Esfahan, Iran Architecture and the Making of a Gendered Working Class During the Cold War



Throughout the twentieth century, the architecture of domesticity was used as a weapon for colonial and imperial practices. It allowed for power to be exerted over bodies, for new gender roles to be constructed, for relations of intimacy to be stretched and reformulated and for peoples and populations to be remade in entirely new images. The architecture of domesticity was also used as a weapon during the Cold War but in a slightly different manner. Rather than imposing hegemony, it allowed for manifesting global oppositions. The design of the space of privacy and reproduction was used strategically as a means for communicating political contradictions between the capitalist and communist ideologies. In the 1960s, these two deployments of architecture converged in Iran. The superpowers of the Cold War were attracted to Iran’s unique geographic characteristics, its vast underground oil reserves and its positioning at the crossroad between the Soviet Union and the warm waters of the Persian Gulf. In this context, Iran’s realm of domesticity became a site for imperial exploitation as well as the battlefield between the capitalist and communist practices of dwelling.

This article examines this convergence in the city of Esfahan. Three new forms of working class dwellings that emerged in this context will be used as examples: the sisterhood of the shared courtyard house, the nuclear family of the private compound, and the socialist collective of the tower block. Constructed by different and differing actors and belonging to local and global discourses around modernity, capitalism, and communism, the three models reinvented the territory of Esfahan as a heterogeneous city.

By locating these models in time and space, I will argue for the way contradiction in the architecture of homes and the practices of dwelling became the means for a fast-paced urban development and expansion. In parallel with this, and by comparing these examples at the scale of the intimate and through the lens of gender, I will explore some of the antagonisms that formed the subjectivity of women in this period: antagonisms that within less than a decade gave way to a rebellious and political consciousness.

The Sisterhood of the Shared Courtyard House ///
By the 1960s the traditional city of Esfahan, once the capital of the Persian Empire, had been transformed to an unprecedented extreme. The transformation had occurred in multiple layers. State initiatives for industrialization had led to an agglomeration of modern factories, with a production ranging from cement to plaster to textile, on the southern edges of the city. Factories required a new subject who had never existed within the city’s traditional forms of production: the industrial worker. This demand had triggered a quiet and yet pervasive encroachment upon the urban fabric of the city: the migration of an unskilled labor force from the rural outskirts in search of a better quality of life (cf. Asef Bayat, Street Politics, 1997). In turn, this encroachment had resulted in the birth of a new form of dwelling, that of the overcrowded and shared courtyard house.

Moafi Funambulist 1
A typical shared courtyard house.
Nasrollah Kasraian and Hamideh Zolfaghari, Tehran: A book of Photos, 1994

An Esfahani courtyard house had a closed and nuclear structure composed of a number of rooms arranged around a central yard. Traditionally, a single household occupied the dwelling unit and members were almost entirely connected to one another through relations of kin. The house remained with such family for decades, passing from one generation to another. These two features, i.e. the spatial layout and the ownership system, enabled the courtyard house to act as a fortress separating its residents from the city. The wave of migration led to the birth of an utterly new form of occupancy, and with that the possibility for an entirely new relation to the larger society. With the encroachment of the new settlers upon the fabric of the city, the many rooms of the reclusive courtyard house came to be occupied by groups of people who were foreign to one another. There was hardly a tenancy agreement in place. Some resided in their room for years and others drifted away after a few weeks. Strangers entered and exited the house on a daily basis. The closed and intimate space of the courtyard therefore, once acting as the ultimate space of privacy, was now a civic vortex, and the pulse of its domestic realm was now in tune with the political fevers and upheavals of the rest of the city.

In mid-twentieth century Iran, the traditional and socially-constructed gendered order of things had a particular urban dimension. To occupy the city — the factories, street corners, bazaars, and teahouses — was to perform one’s masculinity. In turn, occupying the confined space of the house was understood as a feminine form of dwelling (cf. Afsaneh Najmabadi, Women with Mustaches and Men Without Beards, 2005).

Moafi Funambulist 2
“Reza Khayam of the Cement factory and his family celebrate their first holiday as home owners with a family picnic in their own private compound” (1961).
United Stated of America Operations Mission (USOM)

For the women of the shared courtyards, such dwelling included productive as well as reproductive labor. To allow for this, minor alterations were made to the architecture of the houses. For example, a corner of the courtyard would be occupied by a clay oven, in order to earn an income from baking bread for the neighborhood; the pool would be used for washing the sheets and clothes of the upper-class neighborhoods in exchange for the equivalent of a few pennies; the dark basement would be used for storing smuggled goods; and the loggia for practices of sorcery. The intimate architecture of the house forced the interweaving of the lives of the laborers. In this context, the women of the household were inevitably aware of the most personal aspects of each other’s lives, from the color of one’s underwear to one’s use of opium to the abusiveness of one’s husband. This shared awareness created a sisterhood between those who would otherwise be strangers to one another.

The sisterhood of the courtyard house was capable of resistance against patriarchal forms of domination, most importantly the physical violence of husbands, stepfathers, and brothers. Due to its closed structure, the sisterhood was also capable of operating below the government’s thresholds of detectability. In films and literature associated with this historical period, numerous stories have been told about the courtyard house a space of refuge from state power. For example, Ahmad Mahmoud’s acclaimed 1974 novel The Neighbors tells the story of Khaled, a young revolutionary who breaks his leg in a mass demonstration for the nationalization of oil. In fear of being arrested by the police, he takes refuge in a courtyard house where he receives food and medical care from women for the duration of his stay. In addition to providing a hiding place, the sisterhoods of the courtyards provided militant forms of care to those who were rebelling against the establishment. In this context, the courtyard house, once a space of withdrawal from the city, had become the cornerstone of people’s struggles and resistances.

The Nuclear Family of the Private Compound ///
In changing from a space of seclusion to a foundation of resistance, the courtyard house had become a problem for the state. It was therefore signified as an archaic space unfit for a developed nation. Consequently an international call was made for introducing new forms of dwelling in Esfahan. One of the first responses was made by the United States Operation Mission (USOM) to Iran, an American agency with a resume of military work in Vietnam under the guise of social aid and counterinsurgency. Named EWS (Esfahan’s Worker’s Shahrak), the proposed experiment targeted factory workers and aimed to remake them through a threefold intervention into the fabric of the city of Esfahan. In the southern margins of the city where the factories were located, a settlement of two hundred residential compounds was constructed for housing workers, along with a recreation center built in order to introduce a particular form of leisure to the daily routines of the workers and a 300-bed hospital constructed to standardize the hygienic aspects of the workers’ lives. Through these interventions a new model of dwelling was created, as well as new masculine and feminine forms of subjectivity.

Moafi Funambulist 3
The socialist tower-blocks of Aryashahr sat within the deserted basin of Esfahan and were surrounded by a range of barren hills. / The Architectural Review 1975

The compounds of the EWS settlement were identical. The similarity between the units implied equality between the workers and the possibility for the formation of a homogenous workforce. The plan of each unit was a square-shaped plot with a building in one corner. This diagram marked a powerful shift from that of the shared courtyard house. What used to be the center was now moved to the periphery and vice versa. In this inversion, the yard, once acting as the common space between multiple social units, now separated each household from those neighboring it.

This new spatial layout went hand in hand with a new form of occupancy. Each of the compounds was to be given to one nuclear family composed of the worker, his wife, and two to four children. To register for this new unit, an entire system of legislation was invented by the EWS committee. Workers were asked to show their marriage certificate as well as the birth certificates of their children. In this system women were entitled to live in the modern dwelling units only if they were signified as the wives of the workers. Removed from the collectively of their sisterhood, the new women were bound to act as an individuals within the private space of their patriarchal nuclear families.

The new nuclear family had to practice rituals and forms of dwelling that differed from those of the courtyard houses. New layers of responsibilities, obligations, rights, and routines were encoded into the spatial diagram of the compounds. Rooms were differentiated in form and each was inscribed with a fixed program. For example, the room for sleeping had more privacy in relation to the others and was located at the back of the house, with only few windows and no access to the yard. The room for cooking was signified by tiled mosaics on the walls and floors, a sink, running water, and an oven. Whereas in the shared courtyard houses each room was continuously rearranged from day to night to accommodate activities that ranged from cooking to sleeping, in the modern compounds rooms were furnished according to fixed and specific programs. The furnishing of rooms and their static tie to program changed reproduction from a spontaneous domestic chore to a specialized form of labor. It was through atomizing this feminine form of labor that the social, masculine work of the factory was offset.

The affairs of women, their domestic behavior, and their social interactions had been the focus of socio-political interventions in Iran since the 1950s. Since the Cold War was waged against the backdrop of domesticity, and home appliances had become weapons of an ideological battle, a new type of warrior was required: the woman of the household. In Iran, the American Point Four program had set up a home economics curriculum for high school girls in a number of cities, including Esfahan. The program educated the girls about modern hygienic habits, domestic skills, cooking methods, and most importantly, tastes in decorating and furnishing their homes (cf. Pamela Karimi, Domesticity and Consumer Culture in Iran, 2013). It was through this framework that the USOM, a few years later, would construct the houses of EWS. The housing project of EWS could therefore be thought of as a similar experiment to that of the home-economics curriculum. In both projects Iranian women were to be remade as warriors of the Cold War. But where the Point Four curriculum recruited women of the upper classes, EWS targeted those of the underclass.

The settlement of EWS opposed the Soviet model of housing. While both dealt with the problems of industrialization and the large scale migration of a rural and unskilled population to urban centers, they differed in the way they articulated the subjectivity of their dwellers. In the houses of EWS, reproduction was atomized, domesticity was commodified, and occupants were encouraged to alter and re-decorate their houses on a regular basis — for example, by installing tiles in their terrace, adding shelves to the interior walls, and updating the frames and doors with newer models. This was in contrast to the communist housing models, which aimed for creating collectivist societies where men and women were equal. To do so, they opted for diminishing household labor by transferring atomized domestic chores to socialized kitchens, laundries, and childrearing institutions. Whereas in communist models the management and ownership of the houses was controlled by the state, the family compounds of EWS were to be owned by the workers themselves, in exchange for a little money and with the help of homeowner loans. Such an arrangement was intended to enable “the worker to learn a new skill and take up a better paying job without the risk of losing his home” (Esfahan Worker’s Housing, 1961). In this context, the compounds of EWS acted as the war machines of a capitalist West deployed in Iran against the threat of communism.

The Socialist Collective of the Tower Block ///
Two years after the EWS experiment, the official Ministry for Development and Housing was established, and for the first time, Iran’s five-year National Development Plan (1963-67) had treated housing as a distinct chapter. It was indicated that fast-paced industrialization had to be accompanied by the speedy production and supply of housing. Accordingly, the import of goods, machinery, and technology had to go hand in hand with the import of architects, engineers, and developers from overseas who could help with the development of the nation. The plan’s legislation opened up the possibility for Iran to use the competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the benefit of its own development. In this context, the conflict between global powers became the foundation of housing and urbanism in Iran. By the late 60s, the housing experiments of the American Point Four program had been replicated throughout the margins of Esfahan. But in competition only a few kilometers to the south of EWS, one of the acclaimed architecture firms in the Soviet Union, Giproger, was commissioned to begin the construction of the new settlement of Arya Shahr.

Moafi Funambulist 5
(top) The neighborhoods of the socialist settlement of Aryashahr were arranged according to a radial grid and separated from one another by wide boulevards. / The Architectural Review 1975. (bottom) The maquette shows a proposal for four monumental buildings (a sport stadium, a culture house, a ministry and a cinema) located along one of the wide boulevards of Aryashahr. / Hadi Mirmiran’s Archive

Both settlements were to house factory workers, and both promised the development of the nation and the territory. Yet the architecture of Arya Shahr radically differed from EWS. The plan of the settlement of Arya Shahr followed a radial grid. Neighborhoods were separated from one another by wide boulevards and an artificial canal passed through the settlement. Each neighborhood was in turn designed with a nuclear structure including residential tower blocks on the peripheries and gardens, playgrounds, and public buildings at the center. Public buildings, ranging from schools and culture houses to cinemas and sport stadiums, were designed as the monuments of a socialist utopia according to the principles of Russian constructivism. In contrast, EWS was arranged in five parallel rows of identical houses, with no demarcation of periphery. The one and only public building in EWS was a mall located at the entrance, with ‘modern’ retailers featuring storefronts for window-shopping.

The architectural contradictions between the two settlements were also evident at the scale of their dwelling units. The private compounds of EWS were countered by the fourteen-story tower blocks of Arya Shahr, with shared corridors and staircases. Whereas the private compounds were designed for male-headed nuclear families, the apartments of the tower blocks allowed more flexible household structures: the studio apartments had no kitchen, and the family apartments had two identical rooms, with no hierarchies in privacy, access, size, or furnishing. Whereas the kind of development imposed by EWS was based on consumerism and the replication and sprawl of private, single-family dwellings, Arya Shahr enforced the structure of comradeship, where intimate relationships were distributed across multiple scales, organizing communities of different sizes.

Moafi Funambulist 6
(left) Cartographic map of Esfahan in 1962: Marked in black is the urban axis of the city. By this time a number of factories had agglomorated in the sourthern margins of the city (south of the Zayandeh River). The blue marking highlights the areas signified with the problem of congested dwellings (a density higher than 300 ppl per sq. hectares). The interventions of USOM are marked in red. / British Library Archive, markings by author. (right) Territorial map of Isfahan showing the location of the Soviet designed new-town of Aryamehr (marked in red) in relation to the city of Esfahan (marked in blue). / The architectural review 1976 – special Issue on city of Isfahan.

Under Iran’s National Development Plan in the 1960s, and through the hands of the Iranian state, contradiction became the foundation of the development of a nation by foreign and colonial actors. Conflicts between the global super powers of the Cold War had opened up the possibility for the fast-paced and competitive re-making of a territory plagued by archaism. Such conflicts and contradictions came to be crystallized in the fabric of Iranian cities through the architecture of the new settlements and the new intimate spaces of dwelling. At the intersection of these contradictions were the Iranian women whose daily lives, routines, and rituals were exposed to extreme and paradoxical reforms. In this context, global socio-political discourses became the very base for women’s consciousness about their subjectivity. Through this consciousness, within less than a decade the women of Iran left their realms of domesticity and joined their male comrades in the streets of their cities for revolution. As Foucault reminds us in an essay he wrote for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera in 1978, the events of the late seventies in Iran “did not signify a shrinking back in the face of modernization by extremely retrograde elements, but the rejection, by a whole culture and a whole people, of a modernization that was itself an archaism”