by Carola Hein & Mohamad Sedighi

Delft University of Technology
Published in Architectural Theory Review (online)


Multiple corporate, public, and professional actors contributed to the emergence of the Iranian petroleumscape in Khuzestan—a multifaceted fabric of cities, infrastructures, ports, refineries, housing, leisure sites, universities, and even movie theatres related to oil. The process started when British mining entrepreneur William Knox d’Arcy obtained an oil-exploration concession from the Iranian government in 1901.[12]
After discovering oil in 1908 near the small city of Masjed Soleiman, d’Arcy and Burmah Oil established the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) in 1909 and the government enabled APOC to expand drilling activities in south Iran.[13]

After 1913, the British government became the main consumer of Iran’s oil and injected capital into the company so as to develop the oil industry in Khuzestan. After a new agreement was signed between the Iranian and British governments increasing Iran’s share of oil profits, the company was renamed Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) in 1935, and became British Petroleum (BP) in 1954, one of the antecedents of today’s company of that name.[14] This consortium constructed extraction, transportation, and refining facilities in Khuzestan just as the car became a prominent means of individual transportation, and just as the British government decided to use petroleum instead of coal for its navy, an incentive to establish ties in the oil-rich Middle East.[15]

In contrast to other parts of the Middle East, where colonial powers directly imposed designs, oil production in Khuzestan showed some level of collaboration between foreign forces and the Iranian government, frequently benefiting the elite. While using local workers in the extraction fields, APOC employed British engineers and imported British models to develop the oil-rich area.[16]

Oil extraction, transportation, and refining here led to the creation of a cluster of towns that served the petroleum industry in multiple ways. The extraction sites—as often the case internationally—were in undeveloped areas, and APOC had to establish both new transportation infrastructure and new housing. Between 1908 and 1920, APOC constructed a series of small new towns such as Masjed Soleiman, Haftgel, Lali, Aghajari, and Omidieh near new drilling sites in the oilfields of Khuzestan to accommodate workers.[17]

These settlements served primary needs such as eating and sleeping; they stood in a park-like setting with freestanding houses in bungalow style (Figure 2).


Screenshot_۲۰۱۸۰۴۲۰-۱۶۱۸۰۳~2But as the existence of these sites depended on oil production, they did not have the potential to grow into cities. Oil extraction is only one step within the oil production system. Refinery sites became the most powerful motors of later urban development. In the early 1910s, APOC decided to switch its export from crude oil to refined oil.[18]

Many refineries at this time were located close to rivers, both for production and The original agreement between the company and the government only covered oil exploration, and they therefore had to negotiate refinery construction.[19]

transportation, and APOC sited their refinery along the Arvand River, close to the coast of the Persian Gulf in southern Khuzestan. They also located storage and port facilities there, and the buildings that would become the city of Abadan.[20] APOC invited British engineers to design and construct a series of pipelines, railways, and roads to transfer crude oil to refining sites and ports.

The crude oil for refining arrived through a series of pipelines from drilling sites 300 kilometres away: between Masjed Soleiman and Abadan in 1911; between Aghajari and Mahshahr in 1943, where APOC had built a port to export crude oil to Europe; and to the port of Shahpur, built by APOC in 1928 for the construction of petrochemical industries.[21]

Covering more than 200 kilometres and crossing a difficult mountainous landscape, these pipelines required innovative infrastructure, such as new large-span bridges over valleys (Figure 3).


Screenshot_۲۰۱۸۰۴۲۰-۱۶۴۳۵۲~2During the 1920s and 1930s, APOC also developed the port cities of Khorramshahr, Mahshahr, Shahpur, and Darkhovin, which became strategic locations for the economic development of Khuzestan.[22]
In order to smooth transportation between Ahvaz and extracting sites in the mid-1920s, APOC provided advanced construction equipment, such as tower cranes, that allowed the government to build a bridge over the Karun River.[23]

These structures became a point of departure for the development of cities; for example, the Karun Bridge facilitated the eastward expansion of Ahvaz in the late 1990s.[24] Such an extended landscape, with established cities and key nodes in the petroleum business, required multiple headquarters for administration and supervision. In 1913, APOC built its first headquarters in Masjed Soleiman, where the company had discovered the largest oilfields in Iran.[25]

In 1914, APOC established new headquarters in Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan province, where other important administrations were already located, such as Iran’s Shipping Company, the house of the governor of the province, and the British Consulate.[26]

These buildings stood out The company also constructed headquarters in Abadan in 1934, home to the largest refinery in the world until the late 1950s, and in the port city of Khorramshahr, near the largest oil storage facility; and it expanded its head office at the drilling site of Masjed Soleiman.[27]

for their European construction and neoclassical styles, and their depictions in diverse media served to represent the power and wealth of APOC achievements under British influences in Khuzestan (Figure 4).



In turn, new company activities required new ancillary structures, such as railways and stations, bridges, and fire stations. Financed and developed in collaboration with the Iranian government, the construction of these led to rapid urban development in once-barren areas.

Starting with the development of individual buildings, such as a new modern hospital in Masjed Soleiman in 1913, APOC expanded its activities, constructing a railway between Ahvaz and Abadan, and connecting drilling sites to it in the late 1920s (Figure 5).



Building on this infrastructure, the Iranian government then expanded Iran’s north–south railway in the early 1930s. The company made its most extensive architectural and urban interventions near their headquarters. During the 1940s, AIOC invested in a series of free-standing bungalows for British expatriates in Haftgel and Aghajari (Figure 6), and developed housing and other extensive urban facilities for their employees in Abadan, Khorramshahr, and Masjed Soleiman.[28]


Abadan came to link the hinterland and the British foreland with commodity flows, infrastructure, and planning. Its design reflected British planning concepts and served as a model for the future expansion of oil-related cities in Khuzestan. Here, APOC/AIOC developed the new city of Abadan to accommodate British engineers, employees, and workers. The company asked British architect James Wilson to design the master plan, including housing for British employees and refinery workers, as well as urban facilities such as hospitals, schools, restaurants, clubs, and sports fields.[29]

Wilson relied on the principles of the British Garden City, and organised his plan around an urban centre with a new administrative building and two gas stations that featured a mixture of local ornaments—such as Muqarnas (honeycomb vaults) and Iwan (vaulted deep entrance spaces)—and international design structures, notably using steel as construction material and creating outward looking façades with windows towards the streets (Figure 7).



AIOC also funded the construction of a radio–television station, telecommunications facilities, and an airport for contact with and transportation to workers’ homes back in the UK.[30]

In the early years, APOC paid little attention to the living conditions of the local working class in Abadan, a city conceived with an eye to foreign needs, expatriate users, and British planning debates.[31]

This situation changed considerably in 1933 when a new agreement was reached between the Iranian government and APOC, making the latter responsible for the construction of schools, hospitals, housing, mosques, and other facilities for Iranian workers in Abadan.[32] APOC established the Abadan Petroleum University to teach Iranians how to explore oilfields, refine oil, and produce its by-products, connecting Iranian students to their counterparts in the global North (Figure 8).[33]



This resulted in the development of new ancillary structures: the neighbourhood of Bovardeh, for example, accommodated educated Iranian workers/engineers, expanding Abadan towards the east.[34] The city of Abadan and its region experienced further development starting in the late 1940s as the car became a standard means of transportation.[35]

The production of bitumen as a by-product of the Abadan refinery enabled APOC to construct asphalt streets, yet another layer of the petroleumscape. These roads facilitated transportation of APOC/AIOC/BP employees between oil facilities and related buildings; they connected Abadan neighbourhoods with the refinery and the port; and on a larger scale, linked Abadan with Ahvaz, Shahpur, and drilling sites. Coinciding with the export of Western-manufactured vehicles to Iran, and in particular to Abadan, the increase in private car use necessitated further expansion of the road network and the construction of gas stations throughout the cities and the landscape. The company featured its urban achievements in a range of media: journals, distributed to British and Iranian workers of the company; free postcards, available in the supermarkets, cinemas, and clubs; and anniversary booklets.[36]
Their images depicted the sites and cities as oases in the desert, and featured oil structures such as refineries and installations as crucial to a liveable environment. The postcards represented the newly constructed cities as places full of parks and low-rise bungalows, promoting British Garden City ideas (Figure 9).


To disseminate a positive image among the general public in Iran, in the early 1950s, AIOC produced a series of movies featuring locations developed by the oil industry as ideal places to live. The movie, Persian Story (1951–1953), for example, portrayed Abadan as a comfortable and appealing place where Iranian and British people lived and worked in peace together.[37]

The Iranian government similarly embraced the new oil city as an icon of national identity. It chose to depict the Abadan refinery on the national currency, connecting the development of the oil industry to Iran’s economic expansion and wealth for the general public (Figure 10).



Independent media such as the Tehran Mossavar newspaper also presented these industrial developments as the contribution of the Iranian government to the modernisation of the country. In addition, the Iranian architecture journal, Arshitekt, showed Abadan as a modern city with residential neighbourhoods, its citizens enjoying the benefits of modern electricity, the company.[41] The new government would continue to embrace petroleum as a means of modernisation, but chose a new location, close to the country’s capital and decision-making centre, Tehran, and a different approach for connecting oil structures to existing spaces. Meanwhile, the growth of Abadan’s population in the 1950s and 1960s again required further urban expansion. In the early 1960s, Iran’s Ministry of Development and Housing, in collaboration with the Ministry of Petroleum (IMP), asked the Greek urban planner, Constantinos Doxiadis, to develop a new vision. His plan accepted car-based transportation as an urban development principle. It gave equal weight to the development of oil-related facilities and of urban facilities for the working class and the Iranian employees of the oil industry in Abadan.[42] Aside from the general layout of streets and residential neighbourhoods, the plan also focused on the construction of a series of gas stations in the city, further promoting the use of cars and petroleum.[43] The development of car-based urban form in Abadan and the oil cities of Khuzestan coincided with the increased involvement of the United States in Iran. During the 1960s and 1970s, US-based automobile companies such as Jeep and General Motors considerably increased exports to Iran.[44]
As more Iranians owned cars, new suburban housing districts catered to the new car-based lifestyle that diverse media depicted. The use of these oil-generated spaces popularised this new lifestyle with the Iranian population. However, the focus of the country’s modernisation was no longer on Khuzestan. Most of the American petroleum-based impact in Iran now focused on Tehran, a key site in the Cold War fight for oil access. The Cold War highlighted the importance of Middle Eastern oil for US national security and foreign policy. On the one hand, Persian Gulf petroleum generated gasoline for millions of automobile consumers in the US; on the other hand, it fuelled the Marshall Plan for the recovery of Western Europe.[45]




  1. Mohamad Hasan Nia, Tarikh-E Naft-E Iran 1901–1914 [History of Iran’s Oil Industry 1901– 1914], Tehran: Amirkabir, 2015, 69.
  2. Hasan Nia, Tarikh-e Naft-E Iran 1901–1914, 221.
  3. For more information, see: Mostafa Fateh, 50 Sal Naft-e Iran [50 years of Iran’s Oil Industry], Tehran: Elm, 1956.
  4. Ronald W. Ferrier, The History of the British Petroleum Company: The Developing Years 1901– 1932, Vol. 1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982, 270–294.
  5. Ferrier, The History of the British Petroleum Company, 270–294.
  6. For more information, see: Farshid Khodadadian, Revaiat-E Naft [Oil Narrative], Tehran: The Department of Public Relation—Iran’s Oil National Company, 2011.
  7. Fateh, 50 Sal Naft-e Iran.
  8. For more information, see: J. H. Bamberg, The History of the British Petroleum Company: The Anglo-Iranian Years, 1928–1954, Vol. 2, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, and Ferrier, The History of the British Petroleum Company, 270–294.
  9. For more reading, see: Iran’s National Oil Company, Naft Va Zendegi [Oil and Life], Tehran: Iran’s National Oil Co., 1969.
  10. Bahador Ghaiyem, Tarikh-e Hashtad Sale-Ie Bandar-e Imam Khomeini [Eighty Years History of Imam Khomeini Port], Tehran: Homay-e Rahmat, 2010, and Iran’s Oil Operation Companies, Mahshahr: Bandar-E Sodur-E Faravardeha-Ye Nafti [Mahshahr: A Port for Exporting Oil Productions], Tehran: Iran’s Oil Operation Companies, 1967.
  11. Anjuman-i Naft-e Iran, Oil Industry in Iran, Tehran: Iranian Petroleum Institute, 1963, 9–38.
  12. For more information about the expansion of Khuzestan, see: Iraj Afshar Sistani, Negahi Be Khuzestan [A View on Khuzestan], Tehran: Nashr-e Honar, 1987.
  13. For more information about the development of Ahvaz, see: Mohamad Taghi Zadeh, Tarikh-E Ahvaz: Az Doran-E Bastan Ta Enghelab Eslami [A History of Ahvaz: From Ancient Time to the Islamic Revolution], Tehran: Bashir-e Elm va Adab, 2005.
  14. For more information, see: Hasan Nia, Tarikh-E Naft-e Iran 1901–1914, 289–292.
  15. For more reading, see: Hasan Nia, Tarikh-E Naft-e Iran 1901–1914, 263–271.
  16. Anjuman-i Naft-e Iran, Oil Industry in Iran, 1–32.
  17. For more information about public amenities constructed by AIOC in Khuzestan, see: Anjuman-i Naft-e Iran, Oil Industry in Iran, 56–109.
  18. For more information, see: Crinson, “Abadan: Planning and Architecture”.
  19. For more information, see: Seyed Mohammad Zaman Daryabary Vashtani and Morteza Beki Hoskuii, Seirie Yek Sad Sale’-Ye Sanat-e Naft-e Iran: Tahavvolat-e Hoghughi Va Eghtesadi [OneHundred-Year History of Oil Industry: Legal and Economic Transformations], Tehran: Yazda, 2008.
  20. For more reading about the local labour conditions in Abadan, see: Kaveh Ehsani, “The Social History of Labor in the Iranian Oil Industry: The Built Environment and the Making of the Industrial Working Class (1908–1941)” (PhD dissertation, University of Leiden, 2014).
  21. Anjuman-i Naft-e Iran, Oil Industry in Iran, 10–97.
  22. Ghobad Fakhimi, Si Sal Naft-E Iran: Az Meli Shodan Naft Ta Enghelab Eslami [Thirty Years of Iranian Oil: From Oil Nationalization to the Islamic Revolution], Tehran: Mehrandish, 2008, 41–87.
  23. For more information about the early expansion of Abadan, see: Iraj Moshiri, “Abadan: Az Nazar-e Sakhteman Va Shahrsazi” [Abadan: Seen as Architecture and Urbanism], Arshitekt, 1, no. 4 (1947), 141–145.
  24. For more reading, see: Iraj Vali Zadeh, Angelo va Bangelo dar Abadan: Khaterat Haftad Saleh Pesarak Farmanbar [Anglo and Bungalow in Abadan: A Seventy-Year Memoir of an Obedient Boy], Tehran: Simia Honar, 2010.
  25. For more information about the mediums used by BP, see: BP, BP, Fifty Years in Pictures: A Story in Pictures of the Development of the British Petroleum Group 1909–1959, London: BP, 1959.
  26. Mohammad Beizapur, “Sima-ye Shahr-e Abadan” [Abadan’s Urban Imagery], Sakhteman, 27, no. 4 (1987); Mona Damluji, “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 East, 33, no. 1 (2013), 75–88.
  27. Moshiri, “Abadan: Az Nazar-e Sakhteman Va Shahrsazi”, 141.
  28. Mr. John Price (Chief of the Industrial Committees Section)—Head of the Mission; Mr. P. P. Fano (member of the Industrial Committees Section); and Mr. A. Djamalzadeh (member of
    the Conditions of Work Section), who also acted as interpreter. International Labour Office “Labour Conditions in the Oil Industry in Iran” Report of a Mission of the (January-February 1950) Studies and Reports, No. 24, Prepared for the Information of the Petroleum Committee of the International Labour Organisation. ILO-SR_NS24_engl.pdf
  29. Pamela Karimi, Domesticity and Consumer Culture in Iran: Interior Revolutions of the Modern Era, London/New York: Routledge, 2013, 74.
  30. For more information on the nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian oil company, see: Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran, 97–122.
  31. Ali Madanipour, “The Limits of Scientific Planning: Doxiadis and the Tehran Action Plan”, Planning Perspectives, 25, no. 4 (2010), 485–504.
  32. Constantinos A. Doxiadis, Archives—Abadan Development Programme—Ref. code: 28120. For more information see:
  33. Pamela Karimi, “Dwelling, Dispute, and the Space of Modern Iran”, in Aggregate (Group), Governing by Design: Architecture, Economy, and Politics in the Twentieth Century, Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh University Press, 2012, 119–141.
  34. For more information, see: Douglas Little, American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East since 1945, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008, 126.


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