This article was originally published on 26 October, 2015. To read the stories behind other celebrated architecture projects, visit our AD Classics section.
Commissioned to celebrate the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire, the Azadi Tower has been a site of celebration, unrest, and revolution. Despite its association with the deposed Shah, the tower has been embraced as a national symbol of Iran, playing host to both pro- and anti-government demonstrations, following the controversial 2009 Presidential elections.
In 1966, the Shah, eager to display the wealth generated from oil exploration, and to distance himself from past political turmoil, held a competition to design a monument to commemorate his rule, and the 2500th anniversary of the founding of the Achaemenid Empire under Cyrus the Great. Architect Hossein Amanat had just graduated from the University of Tehran when he learned about the competition, and he abandoned plans to continue his studies in the United States, instead forming a small architecture studio in his bedroom to work on a design for the monument. With the help of a few friends who were still in school, Amanat’s design–inspired by his fascination with Persian history–won the competition.
Amanat describes the design as the culmination of everything he had learned in architecture school, and in his travels around Iran, citing many historical precedents as influences. The main archway of the tower combines the parabolic arch of the pre-Islamic ruins at Ctesiphon with the pointed arches of the Islamic period, encapsulating millennia of Persian history. To reconcile the two arch shapes, Amanat took inspiration from the beautifully detailed squinches found in historic Persian architecture. Even the windows at the top of the tower are influenced by similar features in historic tower structures.
To help realize the complex geometry of Amanat’s vision, Arup was hired as the structural engineer. To address the challenges of the both the form and the seismically active location, the tower was constructed of reinforced, poured-in-place concrete, clad in glistening white marble. Because of the complexity of the arches and curves of the tower structure, the shape of nearly every piece of the stone cladding was unique.
The tower was completed in 1971, and originally known as the Shahyad (literally “King’s Memorial”) Tower. It is the focal point of the largest plaza in Tehran, and one of the largest plazas in the world, at over 120,000 square meters. The complex also includes an underground museum housing displays and artifacts of Persian history.
Only a few years after its completion, the tower became the focal point for demonstrations against the Shah’s regime. Following the 1979 revolution, some expected the tower to be destroyed. As structural engineer Sir Michael Duncan described, “Because it was the Shah’s icon, his motif, I rather expected it to be ritually destroyed in front of the cameras. But in fact, it turned out like all revolutions, they are national, and the people’s will is a factor. The people loved it. The leaders were not going to spit in the eye of the people, so they’ve rebranded it.” Today the tower is known as the Azadi (“Freedom”) Tower, and it continues to be a rallying point for national celebrations, and protests, including the massive demonstrations of the so-called Green Revolution in the aftermath of the 2009 Presidential elections.
Amanat was not as lucky. As a member of the Baha’i faith, and of Jewish descent, he faced persecution in the newly formed Islamic Republic. Allegations against him included accusations that the use of nine windows on each of the main facades of the tower was a Baha’i symbol. Amanat was forced to flee Iran, settling in Canada, where he continues to practice architecture.
Unfortunately, a 2013 report from Reuters indicated that the tower has recently been suffering from neglect, including cracked ceilings, water damage, and peeling walls. Recent repairs had damaged the drainage system, exacerbating water damage in the structure. Officials indicated that repairs were being planned, but the story found that previous repairs had been carried out with low quality materials, raising doubts about the effectiveness of any future efforts.
In Amanat’s office in Vancouver, an enlarged photograph of the tower during the 2009 protests, surrounded by thousands of demonstrators, hangs on the wall. In a 2011 interview for BBC Persian, he described his reaction to that scene: “That day, as these people gathered in front of this building, someone asked me, ‘how do you feel?’ It was as if a father was embracing them. A father’s warm embrace. A father who had been there for two or three thousand years. That long. This is because of Iran; it has nothing to do with me.”
Image of Azadi Tower via shutterstock.com
Image of arch detail via shutterstock.com