My interest in the story comes through my love of architecture. I’d previously learnt that Queen Farah Diba Pahlavi had studied architecture and after visiting her personal library at the Royal Palace of Niavaran I was curious to find out more. Unexpectedly I discovered that the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation had three buildings registered in Iran; two of which were commissioned by Princess Shams Pahlavi, the deposed Shah's sister and her husband, Mehrdad Pahlbod - the then minister of culture and art.
The remaining building, The Damavand Higher Educational Institute, also has an inspiration story attached to it, one that will have to wait for another blog!
Of the two properties commissioned by the Princess, the summer residence known as Mehrafarin Palace in Chalous, is incredibly difficult to find any information on. My understanding is that it was never completed due to the revolution and I’m uncertain of its location or if it is actually still standing.
The most prestigious and spectacular of the two palaces, the Morvarid Palace, also known as ‘Pearl Palace’ in Mehrshahr, Karaj was completed in the early 1970’s and then promptly abandoned shortly before the revolution of 1979.
Through a few carefully orchestrated enquiries by our film crew we were privileged enough to organise a visit to this truly remarkable building.
The Pearl Palace was designed primarily by William Wesley Peters, but undoubtedly Charles Montooth, Frances Nemtim and Cornelia Brierly contributed to the design. Associated senior fellow at Taliesin, Thomas Casey served as chief engineer and spent a considerable amount of time in Iran.
It is my understanding that when the Princess was presented with the original drawings she was so emotionally moved, because they had envisioned the Palace that she dreamed of, that she burst into tears and had to leave the room to collect herself.
The large central space was once covered by a huge tetra-dome Plexiglass matrix, the framework of which still exists, creating a huge greenhouse-like area filled with fountains, pools, gardens and communal spaces. Unfortunately now exposed to the elements many of the concrete steels have started to corrode and water damage is prevalent throughout the building.
Off this central space, satellite rooms are accessible by an internal incline, which gently ascends in a spiral, reminiscent of the ramp in Wright’s most famous building, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.
The interior decorations are not overly typical of other Wright buildings, although the spirit of some of the decorative elements and the applied proportions are greatly reminiscent. Unlike other palaces of the Pahlavi era, traditional Iranian carpets and decoration are missing in Morvarid Palace. Instead contemporary 1970’s design is prevalent throughout, including an incredible Plexiglass staircase. The fixtures and fittings were selected to suit Iranian taste, moving around the building we are constantly dazzled by golden chainmail curtains, glittering geometric crystal chandeliers and perfectly proportioned golden coffee tables; one ‘entertainment’ room even features a Perspex billiards table!
The lavish interior, including numerous bars, hot tubs, saunas and a full size cinema, reeks of 1970’s hedonism. It’s easy to imagine a ‘Boogie Nights’ style party going on in the space or a Xanadu-esq roller disco. The Princess’ private bathroom with a matching golden toilet and hot-tub, rumoured to be filled with milk, are extravagances that feel more Hollywood than Iran.
The gaudy ostentatious interior is considered by many of Wright’s fans to be an abomination whilst others consider it a masterpiece of 1970’s interior design.
It is this uniqueness, the diversity in the forms, decoration and materials that make the palace quite distinct from other Wright Foundation buildings. For this reason alone the building is not only an important part of Iranian heritage it is an important building architecturally.