Aga Khan Award for Architecture

New Life for Old Structures


Iran: Various locations; 1992 and ongoing
Ministry of Housing & Urban Development, Urban Development & Revitalization Corporation, Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization

The historical centers of Isfahan, Yazd, Zanjan, Tabriz and Bushir comprise dense fabrics for one and two story structures, primarily of mud or fired brick, which are arranged around internal courtyards. The centers of these cities have suffered from general neglect, since traditional homes are often perceived as inappropriate for contemporary needs and unregulated development poses a very real danger to the historical fabric.

To address this threat, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development established a program in 1988 to arrest the physical and social decline of Iran's city centers. Historical cities are acquired, restored and sold or rented to new owners or tenants. An important part of this process has been to identify practical new uses for the buildings to benefit the community.

This work is undertaken by the Ministry's Urban Development and Revitalization Corporation (UDRC), which since 1997 has operated as a corporation, with 51% private investment. In addition to the projects in Isfahan, Yazd, Zanjan, Tabriz and Bushir, the UDRC has more than 30 urban revitalization and development projects, now on-going in 21 cities. All work, related to historical buildings is carried out in close collaboration with the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization (ICHO) of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.

Buildings have been converted, some with great imagination, to accommodate a wide variety of public facilities. Among the most creative examples has been the transformation in Isfahan of the Vazir Bath-house, dating from Safavid era, into the Center of the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. The high vault of the original dressing room (Bineh) is used as a library, while the adjacent steam room (Garm-khaneh) serves as a play and reading area. The more intimate spaces that originally housed pools (Khazineh) provide the backdrop for art lessons. Quarry tiles have been laid with glazed tile inserts in patterns that enable children to play games, and traditional small glass skylights in the domes provide natural lighting. A ramp, traditionally used to lead animals to draw water from the well, has been ingeniously transformed into a small auditorium.

Modern services, including electrical and heating systems and piped water, have been discreetly introduced to all the restored buildings. Structural changes have been kept to a minimum and traditional materials and skills have been used as far as possible, combined, where appropriate, with modern materials or methods.

A market-driven approach has been crucial to ensure long term sustainability and the program has exploited the low cost of centrally located property in comparison of that outlaying areas, illustrating the potential of restored buildings to meet current needs in a commercially viable way. Private investors have been inspired to undertake parallel projects, including a number of guest-house (inn) developments.

The program has brought new life to the urban centers of Iranian cities, improving living conditions, revitalizing the architectural character, renewing appreciation of the rich cultural heritage and stimulating awareness in the private sector of how investment in a country's delicate historical fabric can benefit everyone.


Aga Khan Award for Architecture
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