Housing Resistant Forms of Life

When life itself become a political project, any distinction between political action and labor, public and private, city and dwelling, ceases to exist.[1] Contemporary bio-capitalism is nothing but the strenuous attempt to parasite and make productive any form of living far beyond the body and the spatial-temporal coordination of its movement, subsuming the whole complexity of relations, affects, desires as crucial driving forces of development.

The most typical domestic activities, traditionally concealed as ‘unproductive’ and ‘servile’ unpaid labor, have become paradigmatic forms of exploitation, to the extent that household management, reproduction, affectivity and care have become, today, the fundamental qualities of the ubiquitous field of labor precarity.[2] In this sense, dwelling itself has been stripped out of its spatial organizations and traditional protective clichés, becoming the most profitable living performance of value production, triggering a progressive hybridization of the domestic space through a parallel and opposite feminization of labor and an internal masculinization of the Existenzminimum.[3] This differentiation indeed is tended to neutralize the life itself. The emergence of such forms of life has progressively eroded the strict division between public and private space, blurring Hannah Arendt’s distinction between work, labor and political action. The city becomes at the same time a continuous field of exteriorized publicity and a sequence of autonomous, privatized interiors.

This way of living stands in opposition to the post-war reconceptualization of the domestic space when sets of living norms and standards were formulated into spatial codes that prevailed the architecture of the house. Indeed these norms were political apparatuses though which the state power was applied to the life of the citizens. In this mechanism of control, ‘style’ replaced the ‘living’ itself and citizenship, with its political commitment, was replaced by social norms and public behaviors.

Tehran is a paradigmatic case of the latter phenomenon, in which collective life proliferates almost entirely in interiors. Commercial, productive and living activities are confined between the same architectural types, which stretch throughout the metropolis as a continuous field of urbanization. In particular, the house is the place where all the economic, political, social, theological and class conflicts are deployed.

This form of organization is not entirely new in the Iranian-Islamic city. Its archetype is the medina, an inhabitable wall enclosing an internal space conceived as a ‘terrestrial paradise’. As analogon of the state, the enclosure is a micro-cosmos recapitulating the collective organization of the political body. Thus, the Iranian house embodies many meaning: it is a theological entity outside history and the mythical foundation of the Islamic state; at the same time it is the engine of production and the theater of everyday resistance.[4] Michel Foucault, in his famous articles from Tehran during the 1979 revolt, was fascinated by the political power of this duality, which he saw as the original contribution of Shi’ism: the possibility of a religion that gave to its people infinite resources to resist state power.[5] By focusing on the post-war architecture in Iran this essay will read the dwelling as the theater and the factory for this ever-present political constituency, for a continuous state of revolution.

In Tehran, during the post-war period, the immediate need for massive reconstruction not only resulted in developing new construction techniques and planning and design processes, but also paved the way for direct and fast implementation of series of political projects. In a way those were attempts to instrumentalize technology and modern concepts on behalf of particular ideologies to tame the socio-political tensions. This period is mainly characterized by the project of secularization, at the center of which was interior architecture and urban form; it not only happened through large scale planning apparatuses, but also initiated in careful engineering of the form of living in domestic spaces, while particular furniture, partitions and accessories was introduced to administer and govern the Iranian society at large.



1. Arendt designates three fundamental human activities, each of which corresponds to one of the basic conditions under which life on earth has been given to man: work, labour, and action. Together they constitute the vita active. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998).

2. ‘Labour is the activity which corresponds to the biological process of the human body, whose spontaneous growth, metabolism, and eventual decay are bound to the vital necessities produced and fed into the life process by labour. The human condition of labour is life itself.’ Ibid, 7.

3. Existenzminimum or ‘The Minimum Subsistence Dwelling’ was theorised as a minimally-acceptable living space, density, fresh air, access to green space, access to transit, and other such resident issues to support the minimum condition for life. It became the main theme of the second CIAM in 1929 ‘Die Wohnung für das Existenzminimum’ with the focus to be on design solutions to the problem of high rents for the low wage earners. See Eric Paul Mumford, The CIAM Discourse on Urbanism, 1928-1960 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), 27-43.

4. See Hamed Khosravi, Medina [online]: http://thecityasaproject.org/2012/06/medina/ 

5. Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

People Occupied an Unfinished Building, Waiting For Ayatollah Khomeini, Islamic Revolution February 1979, Tehran-Iran
Source: Photo by Alain Dejean, Sygma/Corbis Archive.

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