Architecture as a Document of Reality

Esra Akcan reviews Gaetano Pesce’s competition entry for the Pahlavi National Library in Tehran

A complicated translation movement in architecture—a phrase I use to describe those historical moments when countries opened themselves to the foreign more consciously and effectively than before, and through translation enriched themselves, refusing to see the foreign simply as a threat1— shaped the Shah-ruled monarchic Iran in the mid-1970s at the wake of the Islamic Republican Revolution. Three meetings of the International Congress of Architects took place in Iran: in Isfahan in 1970, in Persepolis in 1974, and in Ramsar in 1976 (in this latter case, it was the International Congress of Women Architects). All were organized by the Shahbanu Farah Diba Pahlavi, who had an incomplete formal education in architecture in Paris and remained active in matters related to arts and architecture during her husband’s rule.

  1. For more on this theoretical framework, see Esra Akcan, Architecture in Translation: Germany, Turkey, and the Modern House (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012). 

Gaetano Pesce, Plan for Pahlavi National Library Competition, Tehran, 1977. Coloured pencil, coloured felt tip pen, watercolour and gouache over graphite on woven paper. DR1986:0189, CCA. © Gaetano Pesce

Despite its collaborations with democratic countries, Iran remained a monarchy, not a republic, during this time, with a Shah who increasingly consolidated his power. Sovereignty did not belong to the people who architects so eagerly claimed to build for until the Islamic Republican Revolution, which also exiled most of them from Iran.

Competition projects for the Pahlavi National Library gain relevance when we are reminded of this fact. Gaetano Pesce, notably, had no intention of winning the competition. Instead, as a self-disqualifying move before the competition deadline, Pesce and his companions in different countries sent 4,000 postcards illustrating his project to architectural offices and editors, turning international postal service into a new medium for architectural production. Pesce’s submission to the competition was an act of non-compliant, non-complicit, and unempathetic criticism of Iran that turned architecture into a subversive, geopolitical performance.

The Pahlavi National Library competition (1977–1978) was organized by Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi (Farah’s husband) under the auspices of International Union of Architects with a technical committee headed by François Lombard, who had also directed Paris’s Centre Beaubourg competition. The building’s program consisted of eight departments, including a research library, a public library, an Iranian studies centre with apartments, a children’s library, and accommodations for study spaces, public lecture halls, social spaces, and other services.1 Nader Ardalan, Fumihiko Maki, Charles Correa, Giancarlo De Carlo, and Trevor Dannat made up the jury, along with librarians from Iran, the USSR, and the Ivory Coast. Ten finalists were selected from six hundred entries, a pool that included projects by Alison and Peter Smithson, Helmut Jahn, Zvi Hecker, Wallace Harrison, Gerkan, Marg & Partners, who eventually won, and many others. In an interview, De Carlo categorized the entries into three groups: “exaggerated monumentalism, technical perfectionism and too much common sense.” The jury, he said, concentrated on the third category out of the fear of the first two.2

  1. Francois Lombard, “Bibliothèque nationale Pahlavi: concours international d’architecture Téhéran, Iran,” L’Architecture d’aujourd’hui 197 (1978): v–vi, ix–x, xii–xiv, xxii–xxi.  

  2. Giancarlo de Carlo, interview in “Pahlavi National Library,” Domus 585 (1978): 17. 

Gaetano Pesce, Plan for Pahlavi National Library Competition, Tehran, 1977-1978, Graphite, coloured pencil, watercolour, ink on paper. DR1986:0188. CCA © Gaetano Pesce

Among the entries, Pesce’s provocative project had a shocking affect, but holds an ultimately predictable place in the designer’s career.1 Drawn shortly after he had participated in the Italy: The New Domestic Landscape exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (1972) and Le futur est peut-être passé at the Centre Beaubourg (1975), the Tehran Library project was the first in a series of competitions Pesce used to develop his concept of architecture as a “document of reality.”2 In the catalogue essay for the Beaubourg exhibition he penned two years earlier, Pesce had criticized centralizing powers for blocking “self-determination and self-governance;” consumerism for its “repressive aim;” new communications technologies for fostering isolation, and “functional-rationalism” for using technology as an end.3 In a similar vein, Pesce’s report for the Tehran Library reads:

“I do not find it necessary to mention all the social tensions and daily life in Iran that we hear in the media. … A majority of architects consider themselves revolutionary in salon discourses, but in their work, on the contrary, they are obedient mandarins of any regime. In our century, nothing has been more harmful to architecture than architects….The international style was a perfect example of this… it is responsible for today’s general frustrations, it killed territories, destroyed great richness of cultures… it has psychologically killed many populations…. It is horrorful to speak today of reductive terms such as ‘Islamic culture’ or ‘Chinese culture’ or ‘Latin American culture’ or ‘extreme oriental,’ because in each of these, there are millions of diverse cultures, represented by millions of peoples. It is extremely urgent to recognize the immense value represented in the immense differences that come from the differences between humans, places, and things. Whoever travels to eliminate these differences is eliminating life…. In our opinion there is no umbilical cordon between the local tradition and the Shah. The National Square resembles the sterile triumphalism … of Italian fascism. Its scale reminds us of the imperial architecture of Stalin’s Russia. … Why a library? Why not a complex to express the approach more in line with the archaic power that govern Iran today? Like, for example, a monumental prison, an immense light, the symbol of the regime in the center of the capital? Or a monument to the concept of censorship placed at the airports or stations to communicate to arriving passengers what sort of a reality they should expect to discover? Or a monument capable of raising the consciousness on the violent methods of the regime?”4

Pesce’s project for the competition consisted of a large, elevated blind box that would house the library facilities. A section drawing shows images of human flesh squeezed into this lifted box, “representing state violence”, and in one of the project’s three-dimensional models, Pesce filled this box with fresh meat. The lifted box, in the design, covers a vast space hollowed out for ten meters below ground. This would be where the public could meet, perhaps in secret, and would connect to city spaces around it. This space also mimics an archaeological site, a possible self-reference to Pesce’s entry in the New Domestic Landscape exhibition—a scenario in which future archaeologists discover that present-day humans had gone underground in order to escape from the horrors of our age. Pesce’s scheme has its elevated box supported by more than twenty cruciform pillars around which some irregular, eerie volumes were designed. These pillars were meant to host micro-landscapes, such as a desert, a mountain, a place for vegetation, and a nomadic tent. In his report, Pesce referred to these as “organic presences [that] represent the diverse ethnic, religious and political minorities who were forced underground and silenced by the power that established Iran,” just as they are crushed with the weight of the box in the project.5 At a time when almost all architects from the political left and right from around the world were convinced of the unity and homogeneity of “culture,” and at a time when all seemed to take for granted the neutrality of the idea of a nation-state, Pesce’s reminder of state violence against ethnic and religious minorities, of the erasure of diversity, and of the life of hidden communities was a unique wake-up call.

  1. France Vanlaethem, Gaetano Pesce: Architecture Design Art (New York: Rizzoli, 1989). 

  2. Over the next four years, Pesce participated in the Highrise competition in Manhattan, as well as competitions for Les Halles and Parc de la Villette in Paris. 

  3. Over the next four years, Pesce participated in the Highrise competition in Manhattan, as well as competitions for Les Halles and Parc de la Villette in Paris. Pesce continued: “I believe that we are passing through a period of deep crisis.… Man is therefore confronted with the mystery of how he will emerge from the present disruption. Well, let us represent his fear, his solitude, his remorse, his anxiety.” Gaetano Pesce, Le futur est peut-être passé. The Future Is Perhaps Past (Paris: Centre de Création Industrielle Établissement Public du Centre Beaubourg, 1975), exhibition catalogue, n.p. 

  4. Gaetano Pesce, “Une pierre dans les jardins d’orient : une violente mise en cause de l’architecture international,” Architecture Intérieure 166 (June–July 1978): 39–41. 

  5. Pesce also added: “In fact, these diverse identities support and are simultaneously crushed by the official image imposed on the country.” Pesce, 42. 

Gaetano Pesce, Section for Pahlavi National Library Competition, Tehran, 1977-1978, Graphite, coloured pencil, watercolour, ink on paper. DR1986:0190. CCA © Gaetano Pesce

Despite his much-needed call for subversion, Pesce did not subvert his own entitled outsider’s gaze with his competition entry. The imposing building on the north side of his project was cut in two. This represented, in Pesce’s words, “the international power that insidiously promotes the creation of a cultural infrastructure little suited to the level of education in the country.”1 It is hard to understand what made Pesce feel so entitled to conclude that the Iranian public was not educated enough for this library, or to claim that the “demand for the library [did] not belong to the realities of Iran, but … came from the international power” that dictated the consumption of culture.2 He also claimed that the new Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by Diba and Ardalan, was “eliminating life” in trying to transport culture from one place to another, as if Iranians were not eligible for a modern art collection.3 Beyond this museum, Pesce’s claim also ignored and trivialized countless other designs for cultural buildings with museums and exhibition spaces, such as Diba’s Niavaran Cultural Center in Tehran (1970–1978), to give one architecturally remarkable example. Because of such residual European Orientalism, it is also hard to evaluate whether Pesce told truth to power with genuine, global-citizen activism in mind, or whether the despotism in Iran provided a convenient ground for him to write a previously conceived manifesto against the current architectural profession. He refused to look closely at Iran to discover exceptions, resistances, collaborations, or emancipating translations.

Pesce’s impressive drawings for the Tehran Library were exhibited at the Architectural Association in London in 1978, at Yale in 1983, and at the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts in 1984. The curatorial texts of these and other exhibitions contextualized him as in the realm of radical design in Italy. They emphasized his provocative critique of corporate productivity and consumerism and pointed out his individualist angst and his deep-dives into the human psyche.4 They saw in Pesce an ally for their Western Marxist or democratic-leftist lenses, but they never discussed the exhibited project for the Tehran Library, or mentioned Pesce’s legitimate criticism of state oppression, fascism, architecture’s leaning toward authority, or pornographic display of power. The reception of Pesce’s striking work on Tehran bears witness to the unpreparedness of these institutions to come to terms with the ethical and geopolitical questions that awaited a globalizing world. Today, Pesce’s project continues to invite us to ask tough questions about architects’ choices to comply with or resist power, and to collaborate with or boycott authoritarian regimes.

  1. France Vanlaethem, Gaetano Pesce, 70. 

  2. Pesce, “Une pierre dans les jardins d’orient,” 42. Pesce added: “The reigning international ideology has imposed on the regime the idea of the need for culture. So a library. But not a library that could perhaps repair the different realities of each center of habitation, but an artificial, centralized one in the capital, with triumphant proportions.” Pesce, 41. 

  3. Pesce, 40. 

  4. Pesce, Le futur est peut-être passé

Gaetano Pesce’s drawings in the CCA Study Room for Esra Akcan’s Research Fellow Seminar, 2019. Photograph by Antoine Saito © Antoine Saito


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