Tehran’s Azadi Tower, built in 1971 under the Shah, has established itself as one of the city’s most signficant landmarks
Forty five years ago in Tehran, a 50m-high white marble monument, still considered the most significant icon of Iran and its troubled past, opened to the public. It ‘became the perfect metaphor for the many cultural paradoxes that were rapidly changing in Tehran,’ wrote Abbas Milani in his 2011 biography of the Shah. It was ‘a gateway to the future and a celebration of the past’.
The monument was designed by the Iranian-born architect Hossein Amanat, to celebrate more than 2,500 years of Persian rule, and was originally named the Shahyad. It provided an underground museum housing various relics of Iranian history, including the Cyrus cylinder (the 6th-century human rights bill) on loan from the British museum. Eight years later came the revolution; the Shah was deposed and the monument was rebranded the Azadi Tower, meaning freedom.
You need not have visited Tehran to recognise the sweeping arches and wings of the tower; they have been the photographic backdrop to every defining protest, rally and revolution – most recently the mass demonstrations following the 2009 elections. Hundreds of thousands gathered in the 50,000m² plaza surrounding the Azadi Tower, protesting the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and demanding that their votes be recounted.
Amanat fled Iran not long after the Shah, re-establishing his practice in Vancouver
Amanat was long gone by then. A member of the persecuted Baha’i faith, he fled Iran not long after the Shah, moving to Canada and re-establishing his practice in Vancouver. After 50 years in business, he is still building around the world. His portfolio includes the World Administrative Centre of the Baha’i Faith in Haifa, Israel, and – interestingly – the Iranian embassy in Beijing.
Though he has never returned to his birth country, in a recent BBC interview he said he still sees the tower ‘like the embrace of the father, embracing the people’. Amanat believes the architecture of Iran to be unique and likens it to a school – ‘the more you see of it, the more you learn. I regret that I can’t see more,’ he said. He added that he took solace in his ability to draw. ‘I sometimes draw as if I am there. Just to compensate for not being there,’ he said. ‘In my imagination I travel.’
In 1968, just graduated from the University of Tehran’s architecture school and in his early twenties, Amanat noticed a small paragraph in the corner of a newspaper advertising a competition. It was to design a monument to celebrate the lengthy Persian reign. Understandably, he didn’t rate his chances, and it was his father who persuaded him he’d lose nothing in trying.
The building refers to Iranian architecture; it couldn’t be anywhere else
So instead of setting sail for America, as was his original plan, Amanat stayed at home and worked on his design. The monument, he thought, should reflect contemporary Iran, which was in the midst of a ‘mini-renaissance’.
‘Lots of artists, musicians and poets started to appear,’ he said, all trying out new things ‘with an eye on the traditional’.
The monument starts with a wide base and ‘moves up towards the sky,’ said Amanat, reflecting the feeling he had that ‘Iran should be moving towards a higher level’. It features two prominent arches: the main vault in the centre reminiscent of ancient Iranian architecture; and what Amanat calls ‘the broken arch above’ presenting the Islamic period which came later. A network of ribs connects the two. The importance of this building, Amanat has asserted in every interview since, ‘is that it refers to Iranian architecture; that it couldn’t be anywhere else.’
The tower took three years to build, and Amanat recalls the opening ceremony as a very hot afternoon with a ‘piercing sun’ beating down on various heads of state. Perhaps still in disbelief that he had actually won the competition and designed the monument, he kept out of the way in a discreet corner somewhere. It was the Shah himself, he said, who singled him out, verified that he was in fact the architect and announced: ‘This is the man who designed the monument.’
Despite its cultural significance, the building has not been well maintained. Stones are cracked, internally there is extensive water damage, and walls are peeling. A BBC journalist once asked Amanat if there was ever the threat of it being torn down. ‘Some people had in mind to tear it down in the revolution,’ he said, ‘but I didn’t leave worrying about the building, there were more important issues that I couldn’t control.’