Contemporary architecture, outskirts of Tehran

Contemporary architecture, outskirts of Tehran (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

TEHRAN — Traveling from the center to the north of Tehran reveals the city’s multiple elevations: topographical, architectural, and economic. In the new neighborhoods along the northeastern edge of the city, one can see the emergence of a new global class, distributed unevenly and erratically building a type of vertical living that is in sharp contrast to the architecture of the city center with its many alleys, plazas, and commercial streets. This juxtaposition was brought into focus during a visit to the studio of Nazgol Ansarinia, which, as with most artists in the city, is seamlessly combined with her residence. Around her studio are works from the 2015 exhibition Surfaces and Solids, where she reflected discreetly on Tehran’s newfound architectural syntax. After trying out many different materials, she settled on cast resin and paint to construct pillars that appear to imitate the opulent neoclassicism that is becoming widespread in the city in almost monumental form, although, upon closer inspection, they do not belong to any particular style. The models are cut in cross-sections to reveal, on the inside, articles from the Iranian constitution that refer to the post-1979 economy, an ideology and culture of apparent modesty that has now grown into a neoliberal space where maximalism is the rule, yet without the futurism of other new architectures such as those found in Dubai or Doha.

Works in progress at Nazgol Ansarinia’s studio

Tehran’s vertical growth is not necessarily looking toward an imagined future; rather it is conjuring a mythical past and falsifying it. The collaged forms of Ansarinia’s capitals are not looking at historical Persian architecture but to the classical aesthetic in general as a reference to classical history where no such history exists. These new forms are in fact the opposite of history; their aim is to give neoliberal expansion an imperial form. These dissimilar styles merge into a rather dystopian fabric, evoking less historical reconstruction and more misplaced nostalgia. Ansarinia is interested in the architecture of a city whose shape is constantly in flux, which appears without a center at all to a visitor who can hardly make sense of it. As a part of her research into Iran’s globalization and financialization, Ansarinia has also begun to look at the meaning of historical ruin in a city that is constantly under construction. Are Iran’s many derelict sites abandoned casualties of war, neglected ruins, or projects under development? Sometimes it’s difficult to tell. After a conversation with the artist, traveling through the north of the city, it is possible to see the luxury residential project she had mentioned, “Royal Address,” in the process of being built — this project sums up the longing for Iran’s past as the most recent strategy of consumerism. The search for a new identity in the face of neoliberalism also demands new temporal horizons: locating oneself in the remote past as a safe point of origin and in the absolute future of globalization as a remote destination. The present is nowhere to be found.

Ansarinia is not alone in her preoccupation with Iran’s architectural form and the way we can use it to gain an understanding of the past. A widely publicized exhibition at Ab Anbar, one of the most dynamic spaces in Tehran’s gallery scene, was the institution-quality exhibition Mass Individualism: A Form of Multitude, which not only addressed the realities of new architecture but also explored one of the central issues of our times: the tension between public and private space. Ab Anbar is run by collector Salman Matinfar and architect Azadeh Zaferani, and Zaferani was the curator of this show. Her central theme relied heavily on Hannah Arendt’s criticism of the idea of “society” as a consequence of the nation-state, where private interests enter a public realm that is in turn emptied out from these interests; in a public realm without public interests, transactional relations, means of exchange and commodification, replace the public domain. This concept of the exhibition goes to the heart of Iran’s collective expressions of personal identity, which are demonstrated solely in the private realm. Arendt has been popular in Iran since her work was translated into Farsi in 1980, and she has been taught in Iranian universities since 2007. Walking along Engelhab Street in central Tehran, bookstore windows boast Farsi editions of not just Arendt, but also Benjamin, Foucault, and other 20th-century thinkers who have been profoundly influencing Iranian intellectuals since the 1990s.

In a bookstore on Enghelab Street

Zaferani’s reading extends from Arendt’s general idea of society to its more specific manifestations: the dialogical qualities of speech, technological revolution, and both public and interior urbanism. As a part of Mass Individualism, Newsha Tavakolian’s 2012 installation The Look provided a peek into the confined private lives of vertical dwellings in West Tehran, and while it seems at times to tell the story of privacy in this city in ways that are all too obvious (Tavakolian is a documentary photographer, after all), the images in the work go beyond mere aesthetic appeal to capture private moments of everyday life while articulating the domestic architecture of the city as a field of audible speech, out of which networks of communication construct a temporary public realm, conceived exclusively in terms of language. Avish Khebrezadeh’s touching painting “Edgar + Theater III” (2010), which features an animation projected onto the canvas, presents the social realm as a theater without an audience, so that the concreteness of human relations become inaudible and, in turn, the realm of the social remains an empty space that is neither public nor private. Both works remind the viewer of Arendt’s idea about how, in the absence of a public realm, architecture — as well as public space — could redeem the social as a realm for the common life.

Avish Khebrezadeh at Ab Anbar

Newsha Tavakolian at Ab Anbar

Coming closer to the relationship between architecture, technology, and the public/private divide, the untitled installation by Shahab Fotouhi and Arash Mozafari (2008) offers us a speculative case-study in urbanism and parafiction. In the early 2000s, the Iranian government brought in a team of experts from Japan to assess the possible casualties during an earthquake in Tehran, given the city’s current chaotic shape. The experts estimated casualties at as high as several million, a number which they said could be significantly reduced if mass cremation furnaces were built in order to avert a sanitary crisis brought on by masses of dead bodies. This is where Fotouhi and Mozafari’s fiction begins: The artists imagined an open call by the municipality, where architects would be invited to submit crematoria proposals that “the people of Tehran could live with.” Fotouhi and Mozafari’s proposal was a massive structure made out of traditional vaulted arches yet mimicking brutalist architecture, as well as redefining traditional muqarnas as a parametric form instead of mere ornament.

Shahab Fotouhi & Arash Mozafari at Ab Anbar

Local artists have criticized Mass Individualism rather scathingly, partly because of its hetereogeneity and its theoretical open-endedness, but Zaferani’s curatorial gestures are quite solid. Although the quality of the various pieces in the exhibition is far from consistent, overall the show has opened new possibilities for exhibition-making in a difficult context where galleries don’t curate their shows (there are barely any curators in the city) and most of what the market offers remains limited to highly decorative work.

The private realm in Tehran is perhaps the key to unpacking the parallel realities that coexist in Iran today. Different systems of values and truth occupy simultaneous spaces where language is the most extreme possibility of reality — private and public are in Tehran concepts of time, and what we call the public space is an abstract and adaptable surface that thrives on informality. The whole social sphere is a relational space in which systems of meaning are constructed through internal codes that lack all stability. In a situation in which the social realm cannot promise stability of meaning, the place of art is transformed accordingly, so that it enlarges itself in order to double as a site for the reconfiguration of meaning; it becomes a part of the social sphere. This is nowhere near the current state of art in Iran, which is still vastly suffocated by Orientalism and the aesthetics of luxury, yet a number of artists like Ansarinia and Fotouhi capture this complexity between private times and public places. In certain corners of Tehran, certain moments occur sporadically, only to vanish quickly afterward — moments during which the public domain reappears, sometimes as solidarity, sometimes as humor, sometimes as criticism.

See the first dispatch in this series on Tehran here.

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Ari Akkermans

Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a freelance writer and art critic based in Beirut, his research focuses on visual culture in the Middle East, politics of memory, and architecture.

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