The Pritzker Prize winning-Danish architect Jørn Utzon expeditiously rose to fame after designing the iconic Sydney Opera House. Since then, the architect was recognized for his Nordic sense of concern for nature. His approach provided social value to the synthesis of form, materials, and functions. It is often said that travel is one of the most revered educators for an architect. Utzon had been a passionate student of this art.
Throughout his career of over half a century, he had been associated with other remarkable structures as he opened doors to the concept of “additive architecture”. One building continually missed from his list of notable works is the Melli Bank — the branch in the University of Tehran.
Background and Influences
Utzon’s leap to international fame coincided with the peak of his creativity in the architectural domain. In 1958, Jorgen Saxild from the Kampax engineering company invited him to design a branch for Iran’s national bank, ready for its international operations. Despite a modest fee, Utzon could not miss the opportunity of working in such close association with Islamic architecture.
Hans Munk Hansen—an experienced designer in the Middle-east—became the project architect and was dazzled by Utzon’s curiosity. The Danish architect encouraged him to refer to the renowned works of Alvar Aalto in Helsinki and Le Corbusier in Chandigarh. Particularly impressed by the latter’s work on the High Court Building, Utzon rendered similar strong lines to be necessary for the project.
Utzon’s vision for the Tehran bank developed as a mixed outcome of the client’s need for a structure that stands out and his inspiration from the natural patterns and traditional elements. He revisited Moroccan themes from his earlier work while also drawing inspiration from his encounter with the Persian tradition. As per Hansen, Utzon’s exposure to the city of Isfahan became the defining feature of the project and later impacted his subsequent projects. The spatial vistas created by the dramatic daylighting in Iranian bazaars influenced the lighting of the building.
The 26-meter-wide site for the bank lay on Shahreza avenue, or as known today, Enqelab street. Utzon raised the building on a platform while setting it back from the busy street where the neighboring buildings maintained a strict street line. Parallel flanking walls on each side of the platform form a small piazza and a unique facade. The thick walls accommodate the services, and the western one even holds the support zones behind it. Upon moving inside, the structure conforms to the Persian tradition as the low dark entrance indirectly leads into the three-story building.
The inspiration for this came from the Johnson Wax Building, a technique frequented by Frank Lloyd Wright. This shaded transition with V-shaped beams on top provides a dynamic entry to the expansive banking hall. A spiral staircase further leads the visitors to the two upper levels that house the administrative services hovering over the platform on the ground. The spatial flow with daylighting gives an overview of the entire bank at once. Further on inspiration from Aalto’s Pension Institute in Helsinki, Utzon imagined the banking hall as a landscape of desks and cubicles.
Architecture of Expression
Utzon also saw this project as the first opportunity to work with wide-spanned and curved concrete construction. While the two lateral gable walls and a concrete frame run through its continuity, Utzon envisioned the roof as a modern-day translation of the skylight vaults he encountered in the bazaars. He also based the design on an art gallery in Baghdad by Alvar Aalto.
Pre-stressed folded-plate beams of varying depths characterized the enigmatic roof. The variation created a profile that mimicked the Islamic script for “Melli Bank”. It welcomed north light through narrow slits and then reflected it off the V-shaped troughs. The complete flexibility and organization of spaces later transpired into a key formula for the bank’s future branches.
The building boasts simple and elegant planning by Utzon and his right of expression. The continuity and autonomy of the wall, the celestial presence drawn in by the roof, and the heightening of human existence through the platform created an expression of art.
Utzon’s Departure from the Project
Cultural clashes were inevitable as the building neared completion. The modernist idea of rejecting ornamentation did not sit well with the culture that was accustomed to elaborately decorated finishes. Utzon’s wish to leave the raw concrete smooth was considered unfinished by the client who immediately clad them with travertine. The use of a rough perforated brick to soften the acoustics was deemed “peasant-like” leading to its replacement with American acoustic panels. His vision for modular furniture, echoing the town’s structure, also went unrealized.
Years later, Utzon’s association with the bank started diminishing. The disconnect can be credited to the country’s political isolation after the revolution in 1979. The architect’s derailment following the Sydney Opera House controversy further could not help. It was in 2015 that the forgotten masterpiece again caught attention. The Municipality of Tehran proposed renovations for Enqelab street.
While the local architects could stop the authorities from cladding the raw concrete on the façade with aluminium panels, the building still underwent tremendous alteration. The interiors got refurbished with marble, and ATMs were added. Alas, modern light fittings replaced the mirror reflectors on Utzon’s characteristic V-beams!
The rediscovery of Melli Bank elucidates Utzon’s transition and radical approach. Architects also saw the birth of this bank as a dress rehearsal for the Bagsvaerd Church. He strived to perfect the same principles of lighting in the latter. Hence, the project is worthy of its long-due recognition. It forms a missing link between the architect’s earlier experimentations and his more mature developments in the years that followed.
- Drew, P. and Baghchesaraei, A. 2018. From function to expression: Melli Bank in Tehran, Iran by Jørn Utzon – Architectural Review. [online] Architectural Review. Available at: <https://www.architectural-review.com/buildings/from-function-to-expression-melli-bank-in-tehran-iran-by-jorn-utzon> [Accessed 5 June 2021].
- Tehranprojects.com. 2021. Bank-e Melli, Tehran – Tehran Projects. [online] Available at: <http://www.tehranprojects.com/Bank-e-Melli-Tehran> [Accessed 5 June 2021].
- Archnet.org. 2021. Bank Melli | Archnet. [online] Available at: <http://archnet.org/sites/379> [Accessed 5 June 2021].