A few months before the current anti-regime protests in Iran erupted, the Municipality of Tehran held a design competition for the Vali-Asr square landmark, which is located on a homonymous avenue in the capital. Vali-Asr recently gained international attention after being mentioned in the viral revolutionary song Baraye.
The winning proposal by Iranian female architect Habibeh Madjdabadi is an integral and organic solution at various scales. The project aims to redefine the existing Vali-Asr square concept and give it a new connotation that refers to the concept of Persian historical squares.
Vali-Asr square, a roundabout, is the most important traffic node on the Middle East’s longest street (17.9 km), which connects the railway station in the south to the base of the mountains in the north (1615 above sea level). The emergence of Vali-Asr Avenue marks the beginning of modernism in Iranian urban planning and architecture. This avenue, which began in the old core of Tehran around 1925, gradually expanded as the city grew toward the mountains. It became the timeline of the city’s various architectural styles over a century of development and transformation. With its 18000 plane trees planted at equal intervals on both sides of the avenue and a series of green spaces originally flanked the pavements, it was supposed to refer to the ancient concept of the Persian Garden.
The competition, which served as a component (landmark) for Vali-Asr Square, was both stimulating and challenging. Tehran is a megacity with few outstanding architectural or sculptural objects. There was another competition with the same topic six years ago, and the jury rejected all 118 entries. The new competition was a small one, with only 17 renowned architects and sculptors invited to compete.
Habibeh stated, “There were several sculptors among the participants, and it was clear that the client wanted a sculptural monument to locate in the center of the roundabout. In that sense, the proposal I had in mind was going to be quite provocative”.
Since ancient times, Iranian architecture has valued empty spaces and voids. In Iran, “emptiness” refers to a spiritual presence that can be felt through geometry and symmetry rather than the absence of presence. Iranian cities have dense and continuous textures. Buildings are integrated into the urban fabric without having external façades, and the building masses are organized around the courtyard voids.
A typical Persian square, median, is not just an open urban space between several independent buildings. It has a different and broader connotation. Architecturally, it should possess its own well-defined boundary and be absent of any architectural or sculptural element in the middle. From a literal point of view, the term meidan has multiple contextual meanings: circumscribed land; area of land containing; particular natural property; or area in which a particular force has some effect. The same term figuratively means a place where somebody appears for a critical mission and a place where a battle or sports rivalry happens.
Paradoxically, in this case, Vali-Asr was a meidan in concept but a roundabout in shape. In such circumstances, the priority was to allow Vali-Asr square to become physically a square par excellence”. She said: “As an architect and artist, I realized that the project has three different scales: urban design, architecture, and sculpture. So, instead of imagining an object to be put in the center of the roundabout, the project started by considering how the new Vali-Asr square could valorize the pre-existing urban phenomena, such as the axis of Vali-Asr Avenue with its converging lined trees and the transportation infrastructures. Secondly, we focused on the organization of the heterogenous space of the square, surrounded by different sizes and shapes of buildings, and the subway terminal in the center.
In Iranian cities, meidans have always been suitable for hosting social and cultural events. The circular court surrounded by concentric round gradients and a well-defined boundary wall in the proposed plan forms a suitable arena for holding various events. The arena and the sweet ramps connecting the different levels of the square are integral parts of the emerging landmark that the architect designed while focusing on the project’s sculptural scale.
The landmark does not stand in the center; instead, it runs around the arena, emphasizing the central void with its curvy movement. This sculptural form has two symmetrical peaks emphasizing and framing the axis of the uphill Vali-Asr Avenue with its bending trees and pointing to the mountains in the distance. This sculptural form has two symmetrical peaks emphasizing and framing the axis of the uphill Vali-Asr Avenue with its bending trees and pointing to the mountains in the background.
The exact form descends to the ground and goes up to the opposite side, becoming horizontal in correspondence with the flat crossing street. The symmetry here was not meant to be perceived by the people moving around the roundabout. Vice versa, it was planned to allow many perspectives with the surrounding buildings in the background.
Architect/designer: Habibeh Madjdabadi
Presentation team: Hossein Bashari , Negar Asadimehr, Rashed Fatehi, Shirin Afshar, Tarranom Maveddat
Text by: Kamran Afshar Naderi
Notice: Two projects were selected as winners for Tehran’s Vali-Asr square design competition, this proposal is one of the winners