Austrian-born architect Victor Gruen is perhaps best known for pioneering the design of the American mall typology. His visions for these spaces sought to incorporate various aspects of the city into a single enclosed or indoor space, with a particular focus on consumption and commercial activity. His sprawling designs functioned as the perfect complement to America’s burgeoning leisure-driven consumer culture as a booming economy and an increase in car travel reinforced the possibilities of this new postwar way of life. Perhaps lesser-known, however, is Gruen’s commission from the Iranian government to design an urban plan for the city of Tehran in the late 1960s.
At first glance, Tehran appears as a sprawling haphazardly assembled megacity at the foothills of the Alborz Mountains. In fact, Gruen’s masterplan for the city, which was designed in tandem with the Iranian architect Abdol-Aziz Mirza Farmanfarmaian, laid the framework for city life at scales ranging from highways and road systems, to palaces, apartment complexes, and even satellite towns. Gruen’s work in Tehran during the 1960s against the geopolitical backdrop of the White Revolution and Cold War and leading up to the Iranian Revolution in 1978, was reflective of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s desires to rapidly modernize and westernize the country in an effort to legitimize and consolidate his power.
Gruen’s urban plan for Tehran is heavily influenced by modernist design philosophies and communitarian ideals. As with his vision for the shopping mall as a new social locus for American communities, Gruen’s planned communities in Tehran lend the city meticulous hierarchies of functional order and structure.
Reminiscent of Ebenezer Howard’s turn-of-the-century Garden City movement, Gruen’s expansive master plan realizes the city at different scales. It pushes the street grid aside in favor of a system more organic in its appearance, with winding roads and highways that circumnavigate the city. Around a metro core, he planned for there to be ten cities, each consisting of ten towns around a city center. Each town, in turn, would have four communities around a town center, with each community containing five neighborhoods.
Gruen’s plans also took into account the varied geology and typology of the region, as well as ingrained socioeconomic disparities. Green spaces, public transportation infrastructure, and highways separated each of the ten “cities” that made up the metropolis. Even Tehran's historic north-south divide–with wealthier residents living at higher altitudes and poorer residents in lower-lying areas–was replicated and reinforced at the level of these smaller cities through subtle changes in building density, form, and appearance. Gruen also defined the growth boundaries of the city in order to ensure his plan continued to be realized over time.
Gruen’s autocratic inclusion of distinctly American and suburban built typologies, such as an expansive highway system and sprawling green spaces, ultimately created an unsustainable, artificial and at times hostile environment within the context of the country’s heritage and cultural values. In fact, Gruen’s plan was largely discarded in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution due to its ties to the fallen Shah. However, the new government did choose to utilize Gruen’s speculations about the city’s future density and growth as a means of selling undeveloped land, ultimately allowing private developers to continue the construction of the city on their own.
How has Gruen’s master plan fared to date? For the most part, modernist and Western-designed structures in the city are disappearing, erasing the country’s historic openness to the West in the dust of these razed buildings to make way for more Persian-style architecture. Some critics fear the country has too short of a cultural memory as mid-century modernist buildings and other historic structures indicative of the country’s aristocratic and radical past are destroyed in favor of newer construction.
But despite these critiques, it is important to acknowledge the contentious legacy of Western architects and urban planners imposing their design ideologies upon foreign nations. Tehran presents an intriguing case study, but these issues persist in urban agglomerations across the world. As an outsider, Gruen was uniquely poised to create a standalone vision for the city of Tehran. What he failed to fully take into account, however - and what often determines the success of a city - were the social and cultural histories and preferences of the communities he was supposed to serve. A city is not made on a drawing board. It is made on the ground, by the people.