The timeliness of the avant-garde

  February 03, 2024   Read time 7 min
The timeliness of the avant-garde
The political elite, who gathered around Reza Shah and outlined the cultural policies of his reign, backed a number of western architects to jump-start the architectural profession as an autonomous national and secular institution.

However, while western professionals such as Ernst Herzfeld, André Godard, Arthur Upham Pope, Maxim Siroux, Russian architect Nikolai Markov, and a number of less-known German architects were influential in shaping Iran’s architectural pedagogy and practice, they were by no means dictating the terms of their operations in the politicized milieu of the 1930s. Despite the prominent place reserved for them by historians, there exists enough evidence to demonstrate that these men were often at the mercy of local scholars and politicians, including the active members of the Society for National Heritage, in their teachings, designs, and excavations. The local mediation, aesthetic and political alike, was dominant.

Cultural patronage under Reza Shah was predominantly architectural and architects played a decisive role in setting aesthetic trends and contemporary modernist agendas. Other fields of knowledge in the arts came under the hegemony of architectural practice and pedagogy. The fine arts faculty at Tehran University, for instance, was conceived, constructed, and run from 1938 on by a group of architects, including Godard who provided its curricular program and directed it until 1949. After his departure, all the subsequent deans of the faculty were prominent and practicing architects: Mohsen Forughi (1949–62); Hushang Seyhun (1962–68); Mohammad Amin (or Daryush) Mirfendereski (1968–71); and Mehdi Kowsar (1971–79).
Architecture dominated the artistic field well into the 1970s, where in and out of the university the visual arts (honar-ha-ye tajassomi) – painting, sculpture, graphic design, industrial design, and art education – were separate from and subordinate to the architecture department, structurally, pedagogically, and in terms of status. In the modernist context of Pahlavi Iran, to be an architect, a builder, and an engineer was more prestigious than any other discipline in the humanities. In analyzing the transformation of residential buildings, architect Kamran Diba notes that “architects brought modernism to Iran” by giving birth to new spaces that fostered the nuclear family: Reza Shah’s modern middle class who would go on to base its class identity on the appreciation of avant-garde taste.
Young architects, trained professionally in Europe or the Soviet Union, were the protagonists of the modern middle class. As such, they often found themselves in a precarious position between the heavy-handed government – with which they often shared ideology and method of implementation – and their own avant-garde spirit to practice without authoritarian interference. While relying on state patronage for most of their projects, they tried to maintain aloofness towards political plots and intrigues.
The architects’ unstable in-between position was crucial to the survival of the architectural profession as an independent practice pivotal to the nation-building project. It produced an anxiety dealt with by many and articulated by others. In September 1946, Iraj Moshiri, the editor of the first Iranian architectural journal, addressed this concern by declaring unequivocally, “The Architecte is purely a technological and aesthetic publication, which cannot and does not wish to have the slightest involvement with the world of politics.” Despite this claim, however, the tabula rasa that had emerged in the early 1930s was now shaped by these young professionals. If not fixing class ideology, they certainly provided a space and an image to that rapidly growing social segment.
Individual architects who were committed to a secularist, bourgeois, and modernist conception of the nation proved themselves as influential agents of change. The public and private structures that they produced represented a concrete expression of Reza Shah’s New Iran – Iran-e novin – which was distinctly different in its taste and visuality from what had come before. The services that they offered to the public and the state spoke to the professionalization of the middle class, while the products that they erected were the most conspicuous cultural and technological expressions of the paradigm shift from an aristocratic to a bourgeois society. In 1946, Hovanessian articulated the juxtaposition of historicism and avant-gardism in the first issue of the first official journal of his profession: “should one imitate the past and recreate the notable works of that era; or should one look towards the future and adapt architectural design to the modern lifestyle.”
The creation of a modern centralized army, upon which Reza Shah’s political career had depended, instigated large-scale projects such as the 1394-kilometer Trans-Iranian Railway that stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf. It not only produced a nationwide surge in construction, but also brought the International Style (the stark minimalist modern movement of European architecture) to some of the most remote towns and villages of the country. The paramount example of the link between technology and avant-garde architecture was the main train station building in southern Tehran. Other structures rejected historicism and followed the modernist dictates of simple forms, no ornamentation, adoption of glass, use of concrete and steel in construction, and a futuristic aesthetics: Hovanessian’s villas in northern Tehran for the secular elite, together with a palace for Reza Shah on the grounds of Saadabad, as well as his School for Orphans (1935). Guevrekian’s dozen villas, again in northern Tehran and custom-built in modernistic language, included those for Malak-Eslami (1933), Panacki (1934), Siassi (1935), and Khosrowani (1936).39 The modernist home was to further and represent the modernist lifestyle – a shrine to house the accoutrements that formed the holistic picture of modernity, of being modern.
Commercialization and further secular reforms generated a culture of leisure that marked a lifestyle unique to the middle class. The flourishing of cinemas, clubs, bars, restaurants, parks, public sports and swimming facilities, and ski resorts celebrated architectural avant-gardism. Private villas and public leisure architecture in modernist language not only provided an image of a secular class, but also enabled the ritual enactments of bourgeois sociability. To inhabit these spaces meant to embody a specific lifestyle with its own aesthetic and formal tropes. These spaces, predominantly designed after the tenets of the International Style, represented unambiguous markers of progress, of befores and afters. This aesthetic difference impregnated an ethical paradigm shift. Austere white walls, unornamented facades, large swimming pools, cantilevered roofs, large glass openings forced a specific behavior and lifestyle that went with a set of ethical values that was seen as progressive. Those who commissioned and inhabited these spaces saw themselves in the vanguard of the modern in Iran.
Theatre buildings loyal to the architectural doctrine of the modernist International Style, such as Hovanessian’s Cinema Diana on Shah Reza Avenue (nowadays the still-operating Sepideh Cinema on Enqelab Avenue) and Cinema Metropole on Lalehzar Street, were erected as signifiers of the ultimate paradigm of a modern society, one where technology and leisure were housed in explicitly modernistic public, yet informal, architecture. Similarly, anticipating European tourists to New Iran, his Hotel Darband, commissioned by Reza Shah and erected on the slopes of the Alborz Mountains in northern Tehran, was “to strike a new note of elegance with its accommodations, restaurant and casino”. 40 It remained “a favorite of Tehran’s high society” until the revolution.41 In a modernist tone, Guevrekian designed Tehran’s Officers’ Club, the Military School’s auditorium for the army, and the Ministry of Industry (1936), which was never realized. Because the white avant-gardism of this leisure architecture was deployed by the Pahlavis as a signifier of progress, it was condemned by the most outspoken opponents of the regime. In his 2 February 1979 speech at Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, Imam Khomeini asked his audience, “Why was it necessary to make the cinema a center of vice?”42 – a matter-of-fact question that drew into its discursive operation not only the content of that which was shown, but also the aesthetic of the site where modernity manifested itself as a specific kind of an avant-garde.

Write your comment