They look as if they’ve risen out of the desert itself in some strange, dystopian world. There are no trees, no cars, no bus stops, no parks, no playgrounds, no people. Just the towers. In a barren landscape 50km outside of Iran’s capital city, the Mehra Mer project in Pardis has been “under construction” for many years and by all accounts, it doesn’t sound like things are going quite according to plan. As if they’d attempted to replicate the mad, bad world of Modernist utopias in the middle of a barren desert landscape, somewhere, Le Corbusier is rolling over in his grave.
As early as 2014, The Guardian was reported that the towers of Pardis City: Phase 11 “are the ghosts of a sprawling construction scheme once touted as a crowning achievement of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, but now blamed for some of the Iranian economy’s most pressing structural problems”. The satellite photographs from 2019 show that not very much has changed. Still no cars, no people, no sign of life.
The plan was to build a readymade community equipped with public transportation, hospitals schools and even parks in the barren landscape. Little thought was given to the ecological conditions and it soon came to light that “some 200,000 units lacked access to water, heating and sewage systems”. Add in skyrocketing inflation rates in a struggling economy and it wasn’t long before the developers halted the project mid-construction.
“In the past years, dozens of housing communities were built all over Iran”, says photographer Manolo Espaliú, who has been documenting Iran’s Maskan-e Mehr houses building project, once called “the finest undertaking since Adam” by former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. “Billions were pumped into the economy to erect 17 new cities and some 1.5 million housing units. One of the main goals of building the Maskan-e Mehr communities was reversing migration to the larger cities, where living standards are deteriorating due to traffic, pollution and high rents.”
The earthquake-proof towers were originally intended to help house the underprivileged, but Manolo says that goal has failed since only the middle class could afford to live in them with the worsening economy.
“Maskan-e Mehr system offered developers free government land to build affordable housing units for first-time owners. Since most citizens have difficulty getting small bank loans, homeowners who signed up for Mehr housing were given 99-year mortgages guaranteed by the state. Banks acted as intermediaries between developers and the government, and the central bank was instructed to print more money to pay for the scheme. Maskan-e Mehr housing scheme finally resulted one of the largest hurdles to Iran’s economic recovery.”
And if you were thinking this dystopian ghost city looked eerily familiar, here’s a reminder of Le Corbusier’s unrealised utopian dream for his “Radiant City”:
Of course Iran isn’t alone in failed construction projects. China’s own ghost cities, Egypt’s unfinished hotel ruins in the desert and Turkey’s fake city of French Chateaux all come to mind.