Building a New Middle East – Israeli architect in Iran
Models of the neighborhoods in Bushehr (left) and Bandar Abbas (right)
In the spring of 1972 representatives of the Iranian Navy arrived in Israel in search of an architect. The Navy was building bases on the shores of the Persian Gulf and when the facilities were almost completed, it was realized that no accommodation had been provided for the troops and their families. The Israeli construction firm assigned to the project suggested employing an Israeli architect known for speedy planning and implementation skills acquired during nation-building.
The Israeli-Iranian relations (1950-1979) opened up a new market for Israeli architects and construction companies for whom work in Iran was a chance to extend professional enterprise in the Middle East. Iran was in the midst of modernization, and was looking for foreign professionals with high levels of expertise. Israelis were looking for work as the Israeli market declined after the years of intense nation building. In the course of two decades (mainly the 1960s and 1970s) Israeli architects were involved in varied projects in Iran, demonstrating manifold approaches for adjusting their practice acquired back home.
The Navy project was one of the bigger projects by Israeli architects in Iran. The Israeli architect, Dan Eitan (1931-) was chosen especially by Navy representatives on account of his housing project in Israel. Nevertheless, Eitan saw this project as an opportunity to rectify modernism and make it more considerate of cultural and social needs and of local environmental conditions.
The project was planned in three locations, Bandar Abbas and Bushehr – then small fishing towns – and the island of Kahrg where a major oil port was already operating. At the latter site, Eitan’s project consisted of a few dwelling units. For Bandar Abbas and Bushehr it included a master plan, detailed town plans, designing three types of housing, infrastructures, and neighbourhood amenities. The Navy planning office provided a brief programme specifying different dwelling units for different ranks, including densities and unit sizes. The final plans for all three sites amounted to about 12,000 dwelling units and the required amenities. Some of the buildings, such as mosques and the admiral’s villa, were included in Eitan’s plans but they were designed by Iranian architects.
Google Earth image of Bandar Abbas, marked – the area built according to Eitan’s plan.
Bushehr during construction (1975): in front detached houses, in the middle 4 floor housing and 15 storey buildings in the background.
Eitan’s scheme followed Israeli town-planning models of the time, avoiding street grids and creating building clusters with public and semi-public areas. This was very different from the pattern of the surrounding built-up areas, which is still distinguishable in the overall developed areas. The housing design was modular, with different module units for each housing type. The 15-storey building comprised 100 split-level apartments. Each mezzanine floor included 4 apartments radiating out from the elevator shaft. The four-storey buildings were comprised of modular units linked to each other like dominoes on each side, resulting in the creation of semi-public enclosed courtyards. Single-family detached houses for senior officers varied in design, to allow flexibility of purpose, had fiberglass-covered pedestrian atria between them. The whole neighbourhood was connected by shaded pathways leading for the community amenities.
Attention to the harsh local climate was of main concern. Eitan, assisted by an Israeli climate planning expert, integrated new techniques for moderating heat and glare in homes and public areas. The local amenities were carefully planned with inner patios and shaded outdoor spaces. The cultural centre (which was never built) was to be surrounded by a moat, with a bridged entrance, and external concrete prisms shading the windows.
Fibreglass covered pedestrian walks in Bandar Abbas
Perspective of plan for Bandar Abbas cultural centre (never built)
Eitan, unlike many of his Israeli contemporaries, never adopted vernacular elements in his design, neither in Israel nor in Iran. For him, the quest for the locale was not a question of appearance, but of deep cultural understanding of the society in which he worked, and a desire to create architecture appropriate to local needs and conditions. Thus, his project in Iran was not about representing Iranian culture, but about understanding this culture and how its inhabitants lived. He even consulted a psychologist, trying to comprehend the experience of women left behind for long periods of time when their men are at sea, and created a community centre designed to accommodate their needs.
Sensitivity to local tradition was part of Eitan’s intention to make modern architecture less intrusive. He felt that his professional integrity, especially as a Haraji – a stranger, and a Jew – demanded sensitivity and respect for his clients and their Muslim tradition. The location of the bathrooms is an example of his attitude. According to Iranian Islamic law, all bathrooms should face away from Mecca, i.e. in accordance with the geographic position of Tehran, should be in the north-east corner of the house. However, since the Gulf lies further to the south, he pointed out that the south-eastern location was more correct and insisted on obtaining religious authorization for the bathrooms’ new location.
For Eitan, architectural modernism was a means of creating better living environments. In the Navy Project, however, his approach to modernism often became a point of friction with his employers. The navy’s officials explained that he had been hired as a foreign expert, based on his architectural achievements in Israel. Eitan, however, was striving for socio-cultural harmony in his projects, while the Iranians required a plan that would provide the necessary amenities, and be easily implemented in the fastest way possible. Eitan explains:
“At one point the Navy asked me why the project wasn’t moving faster. I told them that I needed to learn their culture. They said – ‘No. Bring your own culture. That’s why we hired you’. But I told them I only brought my profession. I merged my culture with theirs and then integrated it in the plan.”(Eitan in interview- August 2010)
In Israel, Eitan rarely had a chance to work with clients, since he was building housing for new immigrants who had not yet arrived. In Iran he received detailed information concerning prospective users, and was able to get acquainted with his clients, and plan for their needs.
Eitan’s approach was universal, but at the same time local and specific, though the project was also greatly influenced by Israeli architectural discourse of the time. It was not an Israeli-Iranian hybrid, mainly because Israeli architecture had no apparent tradition, and Eitan did not seem to be influenced by contemporary or traditional Iranian architecture.The Navy Project was specifically planned for a specific location and users, but was nonetheless modernist and universal.
This post is based on the article: Neta Feniger& Rachel Kallus (2013): “Building a ‘new Middle East’: Israeli architects in Iran in the 1970s”, The Journal of Architecture, 18:3, 381-401. Materials are with permission of architect Dan Eitan, who I would like to thank for his kindness and full access to his archive and memory.