photographer: phillip arnold of plus minus design, sydney, australia.
licence: creative commons attribution.
bank melli iran, university branch, enghelab street, tehran, iran, 1959-1962.
architect: jørn utzon (1918-2008) with hans munk hansen (b.1923).
the street facade of the bank has suffered the greatest changes as was perhaps inevitable. there is something tough and at times hostile to utzon’s exteriors. with the opera house as the overwhelming exception to the rule, his buildings are about space, the interior world, almost to the point of introversion, and the blank wall could have been his signature.
just think of what meets you on arrival at his own house, his courtyard housing projects in fredensborg and elsinore, his school prototype in herning – or what would have met you in the theatre projects for madrid and wolfsburg. the melli bank at least hints at its architectural principles. by comparison, that famous later development of the ideas presented in tehran, the otherwise wonderful bagsværd church, tells you nothing of what awaits you inside.
there can be little doubt that utzon found confirmation of such fearless exterior austerity in his studies of historical chinese and islamic architecture, both vernacular and monumental, in which the dominant courtyard typology reduces the street to a promise of rich, interiors worlds. and utzon was justified exactly by the quality of spaces he created and proposed.
but we are touching on a central point of criticism against modernist architecture, a criticism we have all internalised today when a facade is expected to be entertaining or – even worse – to distract, not something architecture does all that well. ever the modest master, utzon in a late interview admitted to having underestimated the question of urbanism. I am not sure, I agree with his self-criticism entirely – certainly not in the case of bank melli – except that I too have been conditioned to a sense of unease at the sight of such relentless, uncompromising late-modern architecture.
the bank consist simply of three parallel walls, two of them party walls to the neighbours, while the third one, the low wall in the photo, separates the servant from the served spaces. all of them support the great trough-shaped concrete beams that take turns as roof, skylights, and floors. the very first one you enter under acts as a canopy, but its true role is to introduce the theme utzon develops as you move through the house.
for this musical analogy to make sense, the first beam would have to be in white concrete like the interior ones for recognition. and so it was originally. some mistaken sense of propriety has led the iranians to clad it in stone, and, as the stone began to fall off, to add metal flashing and panels. the clarity of the architect’s intentions through the articulation of individual parts is obvious in the photo from hans munk hansen, utzon’s collaborator, below. you’ll notice that even the stone cladding of the parallel walls stopped short of the concrete beams.
finally, I must thank sydney architect phillip arnold for sharing his photos of bank melli in its current state!
more utzon here
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