[The views expressed in this blog post are the author’s own.]
Author: Dena Ziari
The unveiling of a scaled-down replica of the Eiffel Tower earlier this month, in an Iran ruled by Islamic Clerics who are in contempt of the West, illustrates the discord between the veiled objectives of the nouveau riche against Iran’s rich cultural heritage and those living in poverty.
In the wake of fraught diplomatic relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and France, and ever increasing internal tensions and subsistence problems within the country, a 30m tall scaled-down replica of the original 324m tall Eiffel Tower was unveiled on the 2nd of September 2018 on the free-trade island of Kish, as a monument to “entice tourism.” Though it was funded by the private sector, costing approximately 13 billion rials (approximately $300,000 USD), it is not known exactly why this project came about, or if it is also to be considered a diplomatic gesture to France. It was executed by a man called Mohammad Ali Rasouli who has defended the project as it has come under fire from the public that have questioned why those involved did not consider that Iran has many attractions of its own to entice tourists. Rasouli implied that people had become bored of Iranian symbols because “they had seen them all before.”
In the 19th Century building monuments to identity was a common feature of nation building and a strong identity was one of the markers of achieving modernity. As countries constructed the faces that they wished to present to a world that was edging ever closer together, it was usually a careful balance between historical reflection upon the reuse of style and forward progress through construction methods, engineering, and materials. It was a concerted effort between the intention that went into constructing an identity and then projecting that identity outwards.
Named after its creator, Gustav Eiffel, the Eiffel Tower is no different as an example of identity. At the time of its construction in 1889 it was an engineering feat and swiftly became the symbol of the French nation and a symbol to progress, as it used materials in ways never used before, and reached heights never before reached. Towering above the Parisian cityscape, and successfully performing the role of signifier of France to this day, it provides a visual anchor point within the city enabling people to orientate themselves in relation to its dominant form. From an urban perspective it provides a role for the individual navigating their way around, but the replica in Kish averages a height that barely seems to raise its head above the surrounding buildings. So it is difficult to see how it could provide the same parallel function.
The stylistic properties inherent in certain types of architecture were an important communicator of national identity in the 19th Century around Europe and North America. We saw a revival of the Classical and the Gothic by way of what came to be known as the Neo-Classical and Neo-Gothic revival. As the nation-makers looked back to what they perceived to be the origins of their civilisation rooted in the Greeks and the Romans, as well as the Gothic tribes existing before the Italian Renaissance, they used this history to reconstruct the new image of their lineage. During the reign of Reza Shah, who was responsible for spearheading the process of constructing the face of the modern Iranian nation for the 20th Century in the early 1900’s, there was a great effort made by many architects to look back into various stages of Iranian history, and rediscover some of the key monuments that had existed in Iran for millennia, borrow from their stylistic and spatial qualities, and use them as markers of a revival of Iranian architectural identity that was intended for the modern age.
There have been several copies of the Eiffel Tower around the world, most notably in Las Vegas of the 1990s, that had a boom of replicating famous buildings during that decade. Its own version of the Eiffel Tower is nestled in among a Statue of Liberty, Chrysler Building, Hotel de Ville, Venice canals, and so on. The idea of the reproduction took on a new meaning, but they followed the Post-Modernist style that was popularised in North America where copying was somehow normalised into a tongue in cheek recapitulation of some world icons in one location, reducing them specifically to their image and moving them away from their specifically national significance. They are all about the image of what these architectures meant without their substance. Taken in this vein, one might understand a reproduction but that was the 1990’s and architecture has really moved on since then.
The construction of the mini-Eiffel has come under the criticism of Iranian locals and newspapers that are not sure why a country such as Iran with such a rich architectural heritage of its own, whether it be a privately funded project or not, would opt for the Eiffel Tower to entice tourism over a replica of one of its own monuments. Especially when the country faces much bigger problems. What exactly is this a monument to?
Available images of the tower ablaze in lights that are the colours of the flag, or the adopted colour of green for ‘Reform,’ and more recently purple, upon a century-old object copied from the French, during a contemporary time within the country fraught with tension, expresses a confusing message that can not be taken seriously as a sincere expression of Iran’s contemporary development or progress as a nation, or even a pure reduction to the image of its original as it mixes conflicting symbolic values. It’s convoluted, somewhat political, message expresses a country in crisis desperately in search of an identity, all the while forgetting that it already has one.
However well the intentions of this mini-Eiffel Tower were, it is doubtful this will have the kind of pull needed to entice tourism, nor can it be expected to solve the management problems of the government, or the resulting economic and subsistence problems of the Iranian people – architecture just does not have that kind of power.