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By Roy Gutman, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

TEHRAN, Iran – 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.

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.”

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.

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.”

Photo: Blondinrikard Fröberg via Flickr 

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