Articles | Cultural Heritage
A Visit to Oudlajan, Unremembered Remnant of Old Tehran
[1] Mina Fatemi[2]

1. Introduction:

Preserving historical fabrics in Iran in comparison to western countries is a newly established endeavor. This concern grew in Europe from several years ago and synchronous to modernization of societies. Technological developments in the twentieth century, providing the possibility to generate multiple copies of artworks firstly heralded a new age, in which Art, previously available onlyto the elite, was taken and brought among the ruck. But, it promptly revealed its destructive aspects. James Fitch, theorist of restoration, believes that in none of the other characteristics of material culture, possibility of frequent reproductions of the original exemplar and placing them in different situations, was as evident as in architecture. The paradigms established by renowned modernist architects, would be executed, lacking compatibility with the context. The cultural consequences of this phenomenon were far more destructive: imported paradigms with their “new” and “universal” prestige had the tendency to make the indigenous forms and thinking, inconsequent and then replace them. Therefore the achievements and valuable examples of autochthonous architecture in most of the historical fabrics were gradually demolishing.[3]

Now we return to modern Iran; a country in which every region and city due to a rich historical background includes an exclusive architecture and urbanism.Architectural traditions grew during several centuries and in harmony with natural landscapes and climatic conditions of each city. Many cities in Iran expanded in the modern era according to western paradigms, inheriting valuable historical fabrics in their central cores. Yet the phenomenon introduced by James Fitch as the destructive process of imported paradigms replacing indigenous constructions, can somewhat be seen in all of these cities.

Tehran as thecapital of Iran in last two recent centuries, has inherited one of the most precious urban fabrics of Qajar era. The modernization of the city precede all other cities of the country and the records of its modernization date back to mid to late reign of Naser al-Din Shah Qajar. The urban structure of Tehran in 1890s shows two distinct layers: the central core or Safavid city zone with all the characteristics of traditional cities in central plateau of Iran, comprising the organic and entwined network of alleys, dead ends, markets and plazas, and in contrast to the grid of streets within the confines of Naseri period expansions. This matter didn’t remain covert for western explorers that the king focused modern constructions on a layer beyond the central core and left the old beautiful neighborhoods in their original form.[4]

In Pahlavi era the construction of new streets took place in the historical core, neglecting the structure and function of the fabric and car-based roads took precedence over them. These constructions caused great damage not only to the original image of thehistorical fabric, but also to the way of thinking about housing and residential fabric. From the middle of this period with the simultaneous construction of new suburban areas around the city, the affluent residents of the historical core moved to the new neighborhoods and migrants from rural areas, who descended to Tehran due to conversion of economy, dwelled in the central core, without having anyattachment to the place.

Fig 1: 1887 Map of Tehran, by Abdul-Ghaffar (source: Shahid Beheshti University, Faculty of Architecture Archive) 

2. The last remnants of old Tehran

The antiquity of Oudlajan is not accurately determined yet.The name can be seen in historical texts and maps in early Qajar era. The term of “Oudlajan” roots in townsfolk’s accent, still prevalent in the villages of Shemiran city. In this term, “Ou” is the local pronunciation of the word “water”, “drajin” means distribution and “an” is a place suffix. In Qajar era the Arabic orthography of the term was used.[5]Oudlajan is one of the five oldest districts in old Tehran within the confines of Safavid city, located east along NasirKhusrawStreet. From east it beganfrom Amin-ol-hozurjunction and PestehBeig garden, encompassing ImamzadehYahya, reaching to Sarpoolak in south, and led to Bazaar in south west. The current area of the district is approximately 150 hectares. According to statistical analysis in 1868, Oudlajan had been the most densely populated district of Tehran among the five and had had the most residential houses of the time.[6]

Comparisonof three epochs of historical maps chronologically consisting Brezin maps (1841), kriziz (1858), and Abdul-Ghaffar (1887), illustrates the process of expansion of the district towards the gardens in the north. Kreziz map shows the construction of several districts such asShemiran gateway, Sar-Chishmeh and Sar-Takht during 1841 to 1858. In the subsequent years, many county treasurers (Mostofian), ministers and princes moved from southern areas of Oudlajan to these districts and constructed fine buildings that some of them like Qavamoldoleh house, Esmatolsaltaneh house and Sediqoldoleh house have endured through time.

In the modern era along with social and demographic changes, Oudlajan first lost its old and original residents, then with the extension of business services in Tehran’s bazaar, gradually lost its role as a residential fabric.[7] The last decade can be considered as the peak period of destruction and alteration in Ooudlajan, in which more than 70% of the fabric were seized to be used as storehouses and workshops. Currently the residential life continues in small and sporadic hubs in the heart of the district, which is rapidly disappearing. Heretofore several studies had been conducted mostly on rehabilitation and urban regeneration plans ofOudlajan, yet the unknown and forgotten aspects of the neighborhood, including a range of tangible and intangible heritage, are abundant; In the formal quality, many features such as the structure of street network, traditional systems of water supply, construction methods, materials and the art and crafts relevant to architecture can be identified, each worthy of further consideration and survey.

3. Oudlajan Project

Started in 2011 as a voluntary documentation project, Oudlajan project aims to document architecture and urban fabric of the neighborhood, to expedite and facilitate the possible future preservation and rehabilitation programs in the district. The project purposed to study the extant body of traditional urban fabric of Tehran, as a system of human habitation that, through its formation in a specific time and location, could introduce the achievements of previous generations in various aspects of architecture and urbanism. The project began with a survey of each of the five historical neighbourhoods of old Tehran, in order to examine the dispersion of extant historical body over the historical core. As In many instances the buildings were defaced in architectural elements and details, especially in urban walls, while, behind the walls the historical mould of buildings were remained nearly intact, it was impossible to perform the initial survey in field study sessions. The survey was carried out by the comparing aerial photos of 1956 with the latest satellite pictures. This comparison soon revealed that the most of the destructions and reconstructions till 2011 belong to Chal-e Meydan and Sangelajneighbourhoods. Despite of the fact that most changes in Dowlatneighorhood occurred before 1956, and thus the comparison of aerial photos revealed no considerable changes till 2011, the presence of monumental and governmental buildings such as Dar-ol-Fonoun and Golestan Palace, instead of a residential urban fabric, that allows a multivalent study of city as a setting for work and life of social classes, made it inappropriate for such a study. Whereas the historical body in Oudlajan and Bazar neighborhoods had almost remained intact, so that 65% of the physical fabric of Oudlajan had not changed since 1956. For the difficulties of field study in Tehran Bazar, finally Oudlajan was selected as the case study.

In the next step, through a collation of several layers of data, including aerial and satellite photos of various years, plans and historical maps of Oudlajan, over a historical span of two centuries, changes for each lot were traced. Accordingly an estimation of the extant historical buildings was obtained. The first speculation contained 700 historical lots with various usages such as bath, bazaar, house, mosque, schools and synagogue. In the following years field studies were carried out by providing plans and other types of visual documents for each building, and with a level of accuracy and details that corresponds to the architectural value of the building. At the same time, other layers of data, including oral history, old photos, films, etc., were gathered in order to shape a more precise understanding of the historical and pristine image of the neighbourhood. All these documents will be categorized in geocoding system and be available in website.

4. Case Studies of Buildings

While documenting Oudlajan, several building were identified and documented for the first time. Among these are some buildings, which present unique samples of architectural-related art crafts: such as brick carving, mirror work, stucco carving and OrosiSazi (craft of making wooden reticular windows) that have deep roots in Iran, and some like brick carving and OrosiSazi deserves reapprehension.

In the following, some extant and important cases are introduced:

Hajj Reza Khan house:This house is located near 15 Khordad street and according to Abdol-Ghaffar map (1887) belonged to Hajj Reza Khan. This building is one the few instances that represents a residential cruciform plan (Chahar-Soffeh).A fine-shaped elliptical dome, covers the central space of the building. The ceiling of the vaults is adorned with delicate stalactite ornaments (Moqarnas) All over the interior walls are covered with stucco carvings, jutted more than usual and showing themost complicated floral patterns. The upper sides of vaulted recesses in courtyard are decorated with painted tiles (Khashi Haft-Rangi) that display patterns similar to the 19th century European cast iron decoration (Fig. 2,3,4).

Fig2: Stucco carving, Hajj Reza Khan house                                                                Fig 3: Stalactites, Hajj Reza Khan house
(photo: Pedram Rayanpoor)                                                                                                (photo: Pedram Rayanpoor) 

                   Fig 4: Main Hall, Hajj Reza Khan house (photo: Pedram Rayanpoor)

Zarrabi House: Thishouse is located in Pamenar, Oudlajan and for many years was in the possession of Zarrabi family. The current building is the only remaining part of a large ensemble that comprised inner (Andarouni) and Outer (Birouni) sections. The walls and recess of the main room (Talar) are decorated with delicate stucco carving and in some parts mirror work is used as points for emphasis. The stucco carving designs are a mixture of floral and animal patterns and mythical creatures(Fig. 5,6).


Fig 5: Stucco carving, Zarrabi house  (photo: Navid Jamali)                    Fig 6: Stucco carving, Zarrabi house  (photo: Navid Jamali)

The Jewish Jeweller House: Regarding the oral history, this house belonged to a Jewish jeweller. The ornaments of Talar comprise integration of stucco carving and decorative cut mirrors. The jutted stucco carvings are adeptly done and rare in other buildings in Oudlajan.Some stucco carvings are done on mirrors and in some parts the decorative mirrors are affixed conversely.These adornments represent herbal patterns, vases and candleholders (Fig 7,8).

                          Fig 7: Mirror work details, Jewish Jeweller house (photo: Navid Jamali)

                                            Fig 8: Mirror Hall, Jewish Jeweller house (photo: Navid Jamali)  

Majd-ol-Ateba House: This house is near Amir Kabir Avenue. Its mirror hall is damaged severely, but it is a beautiful sample of reverse painting on mirror (NaqashiPosht-e Ayneh) and a combination of mirror work and painted stucco carving (Fig 9, 10). 

                                                    Fig 9: Mirror Hall, Majd-ol-Ateba house(photo: Mohammad Pejman)
                                                              Fig 10: Mirror Hall, Majd-ol-Ateba house(photo: Mohammad Pejman) 

Other than those introduced above, there are numerous exquisite houses in Oudlajan. There are also buildings which we witnessed their destruction during recent years, from which the photos and architectural plans provided by the students are the only reminiscences. Since none of these buildings are under legal protection, sooner or later, they would be subjected to destruction. Although documentation of historical edifices will increase the general knowledge on potentialities of Oudlajan, and facilitate future research works, but this process would be completed just once that the public introduction of these potentialities result in devising more acute plans for the future of the neighbourhood. This future, only achievable through participation of all inhabitants, would bring the life back to the neighbourhood.A future we wish to happen in long term.

[1] - Master of Architecture student, Iran University of Science and Technology

[2] - Architecture student, Iran University of Science and Technology

[3] - Fitch, James Marston; Historical Preservation, Curatorial Meaning of The Built World. McGrew-Hill, 1982. PP. 8 & 13

[4]Lorey, Eustache de; Sladen, Douglas Brooke Wheelton.Queer Things About Persia. Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott co., 1907, p. 44.

[5]- Kariman, Hossein. Tehran Dar Gozashtehva Hal. Tehran University Press, 1976.

[6]- Karampoor, Katayoun; Fadainejad, Somayeh. Tahlil-e Asarat-e TaghiraatKalbadiAnasor-e Shakhes Bar Baft-e MahalehOudljana.Honar-ha-ye Ziba (Tehran), No. 28 (2006) p. 67

[7]- Ayatollah ZadehShirazi, Bagher. BehsaziMahalehOudlajan. Asar (Tehran) No. 2, 3 & 4 (1980) p. 67