Persian buildings vary from peasant huts to tea houses, and garden pavilions to some of the most majestic structures the world has ever seen. If you’ve never been to Iran or that region in Asia, join me in discovering the history and rich beauty of the buildings and infrastructure that make up Iran.
Traditional Persian architecture has maintained a continuity that, although temporarily distracted by internal political conflicts or foreign invasion, nonetheless has achieved an unmistakable style. In this architecture, “there are no trivial buildings; even garden pavilions have nobility and dignity, and the humblest caravanserais generally have charm. In expressiveness and communicativity, most Persian buildings are lucid, even eloquent. The combination of intensity and simplicity of form provides immediacy, while ornament and, often, subtle proportions reward sustained observation. Available building materials dictate major forms in traditional Iranian architecture. Heavy clays, readily available at various places throughout the plateau, have encouraged the development of the most primitive of all building techniques, molded mud, compressed as solidly as possible, and allowed to dry. This technique, used in Iran from ancient times, has never been completely abandoned. The abundance of heavy plastic earth, in conjunction with a tenacious lime mortar, also facilitated the development and use of brick. Iranian architecture makes use of abundant symbolic geometry, using pure forms such as circles and squares, and plans are based on often symmetrical layouts featuring rectangular courtyards and halls.
The History of Iran and Its Architecture
Today Persian architecture is known for its Persian arch doorways, huge domes, highly symmetrical buildings, and its use of bright colors. But Persian architecture was not always like this. The Persian architecture we know today has been in the making for thousands of years.
Ancient Iran, also known as Persia, is a historic region of southwestern Asia that is only roughly coterminous with modern Iran. The term Persia was used for centuries, chiefly in the West, to designate those regions where Persian language and culture predominated, but it more correctly refers to a region of southern Iran formerly known as Persis, alternatively as Pārs or Parsa, modern Fārs. Parsa was the name of an Indo-European nomadic people who migrated into the region about 1000 BC. The Medes unified Iran as a nation and empire in 625 BC. The Achaemenid Empire (550–330 BC), founded by Cyrus the Great, was the first true global superpower state and it ruled from the Balkans to North Africa and also Central Asia, spanning three continents, from their seat of power in Persis (Persepolis). It was the largest empire yet seen and the first world empire. The Iranian Empire proper begins in the Iron Age, following the influx of Iranian peoples.The Muslim conquest of Persia (633–654) ended the Sasanian Empire and is a turning point in Iranian history. Islamization of Iran took place during the eighth to tenth centuries, leading to the eventual decline of Zoroastrianism in Iran as well as many of its dependencies. However, the achievements of the previous Persian civilizations were not lost but were to a great extent absorbed by the new Islamic polity and civilization. Iran was reunified as an independent state in 1501 by the Safavid dynasty, which set Shia Islam as the empire’s official religion, marking one of the most important turning points in the history of Islam. Functioning again as a leading world power, this time amongst the neighbouring Ottoman Empire, its arch-rival for centuries, Iran had been a monarchy ruled by an emperor almost without interruption from 1501 until the 1979 Iranian Revolution, when Iran officially became an Islamic republic on April 1, 1979.
Iran’s rapidly modernising, capitalist economy was replaced by populist and Islamic economic and cultural policies. Much industry was nationalized, laws and schools Islamicized, and Western influences banned. The Islamic revolution also created great impact around the world. In the non-Muslim world it has changed the image of Islam, generating much interest in the politics and spirituality of Islam, along with “fear and distrust towards Islam” and particularly the Islamic Republic and its founder.
Iran’s ancient culture has a deep architectural tradition. The Elamite, Achaemenian, Hellenistic, and other pre-Islamic dynasties left striking stone testaments to their greatness, such as Choghā Zanbil and Persepolis—both of which were designated UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1979. Three monastic ensembles central to the Armenian Christian faith were collectively recognized as a World Heritage site in 2008; their architecture represents a confluence of Byzantine, Persian, and Armenian cultures. From the Islamic period the architectural achievements of the Seljuq, Il-Khanid, and Safavid dynasties are particularly noteworthy. During that time Iranian cities such as Neyshābūr, Eṣfahān, and Shīrāz came to be among the great cities of the Islamic world, and their many mosques, madrasahs, shrines, and palaces formed an architectural tradition that was distinctly Iranian within the larger Islamic milieu. The pre-Islamic styles draw on 3000 to 4000 years of architectural development from various civilizations of the Iranian plateau. The post-Islamic architecture of Iran in turn, draws ideas from its pre-Islamic predecessor, and has geometrical and repetitive forms, as well as surfaces that are richly decorated with glazed tiles, carved stucco, patterned brickwork, floral motifs, and calligraphy. The ruins of Persepolis, Ctesiphon, Sialk, Pasargadae, Firouzabad, and Arg-é Bam give us a distant glimpse of what contributions Persians made to the art of building. The imposing Sassanid castle built at Derbent, Dagestan (now a part of Russia) is one of the most extant and living examples of splendid Sassanid Iranian architecture. Since 2003, the Sassanid castle has been listed on Russia’s UNESCO World Heritage list. Many experts believe the period of Persian architecture from the 15th through 17th centuries CE to be the pinnacle of the post-Islamic era. Various structures such as mosques, mausoleums, bazaars, bridges and palaces have survived from this period.
Under the Pahlavi monarchy, two architectural trends developed—an imitation of Western styles, which had little relevance to the country’s climate and landscape, and an attempt to revive indigenous designs. The National Council for Iranian Architecture, founded in 1967, discouraged blind imitation of the West and promoted the use of more traditional Iranian styles that were modified to serve modern needs. Perhaps the most striking example of the Pahlavi architectural program is the Shāhyād (Persian: “Shah’s Monument”) tower—renamed the Āzādī (“Freedom”) tower after the 1979 revolution—which was completed in Tehrān in 1971 to commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Achaemenian dynasty.
Contemporary Iranian Architecture
Contemporary architecture in Iran begins with the advent of the first Pahlavi period in the early 1920s. Some designers, such as Andre Godard, created works such as the National Museum of Iran that were reminiscent of Iran’s historical architectural heritage. Others made an effort to merge the traditional elements with modern designs in their works. The Tehran University main campus is one such example. Others, such as Heydar Ghiai and Houshang Seyhoun, have tried to create completely original works, independent of prior influences. Dariush Borbor’s architecture successfully combined modern architecture with local vernacular. Borj-e Milad (or Milad Tower) is the tallest tower in Iran and is the fourth tallest tower in the world.
Habibah Madjdabadi is an Iranian architect, author, designer, and lecturer who highlights the significance of culture and geography through her design. She exploits materials for the poetical expression of simultaneously merging contemporary with traditional and local with global approaches. She usually benefits from the material’s natural attitude and interaction with the human body. Additionally, she focuses on the function of human labor in executive operations. The intention is to lead the imperfection of hand labor to a distinct artwork. Farshad Mehdizadeh, the founder of FMZD, focuses on spatially contextual architecture and the impact of geography on architecture in his design processes. Farshad is among the Iranian architects who have received various national and international awards. His awards for the multi-scalar projects include the Memar Award (2011), World Architecture Festival Award (2014), and Architizer Jury Award in 2016 and 2017. Also, his Abadan residential building took first place in Iran’s national Memar Awards and received high praise in the Middle East Awards.
15 of the Most Interesting Buildings in Iran
1. Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque, Shiraz
If you get up extra early for one thing in Iran, let it be the Nasir-ol-Molk (or “Pink”) Mosque in Shiraz. Experiencing the quiet room as the sun rises and washes through the coloured glass is a tranquil, humbling experience. Although the room quickly fills up with tourists snapping their cameras, zipping their sweaters and coughing in the dry air, having a few moments to yourself in the early hours of the morning are what makes the Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque worth visiting. It allows one to sense the personal, inner space it was meant to create. Nasir al-Mulk Mosque was constructed between 1876 and 1888, during the Qajar dynasty, which ruled Iran from 1785 to 1925. It has been dubbed the “Pink Mosque” due to the plethora of pink-colored tiles blanketing the ceiling. Orsi windows are windows made of a mixture of wood and colorful glass in the Safavid and the Qajar dynasties. Orsi differs from stained glass used in many churches and Ottoman mosques which serve as illuminated images rather than a source of light. Light is a major feature in many mosques considering it being a major symbol of God in Islam.
2. Persepolis, Shiraz
Persepolis, whose magnificent ruins rest at the foot of Kuh-e Rahmat (Mountain of Mercy) in south-western Iran, is among the world’s greatest archaeological sites. Renowned as the gem of Achaemenid (Persian) ensembles in the fields of architecture, urban planning, construction technology, and art, the royal city of Persepolis ranks among the archaeological sites which have no equivalent and which bear unique witness to a most ancient civilization. Situated 60 kilometers northeast of Shiraz, Persepolis (literally “the city of Persians” in Greek) was the ceremonial capital of Persia during the Achaemenid Empire around 550-330 BC. The archeological ruins cover a total of 1.6 square kilometers with remnants of enormous columns, two royal palaces and gardens, and what is believed to be the mausoleum of Cyrus the Great. One enters through the Gate of All Nations, where international explorers from hundreds of years ago have carved their names into the walls, now protected by glass barriers. Persepolis’ history is what makes it so powerful, despite the number of tourists that can now be found there.
The terrace of Persepolis, with its double flight of access stairs, its walls covered by sculpted friezes at various levels, contingent Assyrianesque propylaea, the gigantic winged bulls, and the remains of large halls, is a grandiose architectural creation.
3. Golestan Palace, Tehran
The Golestan Palace is a collection 17 structures in the form of gardens, Iranian craftwork and old royal buildings that were once contained within the “arg” or citadel walls of Tehran. Almost all the structures were built during the Qajar Dynasty, from 1797-1834. Unfortunately, a large number of the buildings were destroyed during the rule of Reza Shah from 1925-1945, due to his belief that the old architecture of the city should not hinder its modern growth.
Built around a garden featuring pools as well as planted areas, the Palace’s most characteristic features and rich ornaments date from the 19th century. It became a centre of Qajari arts and architecture of which it is an outstanding example and has remained a source of inspiration for Iranian artists and architects to this day. It represents a new style incorporating traditional Persian arts and crafts and elements of 18th century architecture and technology. The spectacular terrace, known as the Marble Throne, was built in 1806 by the order of Fath Ali Shah of the Qajar dynasty (r. 1797–1834). Adorned by paintings, marble-carvings, tile-work, stucco, mirrors, enamel, woodcarvings, and lattice windows, the throne embodies the finest of Iranian architecture. The Marble Throne is one of the oldest buildings of the historic arg. It is situated in the middle of the terrace, and is made of the famous yellow marble of Yazd Province.
4. Naqsh-e Rustam Necropolis, Shiraz
Located around 12 kilometers northwest of Persepolis are enormous monuments carved into the mountains, housing the final resting places of the Achaemenid kings, notably king Darius the Great and his son, Xerxes. Unfortunately the tombs were raided by Alexander the Great, however this does not affect the majestic appearance of their exteriors in any way. The sheer size of the the stone carvings are difficult to grasp, let alone the thought of people laboring under the hot sun to produce them.
This site is of great significance to the history of Iran and to Iranians, as it contains various archeological sites carved into the rock wall through time for more than a millennium from the Elamites and Achaemenids to Sassanians. It lies a few hundred meters from Naqsh-e Rajab, with a further four Sassanid rock reliefs, three celebrating kings and one a high priest.
5. Tower of Silence, Yazd
Zoroastrians believed that the dead body would “pollute” the earth if buried in it; in order to combat this problem, they built the Towers of Silence close to the sky, where special caretakers would carry up the dead. In these large and exposed circular spaces, the sun and birds left behind nothing but bones, that were later collected and finally disintegrated by lime and water. According to a tradition dating back over 3,000 years, bodies were arranged on the towers in three concentric circles. Men were placed in the outer circle, women in the middle, and children in the inner-most ring. After the purification process, the bones were placed in ossuaries near or inside of the towers. Ossuaries from these rituals have been discovered from the fourth and fifth centuries BC. Similar dakhmas exist just outside of Mumbai, India, as well, although the most prominent “Towers of Silence” are in Iran. The Towers haven’t been used since the 1960s, as the Iranian government has banned this practice. At the bottom of the Towers lie the ruins of a small village, almost entirely camouflaged by the desert.
6. Termeh Office Building by Farshad Mehdizadeh and Ahmad Bathaei
The Termeh building was designed by architects Farshad Mehdizadeh and Ahmad Bathaei to accommodate two separate occupants and two distinct functions: a retail space on the ground floor and an office on the level above. It is designed to connect with the city’s public realm and is influenced by Hamedan’s many public squares, which are linked by wide boulevards. Hamedan, one of Iranian historical cities, has an active urban space which is characterized by squares and an important north-south urban axis which connects them together. This axis cross the site from the western side.The brief was designing a two floor building with commercial functions: a retail in ground floor and a private office in the first floor. The second floor (roof) follows its neighbor’s height, in terms of the urban skyline, through a 2.5 meters height wall. So, this project encompasses three different characters in three levels with different communication with urban space. Since this project has different addressees for each function, the idea was connecting the functions separately and directly to the urban space. The separator between the functions (retail & office) recognized as most critical part of this project to implicate as architecture element to generate the form. That separator was the slab which characterized from one side, as office floor and from the other side, as retail ceiling. The retail ceiling slab is bent and becomes habitable as stairs to connect the office directly to the walkway in front.
7. The Barin Ski Resort
Many forget that the Alborz mountains make Iran a prime ski destination, and one that caters to a pretty high-profile clientele. Located just outside of Tehran is the Barin Ski Resort, whose form was inspired by igloos. Located an hour outside of Tehran, RYRA Studio designed this resort to blend into the mountainside when snow-covered, as it bridges the gap between nature and architecture. The architects focused on form and flexibility when designing the resort. Its organic shape nestles easily into the surrounding landscape. The building’s interior is modern and almost “space age,” with its curved walls, recessed lighting and minimal décor. The designers were inspired by igloos and used topographic layers to mimic ice blocks in the interior rooms. Sunlight streams through intelligently-placed windows and bathes the area in natural light.
Architectural firm Nextoffice designed this home, keeping in mind the themes of uncertainty and flexibility. Instead of envisioning the home as a static object, the Sharifi-ha abode is meant to change with its surroundings. Designers play with volume, open spaces and closures to create a home that functions best throughout the seasons. The Sharifi-ha house is seven stories tall and modular. A simple press of a button and the breakfast room, the guest room and the office rotate outside to let light in and create new patio space.
Iranian architects Nextoffice designed the home to adapt to homeowners’ needs. The house stays closed in the winter to maintain warmth, and in the summer it can open to create a breeze. These inventive features add to the home’s energy efficiency, while embracing the features of the traditional Iranian home, which often has separate living spaces for winter and summer. The basement of the home receives light through a glass-bottomed pool. The two underground floors benefit from tall ceilings and an open stairwell.
9. Tabiat Bridge by Leila Aragian
An assortment of different pathways encourage pedestrians to “wander and get lost” on this bridge in Tehran, designed by Iranian architect Leila Araghian. Araghian’s studio Diba Tensile Architecture completed the 270-metre-long Tabiat Bridge at the end of 2014, five years after winning a design competition.It is currently the largest pedestrian bridge in Iran, connecting Abo Atash Park on the west to Taleghani Park on the east, across a busy highway. The structure comprises three levels that follow a curved path, and which are connected by various ramps and stairs.”From the very beginning the concept was to have a spatial structure large enough to create an architectural space, while at the same time acting as the structure,” explained Araghian, who was just 26 years old when she designed the bridge.
Tabiat Bridge is located in a northern area of Tehran known as Abbas Abad, which was originally planned as a housing area for various branches of the military, but has become a destination for libraries and museums.The bridge is one of numerous new public infrastructure projects spearheaded by Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who is reported to have invested greatly in improving the city’s environment.This, coupled with the gradual lifting of economic sanctions, is paving the way for a generation of young architects to find work both in the city and abroad. For example, a pair of Iranian architects recently won a competition to design a support centre for lung cancer sufferers in Poland.
10. Villa for Younger Brother by Next Office
Iranian studio Next Office has completed a house in Tehran that splits in the middle to create two curvy wings. As one of the latest examples of Iran’s architecture boom, the three-storey Villa for Younger Brother is located in Lavasan, an area northeast of the city that has been referred to as the Beverly Hills of Tehran. The unusual shape of its plan, which could be described as Y-shaped gives residents an outdoor space that is screened from the view of neighbouring properties. By creating a split at the centre of the building, the architects were able to provide a generous terrace with a small pool at its centre.The biggest challenge of this project, according to the architects, was achieving this level of privacy while also creating a house that makes a strong architectural statement.
Their solution was to create a steeply pitched roof that follows the divide of the plan, referencing traditional Iranian construction while also giving the house a chapel-like quality. “The choice of this sectional configuration is very much informed by the long history of sloped roof construction in northern Iran,” explained Next Office, which is led by architect Alireza Taghaboni. The curved roof creates steeply angled ceilings in first-floor spaces throughout the house, as well as in some of the ground floor areas. It is complemented by rounded interior walls and curving staircases, which continue down to the basement. Materials are kept simple to emphasise the building’s sculptural form, with white-painted walls both inside and out. Wooden floors run through the interior, matching the surface of the terrace, and there are also some wooden panels cladding the walls.
11. Hitra, Tehran
Till recently, designers tick-boxed Tehran’s building regulations with an obligatory light well that would provide natural illumination to the central units. As a result, these central shafts were often hidden away from view. Reassessing these guidelines for tomorrow, the architects at Hooba Design Group relocated the interior void to the surface, reimaging it as a scooped up volume that offers better lighting and views to the central units. Eliminating a corner of the build environment, the designers utilised the existing slope of the site to fashion plazas that serve as dynamic and uplifting public spaces for the neighbourhood. The building’s porous façade, a varying composition of brick and metal frames, creates the illusion of a moving exterior with a continuous inner layer of glass windows allowing sunlight to seep into the depth of the building.
12. Jagdal Elementary School, Seyedbar-Jadgal
Commissioned by an NGO that builds schools in disadvantaged areas of Iran, architectural practice Daaz Office imagined a village-within-a-village concept for the children and youth of Seyedbar-Jadgal. In place of an impermeable boundary wall, the designers created a circular shell with punctures of various sizes and shapes – both low-lying and at eye-level – that connect the students to their surroundings with a playful approach.Inside, seven single-storey multi-functional structures are arranged around a courtyard that would bring the wider community together. Contemporising local construction methods, the architects finished the structure – column-less, thanks to its circular profile, and composed of reinforced concrete, galvanized iron profiles and insulated concrete formwork – with a plaster mix of cement and local soil, Simgel, that prevents rusting due to floods and excessive rain.
13. Azadi Tower
The Azadi Tower is a truly spectacular monument, located on Azadi Square in Tehran, Iran. It is one of the landmarks of Tehran, marking the west entrance to the city, and is part of the Azadi Cultural Complex, which also includes an underground museum. The tower is about 45 metres (148 ft) tall and is completely clad in cut marble. It was commissioned by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, to mark the 2,500-year celebration of the Persian Empire and completed in 1971. After winning a competition, architect Hossein Amanat was tasked to design the tower. His ideas were based upon classical and post-classical Iranian architecture, popular influences on art in the 1960s following the White Revolution. Iran’s increasing wealth sparked modernization programs and sent the art industry into a renaissance-like period.
During the 1960s, Iran became a major oil-exporting country, and using the newly-found wealth, the Shah launched programs to modernize and industrialize the country. This followed a cultural growth that architect Hossein Amanat describes as “a mini renaissance”. The Azadi Museum is located at the basement level. Inside are austere black walls of dignified proportions. A concrete mesh forms the ceiling. Heavy doors open onto a crypt with subdued lighting from showcases, each containing an object. The museum houses a number of gold and enamel pieces, painted pottery, marble and paintings. Approximately fifty pieces have been selected, each representing a particular period in Iran’s history.
14. Tabatabaei Historical House
The Tabatabai House is a historic house museum in Kashan, Iran. It was built around 1880, during the reign of the Qajar dynasty, for the affluent Tabātabāei family. It is one of the prominent historic houses of Kashan and Iran, together with the Āmeri House, the Borujerdi House, and others. The Tabātabāei House was designed by Ustad Ali Maryam, who later designed the nearby Borujerdi House, and it has been restored. It covers nearly 5,000 square meters and includes 40 rooms, four courtyards, four basements, three windcatchers, and gardens.
15. Toghrol Historical Tower
Toghrol Tower (also transliterated Toghrul, Tughrol, or Tughrul) is a 12th-century monument, located in the city of Rey, Iran. Tuğrul Tower is near Rashkan Castle. The 20-metre-tall (66 ft) brick tower is the tomb of Seljuk ruler Tughril, who died in Rey in 1063. Originally, like other monuments of its time, it was capped by a conical dome , which collapsed during an earthquake. The thickness of the walls varies from 1.75 to 2.75 meters. The inner and outer diameters are 11 and 16 meters, respectively. The exterior shape is that of a polygon with 24 angles in its design, which is thought to contribute to the structure’s stability against tremors. At the top of the tower, Kufic inscriptions were originally observable. The tower is protected by Iran’s Cultural Heritage Organization.
In some texts this place is called Burj Khalifa Yazid. According to some experts’ ideas, this tower is like a clock pointer and the time can be recognized by the sunshine on its congresses.It is said that one of the uses of this tower was to use it on foggy nights by lighting a fire on its high barrier to guide the travelers of the Silk Road coming from Khorasan to Rey, and to meet the chronological needs of the people during the day. According to Manouchehr Arian in the article “Another Look at the Towers”, calling the term “tower” to this building and similar buildings refers to the annual moving passageways of sunlight in Zodiacal. In addition to this feature, Toghrol Tower has another unique feature called the sundial that is hidden in the heart of its congresses. Naser al-Din Shah ordered some restorations to be made to the top part of the tower, which was collapsing in 1884.
Understanding Iran’s tumultuous and rich history, including religion, culture, economy, and natural resources as well as political rule, we can come to understand the landscape, and the beauty of the architecture.