Iranian architects fight to save Gio Ponti villa from bulldozers
Replacing Villa Namazee in Tehran with hotel reflects country’s indifference to its contemporary heritage, say campaigners
A villa in northern Tehran designed by Gio Ponti is to be demolished and replaced by a five-star hotel, prompting outrage over the fate of the only intact building by the Italian architect in the Middle East.
Built in the early 1960s in the wealthy Niavaran district, the Villa Namazee was previously listed as a national treasure. But a court decision has given its current owner permission to delist it, paving the way for the construction of a 20-storey hotel.
The prospect has touched a nerve among the country’s architects, prompting them to fight to save the building. Namazee was the last to be built of Ponti’s three famous villas, which greatly inspired a number of architects, including the late Iraqi-born British architect Zaha Hadid. The other two, Villa Planchart and Villa Arreaza, are in Caracas, Venezuela.
The original interior of Namazee, which was the last to be built of Ponti’s three famous villas. Photograph: Hamed Khosravi/Tehran Projects
Mohammad-Hassan Talebian, the deputy head of Iran’s cultural heritage, handcrafts and tourism organisation, told the Ilna news agency: “The building has been legally taken off the list, so the only way to save it is for the municipality to bring it under public ownership or exchange it for other properties.”
Anonymous activists, named “the people’s committee to protect Tehran’s public houses”, have distributed an online leaflet underlying the significance of the villa and raising concerns about its imminent demolition.
There are many old trees with in Villa Namazee’s compound.
Nashid Nabian, a Harvard graduate and Iranian scholar, said there was not enough sensitivity among Iranians to save the country’s contemporary heritage.
“To go beyond our identity crisis, we always look back to our old history but our contemporary history is as significant,” she said. “The recent history creates a sense of belonging to the city and if you lose that, it would unravel and you would struggle to define yourself to the future or to define who you are now. If you lose your embedded history, you lose your contemporariness.”
Nabian said the proposed hotel threatened the environment because the villa, which was commissioned by the businessman Shafi Namazee during the last shah’s rule, has many old trees within the compound’s walls.
“It is a rare breathing space in the city with a lot of old trees and any construction will exacerbate the ecosystem crisis the area is facing, create huge traffic and lead to more pollution in the city,” she said.
The interior of the villa.
The original interior of the villa. Photograph: Hamed Khosravi/Tehran Projects
The Iranian architect Parshia Qaregozloo, who was the curator of Iran’s pavilion at the 2016 Venice biennale, said there had been significant efforts to save Tehran’s landmarks in recent years, including the Panahi House, which was designed by the French architect Roland Dubrulle, but more attention was needed.
“More than 300 works have been registered in Tehran and its vicinity in recent years but there are a lot of works that no one knows about and suddenly they are at the risk of being destroyed,” she said.
An old house in Tehran’s Zaferanieh neighbourhood used by Queen Turan, the third wife of Reza Shah, the father of Iran’s last shah, was demolished this year to people’s dismay. Another house, frequented by the Iranian poet and film director Forough Farrokhzad, was reported to have been destroyed in November.
Among other notable buildings neglected in the past decade are the Sabet Pasal house in Tehran, known as Iran’s palace of Versailles, and a house in Karaj which belonged to the last shah’s sister, Princess Shams Pahlavi, and was designed by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Ponti’s other work in the Middle East is the ministry of planning building in Baghdad which was partly damaged during the Iraq war. Unesco, along with the Polytechnic University of Milan, is involved in the conservation of the building which was constructed in 1958.
Leila Araghian, the architect of Tehran’s new high-tech Tabiat bridge, said she attempted to visit Villa Namazee in January along with Ponti’s son. “We went there and buzzed the door, a caretaker came out and said the owner wasn’t there, so we went to the house opposite and took pictures from there,” she said.
“This is a building designed by such an important architect. If it was anywhere else, it would have been protected.”
Born in 1891, Ponti became an epitome of Italian fashion and design at its best in the 20th century. As well as being an architect, he also became well-known for designing ceramics and furniture in a career that spanned more than half a century. He died in 1979.
Araghian said support for the Tehran villa had been heart-warming. “The fact that the Iranian society and Iranian architects are sensitive about this is positive by itself, it shows they are not indifferent. If it was 15 years ago, it would have been destroyed without much resistance,” she said.
Ponti’s villa is among the most prominent buildings by a foreign architect. Last year, there were demonstrations in Tehran in protest at plans to change the facade of a bank designed by Jørn Utzon, the architect behind the Sydney Opera House.
After the 1979 Islamic revolution, the Ponti villa, which was built for what the architect called “joie d’y vivre”, was first possessed by the government and used as a local registry office before being sold to Ahmad Abrishami, a representative of Nokia in Iran, who registered it as a national heritage building. It was sold to its present owner four years ago.
Faryar Javaherian, an Iranian architect, documented the Villa Namazee after the revolution. “It is a master’s house,” she said. “It is one of the first projects of its kind featuring open plan with a suspended roof which also has a flooring that appears to be floating in the air. The ceramic used [by the artist Fausto Melotti] is very, very beautiful.”
Javaherian pleaded for it to be saved. “If they want to build a hotel, they still can preserve the villa, it’s an added value, it’s not a distraction,” she said. “You have something good, why destroy it and replace it by something so awful?”
Source: The Guardian
Images: Coutesy of Guardian Online