Ekbatan Town


The salons, supermarkets and community spirit of a brutalist mass-housing complex in west Tehran


ARCHITECTS …………………………………………… Rahman Golzar and Jordan Gruzen
YEAR …………………………………………………………..Phase one completed in late 1970s


With a brutalist design that takes flight from traditional Iranian architecture, Ekbatan Town – a mass housing complex in the fringes of west Tehran – is a blemish on the city’s skyline for some, but a home for others. ‘Everything you could imagine is there – every bank, government facility,’ says Mo Zareei, a 31-year-old New Zealand-based researcher and sound artist who lived in Ekbatan for 24 years. ‘That’s what kind of unified a lot of people who grew up there and there’s still that sense of connection even now.’ In a 2016 study, researcher Hanieh Haji Molana compared three distinct residential complexes in Tehran in terms of architecture, community and sociodemographics. Her analysis showed that Ekbatan had the ‘highest overall sense of community’.

Sprawling over almost six million square metres, Ekbatan is made up of a series of massive concrete blocks, almost competing with the Alborz mountain range in the city’s backdrop. The grey-toned buildings of the super-complex mirror one another: long horizontal strips of concrete stacked on top, separated by double-glazed windows. It’s the first residential complex of its size in Iran and the Middle East – a city within a city.

In the 1960s, the north of Tehran was home to the elite and the south was designated for the working class. ‘There was a radical difference between the higher income and lower income groups so the middle class wasn’t really shaped,’ says architect and professor Hamed Khosravi. ‘There was a need to make a space in the city for white collar employees, intellectuals and highly educated people. Although it seems like this high density project is similar to social housing, it wasn’t.’

This need was met under a reform programme underway at the time that aimed to empower the middle classes by designing new neighbourhoods on a west to east axis across Tehran. People found each other in these packed, self-contained neighbourhoods and formed tight-knit communities – particularly in Ekbatan.

The housing complex was also built within a greater comprehensive plan for the city of Tehran led by Austrian architect Victor Gruen and Iranian architect Abdolaziz Farmanfarmaian. The master plan consisted of 14 large-scale centralities planned around high density residential neighbourhoods. Tehran’s historical city was deemed one of them, while others were to be built from scratch. Only the neighbourhoods of Ekbatan and Shahrak-e Gharb were executed as planned. ‘The complex in its design, size and attitude has become a landmark for Iranian architecture – especially mass housing,’ says Khosravi.

There was a need to make a space in the city for white collar employees and intellectuals

In spite of this, Ekbatan’s stream of architects over a series of handovers is difficult to follow. The project is often said to have been implemented by American architecture firm Starrett and designed by architects Rahman Golzar and Jordan Gruzen. South Korea’s famous brutalist initiator Kim Swoo-geun also had his hands in the project, providing designs for the complex. After 1979, it came under the charge of Iran’s Ministry of Housing, and the involvement of the original architects became minimal or ended altogether.

Ekbatan was built in three phases with only the first stage completed, as originally planned, before 1979. Though there are slight variations between the three in design and material, certain traits transcend the entire complex: from the heavy concrete that shapes them to the zig-zag sidewalks and abundance of green spaces. Equipped with public facilities such as shops, schools, libraries, salons, malls, sports centres, mosques and a metro stop, the complex also has around 15,500 individual apartments.

Ekbatan’s interior follows a layout that varies between one and four-bedroom apartments, ranging between 48 and 350 square metres in size. ‘Ekbatan created a demand for a “minimum” home,’ says Khosravi. ‘Fifty-square metre homes were very rare in Iran and it directly relates to a new demand from an emerging social group at the time – students, freelancers, artists and writers – who couldn’t find proper spaces in the city.’

In more recent years, contrasting structures have been built in the complex – like the Mega Mall made with aluminium and mirrored glass. A step towards modernisation for some, the disruption of uniformity has left other Ekbatan residents feeling uneasy. Zareei, who grew up in phase one, prefers the complex’s original design. ‘It hurts me when people have no regard for the beautifully coherent and uniform environment of Ekbatan,’ he says, expressing his dislike for the postmodern aesthetic of the newer buildings. ‘It’s the exact opposite of the brutalist ethos.’

‘I remember family and friends visiting us in Ekbatan found the buildings a bit soulless and uncompromising, but that was never the case for me,’ he says. Zareei, who recently completed his PhD research on the intersections of brutalism and sound art, has also created a series of sound sculptures inspired by brutalist architecture and Ekbatan. ‘I found it beautiful – the roughness of the concrete and the involvement of functionalism and minimalism.’

The Facebook group ‘Ekbatan’ has become a news source for its residents as well as a place to share old photos and memories. With a following of 5,800, it’s an example of how the complex has created a sense of community for its patrons and keeps them connected even after they’ve left it. ‘It’s become a gathering place and you’ll see people from all over the world expressing how much they miss it,’ says Zareei.

‘There was an empty pool in my block growing up that was this sort of iconic symbol of Ekbatan,’ says Zareei. ‘We’d play football there, kids would breakdance and it had some graffiti. I found out through the group that they were filling it with concrete and I was seriously sad because I’m so emotionally attached to it. But now it’s been repurposed into a pond, something useful, and you can find old men on benches talking around it every day.’

Visiting the complex once a year, Zareei still finds comfort in Ekbatan despite its changes. ‘When you’re driving down the highway through Tehran to get to Ekbatan, the lights and buildings have this calming presence. Going from the bustle of the city to being surrounded by this beautiful, symmetrical complex, there’s a sense of it always being here. You can always come back to be surrounded by these buildings.’

writer: Amira Asad
photographer: Kiana Hayeri

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