Iran landscape architecture, urban design and politics

by Tom Turner @ 3:35 am October 2, 2013 -- Filed under: Asian gardens and landscapes,context-sensitive design,Landscape Architecture   
Modern landscape architecture, Tehran, Iran

Modern landscape architecture, Tehran, Iran

I share the general optimism about Iran’s new President, Hassan Rouhani, and Iran’s future. Many of the country’s problems were caused by western interventions. Others are indigenous. My own experience of Iranians is that they are kind, courteous and peaceful. This has made it difficult for me to understand their demonisation in the west. The new President has both liberal and authoritarian credentials. He gained a PhD in ‘no mean city’: Glasgow. He wear’s a cleric’s clothes and buys from Armani (I do not know how this is possible). If you are also wondering what relevance this has for this blog then I recommend Louise Wickham’s interesting book on Gardens in History: A Political Perspective. Garden design, like urban design, has always been influenced by politics. You can read something of Iran’s last half-century in the above photograph. The design is inoffensive: a little Iranian, a little European, a little modern and not much of anything. So my modest suggestion, assuming President Rouhani reads this blog, is to show your people what you can do for them by encouraging them to draw on the best of Iran’s traditions and the best of contemporary landscape, garden and urban design wheresoever in the world then can be found.
Photo (courtesy jturn) of Park-e Laleh, Jamshīdīyeh, Tehran, Tehran, Iran.


  1. Tom,

    Firstly thank you for your kind words about my book! I agree entirely with your sentiments. The Muslims took not only their religion but also their love of (Persian inspired) gardens when they conquered new lands. Whilst you can debate the benefit of the former, the latter should surely be celebrated.


    Comment by Louise Wickham — October 3, 2013 @ 8:56 am

  2. Iran is known for its historic desert architecture (minimizing desert expansion and the effects of storms and maximising daytime shading). Does it have a similar garden heritage with a desert consciousness?

    Comment by Christine — October 4, 2013 @ 3:11 am

  3. Nice to hear from you! One of my worries about the gardens which have been made in the years I have been professionally concerned with them is that they have been too disengaged from the world of ideas. But ‘abstracted’ would be a better verb for this than ‘disengaged’. We could call it the Alan Titchmarsh syndrome. He has an excellent TV manner and a good knowledge of horticulture. He is not too bad on colours and materials. But there seems to be nothing of the artist, the poet, the philosopher or the politician in him.
    I am as much against invasions as anyone but one has to admit that the invasions of Britain by the Romans and Normans did great good for our gardens! There is however a way of doing this without armies: Indian ideas (Hindus and Buddhist) travelled to East Asia without use of the scimitar or the sword.
    Now a question: if a contemporary garden designer were to incorporate political ideas in a design, what would the result look like?

    Comment by Tom Turner — October 4, 2013 @ 3:24 am

  4. YES. Islamic gardens have the hybrid vigour of their parents and their parents were Roman gardens and Persian gardens. Unfortunately, there are few examples of pre-Islamic Persian gardens. The great surviror is Pasargadae. One could argue that the suitability-to-deserts of Islamic gardens derives from Persian gardens – but one also has to remember that the charbagh form probably derives from the lost gardens of Mesopotamia. My hope is that this question may be settled one day by a careful archaeological investigation of the layout of garden areas now buried in mud. This may need new equipment eg a high-resolution magnetometer. They need to find a site which, like Pompeii, was buried during one catastrophic event.

    Comment by Tom Turner — October 4, 2013 @ 4:09 am

  5. That is a very interesting question – no doubt one for your students in the future! Earlier this year I gave a lecture to the Landscape Architecture department at Sheffield on the subject of politics and gardens and naturally the subject of the Olympic park came up, as members of the department had been involved in its design. We discussed whether current political issues such as the environment and sustainability had influenced the design. The park’s green space may also have made a political statement (like the opening ceremony) about Britain’s place in the world – celebrating its past, through leading edge horticulture but also looking to the future with new design ideas. In that way, it was following in the tradition of the 19th century public parks in Britain.

    Comment by Louise Wickham — October 4, 2013 @ 1:28 pm

  6. I agree about sustainability: it is important, it is a political issue and it is an influence on design. But it seems less red-blooded than ‘real’ political issues.
    I once argued the case for using political themes in the management and design of public parks (you have to scroll past the links to find the text) and politics is definitely an influence on urban design. If the US was more socialist than it is then its cities would not be as they are. Havana has also been much influenced by communist ideas.

    Comment by Tom Turner — October 4, 2013 @ 4:33 pm

  7. [...] Turner’s latest post on his popular Garden Visit website describes his optimism in Iran’s future. Read more about it. Share [...]

    Pingback by Iran and landscape architecture? Read Tom Turner’s latest post… | the landscape — October 8, 2013 @ 6:11 am

  8. Referencing the West’s relationship with Iran seems so out of place in a post that celebrates that country’s gardens. When did landscape specialists also become political pundits?

    Comment by Allan Becker — October 8, 2013 @ 1:07 pm

  9. About 5000 years ago. Please see Louise Wickham’s book. Great garden and landscape designers have often embodied political ideas in their work and, more to the point, have expressed political intentions in designs.

    Comment by Tom Turner — October 8, 2013 @ 1:13 pm

  10. As an Iranian born and brought up in Tehran, I appreciate your interest and insightful research on garden and landscape history in general and Persian and Islamic gardens in particular. I saw the table of contents of Louise Wickham’s interesting book and I guess there could be even more interesting chapters about ancient Persian gardens, especially those of the Achaemenid Empire and more recent examples of the Safavid Empire.

    I used to see Laaleh (Tulip) Park several times a week as it is located near the University of Tehran, located in the very central district of Tehran. As the plaque in the park says, interestingly its design is a collaboration between French and Iranian landscape designers!

    Please note that the park is NOT located in Jamshīdīyeh. Just in the footsteps of mountains that surround the city, Jamshīdīyeh is miles away in the very northern parts of Tehran. Of course you can find another park there with a very naturalistic landscape design.

    I will be more than happy to continue this conversation about contemporary landscape architecture and urban design trends in Iran.

    Mahdi Khansefid (PhD Candidate in Landscape Architecture, Melbourne School of Design, The University of Melbourne)

    Comment by Mahdi Khansefid — November 18, 2013 @ 1:32 pm

  11. Thank you for your comment and for the correction.
    I see context-sensitive landscape design as a worldwide problem and as a particular problem AND OPPORTUNITY for the landscape profession. It is a problem because of globalisation and it is an opportunity because context-sensitive design is both more necessary and, I think, easier for landscape architects than for building architects. If you are going to build in glass, concrete and steel, and your building is going to be climate controlled, then the form is likely to result from these ‘ingredients’. But landscape architects can and should respond to local plants, local climates, local materials and local traditions in the use of outdoor space. This needs to be done thoughtfully and imaginatively. A rectilinear canal is not, to my mind, a charbagh unless it has a role in an irrigation system. I would be interested to hear of any good examples of good context-sensitive design in Iran. I have not been there since 2005 and I did not find any examples then. I hope the blog comment does not seem unfriendly to Iran. My experience was that the country was very peaceful and the people very friendly. The country’s reputation in the west was and is mysterious. My opinion of its government is probably close to that of most people in Tehran, if not most people in the country!

    Comment by Tom Turner — November 18, 2013 @ 2:40 pm

  12. I feel a personal attachment to that place, as one of these parks is near where I lived and the other is very close to where I studied Environmental Design! To have a better feeling of the sense of place there (both social and natural), please see the following.

    As you may notice in this short video (even the soundtrack), there are many signs of globalisation and rapid changes in everything including the design of landscapes and a broader sense the city itself.

    As far as I know, recently there have been some attempts by the Municipality of Tehran to reproduce the geometry and sense of Persian gardens in the rare remnant patches of ‘private gardens’ in the densely built up areas of Tehran and convert them into ‘public parks’! I have not been to any of these these places yet and cannot comment on the details and to what extent they have been successful in meeting the climatic and social needs of the contemporary lives of the people who use them but it’s a new experience in today’s landscape architecture practice of Iran.

    Comment by Mahdi Khansefid — November 18, 2013 @ 10:53 pm

  13. The video makes me want to buy a ticket and climb the mountain (in the spring, that is). As a type of space the mountain trail is, I guess, a a global idea and, I have to say, could have been better designed (eg like the walks around the Acropolis and Pynx and Philopappos by Pikionis ). I would also love to visit Jamshidieh Park but would want to take an angle grinder in order to remove the fencing! Could I swim in the pool?

    Comment by Tom Turner — November 19, 2013 @ 6:06 am

  14. This photo shows the social and cultural realities in Iran. We are in transition from a traditional to a modern society since about 100 years ago. But traditions have strong roots in Iran. The roots that can be traced in our language, religion and lifestyle. Our Society has not been able, or perhaps willing to cut these roots.
    However, globalization trend has affected us like all other developing countries. In such circumstances, all that remain from Iranian’s traditional culture is a fantasy, a mixture of traditions and modernity! Exactly same as you said about our president, Mr Rouhani. Iranians have a nostalgia of their history although they like to join to the global culture. That’s why you sometimes encounter the contrasting scenes in Iran which no one can explain them well.

    Comment by Mohammad Motallebi — December 1, 2013 @ 4:45 pm

  15. Thank you for an interesting comment. As you say, every society has to wrestle with the pull of the past and the pull of the future and, on the whole, I think they pay not enough attention to the past. BUT we need to be careful to keep what is valuable in the past and to adopt only what is good about the future. To take an example from outside landscape architecture, I think girls should be allowed to ride bicycles in all Middle Eastern countries. But to take an example from inside landscape architecture, I think there are much more important things in Iran’s garden tradition than its geometry and I do not think the idea of making large lawns is at all well suited to the Middle East.

    Comment by Tom Turner — December 1, 2013 @ 4:56 pm

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