In a Tehran without night life, a bridge becomes a gathering place

People walk over Tabiat Bridge, the biggest pedestrian bridge in Tehran that connects Abb-O-Atash Park to Taleghani Park in Iran.
People walk over Tabiat Bridge, the biggest pedestrian bridge in Tehran that connects Abb-O-Atash Park to Taleghani Park in Iran. McClatchy

In a city ruled by the automobile, where crossing the street entails risking your life and a real downtown doesn’t exist, there could hardly be a more unusual weekend destination than the newly built Tabiat Bridge – perched over a busy expressway.

Not quite a year after opening to the public, this undulating, multilevel pedestrian bridge, with its curving walkways and sloping ramps, benches and cafes, has become the go-to place for young people on Friday or Saturday evenings. They stroll about with their friends, listening to music and showing the sort the intimacy between the sexes that the Islamic Republic frowns on in public places.

With well-tended parks at either end, the city lights twinkling to the south and traffic moving slowly on the Modarres highway below, the 890-foot-long bridge has become a gathering point for people from all over the city of 8.3 million.

It’s a new symbol for the Iranian capital, its popularity due in no small part to the fact that, in Tehran, there’s nowhere else to go.

“If I had a choice, I’d rather be at a rock concert,” said Soheil, a 20-year-old basketball coach who is getting a bachelor’s degree in physical education and asked to be identified only by his first name. “But the government always bans them.”

Soheil was among the crowd of people who packed the bridge on a Friday evening. In Aab-o-Atash Park, at the bridge’s eastern end, children frolicked in dancing water fountains as families played no-net badminton. In hilly, wooded Taleghani Park at the bridge’s western end, strollers walked along well-landscaped paths.

Our generation is one that has to master the art of adapting to our environment.

Nasrin, bridge visitor

Gholamhassein Karbaschi, the former Tehran mayor renowned as the master builder of the city’s burgeoning park system, had Iran’s social constraints in mind when he launched the growth of the system, as did the young architect who designed the bridge at age 21.

“We don’t have dance clubs and nightclubs,” said Karabaschi, a reformist who served as mayor from 1991 to 1999 and might have been a candidate for national president until he was jailed on corruption charges in what appeared to be a political frame-up. Parks are “the only place people can go.”

Karabaschi received his visitor in north Tehran at the one-time residence of a top official in pre-revolutionary Iran, a villa that now houses an art museum, an elegant garden and a calligraphy institute. “We tried to make Tehran a livable city,” he said. “We expanded the green space a lot. We bought land and turned it into parks.”

The expansion brought parks to central Tehran and to the hills, valleys and other unusual spaces all around the city’s periphery. To finance the expansion – the goal was 270 square feet per resident from the 53 square feet that had been originally planned – Karabaschi introduced a tax on new construction.

With support from Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the centrist president who recruited him, and from his successor, reformist President Mohammad Khatami, Karabaschi built on a comprehensive urban plan designed before the Islamic revolution. He insisted on the best experts and architects available and rode herd during construction.

“I supervised all the details,” he told McClatchy.

Tehran is surrounded by mountains and suffers some of the worst smog on the planet, but traffic now speeds along the city’s 120 miles of expressways, 10 times the number in 1991, and the city has a subway system with three lines, four to go. But the city didn’t build parking garages, intensifying the congestion. “The experts said it’s better not to have them because it will encourage people to use their cars,” Karabaschi explained.

The bridge is not a utilitarian passage from one point to another, but a path full of unexpected turns, features and vistas.

What the city has in abundance is cultural centers, which Karabaschi set up in each of the city’s 22 districts.

It was thanks to a contest that Leila Araghian, then 26, was able to design the Tabiat Bridge. “They wanted something complex, to give an identity to those areas and become a symbol of Tehran,” she said. But Araghian wanted “something modest, but that has character and is interesting enough to have an identity.”

The result is not a utilitarian passage from one point to another, but a path full of unexpected turns, features and vistas. The bridge curves, blurring the destination, “so you won’t know where it is taking you.”

Having won the competition in 2008, Araghian then went to the University of British Colombia in Vancouver, where she wrote her thesis analyzing her own project. Her theme was “Modesty, Serendipity and Silence.”

It’s a very Iranian approach to design, she said. In Kashan, a city in central Iran, houses all have mud walls and a simple door as the entrance, and the way into the house is through a corridor, which then opens onto a huge garden. But there may also be a hidden private garden, where strangers are not welcome.

“It’s a labyrinthine style of building. You discover it through a continuous journey.” And she discovered that that is what drove her design. “I was not aware that that is how I think,” she said.

“The bridge is a serendipitous space,” she said. “When you hide things, there is a chance of discovering. And the excitement you have when you discover it by yourself is a better feeling than when you are expecting it.”

Visitors to the Tabiat Bridge are more direct.

“I like the structure. I like the bridge,” Marjan, 31, a university teacher who was on the bridge early one morning and like most of the people interviewed asked not to have their surnames published. “I like the sound of the cars passing by. You can walk across the traffic.”

But are the park and the bridge enough for them? “Our generation is one that has to master the art of adapting to our environment,” said her sister, Nasrin, 34.

That same attitude came through in an interview with a teacher in another park, the Nahj-ul-Balagha, named for a collection of sermons and treatises attributed to Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law and revered by Shiite Muslims as the founder of their strain of Islam.

“Iran is the safest country in the region,” said Mandana, 30. “But most of the young people want only to leave the country. What the government wants of us is very different from the way people really want to be. We have a lack of freedom.”

Roy Gutman: @roygutmanmcc