis Sert).

In the same Tehran park, the Carpet Museum designed by Abdul Aziz Farmanfarmaian with Josef Zucker was inaugurated in 1976.  Within its 3,400 SM footprint, the museum holds examples of some of Iran’s historic carpets along with a 7,000 volume library on the general subject of textiles, weaving and the history of carpets.   This period also witnessed in Tehran the design and implementation of the Glassware and Ceramics Museum by the Austrian Architect Hans Hollein in the historic Ghavamsaltaneh Mansion and a hilltop museum in Shiraz by Alvar Aalto, which regrettably was never realized.

With the above brief review of places of culture, we can review in retrospect a few significant architectural achievements that can be added to the rich legacy of Persian Architecture, but the major lessons of this period are more in the form of questions than answers: How can a traditional society transform its historic built forms and symbols to accommodate its inner cultural values and psychic needs while integrating the new realizations of the twentieth century?  Is there such a thing as “authentic” verses “inauthentic” cultural identity and what role do museums and memorials play in responding to these questions?

Published in 2A Magazine Issue 13    
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