Public Space

Credit: Kaveh Ehsani, Leiden University
From “The social history of labor in the Iranian oil industry : the built environment and the making of the industrial working class (1908-1941)”


The wide boulevards and the grid pattern that characterized the formal spaces of Abadan distinguished it from other Iranian cities in the interwar period. The physical layouts of historical Iranian cities tend to follow the local physical topography, primarily as the means of water allocation by gravity[67]. They have narrow, winding alleys and culs-de-sac, lined by high brick or adobe walls, intended to defend neighborhoods from wind and dust, extreme fluctuations in climate, and from physical and military attacks and molestation. In these cities an important part of the flow of everyday social life outside the home and workplace is shaped in the public space of streets and bazaars.
The formal public space of company towns differs from this historical model in several important respects. In Abadan, instead of long and narrow winding alleys forming a functional and protective maze, the front doors of the row houses designed for workers open onto either short, narrow, and straight alleys that abut onto large streets at both ends, or directly onto large avenues (see Figure 2). In this way each house is set up as distinct from its neighbors, and separated from the neighborhood, the intimate street life, and ultimately from the workers’ society. Any collective protest or suspicious gatherings among neighborhood residents can be quickly detected, and each street, alley, and even neighborhood can be easily cordoned off from the others should the need arise (see Figure 2).
The assignment of housing by the Company, based on occupation, rank, and race, and the constant reassignment of the personnel within the Company hierarchy, made the forging and maintenance of lasting spatial solidarities difficult. Because the independent ability to choose one’s residence was denied the workers seeking company housing, the formation of autonomous and spontaneous networks of solidarity in space by using common kinship, ethnic background, or geographic origins, were near impossible.
In Abadan, the intention to use urban space as an instrument of controlling the population can be readily detected in the details of the design of the neighborhood and public spaces of the Company enclaves and formally designed parts of the city. In a 1960s study the French sociologist Paul Vieille and his collaborators pointed out some glaring examples of these coercive and panoptic aspects of the urban design of Abadan in a study that is still one of the best examples of spatial analysis in Iran.[68] The motives followed in the urban design of Abadan, they argued, were not the conventions of urban planning, nor the price of land and economic calculations, but the separation and distinction of different areas of the city from one another by a central authority. It is self-evident that if different city neighborhoods were constructed adjacent to each other, the provision of common services and infrastructure would be far cheaper due to the economies of scale. In fact, Abadan’s neighborhoods were built apart and separated by wide stretches of empty terrain, wide roads, pipelines, the administrative and industrial facilities and, of course, the enormous bulk of the refinery itself. This imposed separation prevented easy intermingling and routine pedestrian interactions, as well as potentially dangerous collective congregations between separate city sections.
Figure 3 is an aerial photograph of Abadan taken in the 1940s. The view is to the north, with Shatt al-Arab River to the west (left) and Iraqi territory visible in the upper section of the photograph. In the foreground is the Bawarda staff neighborhood. The bulk of the refinery is in the middle, with Braim, the neighborhood of the senior staff visible as a green triangle just north of the refinery, near the river. In between Bawarda and the Refinery lies the Shahr or Abadan Town, with its apparently chaotic and maze-like pattern, cut through by several wide avenues and access roads linking Bawarda and the Refinery. These wide access roads were built after 1926 (see chapter 6).

Bawarda is kept separate from Abadan by a wide swath of seemingly open land, where some workshops and storage sheds are scattered about. The open area abuts into a wide ditch, which was dug after 1926, to heated protest by city officials and townspeople (chapter 6).
In Company enclaves roads did not connect different city sections to traffic exchanges. Rather they ended in several bottlenecks that allowed the surveillance of all communication between different parts of the city. Guard posts marked the boundaries of different neighborhoods, and there were regular police stations near or at the entrance to workers’ neighborhoods. APOC was the monopoly owner of all land in the formal company enclaves. It was responsible for organizing different sections of these enclaves, as well as for creating, maintaining, and reinforcing the distinctions between its different parts.


Photograph 23 is an aerial picture of two Company neighborhoods of Abadan in the 1940s. In the foreground we see the senior staff housing development in North Bawarda, and in the background the row houses of Jamshid neighborhood for mid ranking workers, and further still lies the workers housing in Bahmanshir neighborhood. The water tower at the center also acts as a watchtower. The road grid separates neighborhoods, but also serves the functions of protection, as well as surveillance in a visibly panoptic manner. The contrast in the density as well as availability of green open space is detectable, even in this distant aerial photograph. It is also clear that streets in these Company neighborhood are not intended for lingering or social interactions, as there are no shops, stalls, parks, benches, trees, fountains, or any other vestige of public intercourse available for residents outside their domestic space. The public space of Company areas is limited to Company clubs and buildings.
In Masjed-Soleyman the local topography and physical setting of oil wells and extraction facilities had to a large extent aided and modified the process of social engineering. While its oilfields produced a high yield Masjed Soelyman remained firmly in the grip of APOC, and was more stringently controlled as an exclusive company town than the much larger and more cosmopolitan Abadan. Houses and urban facilities were constructed, in a spread-out fashion, around oil wells and the industrial facilities. Specific neighborhoods were often called after these facilities – for example Nomre-e Yek (Number One, referring to the first oil well discovered), Nomre-e Chehel (Number 40), Naftak (Little Oil), Naftoun, etc. The distances and areas between neighborhoods were intentionally left barren and undeveloped, and were connected by narrow Company-built roads passing through rugged hills.
Every attempt by the local population to build unauthorized hovels and houses were immediately confronted by the Company’s bulldozers and demolished. As in Abadan, official Company areas were built separately from one another, and had only one narrow access road in and out. Neighborhoods were designed either in a circular pattern, or as parallel streets that were interconnected by perpendicular streets, but dead ended on both sides, cutting and isolating the neighborhood from the world beyond, except through the single and easily guarded access road.
Company neighborhoods were segregated according to rank and status, set in separate locations with different amenities and characteristics. The senior managers lived in Shah Neshin (Seat of the King), senior staff in Naftak and Talkhab, junior and petty staff in Nomre-e Chehel, Camp Scotch, and Pansion-e Khayyam; and workers in Naftoun, Do Lane (Two Lanes), Seh Lane (Three Lanes), Bibian, etc.

Photograph 25: Shahneshin Senior Staff Neighborhood in Masjed Soleyman

In Masjed-Soleyman, as in Abadan, the formal Company spaces of leisure and social interaction were differentiated according to rank and class. Senior staff and managers had membership to Bashgah-e Markazi (the Central Club), junior staff had the Bashgah-e Iran, and workers Bashgah-e Kargari (Workers’ Club), located in Naftoun. Only members and their guests had access to each club. Aside from the medical facilities that were available to the public, but with segregated wards for Europeans and Company enployees, the rest of the town’s population, if not employed by the Oil Company, had no access to Company facilities, especially the clubs. Social clubs had more or less similar facilities, such as a cinema, restaurant, cafeteria, swimming pool, ping pong, bingo, billiards, etc. The difference was not so much in the range of amenities as the quality and, more important, the prestige conferred by membership of each institution, which played an important role in bestowing symbolic status on individuals and their family. In Masjed Soleyman even the company stores and the range and types of “rations” assigned to employees were segregated and distinguished by rank and social class.[69]

Photograph 26: Masjed Soleyman Staff Housing


Notes & References:
67. On the historical morphology of cities on the Iranian Plateau see Michael Bonine, “Morphogenesis of Iranian Cities,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 69 (1979): 208–24; Michael Bonine, Yazd and Its Hinterland, vol. 83, Marburger Geographische Schriften (Marburg, 1980); Massoud Kheirabadi, Iranian Cities (Austin: Texas UniversityPress, 1991).

68. See Vieille et al., “Abadan: Morphologie et Fonction Du Tissu Urbain”; Paul Vieille et al., “Abadan: Tissu Urbain, Attitudes et Valeurs,” Revue Geographique de l’Est, no. 3–4 (1969): 361–78.

69. Shahni, Tarikh-e Masjed-Soleyman, pp. 349-530.


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