On January 19, 2017, the Plasco Tower, a 17-story high-rise, collapsed in the centre of Tehran killing more than 20 firefighters and injuring dozens.
The iconic building was designed by American architects – Benjamin Brown and Spero Daltas – who set up shop in Tehran in 1957 during the rule of King Mohammad Reza Shah (1941-1979). The Shah had made it his mission to construct in Iran a “great civilisation”. To do so, Tehran had to become a modern globalised city, with vast avenues and planned design.
Iran’s 20th-century modernisation process coincided with that of many other Middle Eastern countries. Nations such as Egypt, Turkey and Iran felt a need to infuse their ancient civilisations with new ideas and influence, including Western infrastructure and educational models.
In Iran, the process was fuelled by increasing oil revenue, which helped finance massive new developments that would turn its capital into a modern metropolis. For these ambitious plans, the government hired Western architects, urban planners and other experts to come work in Tehran.
The American planner Victor Gruen devised the city’s 1968 master plan, conceiving of an expansive Tehran with commercial centres and residential neighbourhoods connected by highways.
This golden age of urban development also saw wealthy parts of Tehran bloom with privately financed construction.
That all changed in 1979. After the Iranian Revolution, Tehran turned inward, closing its gates to the West.
Today, Iranian scholars, architects and intellectuals – including Parshia Qaregozloo, who curated Iran’s pavilion at the 2016 Venice biennial and Leila Araghian, architect of Tehran’s new high-tech Tabiat bridge and Ali Mozaffari, founding co-editor of the Berghahn Explorations in Heritage Studies book series – are raising concerns that the nation may have too short a cultural memory.
Many notable mid-century buildings have been neglected in the past decade, including the ornate Sabet Pasal mansion in Tehran, known as Iran’s Palace of Versailles, which narrowly avoided being demolished in 2015. And the 1966 Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Morvarid (Pearl) Palace, in the city of Karaj, which once belonged to the Shah’s sister, Shams Pahlavi.
Important private residences in Tehran are also at risk of destruction. In the affluent Zaferanieh neighbourhood, these include the former home of Queen Turan, the wife of Reza Shah (father or Iran’s last shah), and a villa frequented by Forough Farrokhzad, an Iranian poetess and film director of the 1960s, as well as the Panahi House, which was designed by the French architect Roland Dubrulle.
Many Iranians remain attached to these modernist symbols, and there have been significant efforts to save them in recent years. Some Iranian activists, calling themselves the People’s Committee for Conservation of Historical Houses in Tehran, have launched a website defending Tehran’s landmarks.
Public outcry against the plan to raze the Villa Namazee has been fierce. Petitions to save it were circulated globally and supported by UNESCO and the Germany-based International Committee for Documentation, and the Conservation of Buildings and Sites and Neighbourhoods of the Modern Movement, among other international organisations. This well-publicised case may also help save other modern buildings in the future.