Ahmadreza Hakiminejad explores Scottish architect James Mollison Wilson’s work in Iran at the advent of the 20th century.
On a late-spring day in 1901, the King of Persia signed a notorious concession and gave the English millionaire William Knox D’Arcy the rights to prospect for and market oil. Seven years later, the black substance was no longer a mystery in the land of Persia. In 1909, the London-based Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) was born and by 1912, the liquid began to flow in the pipeline from the oil fields of Masjed Soleyman to what was yet to become the world’s largest refinery on the desert island of Abadan; putting a poor, deprived village on the map. This was the time when, far from Abadan, a 25-year-old Scotsman, through “a remarkable stroke of good fortune” , was about to join the office of Edwin Lutyens – the empire’s eminent architect – who had just been commissioned to create a new capital for India.
The young Scotsman, who would be shaping the oil city some two decades later, was no one but James Mollison Wilson – yet to be professionally known as JM. He was born in 1887 in the coastal town of Dundee. Studying at Dundee High School, he despised working at a solicitor’s office and quit the firm after six months. Soon, he was introduced to the world of architecture by joining the office of William Alexander, the ‘City Architect of Dundee’, at the age of 16. He lived, trained and worked in his hometown until 1910 when he moved to London as an assistant to Gibson, Skipwith & Gordon, a firm, which at the time, dealt with the creation of the Middlesex Guildhall in the south-west corner of Parliament Square.
In London, Wilson attended the Royal Academy Schools before joining Edwin Lutyens’ office in 1913, when a commission to plan New Delhi drew the young assistant to the East. No doubt, Wilson’s experience at Lutyens’ practice left a mark on him forever, as he remained there until he enlisted in the Punjab Light Horse Regiment in 1916 and was dispatched with the Indian Army to Mesopotamia (later, Iraq). Upon his arrival, Wilson transferred to the Indian Engineers with the rank of major, “because there were so few officers with building experience in the Expeditionary Force.” Two years later, settling down in Baghdad as deputy director of Civil Works, he organised the Public Works Department (PWD) and eventually became its director in 1920 – the same year the British Mandate for Mesopotamia was introduced, resulting in a nationwide Iraqi revolt that was brutally suppressed. This was the time when the neighbouring Persian territory was in an utter chaos, fuelled by the whims of rival powers, the Soviet Union and Britain, and witnessing the twilight of the Qajar dynasty.
Wilson, now the director and chief architect of PWD, was in charge of designing and getting built all sorts of essential facilities, such as government buildings, infrastructures, schools and hospitals, such as the University of Baghdad, the Agricultural Institute, Baghdad Museum and Basra hospital, not to mention his first town plan, the suburb of Alwiyah . During the period of his service at the PWD, he happened to accompany Gertrude Bell; the writer, traveller and archaeologist (then the Oriental Secretory to the high commissioner in Baghdad), in several archaeological excursions. Wilson resigned in 1926 and returned to London to set up his own practice in a two-room office on the seventh floor of Winsor House on Victoria Street. However, his involvement with the Middle East had yet to flourish. Only a year later, the region was calling him back again, not only to Iraq, but also to Persia. The man behind the latter was Arnold Wilson, the former civil commissioner in Baghdad during Wilson’s service – nicknamed ‘The Despot of Mess-Pot’ – who had now become the general manager of the APOC. Meanwhile in Persia, Reza Khan, putting an end to the Qajar dynasty, had ascended the throne, strengthening his command in the country.
Designing a general hospital for Abadan in 1927 marks the dawn of Wilson’s oil architecture. The £100,000 hospital was never realised as conceived; instead, it was erected as a ‘large and well-equipped’ dispensary in 1931. By the late 1920s, Wilson’s practice had received commissions from the APOC to design a ‘Memorial to the Fallen’ of the First World War at the Fields , as well as a group of three houses for senior staff of the Abadan refinery, which was described by the Technical Press as an “example of stringent restrictions imposed by local materials… paying respect to traditions of Persian architecture.” Over the next two decades – except for the interruption of World War II – Wilson’s practice was to become heavily involved with the APOC’s projects in Persia; most noticeably, the development of Abadan .
When Wilson arrived in Abadan in the late 1920s, a sense of an autonomous colony – although Iran was not formally a colonial backyard – was in the air. Abadan was a paradoxical phenomenon in the eyes of its burgeoning population of working class. The company had laid out a green oasis (known as Braim) to the south-west of the refinery. It was a garden suburb with spacious, facilitated bungalows – a ubiquitous architectural typology across the British colonies. The so-called ‘bungalow area’ with its cricket clubs, gardens and tea parties, was home to the British, as well as a few Iranian seniors . This was the utopian image the propagandistic machine of the AIOC (renamed from APOC in 1935 after Persia was renamed Iran) desired so much to display . In contrast, to the south-east of the refinery, there was a stifled, chaotic ‘native town’, accommodating non-European staff and part of the labour, pushing a large number of labourers into shanty towns and ghettos on the edges of the company and municipal areas .
With the imposing physicality of the refinery sitting between these two distinctive settlements, Abadan had become a racially-segregated society, not only in the case of accommodation, but also in the ‘use of buses, clubs and cinemas’ . In 1929, due to its nakedly unequal distribution of resources, the company faced a landmark strike organised by the Iranian labourers to demand fair wages, hours and working conditions. The protest was suppressed by the AIOC with the help of Reza Shah’s regime . Wilson, in his 1934 report attached to his proposal for a new neighbourhood in Abadan (known as Bawarda), raised his concerns over the discriminatory nature of urban development and recruitment procedures carried out by the company: “to the Persian, this disparity in housing presented a real and wide gulf between him and British… In my opinion there is truth in the point of view he adopts, and the average young Persian is faced on entering the service of the Company with a form of barrier almost insurmountable.” He went even further and warned the company of the rise of nationalism throughout the Middle East which, as he wrote, “has aroused in various nationals feelings of jealousy towards the British – in some cases akin to dislike. Though the Company incurs less of this feeling than the political services, it must introduce measures to meet it. Failure to do so… result in measures of a most serious nature being forced upon it.” Placing Bawarda to the south-east of refinery (also to the south-east of native town), Wilson saw it as a manifestation for a mixed-race, non-segregated estate that could address these social conflicts through a comprehensive scheme of planning which was hitherto non-existent in Abadan .
By the late 1940s, Abadan, as an oil city, had come into being. Wilson planned a collection of dispersed housing estates – with no clear intention to link them – including Segoushi-e Braim, Amirabad and Bawarda Shomali (for non-European staff), Bahar, Farahabad, Jamshid and Bahmanshir (for non-European labour) and an expansion of Braim (for European staff), which all, apart from Jamshid followed a ‘garden suburb’ ideal . He employed a variety of architectural impressions in different house types, sizes and styles. Apart from his ‘tower house’ type – arguably his most architecturally-valuable legacy in Iran for its time – the rest can be translated into a mere mechanical production of design to fulfil a massive planning agenda. It should be noted that, despite all these efforts, the wretched working and living conditions of the labour  was never adequately realised, as by 1951 only 18.5 percent of labour lived in company quarters .
In 1930-1, Wilson was commissioned to design the AIOC Headquarters in Tehran (now part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Here, apart from the meticulous use of brick and a careful consideration to craftsmanship, a two-storey building shouting a neo-classical expression within the Iranian context and merging pre-Islamic Persian elements with the Safavid ornamentalism was wedded to an imposing, rather modernist, asymmetrically-positioned volume; a kind of gesture which was not uncommon throughout the 1930s and 40s in Iran’s capital for many state institutions . In 1938, as part of the AIOC’s new policies for ‘Iranianisation’ of the refinery staff, Wilson was required to design a Technical College (now part of the Petroleum University of Technology), placed to the north-east of Bawarda and intended for the training of Iranians for graded roles in the refinery. As Mark Crinson correctly noted, here Wilson used a more ‘abstracted’ vocabulary of Iranian traditional architecture; a two-storey symmetrical stretch of brick work, raising from the centre to an outstanding, dignified entrance, embracing a clock tower, the position of which and the way it mounted to the building calls to mind the 18th century badgir (wind tower) of Dowlat Abad Garden in Yazd. Architecturally, it could only be a scaled-down version of the multi-storey block Wilson designed earlier for the headquarters offices in Tehran, although some scholars may refer to the possible influence of the works of Dutch architect, Willem Marinus Dudok .
Before the outbreak of the war in 1939, Wilson designed a theatre (Taj Theatre, later Naft Cinema) in Abadan, on the outskirts of Bawarda. Accommodating 1,200 people, its bulky fortress-like, yet well-composed form is, to some extent, reminiscent of Wilson’s own 1936 design for St George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad – there is a possibility that Wilson might have been influenced by ancient ziggurats either in Iran or Iraq. However looking at its side elevation, it may unconsciously remind one of the side view of the Great Sphinx of Giza embedded in an art-decoian abstractionism. As the drawings of Taj Theatre suggest, a three-storey entrance block comprising the foyer, lounge and projection room, leads to a truss-roofed ‘barrel-shaped’ auditorium and a cuboid stage, surrounded by a block of dressing rooms, workshops and scenery stores. The project, skinned by the British brick, seemingly pioneered the production of artificial stonework, as well as terrazzo tiles and slabs locally .
As mentioned earlier, the war temporarily distracted Wilson’s office from Iran. Iran itself, despite its neutrality, would become witness to the Anglo-Soviet invasion of 1941, which led to the forced abdication of Reza Shah in favour of his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In 1943, Wilson was called in by the AIOC to return to Iran to pursue “the development and expansion of Abadan and all the Company’s areas for which he had been responsible,” . From 1945, the practice well resumed its massive amount of works inside Iran until the British had to pack up and evacuate the country in 1951 due to the nationalisation of Iran’s oil resources. However, in two years, it was to comeback and splash its venom to witness the fall of the man behind the nationalisation – Iran’s immensely popular Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh. Wilson’s senior assistant, and later partner, C. H. Lindsey Smith’s rather self-righteous account of the events in Iran reflect the atmosphere (and perhaps the attitudes) of the practice in those days: “the firm suffered a grievous blow… the Iranian government in the Person of Dr Mosaddegh, breached their agreement with the Anglo-Iranian and this country… They took over the greatest single enterprise in British commerce… the sudden disappearance of the great volume of work was a traumatic experience from which it took some time to recover.”
While the dispute, to some extent, was settled in 1954, the AIOC became the British Petroleum Company and, Wilson Mason and Partners, once again, was now called by the National Iranian Oil Company to prepare initial designs for several buildings. In 1958, after receiving a new series of commissions from the Middle East, the practice decided to establish an office in Tehran in association with Abdol-Aziz Farmanfarmaian , an aristocratic young architect from Shiraz with powerful links to the royal court who was to become one of the key faces of Iran’s modern architecture in the 1960s and 70s. The new practice called Wilmafar was active until 1973. During this time, one of the most significant projects the practice carried out in Iran was a £1,250,000 pharmaceutical factory, commissioned by the Royal Welfare Organisation in 1958. Design shows a collection of conventional steel-framed structures with brick walling or asbestos cladding, laid out in a vast green landscape overseeing a linear ‘water garden’ . The factory was inaugurated in April 1963 by the Shah.
It is worth noting that the extent of Wilson’s work in Iran does not merely limit to the few abovementioned projects. Wilson Mason and Partners designed a large number of individual buildings, such as houses and flats of various types, bath houses, hospitals, clinics and dispensaries, primary schools, social and sport clubs, restaurants and canteens, guest houses and hostels, municipal offices, refinery and petroleum offices, an omnibus garage, a power station and sub-stations, water works, pump houses, water towers, Seaman’s Institute, development laboratory, airport, geological office, as well as town plans for other AIOC areas, such as Masjed Soleyman, Aghajari, Gachsaran, Kermanshah and Bandar-e Mahshahr, marking the first professional town planning exercises carried out in Iran. Wilson died on 25 June, 1965 at the age of 78. He was “a kind and scrupulously honest” man with “pleasant disposition”, as described in a complementary monograph written by his loyal assistant Lindsey Smith. Had he not been, it is unlikely that he could have survived the incisive pen of Gertrude Bell, who described him in a letter to her parents as “a delightful creature”. Although his role as a “conventional pioneer colonial servant” is undeniable, R. K. Home, in his 1990 research on the various types of planners that worked in British colonies, categorised Wilson as a “consultant architect” rather than someone in colonial service, or a “peripatetic propagandist” . Whatever our judgment be, J. M. Wilson’s works are a significant part of Iran’s modern architectural history that demand to be revisited and archived.
- Lindsey Smith, C. H. 1976. JM, the Story of an Architect. Great Britain: Privately published.
- The AIOC usually referred to oil fields in Khuzestan, Iran as ‘Fields’.
- In 1935, Persia became Iran, and consequently, the APOC was renamed the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). The same year, JM partnered Harold Clayforth Mason, his former colleague at the Public Works Department in Iraq, nevertheless it seems, according to Crinson, most of firm’s works for the AIOC have been designed by Wilson himself. In 1944, JM was formally recognised as the Company architect.
- Elling, Rasmus Christian. 2014. ‘Oliebyen midt i en jazztid: Nostalgi, magi og det moderne i Abadan’, Tidsskriftet Kulturstudier, 2/24. The reworked English version of this paper was published online in Ajam Media Collective: www.ajammc.com.
- Damluji, Mona. 2013. The Oil City in Focus; The Cinematic Spaces of Abadan in the Anglo- Iranian Oil Company’s Persian Story, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle Eas. 33, No. 1, Duke University Press. doi 10.1215/1089201x-2072730
- Crinson, Mark. 1997. Abadan: planning and architecture under the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, Planning Perspectives, 12:3, 341-359, DOI: 10.1080/026654397364681
- For more details on Bawarda planning see: 6.
- Farmanfarmaian, Manuchehr. 1999. Blood and Oil: Inside the Shah’s Iran. New York: Modern Library.
- The facade of AIOC Headquarters was partly redesigned by Aghai Elgar; a local British-trained architect: BP 54561, cited in 6.
- Joyce, Barry. 2017. The Building of Baghdad. RIBA Journal, 22 November 2017. www.ribaj.com/culture/james-mollison-wilson-architect-of-empire-baghdad
- Building, 1949. ‘Taj Theatre, Abadan; Architects: J. M. Wilson & H. C. Mason. January’ January 1949. 15-17.
- Builder, 1964. ‘Pharmaceutical factory, Teheran; Architects: J. M. Wilson, H. C. Mason & Partners’ October 1964. 9. 755-756.
- R. K. Home, R. K. 1990. Town planning and Garden Cities in the British colonial empire 1910–1940, Planning Perspectives 5,23–24.