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An Architecture of Uncertainty: Narratives of the Built Environment Under Economic Sanctions in Tehran


This dissertation is shaped around the question of how under the politics and rhetoric of sanctions architecture acts as a cultural response and evinces different cultural reactions to the economic situation in Iran. Sanctions, while well understood in terms of politics and economics, have not been studied as part of everyday Iranian culture. And while they have been looked at as a temporary politico-economic force, their impact on physical space as a permanent social phenomenon has not been explored. Today, a vital part of what I call “the culture of sanctions” in Iran is experienced materially in architectural terms. I take interest in how the culture of sanctions has stimulated new forms of critiquing the built environment among different communities of practice.

Architecture is viewed in this project as a tapestry pf practices, which include construction, design, development, representation, even pedagogy, activism and speculation; these realms are explored in the chapters of this work among different professional groups, namely, builders, realtors, ordinary investors, architects and artists. The built environment in my research is studied along with the everyday political and religious rhetoric around sanctions. On the one hand, sanctions are viewed as an obstacle, and the cause of Iran’s “global isolation.” This has more than ever created a socio-psychological market for the cultivation of things that are “modern,” “western,” “global,” and “foreign.” On the other hand, sanctions are viewed as a rather positive force—an opportunity to build an Islamic economy independent of Western imperial influences. Such nationalistic reactions, which are tied to the spatial discourses of colonialism, globalization, and modernism, have also influenced architectural practices in terms of design, material culture, and financial calculations.

To build on this, I argue that sanctions have simultaneously worked as a closing and opening mechanism. In other words, they may have closed the borders to certain goods, capital and material flows, but they have also opened it to particular ideologies and cultural economies. This resembles the inherent polarities within the word “sanction” itself—a contronym, which means “permission,” and “deterrent” at the same time. The invocation of sanctions as a contronym has a value as an analytical framework because Iran has suffered from massive sanctions in the past few decades, but what this work has found is the process by which Iranian people and the Iranian state “sanction” themselves. Sanction here does not mean the deterrence that was imposed on them, but the permission Iranians have given themselves to respond to the ongoing political and economic instabilities through different cultural and economic strategies. My work documents the ways in which architecture is imagined and materialized in this political field of simultaneous depression and progression of ideas. To study the built environment in this manner is not to downplay the ruinous psychological and economic impacts of the imposed embargoes on society, but to view them as a form of “creative destruction.”

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