Mehdi Taheri

Architectural Diplomacy: The Case of Iran's 1971 Imperial Celebration

PhD candidate

  • Mehdi Taheri


‘International cooperation’ collapses and conceals, working to remove the imbalances and asymmetries of power, which are almost always built into collaborations between agencies, individuals or countries. With the paradigm of the international built upon a benign nomenclature of cooperation, partnerships and collaboration, ideas of equanimity and equivalence have become the norm; a process that masks over the subtle levels of exploitation and subversive power that habituate relations of the international.

Tim Winter (2015). Heritage diplomacy, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 21:10, 997-1015

The scholarship on architectural diplomacy, the art of advancing influence through architectural communication, is limited to mostly offshore buildings like embassies, expositions, and exhibitions. Similarly, the practice of architectural diplomacy remains vague and challenging to define. This research advances a new understanding of architectural diplomacy using a historical investigation of a global event in 1971, amidst the Cold War, a worldwide contest of ideas, i.e. Iran’s 1971 Imperial Celebration. The Shah of Iran, MohammadReza Pahlavi (r. 1941-1979), invited heads of 61 states, representatives of most major religions, nearly 1600 journalists, reporters, and photographers, dozens of cultural figures and media influencers, and roughly 250 scholars to Iran where they commemorated 25 centuries of the monarchical institution. This thesis recognises the diplomatic potential of onshore architectural interventions. It demonstrates how Iran used architecture to convey the messages of wealth, power, authority, prosperity, security, and hegemony to a global audience.

Three episodes compose this thesis. Episode One argues for spatialised architectural history as architectural diplomacy. It contends how Persepolis Son et Lumiere, a night-time audiovisual entertainment that intersected built heritage, historical dramatisation, and popular entertainment, was deployed at the Celebration to convey the messages of regional hegemonic rights, legitimacy, and security. Episode Two demonstrates architectural diplomacy as embedded in the finer scale elements, such as seating arrangements and furniture, as an architectural representation of benign notions like political inclusivity and human rights, and as a publicity campaign. It concerns Persepolis Tent City and affirms how architecture and architectural design were deployed to establish an international fraternity of monarchy amidst the third wave of democratisation. Finally, Episode Three evinces architectural diplomacy in constructing monuments, architectural commissions, exhibitions, and models. It focuses on the Shahyad monument that reconciled three millennia of the monarchical history of Iran through architecture and argues for the diplomacy behind the grandeur monument. This episode also addresses the relevance of street naming, architectural scholarship, and heritage site interventions to diplomacy.