Vahdat Zad, Vahid (2014-06). Imagining the Modern: An Occidentalist Perception and Representation of Farangi Architecture and Urbanism in 19th-Century Persian Travel Diaries. Doctoral Dissertation. Thesis uri icon


  • This study explores the inception of modernity in Iran by examining how the built environment was perceived and represented by Iranian travelers visiting Europe in the mid-19th century. Recent scholarship on modernity in non-Western societies unsettles Euro-centric assumptions that depicted the global circulation of architecture as one way transit between the center and the periphery, the original and the copy. Taking part in questioning this uni-directional cultural dissemination, my project reverses the Orientalist gaze of Postcolonial theories. Here, I discuss how the Iranian traveler constructed tajaddod (Iranian experience of modernity) based on an "Occidentalist" imagery. Many modern institutions and architectural typologies were first introduced to Iran by travelers who visited Europe. These individuals, following a long-standing Persian tradition of travel writing, often kept notes and diaries known as safarnameh. For the purposes of my research, safarnameh serve as non-participant recordings of how Iranians responded to the unfamiliar architectural landscape of the West. To investigate how the message of European modernity was transformed by the travelers, I examine the differences between the descriptions of architecture in each safarnameh and the more prosaic perceptions of those spaces in the Western imagination. I look closely at the literary styles, figures of speech, settings, imagery, symbolism, exaggerations, narrative devices, and tones used by the Iranian writers in their interpretation of European architecture and urban facilities. This study reveals how non-European imaginations, aspirations, fantasies, and agency were a vital part of the transnational dialectic of modernity. By projecting their own Persian/Islamic ideals and imagery onto their observations, these travelers developed a syncretic understanding of modernity. Their encounter with a pre-imagined Western "Other" became the foundation of tajaddod. When Iran's experience of modernity is presented as a distorted copy of a Western phenomenon, Iranian architects are alienated from their heritage. They are presented with a false choice between (Persian) tradition and (Western) modernity. My project emphasizes that the Iranian desire towards a modern utopia is not radically alien to Persian/Islamic tradition. This approach advances humanities research by revisiting genealogical notions of a mythical original modernity by unraveling global entanglements.

publication date

  • May 2014