Re-thinking Open City Theory: The Case of Tehran

Alami Fariman, Mahsa. 2022. Re-thinking Open City Theory: The Case of Tehran. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

This thesis investigates Richard Sennett’s open city theory in the sociopolitical context of the Iranian capital, Tehran. Open city theory is built on design interventions that set out to modify specific forms of design, inherited from the functional city of the early twentieth century, that create social divisions in cities. Instead of designing more private, formal, gated and safe urban environments that segregate people according to their individual characteristics, ethnicities, professions and so on, open city theory encourages coexistence, complexity, tolerance and diversity through design. However, this research is not just an attempt to analyse or apply this theory to another city, but is also an investigation of the potential dimensions of openness in the non-western sociopolitical context of Tehran – dimensions that might not necessarily fit Sennett’s theory.

To begin with, the study suggests that open city theory is perhaps too charged with a western sense of openness/closedness, about what a city is or should be. This is to suggest that a lack of both social interaction and a vivid and diverse urban life cannot always be seen as the result of functional urban planning and that therefore, closedness should not be conceived as a concept that describes only those western cities undergoing rigid neoliberalisation, privatisation and new capitalism. This thesis, on the contrary, uses the idea of closedness to describe the oppressive urban life of cities under totalitarian and authoritarian rule, and suggests new perspectives that strip away the overcharged meanings currently attached to the concepts of openness and closedness in western countries.

Based on a mixed methodology, this study shows how closedness in Tehran is tied to the constant production and re-production of Islamic spaces by state apparatuses, not just to create homogeneous and synchronous relations, but which also treat the body as an entity to be disciplined and controlled. But this research goes beyond that to show how in the oppressive political climate of Iran, openness should also be understood differently to the way it is used in open city theory, to include any moment through which people – especially women and youth – create spatial arrangements outside and beyond the control of the authorities. And since these moments are not permanent, the openness they produce is also characteristically transitory, and subject to happening in specific time-spaces. By paying attention to transient interactions in semi-public/semi-private spaces such as cafés, taxis, buses and the metro (as well as in virtual spaces online), this research suggests that in Tehran it is not design interventions but people who dissolve the normative social structure and order of urban life to develop a kind of brief sociable experience.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

Identification Number (DOI):


open city, Richard Sennett, Tehran, urban studies, urban sociology

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Institute for Cultural and Creative Entrepreneurship (ICCE)


30 September 2022

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

12 Oct 2022 10:38

Last Modified:

07 Aug 2023 16:04


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