Housing Development in Iran, And How Structural Development Reduced Life Qualities
I was born in Tehran, and have seen first hand the beauty of ancient, timeless design juxtaposed against unregulated, poorly designed and constructed, frankly, ugly new "developments." Over the years, I have come to realize with an acute sensibility, how buildings can either enhance or detract from the soul of its surrounding environment. I see just how often architecture and design are carried out in our world with no soul. As someone with a pointed desire to work for a finer future in the built environment, I wrote this essay to collect information on why the modernization plans failed in Iran. I will showcase specific cities that were affected by this change directly.
“Space is not just a social phenomenon, but also a political and ideological concern. “ 1
- Simon O'Meara
I will discuss the history of globalization in Iran and the small cities that it impacted. I will focus on the economic, social, and environmental aspects of each city, as globalization affects all three. I will use courtyard housing as a case study. Courtyard housing represents the Iranian architectural identity, which has been struggling to maintain itself in Iran since the 60s to the present time, despite all its benefits. The urban planning and housing of pre-modernized Iran had advantages and disadvantages of their own; However, small cities such as Khvansar, Banak, and Kangan have been under the pressure of modernization, so much that there has been a strong need for ‘physical development’; so much that ‘quality development’ does not seem to be the priority. I have experienced living in houses that appeared to be modern; the buildings which were older than 6 years were considered too old and ready to renovate, and the price decreased a significant amount. A 6-year-old building in Europe is considered new. I believe this refers back to the physical, and quality development concept. One of the issues which will be looked into is sustainability and how the wave of globalization and contemporary architecture has interrupted the sustainability of small cities. The ignorance about the climate and lifestyle of each city has created discomfort, social tension, and even safety hazards. Unlike Europe, where the climate is more or less the same, Iran, a vast country, has different climates, and the buildings were originally built to suit the environment; However, the same housing scheme is applied to different cities. This causes problems as the same architecture cannot be efficient in different climates. The aim of this essay is to, find out through primary sources, the real reason why the younger generations were so eager to leave a perfectly sustainable lifestyle behind and seek a contemporary identity. Is there a way to design a house that respects both the Iranian architectural identity and modernization? Perhaps that is the solution to the current battle between the two. Will Iranian architects continue to design contemporary buildings, or will they embrace traditions and merge the two in a close future?
I will discuss how three cities in Iran: Khvansar, Banak, and Kangan, have transitioned during the past 80 years. Khvansar city is the capital of Khvansar County, Isfahan Province, Iran. With a population of less than 10,000 in the 60s, it was not considered a developed city. Most of the population was made up of farmers. Khvansar is in close proximity to the capital, Tehran. A considerable number of the youth moved to the capital to find jobs, and find new flats, leaving small cities like Khvansar. With no one to inhabit the inherited courtyard houses, they were gradually abandoned or demolished to build on. Khvansar was a sustainable and functional city that was abandoned by the youth who left wishing for more modern life in the Capital. The following information on Khvansar is from interviewing my grandmother who lived in Khvansar during her childhood in the 60s. I asked her about the living conditions, her view on Iran’s modernization, why she decided to not continue living in Khvansar, and which she prefers. Banak is a family-based province in Fars, and it has been suffering from changes made by the government to the city in pursuit of developing living standards. Modernization has affected the city’s community socially and environmentally. As well as interfering with the sustainability of the city. The government’s new housing scheme has paid no attention whatsoever to the social and climate aspects of the province. It has divided communities. In addition to that, it has replaced the traditional techniques of dealing with the hot climate of Fars, such as using the right materials to build and constructing wind catchers. Even though it works better, the chances of the system failing are higher, and it is costlier. But there are more serious consequences which followed the city development, such as encouraging safety hazards. They constructed the new buildings on a dried river path, which increases the chances of seasonal flooding. Kangan is a county in Bushehr Province, with a population of approximately 108,000. It’s close proximity to large gas and petrochemical industries influenced its economy. the oil business caused a reduction in the economic efficiency of Kangan. The city is overcrowding because of the number of migrants from other provinces in Iran. It has interfered with the daily routine of the healthy living of the locals. The youth is leaving for bigger cities looking for a better life.
The original style of urban housing in all three towns used to be mainly courtyard housing. The courtyard planning performs a number of functions. Most important being its role in bringing everyone together. The traditional courtyard housing has structural monumentality and ethical identity, as well as functionality. The house represents a family as one. It is the center point. There is a frequent flow of people in and out of rooms around the courtyard. The aesthetic facades are isolated from neighbors. There is an emphasis on the principal entrance and all opening to the street is eliminated. The exterior of the house does not float itself at all, contrary to contemporary architecture. The street life does not penetrate the living space, as the public and private worlds are separated. This feature gives the house an architectural identity. In eastern cultures sense of family, and privacy is very important and it has manifested itself in certain ways in eastern architecture. One example of this is the traditional planning of houses. Traditionally courtyards are placed surrounded by houses inhabited by the same family or close family members. “This basic plan remains essentially the same regardless of the size of the overall structure so that the largest palaces simply had larger rooms, not more of them.”6 House is usually bounded either by neighboring dwellings or by narrow streets. Access could be circuitous and, for reasons of privacy, openings on to the external spaces were avoided. The house was therefore entirely inward-looking and the courtyard became a small garden, which, with its pool, provided a cool space in the spring and summer.
Traditional Arab interior courtyard housing in Tripoli (Amora, 1993).7
Provinces that are located in hot climates of Iran are known for having ‘wind towers’, also known as ‘Badgir’. It is a key structural element in the traditional architecture of Iran. It is a natural ventilation technique, which encourages wind circulation through the house. “Wind tower shows the harmony of the human-built environment with nature. Traditional building techniques were normally well adapted to the climate. However, the modern way of life and imported western technologies have often replaced the established traditions in the design of the buildings. It conserves energy and functions on the basis of sustainability principles.”8
Khvansar is a province, which has close proximity to the capital, therefore it was affected measurably by the oil business in the 60s. Unfortunately, small towns such as Khvansar do not have many records from the 60s; however, I had the pleasure of interviewing my grandmother who was one of the youths who left Khvansar and moved to Tehran in the 60s. Surprisingly she is fond of those times. She describes a sustainable and healthy lifestyle, and memories of the closeness of the family and the community. This will make you wonder why she would ever leave Khvansar. The following information regarding Khvansar is from the interview.
Five close families lived in different rooms surrounding the courtyard, contrary to the current private lives. The windows faced either the courtyard or the private garden behind the house. They lived together, they depended on each other, and they each had a role to play in the family. Extended families and children made their homes in the family house even after marriage. The houses were inherited from parents to children. If a member of the family got married, they would add a new room to the house and so on. Inheriting the house makes the home feel more intermit. Make no mistake, despite the courtyard housing being private, it did not exclude families of the neighborhood. Neighbors knew each other and the town met at social events. Women would meet at the fresh cold spring water running through the courtyard to wash fruits. The shadow under the trees made Khvansar’s hot summers an enjoyable experience. They got drinking water from wells and saved up the rest in the basement for when droughts hit the town. They grew their own vegetables and fruits because there weren’t many markets back then. The passageways were human-scaled because there was no need for cars or large machinery. The courtyards were built so close to each other that they made access circuitous. The thick masonry walls made out of clay and mud protected them from harsh summers and winters. The houses were renovated by the men of the family using local materials. As humble as it may sound, luxurious courtyard houses were door to door to the simpler houses. There was no such thing as rich or poor neighborhoods. Khvansar’s population was mainly farmers. My grandmother’s father owned a private hand-made carpet shop. He was able to maintain the business without having a store. Part of the house was used for his business only.
The white revolution in the 60s brought in a wave of modernization that transformed the city. In the peruse of making Iran a developed country, the government offered land and loans to farmers to build new modern apartments next to the newly built streets. Markets and shops started to appear next to these streets. There was a high demand for properties located next to the streets because of easier access to the markets and businesses. People started to move out of dwellings into these modern serviced apartments. The courtyard houses lost their value quickly. Richer families demolished the courtyard houses and built new apartments with more facilities on the same land. Other families who could not afford the cost of demolishing and rebuilding, such as my grandmother’s family, simply moved to newly built apartments. The new apartments offered more services, such as electricity, plumbing systems, sewage systems, air conditioning and etc. Most important of all it had become a trend to have a modern apartment. The White Revolution, and the oil industry booming initiated a social class competition. Purchasing a newly built apartment was a sign of success.
I visited the house when I traveled to Khavansar about 10 years ago. My great-grandfather lives in a three-story apartment with an extended family inhabiting the other two floors. The apartment was built on a courtyard house previously abandoned by another family. There are still visible signs of the previous house, such as the basement, the outdoor bathroom at the end of the garden, and the pond in the middle of the garden. My grandmother’s childhood house was abandoned but never demolished. The courtyard was abandoned a few years after my grandmother moved to the capital 50 years ago to get married. The value of the land is low to the point that after abandoning and purchasing the new apartment the family did not lose any money. In 50 years, it has stayed untouched and it is gradually falling apart because of the lack of maintenance. I asked my grandmother if she would go back. Her response was shocking. She said:
“With age, life gets harder and without facilities, I probably couldn’t have dealt with most of the conditions there. However, I do miss the closeness with my family.”
Courtyard housing is not only a tradition but a necessity in hot summers of Central Iran. Khvansar is known for its many sources of spring water. Therefore, it was a self-sustained city even before there were any plumbing and sewage systems in the city. People took showers in common city baths. The spring water was intentionally directed into each house’s courtyard. They used it to wash clothes, fruits, and to freshen up during hot summers. Underground wells were the source of drinking water. People did not suffer from doubts because the underground sources of water were never affected by doubts. Droughts are a common phenomenon throughout Iran. Unlike Khvansar most central and southern cities in Iran do not have sources of spring water. For example, Banak, a family-based province in Fars, has been suffering from droughts since the government started building new apartments. “Ahmed Rashedi, an educated 74-year old man known as the ‘Banak elder’. Stated:”
“While we can use free water from rainfall, it has been left useless and instead it only makes floods and consequently. Water, which is our vital need for life, is scarce in this place and so valuable, but it is just wasted and neither can we drink it nor use it for agriculture.”9
Banak’s architecture originally used sustainable ways to adapt to their environment and provide thermal comfort. For example, flat rooftops, thick clay walls, and courtyards. Flat rooftops are efficient because they reduce areas hit by the sun and prevent the house from getting hot. They are also used as a gathering place for the family, usually at night. Using clay, a heat resistant material, also worked hand in hand with other qualities of the house to provide a suitable shelter during summer. Due to the abundance of clay, the cost is either low or free. The modern apartments built in these areas are not built from these materials, it is clear what problems that would cause.
In the past few years, the crippling economic sanctions on Iran have been lifted. Babak Payvasteh, and his wife Maliheh Salimi, are two of the architects who took advantage of this opportunity. They are in charge of BAM Architects Office in Iran. Most of their projects are located in villages just outside of the city. ‘Through Gardens House’ (2017) is one of their projects. The client is a retired man who wanted to escape the busy lifestyle in the heart of Isfahan, Iran. The house is located in a rural village outside of Isfahan, called Parvaneh. With a population of 202 residents in 2006, it is a quiet and simple village in the middle of the desert; as the architect describes it: “…there is no room for pretend”. The façade is simple, which is inspired by the traditional narrow alleys and simple courtyard house facades. It was more convenient to use local materials alongside using old building techniques and hiring local workers. The plaster is a mix of sand, cement, limestone, straw, and local stone powder. Unlike its contemporary interior, the exterior blends in with the local houses. "We wanted something more local for him," architect Babak Payvasteh told Dezeen. "We told him that we should keep on historical continuity in the villages, otherwise we will lose our great architectural heritage in villages."13
To make the most out of the structure, the walls around the courtyard are fitted with large windows, while the top parts are punctured with rectangular openings to bring in the fresh air. Tall ceiling heights in internal spaces, with openings at the top floor, help to increase wind flow. Ghaemmaghami, a professor at Iran University of Science and Technology, concludes in his research about Passive and Low Energy Cooling 71 for the Built Environment: “In respect to the growing need for environmentally responsive architecture from one side, and from another side, the shortcoming in the provision of electricity in many small cities and villages in Iran, the use of traditional wind towers are recommended. In large cities, in low and medium-rise buildings, with a new mechanism and some skills, the natural cooling systems can be renewed.”14 This is a traditional technique that was used for many years in Iran before air conditioning existed. There is access to the flat roof, where it can be used at night to lay down and enjoy the desert night sky and cool down.
“Although using a courtyard is a fundamental solution to Iranian architecture, recently many people neglect it.”15
Shushtar New Town constructed courtyards next to the apartments (Photographed by Rahmatollah Amirjani, 2012). 3
There is a similar pattern that is repeated in Iran’s historic provinces. Prior to the last two centuries, urban development had a gradual and reasonable growth, towards the limits of the cities. During the Pahlavi era, urban growth became more intensive, especially after the oil industry started booming in the 60s. The more preferable proposed structural urban plans were the ones that copied western architecture. This pattern is seen in most cities of Iran; However, few architects and urban planners refused to follow this trend in the 70s and tried to take a different path to redesign the historic dwellings. By focusing on the context, they combined the western and traditional architecture, resulting in The Shushtar-e-No project. This project was originally supposed to be a western residential and urban complex for its employees. The city of Shushtar is an ancient city, which follows the traditional Iranian urban design. The houses are relatively the same size, are built in close proximity, and built from the same materials, using the same technique. Mud-brick is the predominant construction material. The architects refused the original proposal, and instead, they came up with a new urban design, following traditional components of the historic city. They seem to have taken the best characteristics of western and traditional urban design, housing and dwelling and combined them to create a new city suitable for Shushtar’s context. The new city has car scaled streets, contrary to the traditional cities. The spaces between houses are brick barrel-vaults. Most of the materials used to construct the houses are local materials. Not only that but they were built by local workers. The main axis is the community and cultural center. The city has a common bath, space which provides farmers to sell their products, and spaces for different activities. The residents are encouraged to plant trees and vegetables in their courtyards, because of the cost, or lack of maintenance services of the city.
Site Plan of Shushtar-e-No. Reproduced with permission of Kamran Diba 2
Modernization started when the White Revolution swept through the capital during the 60s and 70s. Most of Tehran’s historic architecture was either demolished, renovated, or built on. The white revolution happened under the rule of Mohammad Reza Shah. It formulated between 1958 and 1963. Shah gave land to peasants from Landlords. Farmers came to town because their lands were small and did not earn enough money to sustain a living from farming only. In more industrial towns such as the Capital, oil business was booming. The younger generation migrated from rural areas to urban areas, such as Tehran to find jobs. The economy transformed the country rapidly. Countless people were in need of housing in the capital; meanwhile, small towns were abandoned by the youth. Tehran is culturally, economically, and historically different from other provinces in Iran. During the white revolution, Tehran expanded northward and southward, its northern neighborhoods luxurious and modern, and its southern borders inhabited by the poor. Most of the migrants settled in central and south neighborhoods. Many contemporary buildings have been constructed since the early 1990s expanding the city towards the north. As there are more contemporary buildings built in the north, the area has turned into an upper-class neighborhood. This created urban-regional inequality in urban areas. The concept of rich and poor neighborhoods was unfamiliar to smaller provinces. As the rich and the poor lived as neighbors.4 A. Pilehvar, and, N. Kamali, are members of the Department of City Planning, Bojnourd University, Iran. They write in their research paper on, ‘The government and urban structure unsustainability in Iran’: “Thanks to modernism, industrialism, inciting people towards urbanization and urbanism, investment in cities and designing and accomplishing urban development programs, structural-function changes, have been created in the urban network and urban hierarchy of Iran. The result of such an approach has been the deep social-economical gap, extensive rural to urban migrations, the unreality of urban growth and development, excessive expansion of cities and internal sustainability in the urban structure.”5 The connotation behind smaller towns started to become negative. People who still lived in dwellings were known as unambitious, uncivilized, and poor. During the 60s it became the younger generation’s mission to get out of small towns and peruse a better life; only to get themselves into a stressful unsustainable lifestyle in a more ‘modern’ city.
Two of the cities known to have kept their architectural identity are two central cities, Yazd, and Kashan. Millions of people make it through rough droughts because they have still to this day build with local materials with heat-resistance. “As a case in point, the house owned by Has Abdollah Houshair, aged 70, exemplifies a small self-sufficient settlement. It has a shop as its entrance, a well, a small garden to grow food, a stable, a bakery, several private rooms, and a central courtyard. Hence, its habitats, an old man and old woman with no children, can easily stuffy most basic needs and even sell some of their products.”10
The city was defined by the narrow alleys which unify the urban infrastructure. and the alleys were defined by the walls. The narrow alleyways provided security, closeness in the neighborhoods, human-scaled also good for the climate, and it supported a large scale of the population very efficiently. Shaded alleyways offer human-scale spaces. Wider streets separate people because they are not being used for what they are created for. The community of farmers does not use vehicles as much as they walk, therefore it is unsuitable to build infrastructure which the people do not need. The traditional dwellings built alongside each other it automatically created human-scaled alleyways, which worked perfectly for all the inhabitants of Banak and similar cities.
By demolishing the old houses and constructing new apartments, houses are scattered and detached, and get exposed to the sun, which overheats the interiors. The apartments are attached which can block air circulation. The dwellings offer enough space between them for the air to flow freely, and provide shadow for people to walk in the passages. The original city plan was created over the years, which was gradually reformed based on the inhabitants’ needs. Contrary to contemporary city planning, people’s social needs played a big role in designing a city. This brings us back to the two concepts: ‘physical development’, and ‘quality development’. Physical development is visible; however, it is not mainly built based on people’s social, and cultural needs.
Some counties such as Kangan, which had close proximity to large gas and petrochemical industries experienced rapid transformations. Kangan changed much faster than Khvansar, and Banak. It was turned into an industrial county; thus, the traditional courtyards were demolished in order to build modern apartments and streets. The county is situated in a coastal area. Due to the expansion of the oil industry the original economy activity, fishing, and farming, has begun to die.
The fishers now run their personal businesses alongside the office buildings and it does not have an appealing appearance. Following the recent economic transformations, many of the fishers switched to property investment following the high demand for housing in the county. A considerable number of people from different ethical and cultural communities from all around Iran have moved to Kangan looking for jobs and a better life, mostly because of the recent droughts and economic recession. The overgrowing population of the migrants in Kangan has impacted the host settlement. This has created slums that lack living standards and have increased social tension. Following these events, the youths of Kangan wish for a more developed city such as Tehran. Professor Jeremy Till, a British architect writes: “In order to develop an architecture that is particular to its condition, there are two imperatives: the environmental and the social that do this.” According to the UN Commission on Environment and Development: “Sustainable development is the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”11
Another source of problem Kangan’s people are dealing with is the change in lifestyle. The original techniques of providing thermal comfort have been disrupted because of the change in lifestyle. Everyone’s day used to begin at 6:00 AM when it was still cold from the night before. They would go to the sea to fish till 11:00 AM when it would start to get too hot. They would then go home and take a nap till the sun starts to go down. In the evening, the community would gather at the coastline. This way they avoid the unbearable heat of the day. After the fishing-based economy changed to office jobs, their lifestyle changed as well. Now they get out of the house at 8:00 AM to get to their jobs and leave work around 7:00 PM. This routine exposes them to the warmest times of the day. They use the problematic air-conditioning system to cool down at the offices. People did not have air conditioning in their homes in the 60s and they found ways to confront the hot climate. Inside the dwellings, the houses had no furniture. People would sit on the carpet, and lean on special backrests, very common in Iran. the lowest levels of the house are usually where the cool air goes because the heat always rises. This way they would stay cool just by a simple choice of where they sit. Roof-tops were another technique of cooling down. A resident of Kangan says:
Banak, Courtyard House 10
Kangan, Narrow passageways 10
Kangan, New Apartements11
“When we were young we mostly slept at night (except for summer) on the roof of our homes, which was made easy with the use of a kappa [a lightweight structure of textiles and timber]. In the old days, people slept all night on the roof since there was no cooling system. Some affluent groups built room called Balakhaneh or Mantra, but most other people made the simple kappa to use the night wind on the roof against the warm condition.”12
‘Through Gardens House’ by BAM Architects (2017)
Perhaps we should attempt to design modern courtyard houses that have the benefits of both the highly serviced apartment and the more sociable and environmentally friendly layout and construction of the traditional houses. paying attention to the local architecture characteristics in re-designing these historic cities would keep their local traditions and architecture identity, as well as improving their spatial-visual quality. More benefits include saving money on air-conditioning, preventing flooding, saving Iran’s architecture identity, bringing the community back together, and improving the appearance of the city. Even though it has not been done on a large scale, Iranian architects, such as Babak Payvasteh, and his wife Maliheh Salimi, have started to experiment after the lifting of crippling economic sanctions. I will have to agree with Pilehvar and N. Kamali. The oil industry, and the government’s decisions, on urban structural changes, have been negative. There is no doubt there has been a measurable capitalistic and modernistic approach to the development plans since the 60s; however, these three cities have been suffering because of the lack of quality development. The local people’s lifestyles have been impacted. The buildings are unsustainable. Most importantly the community is divided and the Persian architecture identity is forgotten. Unfortunately, the new apartments were built without paying much attention to the climate, culture, and economics of these three cities. As I concluded from the interview with my grandmother, courtyard housing lost popularity due to trend, and lack of services. Even though Golzari Nasser makes some good points about the issues in Kangan and Banak, he does not point out: despite the problems that came with modernization, people still prefer the new apartments to the traditional houses. To my surprise, my grandmother made me question courtyard housing. Perhaps it is not as appealing as it may sound. Nevertheless, it does have qualities that are essential for the social and physical health of a community, which the new apartments do not offer. After all, if everything fails, it is those with sustainable living that survive.
‘Through Gardens House’ by BAM Architects (2017)
Citations (MLA format)
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