Palace.Prison: an inquiry on the question of Modernity

Qasr-prison – Tehran


Soroor Notash

I step in through the portico that faces the main street. It leads me to the main building of the museum. Step by step I am headed toward the past. Two centuries have gone by since the palace was ready to move into, and soon a whole century since the prison was built. I look for the traces of colonialism and modernity and the people who has fought for their ideals and payed with their lives in this building. I search through memories and tales in hope of finding a new image, to reach those forgotten stories.
The prison was called “House of forgetfulness” and with its high and impenetrable walls soon became notorious for its political prisoners. Today the walls are demolished, the park is inviting and the prison has become a museum, “A place to remember”. But what do we remember?

It’s about the notion of modernity, prosperity and development. It is also about new economical resources;
It’s about a child born in prison;
It’s about a country that wants to reclaim its place on the new World map of the twentieth century;
It’s about the feeling of living in a prison as big as a country;
It’s about trying to find the real meaning of emancipation;
It’s also about the dialogue between the past and now;
It’s about the name, Palace, which is carried by the prison; It’s about the long-lasting life of names;
It’s about the dialogue between the developed and developing, superiority and inferiority, change and preservation, past and now and the future;
It’s about exploring the meaning of freedom through a prison, wishing to come to liberation and emancipation;
It’s about seeking consolation in a place of aggression;
It’s about making sense of many seemingly unrelated knowledges and experiences,
It’s about bringing a meaningful togetherness of contradictions.

The year is 1926. A prison is built on the site of a former Qajar summer palace; Qasr-prison, Palace-Prison is there in Tehran, ready to host the captives.
Behind this building lies nineteenth century history. The palace was ready in the beginning of that century. A century that starts with a country that is a patchwork of several ethnical groups, living quite disconnected and independently.
Iran didn’t become a colony in the whole administrative sense but it didn’t skip coloniality either. Shrinking as an aftermath of several losses to Russia and Britain and having two unsuccessful reforms along with influences from the West resulted in the constitutional revolution in 1905. A short-lived revolution followed by a civil war and a period of uncertainties ended with the new monarch, Reza Shah, coming into power in 1921.
As a project of modernizing the country and inspired and influenced by powers that had exploited the country during the previous century, Reza Shah started establishing a new administrational power and built new buildings that responded to the new, modern Iran.
Qasr-prison was one of the first buildings to be completed in this sense, designed by the Russian architect, Markov, who is going to be a prominent figure in Iranian modern architecture.

The prison that paradoxically carries the name of the former building on the site, Qasr meaning Palace, is the place that soon becomes well-known for its prisoners; mostly politicians, writers and the “other voices”. Prisoners whose lives are a window to the wishes and utopian images that shaped 1900s.

The year is 1979. A new revolution is happening and political prisoners are getting released. The Waiting mass of people outside the wall are welcoming heroes and heroines.

The year is 1983. A family is imprisoned. Father, mother and an unborn baby. The baby is going to live in prison as its first home. Prison is now a home, a play yard, a place to be safe in for the child.

The year is 2012. Qasr-prison is the Qasr museum-park. But the lives and stories are still there to be told.

The year is 2019. Understanding this transformation, modernisation to catch up with the West, to be able to be sovereign, through building the institution for punishment is my inquiry. The stories of prisoners embedded in the prisons’ bricks are what needs to be explored.
What is the legacy and which legacy is the untold one? What are those hidden stories and Narratives that are concealed in the bricks of the prison? “House of forgetfulness” is now a “A place to remember”. But what do we remember? Who do we recall? What are we not supposed to remember? Speak memory!