Iran's Center for Cultural Hegemony & Social Conformance Enforcement Directorate

Cartoon by Rick Zimmerman
Cartoon by Rick Zimmerman

Having traveled 90 kilometers west-southwest of the Iranian ‘Municipality of Tabriz Zone 4’ along the sweltering two-lane asphalt of highway 16, we are just beginning our clockwise skirting around the base of dun red Shahi ‘Island’ — which is truly more of a rocky conical mount cropping out of the desolate sand plains flanking acid-green Lake Urmia.

But before we begin that circumnavigation, we note the thinly spread village of Sarai, peppered up the sloped eastern flank of Shahi amidst gridded crop fields and drainage runnels from the heights. There are perhaps a hundred or more structures nestled in organic clumps. From the air they might resemble a star-shaped neuron of gray-brown mud huts and whitewashed roofs.

Heading into the more compact nexus of the village, we note the structures crowding tighter and filing deeper left and right. As we attain a modest plaza near the local outdoor bazaar, we at last glimpse the landmark we seek: Iran’s recently constructed Center for Cultural Hegemony & Social Conformance Enforcement Directory.

The Center is noteworthy for more than the simple fact that it towers high, high, high above any other structure in the village, and, in fact, competes in the skyline with the bulk of Shahi beyond. It stuns by its sheer extravagance and cacophonic architectural exuberance. Its base takes its initial cues from the region’s indigenous features of mud-colored walls, blind coptic arches, staircased terraces and corner minarets.

But the higher one’s eyes drift, the more radical the structural features encountered. A mortarless chinked wall of sandstone slabs gives way to massive blocks of basalt canted at a rakish angle. The massive gabled entry hall is clad in clay tile and sports icicle-like confectionary eaves, a massive Iranian rat gargoyle, and a heptagonal turrent topped by a frothy rooftop widow’s walk.

The soaring bulk of the Center takes on polychromed waves that mirror nearby Lake Urmia (except, that is, for their clean colors and unspoiled turbulence). Higher above, multiple bubbles of blacked glass punctuate the Plenary Chambers before shifting to dragon’s-teeth glazing of scarlet shards. An undulating accretion of glass-tiled stalactites provides a through-the-floor view of the Great Gathering Hall to the Center’s entrance below.

The inverted onion-domed minaret descends from the forward-thrusting bulk of the Citizens’ Gallery (with its distinctively shaded ‘Crystal Curtain’). The security systems of the People’s Protectorate, Policing Panel and Perennial Pencil-Pushers are all operated out of the Center’s convex ‘snout’ — the eavesdropping range across the dry and dusty reaches is impressive.

From the cohesive visual impact of the C. C. H. S. C. E. D., the casual observer could be forgiven for believing that a singular visionary architect created it, fully-formed and perfect. In actuality, more than 39 architects, engineers, designer-wives and sons-in-law of local emirs made significant stylistic contributions to this masterpiece of modern Persian design.

Unfortunately, as a result of the Center’s troubled trajectory – multiple sequentially revised and increasingly elaborate designs, rampant funding corruption and graft, numerous construction starts and stops, and a bloated operational vision — it has been given the rather sardonic acronym CHEESED by locals and tourists alike.

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