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Samaneh Moafi

Surveys and Blueprints: The possibility of enabling algorithms for compressions

It was in 1966, when for the first time in the history of Iran it was possible to analyse and understand the country’s population. The country’s second national census was held on this year, a project that measured the age, sexuality, marital status, income, religion, literacy, health and migration patterns of the Iranian masses. With two sets of measurements now in hand—the data from the 1966 census and its precursor in 1956—a scientific comparison was finally possible. The comparison enabled a marking of the maximums, minimums, means and medians of a people, a process for standardization and the mapping of a series of trajectories that could be intervened in. At this very point, the dream of foundations being laid by the Shah of Iran for a new project of governance came true.

The successful governance of a people is a process that has been identified historically as requiring skillful techniques and artistry. Those that operate on the actions of individuals, either singly or collectively, so as to shape, guide, correct or modify the ways in which they conduct themselves. One of the key innovations in the art of government is the definition of ‘population’ as an economic and political ‘problem’. Population is fundamentally a problem since it needs to be controlled in order to maintain a balance between its own growth and the resources it requires. In a project of governance, it is therefore not only necessary to analyse the various characteristics of a population but also to regulate them. Such project has historically involved the regulation of the most intimate aspects of an individual’s life, for example the legal age for marriage, the legitimacy and frequency of sexual relations and the ways of making parts of a population fertile or sterile.

Following the 1966 national census, Iran engaged the services of the Population Council due to its then worldwide reputation as the premier repository of technical expertise in family planning. The assignment was to review Iran’s demographics and draw a pattern for its growth and evolution. The population was estimated to increase at a rate of 3.2 percent per annum leading to a twofold increase every 21 years. As a direct consequence of this analysis the council identified a series of challenges that were emerging at the urban level such as housing and infrastructure. The source of the problem was also identified: the age, ethics and rituals of a typical Iranian family. The sexual conduct of the parents therefore, came to be both an object of analysis and a particular subject, the woman, came to be identified as the best target for intervention.

In Esfahan alone, a city with a population of below half a million, three million cycles of birth-control pills were distributed. Through social media a series of posters and banners were distributed to educate parents about contraception and to try to limit the desireable number of children to two or three per family. The posters also showcased the new ideal model for a household unit. The father was pictured as a white-collar worker wearing a tie and a cheap suit. The mother was introduced as a woman with loose religious beliefs wearing mid-height heels and a short skirt, yet holding on to her Chador as a cultural gesture. The two children were drawn as mini-replicas of their parents. A fifth subject completed the model: a nurse exhibiting scientific expertise by wearing a stethoscope around her neck and holding birth-control pills with her right hand, in a gesture that was not too dissimilar to the figure of Libertas in the Statue of Liberty. The model Iranian household was therefore composed of a nuclear structure limited to four members, who were willing to allow the state to regulate its moral and bodily conduct.


Poster produced by the Population Council in the project for family planning in Esfahan (Color adjustment has been made by the author).

Parallel with these experiments in family planning, housing came to be identified as another weapon for the regulation of the masses. In the 1972 National Housing Plan, a specific attention was given to the migration patterns of the population at a regional scale. Driven by an increasing water scarcity and rapid industrialisation a growing migration wave was detected of people moving from remote rural areas to the urban centres. As opposed to providing the required infrastructure for the absorption of these people into the cities and tackling the causes of the migration, Iran’s National Housing Plan proposed for the construction of new housing settlements in the form of satellite townships or shahraks (شهرک). The typology of shahraks required the new settlements to be positioned within a particular distance from the urban centres and were assigned a predefined limit of housing for 5000 people. According to the glossary of the 1966 national census, the number 5000 was the number that single-handedly marked the difference between an urban city and a rural town. Given this typology, the shahraks operated below the radar of urbanisation and were therefore capable of managing the migrations.

The 1972 housing plan was designed by Constantinos Apostolou Doxiadis, the Greek architect and founder of Ekistics (Science of Human Settlements) and followed a series of remote housing and agrarian experiments that were done a decade earlier in the region of Dezful in south west of Iran. The project in Dezful originally aimed to introduce industrial agriculture to Iran’s landscape. Dams and canals were to replace traditional irrigation systems of the region such as qanats and wells. As the project proceeded, the attempt was made to produce more than crops. It was proposed to clear the one hundred villages that were already spread across the region. Residents were to be relocated. Thirteen new townships were established and with them a new kind of human subject, the modern agricultural worker. The new workers were to practice habits, rituals and characteristics that differed from those of the tradition. Central squares, mixed schools, shared washrooms, front yards, cross-shaped houses and even the thickness of walls became tools for transforming the rural people.

Dezful was one of the first projects born out of the Shah’s white revolution, a nation building program that sought to introduce a land reform in order to reduce the likelihood of peasant uprisings and communist revolts. The fertile land of Dezful was sought as a laboratory for an experiment. The aim was to draw the blueprints of a model for a social, political and economic intervention at the national scale. In 1958 Abdolhassan Ebtehaj, a powerful figure in the economic history of Iran invited David Lilienthal, former chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority in The United States and Gordon Clapp, head of the UN Economic Survey Mission to the Middle East to propose a project within the region. Following the initial deals, the project received a large incentive from the World Bank and came to be the showcase agricultural project of the Middle East. The experiments in Dezful therefore came to be proposed by Lilienthal, financed by the World Bank and commissioned to a team that included Doxiadis.

The thirteen settlements of this project enabled the state to not simply mobilise but also intervene in the daily rituals of the local population. The residents were to become not just better-off workers, but uniformly better-off workers. Homogeneity, regularity and the appearance of things being in place became key urban principles. A numbering system was used to categorize the mobilized population. Instead of the streets, blocks were assigned with names (e.g. row 19) and to further ease the process of surveying, the four units within each house were numbered clockwise before going to the adjutant house. Townships were offset from the main road and secured from the traffic of cars. A series of facilities such as sport fields and car parks were positioned along the borders of each settlement in order to further insulate the residential areas. The centre was a square surrounded by a series of civic institutions, a morphology that aligned with mid-twentieth-century modernism. These institutions—gossip squares, mixed schools, health centres and public toilets—became instrumental and advanced particular aspects of Shah’s project of nation-building.

In a similar way to the project for family planning in Esfahan, the project for the shahrak settlements in Iran’s National Housing program was the blueprint for a population yet to come. A blueprint that was enabled by a series of surveys, such as that of the National Census. By nature, such surveys encrypt populations and territories into a series of quantitative abstractions and reduce individuals, their ideologies and their desires to measurable entities such as date and place of birth. While such processes of encryption are the necessary means for a project of governance, they also enable the very possibility for resistance. In Burchell’s words such projects have the potential to open up, “different ways of establishing the play between regulation and openness, between constraint and possible transformation.”

On the eve of the 1979 uprising in Iran, almost half the population was less than 16 years of age. A population therefore, that had been raised during the decades of the 1960s and 1970s. Although still poorly understood, during Shah’s project of governance a new type of character emerged: one who initiated a rupture from not only the modern governmental projects which restricted the future through a series of blueprints, but also the surveys that located the character within a culture that was inseparable from tradition. In the 1970s the concern for exceeding the limitations of an encryption became a concern for freedom, enabling individuals to reinvent themselves and legitimising the call for a revolution. Today, encrypting processes are still embedded within projects of governance and hence the possibility for resistance continues to exist. But perhaps it is time to look for a possibility from within the algorithms of encryption; the call is out to technicians, scientists and architects who are sharpening their pencils as we speak to draw up the surveys of today and the blueprints for tomorrow.


Blueprint showing the thirteen new settlements proposed in the Dezful region, 1970s (drawing reproduced by the author).


Blueprint for the settlements in Dezful, marking the location of roundabouts, public buildings and squares, 1970s (drawing reproduced by the author).


School children in front of a school in one of the new Dezful settlements. Note boys and girls standing together. Extracted from David Lilienthal’s journal.


A bird’s-eye view of a settlement similar to those of Dezful constructed by Doxiadis in Korangi in the 1960s. Extracted from the Doxiadis archive.



Compression Augmentation