Oil has played a central role in the history of the modern Iran, but there is little information about how the built environment constructed around the oil industry has influenced the development of modern Iranian cities. What can be learned from architecture and urbanism in the fast-developing oil cities of Iran such as Masjid-Suleiman, Abadan, Agha Jari, and Bandar Mashahr? How did inhabitants cope with the effects of these rapid urban developments? How did transformations in the built environment, consumption practices, leisure activities, and interactions with foreign inhabitants in a city like Abadan (where the region’s first oil industry was launched) influence the nation as a whole? Although the existing scholarship on oil in Iran addresses such socio-political issues as the activities of labor unions, the nationalization of oil, and ensuing social upheavals and strikes, it often overlooks (with the exception of a study by Mark Crinson) the material culture that emerged in these environments as a result of rapid developments. The dwellings of the Iranian oil industry workers, for example, had a great influence on the evolving class cultures of twentieth-century Iran. While class divisions in the region had long existed and were thus not simply byproducts of the growing oil industry, new notions of class (based exclusively on European models) were introduced at this time, rendering the old local class-division systems passé. Furthermore, conceptions of urban planning such as the Howardian “garden city,” “city beautiful,” ronds-points, and boulevards were first introduced to Iranians through the work of British architects, James Wilson and Harold Mason, who were affiliated with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
By the 1970s, thousands of houses were built in Iran’s oil cities; all building materials—from cement and pipelines to toilets—were imported from Great Britain and were installed with the help of Indian professionals who had worked in London and New Delhi. The presence of foreign nationals and the abundance of Western commodities granted an air of exoticism to Iran’s oil cities; this can be traced through the ways in which these cities were imaged and imagined in both their local contexts and abroad. While focused on Abadan, this study seeks to provide a rich context for interpreting the modern history of spatial, cultural, and technical aspects of rapid urban and architectural development in the Persian Gulf region, particularly as it relates to the oil industry and Western models for planning and construction.