On September 1, 1962, a few days before Israel's then-Agriculture Minister Moshe Dayan visited Iran’s Qazvin Province, there was an earthquake in the area. Some 12,000 people were killed and tens of thousands were left homeless. Dayan’s visit was postponed, but he offered Iran significant assistance in rebuilding. Israel sent Yehuda Drexler, an architect, and Micha Talmon, a planner, to help plan the reconstruction of the destroyed villages, strengthening the ties between the two countries in the process.
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Iran was one of the developing nations to which Israel sold its architectural and planning knowledge, along with Argentina, Burma, Crete and a number of African states. Cooperation with Iran began after the Foreign Ministry established the Agency for International Development Cooperation, known by its Hebrew acronym, Mashav, in 1957. Numerous projects were built before Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution ended bilateral ties. Israelis who were involved in these projects remember a level of architectural cooperation that is nearly inconceivable today.
Natan Frankel, Solel Boneh’s representative in Iran during the 1970s, notes that the history of the veteran Israeli construction and engineering company in Iran dates back to World War II.
“We built a few airports there in the 1940s,” he recalls in a telephone interview. “During the ‘50s there was a pause. We returned in the ‘60s. The ties with Iran were strategic, as with Kenya or Nigeria; that was the background for going there, but over time the activity there became business activity. There was so much work we didn’t take any projects worth less than $10 million. We built a missile plant there for $400 million,” Frankel recalls.
He says the work there was profitable and even easier than in Israel.
“There was no difference in the quality of construction and there wasn’t the bureaucracy you have here,” Frankel says. “There were bribes paid to officials. It was acceptable to pay it.”
Dan Eytan, an architect who was born in 1931, designed two neighborhoods for the Iranian navy. In a conversation conducted in his Tel Aviv office, he notes that one of the neighborhoods was built in stages and was only completed a few years ago. He can point to its location on a Google Earth map.
Eytan says he took the local climate and the needs of the residents into consideration in designing the high-rise buildings. “The apartments were very big. The walls were thick — 40 centimeters — and because of the heat we designed covered paths, with awnings.”
In the years right before the fall of the Shah in 1979, the regime had asked him to design many projects for all the residents, Eytan recalls.
“The Shah of Iran wanted to prove that he was building for the people. In 1977, for example, I got a call from a government construction company that wanted to talk to me about how to build 50,000 housing units,” he says. “Less than two months later I was invited to the Education Ministry, where they said they wanted to build 2,000 schools. They also asked me to design a huge university. Because of the revolution, many projects never got built,” Eytan says.
Did he ever feel that he was cooperating with a problematic regime? “Of course it was a tough regime, but it was a big country and the government didn’t reach everywhere,” he says. “There were parts that looked fine to me. There was a readiness for liberalism.”
But Neta Feniger of Haifa’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, who has researched the work of Israeli architects in Iran in the 1960s and ‘70s, thinks many designers were naive about the Iranian government.
“They didn’t really understand Iranian politics and they weren’t interested in it,” she says. “In the 1970s they were coming to make money. Those who went there were young people who came back to Israel able to buy an apartment. From their perspective there was work, they were bringing modernization and they didn’t care what else was happening. There were demonstrations in the streets and they knew about them, but it didn’t interest them.”
Feniger says that Israeli architecture in Iran was in effect a preview of the globalization that was to come. “There was money in Iran and in the Gulf, and processes that occurred in the world in the ‘80s started there first,” she says.
Learning from the Iranians
Indeed, the neighborhoods and towers look like a carbon copy of modern design. “It’s true,” Feniger says. “They didn’t create a new urbanization there. They planned Israeli non-urbanization. The planners, from their perspective, address the location and check things, but the end result was very modern planning, very much of its era. We’re not talking about brilliant design. It was very basic architecture.”
Feniger, together with Eran Tamir Tawil, curated an exhibition, “Building a New Middle East: Israeli Architects in Iran,” at the Architect House Gallery in Jaffa. The exhibition, which runs through May 11, shows that Israeli architects who worked in Iran did not only export knowledge, but they also learned things there.
“For example, the luxury towers that Solel Boneh built there were 32 stories high. They never built towers that height in Israel,” Feniger says. “Building luxury apartments was a field that they learned there. They learned that they could build two stories of penthouses and not just one, so they could sell twice as many.”
Along with the generic neighborhoods and high-rise apartment buildings the Israelis designed, Iran developed a local architecture that linked tradition, climate and materials with modern techniques. This emerges from an article by an Iranian architectural historian, who wrote it anonymously for the exhibition’s catalogue. He points to the expression of a local language in the structures of Heydar Ghiai, like the Iranian Senate building from 1955, or the buildings of Kamran Diba, like the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran from 1977.
In this context, it seems reasonable to compare the contributions of Israeli architects in Iran to their contribution in African countries. In both instances the basis for the relationship was political-diplomatic, but there were clear business aspects to the ties that continue in Africa to this day. Even so, in Iran most of the construction was for government-linked clients or for military agencies. The only thing in the Jaffa exhibit that reminds one that these were projects planned in Iran is the Persian script that adorns its posters.
By contrast, in Africa attractive public buildings were also put up, such as the Parliament building in Freetown, Sierra Leone, which was designed by Dov Carmi, Zvi Meltzer and Ram Carmi, or the University of Ife in Nigeria, designed by Arieh Sharon.
Zalman Einav, 88, an architect who worked in both Iran and Ethiopia, explains the difference between the two types of work.
“I lived in Ethiopia for seven years,” he recalls in a phone interview. “I never lived in Iran; I came when I was invited to design something, so the one making the commission was the one who decided what the theme would be.” Einav adds that the Israeli architects who worked in Africa tried to incorporate local graphic motifs and that his designs of residential buildings in Ethiopia was in the context of his general activity in the country and his familiarity with it.
“Israel, as an architectural laboratory, was an important platform that enabled the export of knowledge to other places, and the Zionist obsession with construction and planning was critical to architects who worked abroad. It was quite a frenzy,” says Haim Yacobi, who has researched the topic of Israeli architects in Africa, and regards the architectural activity in Iran and Africa as positive.
“You have to remember that we’re talking about the period after the building boom in Israel. There was an economic crisis in Israel and people were looking for work,” says Yacobi.
Still, Yacobi believes that one must view the construction in these countries with a critical eye. “The architects’ understanding of the conditions in Africa or Iran always passed through a Western or Orientalist filter. I think they tried [to research the local style] but it relied on stereotypes and on mediated knowledge, and not on deep familiarity.”