Cars drive past billboards in the Iranian capital of Tehran displaying art pieces from local and foreign artists. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

The Iranian capital is embracing a more global approach to urbanism, from arts to architecture.

In the mid-2000s, American journalist and author Mark Bowden traveled to Tehran, the political and financial heart of Iran and one of the the United States’ oldest adversaries. What he discovered was prosaic, a metropolis of uncomfortable dysfunction. An "inverse world," he called it. Revolutionary Islamist rule had evidently failed to deliver the utopian existence it promised. Here's how Bowden painted the Iranian capital in his 2006 book Guests of the Ayatollah.

Tehran today is a bland, teeming, gray-brown sprawl swimming in a miasma of smog and dust that coats everything with a patina of grit, especially in the summer, when you can literally taste the air. It is a remarkably colorless city, expect for occasional patches of faded green, apparently the only color that pleases Allah.

The city is choking in traffic, a galaxy of small cars rushing everywhere pell-mell. The good news is that apparently everyone in Iran can afford a car and gasoline, and they all seem impressively busy, all the time, judging by the hurry. A downside is that the city smells like the back end of an old bus.

The drab condition of Tehran was the result of decades of isolation. After the U.S. embassy was overtaken by thousands of protestors in 1979, Iran became a pariah of the West. But it is now negotiating its way back into the world order. If ongoing discussions with the United States and others prove successful, sanctions affecting the Iranian economy will likely be lifted, exposing the country to a forceful wave of globalization. But the shift from isolation to inclusion has already begun to transform Tehran.

On Thursday, the city's 1,500 state-owned billboards, which have carried such propaganda slogans as “Death to America,” were fitted with replicas of classic artworks, including works from Rembrandt and Picasso. The unannounced change was well-received by Tehran residents.

An Iranian man walks past a billboard in the capital Tehran displaying art pieces from local and foreign artists. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

“My usual morning route has become a big adventure for me,” a 58-year-old taxi driver told the New York Times. A 24-year-old resident told the newspaper, “It’s great to see art, Iranian and foreign.”

This gesture—“Suddenly, Tehran’s Mayor Becomes a Patron of the Arts” read one headline—is highly symbolic. It reflects the new urbanism evolving in part out of diplomatic negotiations. “The city is a body politic,” Michele Acuto, a scholar at the University College of London, says in his 2013 book, Global City Challenges. According to Acuto, cities and international relations are intrinsically linked. “The politics of the global city, in fact, force us to continuously link the ‘urban’ both with the international and the local, to maintain a ‘glocal’ viewpoint,” he wrote.

This is the crossroads at which Tehran finds itself. International politics are pulling at local realities in a global way. In November, for example, Tehran quietly opened its railway stations to a European train for the first time in history. As 62 mostly Western passengers arrived from Budapest, public officials greeted them with excitement.

Yet a city on the cusp of a fall-of-the-Berlin-Wall moment doesn’t transition without hitting a few bumps.

Earlier this year, Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, allegedly issued an edict restricting how adventurous the country’s architects could be. Mojtaba Nafisi, a Ph.D. student in architectural history, disagreed with the edict, arguing that liberalized design is a form of resistance to Iran’s stringent political ideology:

Modern public space, which belongs to all people regardless of their social class, ethnicity, religion, and gender, refuses to conform to the hierarchical structures of the Islamic regime. Modern architecture is also considered erotic because, unlike the spatially introverted pre-modern architecture of Iran, it faces outward with windows that shamelessly offer strangers a peek at the buildings’ private parts.

Still, the new cosmopolitanism of Tehran—despite state efforts to rein it in—is already signaling a departure from the city’s past. Tehran recently unveiled an 885-foot, 33-arch bridge called Tabiat (“Nature”). It’s the largest bridge ever built in Iran. Earlier this year it was named a winner at the prestigious Architizer A+ awards in New York City.

In some ways, the city serves as a crucial ambassador for Iran as a whole, recasting the perception of a long-isolated, monolithic enemy. “So far, Iran does not look or feel the way I had expected,” famed TV foodie-traveler Anthony Bourdain admitted on his program Parts Unknown while traveling in the city last year. That’s exactly the mistake many make when considering today’s Tehran: They hold outdated expectations of the city. Tehran is now a place where billboards spew propaganda one day, then switch to classical portraits the next. It’s a city that, at this moment, is intensely influenced by international relations, shaping itself into a burgeoning urban hub.

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