Building, a Relationship: Israeli Architects Once Thrived in Iran

A new study by the Technion uncovers the strong ties beween Israeli architects and Iran under the shah.

Noam Dvir
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Noam Dvir

The Iranian empress Farah Diba, wife of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, stands in her fine attire, wearing a wide-brimmed hat to protect her from the strong sun. Standing alongside her is Israeli-born architect Moshe Safdie, seemingly embalmed in suit and tie, describing to Farah and her entourage the new project he is planning for them. It is 1978, and the site is an oasis in the Senegalese desert, about 100 kilometers north of the capital city, Dakar.

Safdie, who was already an internationally renowned planner and architect in the 1970s, had been commissioned to plan a new city in Senegal that was to be funded by the shah of Iran's regime. The political and commercial strategy behind the creation of the new city was simple: The Senegalese would sell phosphates to the Iranians, who would in return sell oil to the Senegalese. Since at the time Senegal did not have any refineries, the Iranians wished to build a new port at which the oil would be unloaded, surrounding it with a city for some 100,000 residents. The city was to be named for the empress: Keur Farah Pahlavi.

Safdie had met the empress about a year earlier, at an international architectural conference held in Persepolis. As a graduate of L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Farah Diba Pahlavi harbored a special interest in architecture. The warm meeting between the two spawned two planning projects, one that featured a Habitat-type building in Tehran (Safdie gained international fame for Habitat '67, his model community and housing complex in Montreal ) and the planning of the new city in Senegal.

"There was an atmosphere brimming with confidence in Iran during those years, as if the shah was restoring the grandeur of the ancient Persian Empire," Safdie recalls in a conversation held in his office in Somerville, Massachusetts. "There was a euphoria that this was a modern state about to take control of its future. Many of the architects who came to the conference spoke about big projects, about huge buildings and new cities. We chose the site, carried out a topographical study and planned everything. We'd already begun to build the roads and we'd built a monument for the cornerstone-laying ceremony. And then Khomeini came to power [in February 1979], and everything collapsed."

Safdie's connection with the empress continued even after the collapse of the shah's regime and Farah Diba's exile. He invited her to the opening of the National Gallery of Canada that he had designed in Ottawa, but the meticulous security arrangements needed to assure her safety prevented her from attending.

Safdie is just one of a lengthy roster of Israeli architects and engineers who worked in Iran in the 1960s and '70s - sometimes on commercial projects, sometimes on major government projects that were personally supervised by the shah. A doctoral study now being conducted by architect Neta Feniger, of the Department of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, reveals for the first time the immense scope of Israel's architectural activity in Iran.

The Israelis were not the only architects working in Iran and by no means the most prominent, but their contribution was spread over hundreds of projects - from the planning of factories and army bases to the development of infrastructures; and to the construction of prestigious buildings in central Tehran that served as residences of the political and military elite.

Feniger's study, which is being conducted under the supervision of Prof. Rachel Kallus, began as a general survey of the widespread activity of Israeli architects around the world during the initial decades after the establishment of the Jewish state. Feniger says her decision to focus on Iran stemmed both from the scope and quality of Israeli activity there, and from her interest in the charged relationship between the two states today.

The sources of the materials she has collected over the past two years are architects and engineers who worked in Iran; correspondence between the Israeli embassy in Tehran and the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem; and the State Archive. The study is entitled "New Middle East: Israeli Architects in Iran."

"When you talk about architectural globalization, you are usually referring to Western architects who contribute from their experience and know-how to developing countries. But to tell the truth, the story is much more complex," says Feniger. "For example, in Africa there were also architects from Japan and China and Eastern Europe. It isn't only that the West exports know-how to the East, but also that the East influences the West in various ways. When you talk about the activity of Israelis in Iran, the question revolves around who has the power and who is influencing whom."

Close relations

During the shah's reign, warm and close relations developed between Iran and Israel, even if they were not entirely official. The embassies established in the two countries were presented as being economic representations, and their delegates did not take part in the usual activities of the diplomatic corps. In the frequent reports on Iran that appeared in the Israeli press, Iran was generally referred to as "a foreign entity."

Nevertheless, most prime ministers of Israel from the early '60s onward visited Iran, as did foreign ministers and leaders of the defense establishment. At the same time, and despite the Arab boycott, senior Iranian ministers and generals visited Israel; Iran continued to sell oil to Israel; and numerous Israeli companies opened offices in Tehran to look after their interests and carry on widespread economic activity. El Al operated a daily flight to the Iranian capital, and a community of approximately 500 Israeli families sprung up there. With the embassy's cooperation, a full-fledged Israeli school was opened, and it operated under the supervision of Israel's Education Ministry.

"The Israelis who went there discovered a standard of living they had never known. They lived within an Israeli enclave in Tehran under extremely good, comfortable conditions," says Prof. Haggai Ram, a Ben-Gurion University historian who has studied relations between the two states. "They held celebrations with their Iranian colleagues and were an inseparable part of the Westernized nightlife of the city - including opera, theater and concerts. They enjoyed high salaries and handsome profit-sharing arrangements from the transactions they sealed with the shah's regime."

As opposed to the Israeli activity in developing states in Africa and Asia, Iran had a standard of living equivalent to or higher than that of Israel - especially among those close to the regime.

"It was quite the experience. We left the kibbutz when we went to university and had lived in austerity. And suddenly, when we went to Iran, we were rich," recalls architect Eylon Meromi, who lived in Tehran for three years. "The salaries were about $4,000 a month, which was several times what we were earning in Israel. We lived in big houses and had housekeepers and cooks and cleaners. There was a very intensive social scene in the community, year-round. Our circle of friends from Tehran still gets together."

In the 1950s, then Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion attempted to forge an "alliance of the peripheries" between the non-Arab states in the Middle East. Along with Foreign Minister Golda Meir, he promoted a diplomatic policy that sought to overcome Israel's geographic and economic isolation, and secure new strategic partners. So it was that engineers, infrastructure consultants, agricultural experts, army and security officials, and also Israeli architects, began to work in Iran, Cyprus, Burma, Thailand and the countries of sub-Saharan Africa.

"The shah had a sort of admiration - which bordered on the romantic - for the State of Israel's capabilities, as a country that embodied the image of the new Jew," adds Prof. Ram. "The shah had high regard for the Zionist enterprise in all things related to aspects of nation- and state-building. So he decided to promote a strategic collaboration with Israel. The two states tried to establish non-Arab enclaves, with their face toward the West, and which were linked at the umbilical cord to institutions of global capitalism. Both Israel and Iran conceived of themselves as unique projects in the Middle East, as 'villas in the jungle.'"

The alliance between the states had global political significance in the Cold War era. Both were stridently opposed to the pan-Arab nationalism policy that was spearheaded by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, as well as to Soviet influence in the Middle East. The shah was also of the opinion that good relations with the Israelis would contribute toward a positive attitude toward his country by the Jewish lobby in the United States.

Feniger's study focuses on three projects undertaken by Israeli architects in Iran: in the Qazvin district, northwest of Tehran; in the cities of Bandar Abbas and Bandar Bushehr (these were projects for the Iranian navy ); and the prestigious Eskan Towers in central Tehran. Each embodies a different mode of Israeli-Iranian cooperation, and a different scale. Jointly and severally, they reflect the variety and extent of Israeli activity in Iran.

One of the main questions arising from this study is, what sort of architecture did the Israelis create in Iran? Is it Israeli, Iranian or perhaps no more than modern and international?

Post-earthquake rebuilding

The Qazvin district project constituted the first chapter in local architects' involvement in Iran. In September 1962, the region was hit by an earthquake that measured 7.1 on the Richter scale and caused the deaths of over 12,000 people. In addition, buildings and infrastructures were destroyed on a colossal scale, and tens of thousands of people were left without a roof over their heads.

Days after the earthquake, Israel dispatched a team of experts to the region in an attempt to take part in the rebuilding efforts, if not to take charge of them. The Iranians were persuaded to involve Israel in the rebuilding, thanks to its expertise in agriculture and settlement. They put Israel in charge of three projects in the region: planning of water systems (executed by the then government-owned hydro engineering company Tahal ); modernization of agriculture; and a rebuilding endeavor that included construction of a model village of homes built from precast concrete units. Solel Boneh carried out the projects.

The plans for Qazvin were based upon the planning of Israel's Lachish region in the 1950s, except that Qazvin itself was nearly half the size of the State of Israel. Sketches of the homes in the new Iranian villages resemble the modest moshav communities that were being built at the same time in Israel - a small living room, two bedrooms, and nothing more.

"One of the Israeli architects was asked to plan a hammam [Turkish bath] in one of the villages; he didn't exactly know how to plan it, so he relied on a plan he'd once done for a shower hut on a kibbutz," Feniger relates.

As opposed to subsequent projects developed by Israeli companies in Iran, in the Qazvin region there were also Israeli volunteers with a sense of national mission, who were also engaged - aside from their professional work - in communal activities such as those undertaken by Israeli youth movements. An item that appeared in the daily Davar in November 1967 extensively described this "jewel in the crown" of Israeli activity in Asia, as depicted by volunteers in the region.

"I work in the orchard. Under my supervision are about 10 villagers ... Now they want to transfer me to another village in order to manage an experimental plot of grapevines. It's a bit of a shame, because I have started social activity in the village and it's going extremely well," writes Amos, one of the volunteers, in a letter to his family in Israel. "I conduct activities and games three times a week for them. Right now, we - that is, the children and me - are building a soccer and volleyball court. Similarly, I sing with them and have opened a painting class for them ... There have been a few successes: some of the girls are coming to the class, which is something that is not so accepted here."

The Qazvin project aided Israeli companies in gaining a foothold in Iran and forging links with local contractors and authorities. Toward the end of the '60s, Israeli activity in Iran included companies such as Rassco, Engineering Services Ltd. and the Solel Boneh subsidiary AMI, plus a series of other companies and private firms.

The State of Israel did not take an active part in the projects undertaken by the commercial firms, but it did "encourage" Israelis, to say the least, to take their work with the Iranians seriously. As an example, the book "The Israeli Project," published by Tel Aviv Museum, features an exchange of correspondence in 1962 between the Iranian national oil company and the economic department of Israel's Foreign Ministry, regarding the proposal for a residential neighborhood to be planned by architect Arieh Sharon (one of the foremost Israeli architects of the time ). The Iranians wanted to know how much it would cost to engage Sharon and how much time he would need to complete the project.

A subsequent letter to Sharon from the ministry stated: "Dr. Doriel [the department head] emphasizes that it is desired that your proposal be attractive, as execution of the work by you would bear significance both in terms of your personal achievement and reputation, as well as the good name of Israel."

Along with progress in the Qazvin project, Israelis began to take part in the planning and execution of commercial and public projects. Solel Boneh built the Hilton Hotel in Tehran. At the same time, AMI planned the Tehran Marriott, and the architect Zalman Enav - who at the time was a key figure in the development of modern architecture in Ethiopia - designed a new suburb in northern Tehran; Rassco planned a communications tower in the city, and through the military links between the two countries, Israelis also helped to create series of factories for the local military industry; an engineering services company joined with an Iranian contractor to build the "atom city" near Isfahan, which was designed to house 100,000 people and provide all of the necessary services for workers at the nuclear reactor there; and in the 1970s, the engineer Shmaya Ben Avraham was commissioned to design the complex construction of the Shah's summer palace along the shores of the Caspian Sea, which was never completed.

Pure Israeli input

The largest Israeli project in Iran was the establishment of two cities for the navy during the 1970s - a project for which all of the planning and production was purely Israeli.

The Iranians had decided to bolster their naval operations, and to that end established two large bases: one at Bandar Abbas, close to the Straits of Hormuz; the other at Bandar Bushehr, where a civilian nuclear reactor now operates under Russian supervision.

Construction of the bases moved ahead, but then the navy commanders realized that they had to build residential neighborhoods alongside them to house families of the sailors and logistics personnel. An Iranian contractor who had close links to the shah's regime proposed to take on the project, and contacted Rassco with a proposal that it collaborate with him. An Iranian delegation arrived in Israel, met with several architects and eventually settled on Dan Eytan who, several years beforehand, had planned the nuclear research facility in Dimona (together with Yitzhak Yashar ).

Eytan reminisced recently about his first visit to Iran. He recalls that working in the "foreign state" was an exciting and fascinating experience for him. He arrived in Tehran at night on an El Al flight, and the following day flew off to see the sites designated for the new cities. He met with the head of the personnel division of the Iranian army.

"I interrogated him on things you usually don't ask about - how many destroyers they had, how many submarines, how many missile boats," Eytan recalls. "They were talking about 800 housing units in Bandar Abbas and another 400 units in Bushehr, and it seemed to me to be too little. When I returned to Israel, I met with the commander of the Israeli navy, Avraham Botzer, and tried to get an idea from him of the ratio between military personnel and logistics personnel. I did my calculations and factored in all the quantities, and reached numbers of such magnitude that it was suddenly clear to me that we would also need kindergartens and schools and medical services, and all sorts of things around them."

Eytan returned to Iran for another meeting, in which he presented a program that was 10 times the size of what the navy had intended to build. It took a few months for the shah's approval of the revised scheme to be received, and Eytan then began to plan the two cities according to a highly accelerated timetable. His firm expanded substantially at the time, reaching nearly 100 employees - 70 of whom were working exclusively on the Iranian project.

With the aim of overcoming the harsh climactic conditions that exist at Bandar Abbas, the city was planned with an environmental-climactic emphasis. The private residential homes, for the high-ranking officers, were built along narrow alleys that were faced in a light sheathing. The four-story apartment buildings were built atop stilts that created shaded passageways for pedestrians, whereas the residential towers in the city center - which each soared to a height of 15 stories - were connected by covered bridges to the commercial center. Another bridge was meant to link between the commercial center and the new cultural center.

"The only thing I didn't plan there was the mosque," notes Eytan. "I told the Iranians that that required special study, and that due to the timetable they had given us, I did not have the time to get into it."

The planning of the apartments took into account the character of Iranian society. For instance, the smallest apartments measured 120 square meters, and included a bedroom for the servant. The children were allocated only one room, and the bathroom was never aligned toward Mecca.

Looking like Arad

The Iranians requested modern architecture that would be devoid of all local building traditions. This was a primary attribute of all the foreign architects in Iran: the shah and his regime sought to use architecture as a means to express their desire to get closer to the West. This explains why Bandar Abbas looks like any typical Israeli city built at the same time - Dimona, Arad or Ashdod - and not necessarily in a positive sense.

When one now looks at aerial photos of Bandar Abbas and Bandar Bushehr on Google Earth, it is easy to spot Eytan's contribution to the Iranian landscape. The cities of that time, which have now become neighborhoods within larger cities, are notable for the order that characterizes them. (Even after Iran cut off relations with Israel, construction went ahead in accordance with the original Israeli plans. )

Eytan learned a few months ago that the projects still appear in the curriculum of architecture students in Iran. "An Israeli student who is studying for a master's degree in Barcelona told me that there were Iranian students in his class who were familiar with Bandar Abbas from their own studies. It is part of the syllabus of a second-year city planning course," he says.

Eylon Meromi, who worked for Dan Eytan, says the Israeli architects who worked in Iran did not try to develop a modern-local architectural language; instead, they incorporated the functional and aesthetic values of international modernism.

"When I look back, I don't think we devoted that much attention to an attempt to profoundly understand Persian history and the attempt to develop something new from it. To a great extent, we brought what we already knew from Israel," he says. "Maybe the only thing that we learned and cultivated was their culture in the area of landscape development."

As part of its strategic cooperation with the shah's regime, Israel had a unique interest in the success of the projects that were planned for the Iranian navy. Following the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Israeli ambassador in Tehran, Uri Lubrani, even made an effort to have a group of engineers and architects who were working on the navy project released from reserve duty in Israel, so as to avoid any slowdown in the work.

When the Israeli companies in that project found themselves embroiled in a business dispute, Foreign Minister Yigal Allon hastened to intervene. In a letter he sent in May 1975 to Arieh Dulchin, then a member of the executive board of the Jewish Agency (which owned Rassco ), he requested that the dispute be resolved as soon as possible. "This is a very extraordinary instance. We are referring not only to the regular operations of a large and well-known company, but to the good name of the State of Israel and its relations with Iran, and all that that implies," wrote Allon.

In parallel with activity in the Iranian periphery, an Israeli community formed in Tehran which enjoyed a bustling urban lifestyle. Aside from the cultural adventure, the attraction of Israeli architects and engineers to Iran also derived from the sheer fantasy scale of the projects. Meromi, for instance, planned a neighborhood of seven luxury towers, each of which was 40 stories high. One day, Eytan received a request from an American hotel chain to build six hotels in Iran simultaneously; the chain was looking for a fast and experienced planner.

The best-known private project planned by Israelis in Tehran is Eskan Towers, situated on Mirdamad Boulevard in the wealthy north of the city. The trio of towers is one of the most identifiable symbols of the city, and they appear in thousands of photos online.

At first glance, they seem like a cross between the Schuster commercial center in Ramat Aviv Gimel and the Gan Ha'ir mall in central Tel Aviv. The similarity does not end at aesthetics. The luxury towers, which were planned by Moshe Bashan and Amira Galili - both of EMI - attracted the elite of the Iranian ruling class.

As in the other projects, Solel Boneh again joined with an Iranian partner that had connections to the regime's top echelons. Beneath the towers, an enclosed commercial center was built, one of the first of its kind in Tehran. The buildings themselves soared to a height of 32 stories each, and included huge apartments measuring hundreds of square meters.

End game

The warm relationship between Iran and Israel began to crumble in the late '70s. With the collapse of the shah's regime and his exile, relations between the two states immediately deteriorated. The new Islamic regime headed by Ayatollah Khomeini utterly rejected links with Israel, and within a short period the entire Israeli community, which had lived there for over 20 years, was evacuated.

In the opinion of Prof. Ram, the legacy left behind by the Israelis is largely responsible for the Iranians' present-day attitude toward Israel. "On the one hand, there is the goodwill of Israel, which was open to helping a developing state to rebuild a region that had been crippled by an earthquake. On the other, the Israelis who were there - some of whom are very famous and very wealthy people - took part in the colossal orgy of development that the shah allowed them to join. They 'looked after' themselves, via all sorts of questionable transactions and corrupt business dealings. When Israelis roll their eyes and don't understand why we aren't liked there, it is not because of Islam. It's because the Iranians remember what we did there.

"From the activities of Israeli architects, you can see some of the same approach that views Iran as a cow to be milked," continues Ram. "In other words, the land of unlimited opportunity, where you can make a ton of money. You also see it in the memoirs of Israelis who worked there. The common thread that runs through all of them is, first of all, intense sorrow over the shutting of the gates. There are references to 'the Iran that was lost in the revolution' - as if Iran once belonged to Israel. There is a fond remembrance of monarchist Iran, in which Israel was a major player and its representatives had influence on the shah."

As for Safdie, Eytan and Meromi, they speak with great yearning for the projects they left behind in Iran, and about those that still remain on the drawing board. "I worked for three or four years on the planning of the city in Senegal," says Safdie. "I would probably be very happy if it were completed in accordance with the plan." Eytan never managed to see Bandar Abbas or Bandar Bushehr populated, and makes do with photos he finds online. Meromi continued to travel to Iran in the months just before the Islamic revolution - "up until there were tanks at the intersections," as he puts it. "At a certain point you detach yourself emotionally from the buildings you are planning, even though I am full of curiosity to know what happened to them."

Eskan Towers, planned by Moshe Bashan and Amira Galili. A cross between the Schuster center in Ramat Aviv and the Gan Ha’ir Mall.Credit: Sam Ibanaru
Tehran’s Hilton Hotel, built by Solel Boneh. An important commercial undertaking.
Dan Eytan’s design of a cultural center in Bandar Abbas.Credit: Reproduction by ELR/ARC
Israeli-designed private homes for top Iranian naval officers in Bandar Abbas.Credit: Moti Blair



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