Caitlin Whalen

February 29, 2008

An extensive network of narrow, twisted streets ran through the city of Tehran in the early twentieth century. The complex web of dark alleyways constructed a cool environment for foot traffic, public spaces, and semi-private spaces outdoors. These streets were systematically widened in a series of installments, spanning over multiple decades. Now large portions of the city that were once alleys consist of multi-lane streets. Commonly stated initial reasons for this change include the need to integrate automobiles into the city and more recently to ease the extensive traffic congestion1. A broader characterization of their motivations reveal that policy makers in Tehran have dramatically changed the street system to bringing the city closer to a developed city in image and in function, or more simply, to modernize the city.

The motivations of the policy makers are relevant in the sense that they are a subset artists who contribute to the oeuvre2, known as Tehran. What I wish to address, however, are the implications of the street policy results on the social space of the city. Sociopolitical factors clearly influenced the motivations for widening the streets, however “it can not be maintained that this relationship was unidirectional, “to quote Marvin Trachtenberg3 while speaking of his own research, widening the streets is not “simply a passive product or “mirroring“ of society an its institutional life: such ingenious determinism never has obtained in any cultural production.“ Trachtenberg is speaking about the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, however his perspective is useful when considering the streets of Tehran; changing the street structure dramatically reorganization the social space constructively by creating new spaces, and destructively by eliminating exiting space.

The process of the reorganization of the street structure occurred in a series of stages. An essential landmark towards the modernization of the streets in Tehran was the “Act Concerning Building and Widening of Streets and Alleys in 1933. This act implemented a gridded system as depicted, widened streets and paved them with cobbles to allow for the traversal of automobiles4. Relevant reworking of similar policies were implemented in 1941 and 1966. Many of the earlier changes to the street system consisted of replacing old qanats, or fresh water system, with streets. Additionally, as one might predict, old buildings were torn down to make way for the new grid system. Now most of Tehran supports a wide gridded system due to street reconstruction along with explosive urban growth allowing for new modern streets to be constructed.

This transformation was rooted in a very different city. While some streets in Tehran in the beginning of the twentieth century were wide and straight, the majority were essentially alleyways. The buildings often blocked out the harsh sunlight, thus making the streets more comfortable in the hot dessert climate5. The raised streets of the bazaars that funneled into the thinly wound residential areas, Integrated within the fabric of streets were numerous blind alleyways and cul-de-sacs, which functioned as semi-private spaces embedded within public space. Janet Abu-Lughod describes her experiences with these spaces in Islamic cities:

“I am often struck…with how easy it is to tell whether I am in public space or have blundered into semiprivate space…A sudden narrowing of the path, particularly if that narrowing has been exaggerated by the implanting of low stone posts or even a pile of bricks, is a sign of the shift, especially when the road widens again soon afterward6. “

These spaces often are only shared by a small number of families, and sometimes even include a gate which can be closed7. In an Islamic city where privacy is extremely important, especially for woman, these spaces were an intermediary between the private home and the main city streets where the gaze of the stranger could be avoided.

An implication of street modernization is that these semi-private arenas have been disappearing.

Privacy in the social space of the city due to street structure is no longer a possibility. Unhindered by sharply winding streets and semi-private spaces one’s gaze easily includes fellow citizens. This allows for people to partake in a less extreme version of Michel Foucault’s surveillance8. Rather than sliding by in a narrow alleyway, two pedestrians are able to observe one another. The surveillance of fellow citizens can now easily occur unnoticed from afar. The change in the street system not only alters old ideas of social space, but also allows for the a entirely new set of concepts to be applied. For a moment consider the changes in the space surrounding the Baptistery in Florence as described by Marvin Trachtenberg9. The design of the space surrounding the Baptistery was constructed with intense attention to the geometric properties of the space. Since people of the time were educated in the ways of reading and appreciating the ratios and balance inherit in the space, this certainly was noticed. Parallels can be drawn to the case of widening and straightening the streets of Tehran. In the case of Tehran, it is important to note, a select few streets have been historically straight. This is commonly recognized as a material representation of power. The relatively recent addition of the idea of how a modern city appears takes organized streets to a new level. While the Florentines could appreciate the proportions of the space surrounding the Baptistery, Tehran citizens see the widening and organization of the streets as modern.

In Tehran city policy acts as an artist, slowly carving away old social space and replacing it with new. The explicitly stated aim of the policy is practical, to improve an aspect of city function. However the effects of the policy travel further then the cars navigating the newly routed streets. Social space, defined on multiple levels of scale within the city, is now expressed very differently then before the alteration of the streets.




1-Ali Madanipour, Tehran (West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons Ltd, 1998), 37 and 210

2-Henri Lefebvre, “The Specificity of the City“(1968), in Visual Culture: Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies, eds. Joanne Morra and Marquand Smith (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), 3:102-105

3-Marvin Trachtenberg, Dominion of the Eye (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), xvii

4-Ali Madanipour, Tehran (West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons Ltd, 1998), 37

5-Ali Madanipour, Tehran (West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons Ltd, 1998), 107

6-Janet Abu-Lughod, “The Islamic City Historic Myth, Islamic Essence, and Contemporary Relevance“, in Urban Development in the Muslim World, ed. Amrahmadi and El-Shakhs, (New Jersey: Rutgers, 1993), 27

7-Ali Madanipour, Tehran (West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons Ltd, 1998), 243

8- Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Random House, 1977), 195-228.

9-Marvin Trachtenberg, Dominion of the Eye (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 251-253