Sánchez, S., & Amuchástegui, R. (2015). Biopolítica en el espacio doméstico de la ciudad de Buenos Aires en perspectiva histórica. Revista INVI, 30(85), 23-80. Como citar este artículo
Biopolitics within the domestic space of Buenos Aires, a historical perspective

doi 10.4067/S0718-83582015000300002


Biopolitics within the domestic space of Buenos Aires, a historical perspective1


Sandra Inés Sánchez2, Rodrigo Amuchástegui3

2 Argentina. Architect, University of Buenos Aires; PhD with specialization in history, University of Buenos Aires. Assistant Researcher, National Council on Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET). Researcher, Higher Institute of Urban Planning, Territory and Environment at the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Urban Planning, University of Buenos Aires; Amancio Williams Center for Studies (Faculty of Architecture, Design and Urban Planning at the University of Buenos Aires); Center for Higher Studies at the Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning, Inter-American Open University.

3 Argentina. Philosopher, PhD, University of Buenos Aires (Faculty of Philosophy and Literature). Professor, Faculty of Architecture, Design and Urban Planning at the University of Buenos Aires. Editor for ÁREA: Agenda de reflexion en arquitectura, diseño y urbanismo.


The concept of “biopolitics” will be applied to the construction of a domestic space in the city of Buenos Aires from an historical perspective, divided into three stages: the first is related to its origins in the Municipality during the last quarter of the XIX century when as the result of the outbreak of epidemics and the emergence of multiple institutional instruments intended to control and regulate the urban space that primarily affected the domestic domain; the second stage took place at the beginning of the XX century and was related to the emergence of the first housing projects aimed at “poor”, “working-class” and “laborer” social groups; and, finally, the third period places us in the present with the creation of different institutional instruments intended to promote the social integration of groups and sectors with housing issues.




Biopolitics emerged as a new topic of debate within the Foucaultian discussion soon after the posthumous publication of his work4. However, contributions edited during his lifetime evidenced some approaches to such a discussion, although these were not academically regarded by the College de France. According to Foucault “biopolitics” is both a specific form of governance that focuses on the management of the biological processes of the population and the effect of a previous concern of political power: the biopower. This is referred to as a series of knowledge strategies and power relationships that arose during the XVII century in the Western hemisphere.

Such a concept is still being discussed. Authors such as Esposito and Agamben5 are some of the most notable names around this debate. However, the multiplicity of derivations, both at conceptual and practical level reveal the vast depth of this concept6. There is no doubt that this notion also forms part of the debate on contemporary political disciplines, but with wide resonance in other fields of knowledge. However, it is undisputed that it is Foucault who set out and conitunes to sustain the key meanings of this proposal7.

Though the “bios–zoe” distinction may not be relevant to Foucault, some authors8 argue that the difference between these two concepts should be taken into consideration. While the former notion is used to refer to “bio-politics”, its application may not be exclusively etymological. The word “bios” comes from Greek, where it refers to human life, that is to say, life that is articulated in and by with language. On the other hand, the word “zoe” refers exclusively to biological life. The latter concept is the interest of this paper since:

“The object of biopolitics is not related to the specificity of human life, but to the biological lives of human beings. The fact that the term ’bios’‚ had prevailed over the ’zoe’ —which was eventually replaced by the former word— and the use of the word ‘biopolitics’ instead of ‘zoopolitics’ was possible thanks to the coinage of the term ‘biology’, which emerged at the beginning of the XIX century”9.

This Foucaultian concept of biopolitics is consistent with his concept of “population” as the latter is not simply considered as the result of the “accumulation of individuals within a specific territory or the result of their willingness to reproduce themselves”. This is because “its alleged natural characteristic” is influenced by “security devices”10 and different techniques, forms of governance and knowledge (political economy, statistics, biology). In sum, elements common to the construction of the concept of “biopolitics”11.

The objective of this research is to make distinctions among the different ways in which biopolitics and biopower operate as a sociobiological form of organization in relation to domestic spaces, the urban environment and people. Therefore, the following issues have been raised: How do the disciplines related to biology and its regulation operate in each historical period? Where do its specificities lie? and, What have been the strategies and methods adopted during its implementation?

Though the relationship among urban planning, territory and biopolitics in its most general characteristics has already been studied, this paper focuses on how these strategies became consolidated in Buenos Aires since the last quarter of the XIX century through some institutions that, within the context of epidemic outbreaks, operated differently on different groups and social sectors in relation to the urban environment, domestic spaces and people.

Therefore, the concept of “biopolitics” is applied to the construction of domestic spaces within Buenos Aires. This has been divided into three historical periods: the first one is related to its origins in the Municipality during the last quarter of the XIX century as the result of epidemic outbreaks and the emergence of multiple institutional instruments intended to control and regulate the urban space —a process that primarily affected the domestic domain; the second stage took place at the beginning of the XX century and was related to the emergence of the first housing projects aimed at “poor”, “working-class” and “laborer” social groups; and, finally, the third period places us in the present with the creation of different institutional instruments intended to promote the social integration of groups and sectors with housing issues.

The politics of life related to the domestic sphere are not uncommon within the context of theories or historical studies. Neither is it the relationship with the medical field. The first works of Foucault on medicine and the creation of clinics demonstrated his interest in this topic despite the lack of specific terminology12. Public health awareness certainly contributed to the materialization of biopolitics13 and the issues related to this trend —given its relationship with State or non-State policies and human health— do not exclusively refer to the XIX century, but to current and ongoing institutional practices.


Methodological considerations

Considering that philosophy refers to the invention of concepts14 and that invention creates perspectives intended to observe what was previously disregarded, there is no doubt that the application of the term and concept of “biopolitics” enables the organization, arrangement and classification of a series of phenomena through different and original ways; such a process leads to the emergence of a new political framework that provides conceptual, political and instrumental tools. In other words, under this methodological perspective the above concept operates as a unifying thread or heuristic principle.

Likewise, this paper conducts a systematic and comprehensive review of sources from institutions (published and non-published), the scientific community and journalism. These references were examined through different discourse analysis methods in order to obtain, from the discourses used in each case, the tensions related to the constitution of State power. Therefore, this research focuses on the meanings and symbols built by institutions and the sense that guided the key actions that enabled the construction of biopolicies and biopower, which —from the domestic space— aimed at influencing people.


Biopolitics within the Context of Epidemic Outbreaks during the Last Quarter of the XIX Century

From the establishment of the municipal government in 185615 to the first half of the XX century —a period of time that witnessed the two most important urban development processes in the history of Buenos Aires— urban planning underwent a complex transformation process. Such a phenomenon became evident in the change of status experienced by the Municipality of Buenos Aires (from now on the Municipality), which emerged as the most important institution in urban affairs. Prior to this moment, the Municipality had little power, dealing only with facilities-related issues and, in regulatory terms, with the control and regulation of public spaces as the result of the limitations imposed by the Civil Code16.

The first period between 1869-1895 was characterized by the concentration of population in central areas, thus giving rise to the emergence of low rent housing typologies such as “tenant housing”, “sub-divided homes”, “furnished apartments”, “taverns” and “inns”. These units became the subject of institutional intervention as the result of epidemic outbreaks.

The second period —1895-1914— was marked by the excessive expansion towards the outskirts of the city; such a process was promoted by the supply of long-term loans for the construction of dwellings and the implementation of large infrastructural and urban transportation projects that favored the development of new districts which, in turn, stimulated the first housing proposals aimed at the deprived segments of the population. In this context, those individuals with unmet housing needs were referred to as the “poor”.

The cholera (1857-1858) and yellow fever (1872) epidemics and other minor outbreaks such as measles, smallpox and chicken pox prompted a large number of law and medical professionals, journalists, officials and politicians (some of them grouped in institutions) to develop multiple and different notions about the causes and evolution of epidemics to - within the framework of comprehensive statements on health, diseases, hygiene, cleanness, poverty and immigration - intervene different groups and urban social sectors. The original discourse on the domestic spaces of these segments of the population was overlapped with other discourses that discredited their ways and means of life.

During the first epidemic outbreak, the Municipality, prominent citizens, the Police Department and the Council on Public Hygiene summoned a group of doctors to create the first dedicated professional medical teams. This situation involved a series of conflicts since these groups operated autonomously and parallel to each other while trying to legitimize different relevant areas about urban affairs.

Though these teams agreed that dirtiness was a “source of infection”, transmission and the main driver of epidemic outbreaks, they established different relationships about the sources and forms of contagion. This led to the development of different theories, regulations and institutional conflicts17.

On March 29, 1858, the director of the Hospital General de Hombres announced to the neighborhood committee that “in Balcarce Street, one block away from here” an individual “had been infected with yellow fever”, which “led to the death of the patient”; the director also asked to “notify the Municipality” about such an episode18. Four days later, the vice-president of the Municipality sent a note to the Council on Hygiene asking if the above case of yellow fever was an “isolated or an epidemic event”.

The Council on Hygiene replied that it was “difficult” to answer that question since “the invasion of pestilential diseases” were unpredictable and showed different identifiable phases.

Such a disease occurred through an “ill-fated visit” that eventually led to death; then it “lodged” in the host body in a “menacing fashion”; and, as in the case of all pestilential diseases, it may “evade defense measures”, thus successfully spreading among “the whole population” with the characteristics of “a real epidemic event”. It was concluded that there was no certainty about the epidemic nature of the above “disease” and the expert “could not” and “should not” provide certainty if the disease would maintain its sporadic condition or “would trespass” the limits of a “single, reduced block”, despite the fact that, up to that moment, there were no “new reported cases” and the disease “remained” in the original area.19 The Council on Hygiene also warned the Municipality that any report on these cases would be received “with resentment and deep displeasure” given their “pointless and detrimental” nature since the disease had not been already declared “an epidemic”20.

This situation led to the emergence of an epistemology of uncertainty as the result of the unpredictable nature of this epidemic event and the responsibility placed on doctors as the “experts” on this issue. Though this event was officially recognized, access to such information was restricted. The Report of the Municipal Administration, 1858 stated that:

“The occurrence of such a disease took place in an area that showed no visual causeual sources producing plague; other neighborhoods affected, such as Parroquia de la Catedral al Norte, did not show sources of infection either. Experts used this data to investigate the spreading of fever”21.

These statements circulated at institutional level; however, people were not aware of their existence. This meant that the consistency of epidemic-related theories should be corroborated within the institutional framework in order to define future plans.

In this way, such an epidemic event was theorized to be caused by the abattoirs from the Rosas era22, thus suggesting the relocation of these facilities. Other theories focused on the “method of propagation” through “direct or indirect contact” with patients; these suggestions were directly connected to “import activity”, immigration and the quarantine issued for the port of Buenos Aires.23 This measure was met with strong opposition from those affected: “trade, industry and immigration” put pressure on to rectify the situation .

The legislative body, which was in charge of the political decisions made by the city in relation to the port, supported the contagion theories and created “different commissions” to “track down” and “find” the “origin of certain voices engaged in a secret dialog with the British courier service”, a ship “quarantined some time ago”. To do so, a group of men “involved in activities other than science and completely unaware of the issue” were summoned; the idea was to maintain an unbiased approach and strategic removal of doctors from policy-making processes.

Other theories found the origins of this event in “meteorological phenomena which, through changes in the atmospheric mass and electric agents, deprived the air from its ability to revitalize blood… which is essential for the development of life”24. It was clear that being a professional entailed supporting one of these theories and legitimizing the institution that proposed them.

However, the most accepted theories proposed the intervention of the domestic space of “poor” people. According to a note sent to the “Municipal officials of Parroquia de la Catedral al Sud” (04/24/1858) by a hygiene inspector:

“describing the poor cleanliness condition and the domestic state of people living in the space between the creek running along San Francisco Street and the old Victoria rift would be an endless task. The humidity of this area and the saturated atmosphere in some of the rooms located in the building that is being demolished by Mr. Casares are circumstances which, humanly speaking, turn these properties into uninhabitable spaces. This can be easily corroborated upon entering into the room of Pedro Diaz, where the saturated atmosphere affects the act of breathing”25.

Another note sent by an inspector of Parroquia de Catedral al Norte (04/05/1858) mentioned some “regular visits and the restoration of dwellings whose condition of poor cleanliness affected the population”26; there were also some cases in which dwellings were ordered to be demolished (08/27/1858). However, the first reference to the relationship between mortality rates and the ways of living of “some” individuals appeared in an independent report written by a doctor who worked at the Police Department:

“the situation of abandonment experienced by patients during the first days of the disease; they fell prey to selfish and vulgar concerns and let themselves die in their miserable rooms or looked for help when they had no energies to react and live”27.

The above explained the high mortality rates caused by the epidemic among some sociocultural segments of the population during the earlier phases of the outbreak in certain areas of the city such as “Santa Rosa Street, Puente, Mercado del Sud and Paseo de Julio”28. This situation prompted authorities to control the number of inhabitants per room within tenement houses29.

As the result of such an event, hygienist doctors held key positions at the Municipality and municipal engineers took advantage of the contagion theories put forward by doctors to legitimize the works on city water and justify the first regulations on urban development. The report written by a municipal engineer and forwarded to the Ministry of Finance stated that it was “paramount for public health and for the comfort of poor people to use pipelines and transport water to poor suburbs and even to the poorest dwellings”30.

Transitional measures implemented by doctors sealed the gap from which they consolidated their positions within the Municipality. Different ordinances on the public hygiene of streets and the elimination of waste were put into practice; authorities ordered the fumigation of affected areas (mainly San Telmo); those facilities regarded as “harmful or dangerous for public health” or “generators of discomfort in relation to neighboring dwellings”31 were relocated; and there was a collaboration with the Council on Public Hygiene32 to issue a document entitled “Instructions to the People”.

Some of the theories contained in the above document (04/15/1857) suggested that “those inebriated, gourmets, libertines, sickly and poor people” were “highly exposed to suffer the destructive consequences of their abusive behavior”, thus being labeled as “those who should be highly guarded against” such a disease; the “use of high-quality spirits (such as wine and beer) was allowed in the case of usual consumers”. The same applied to food; this meant that “products such as beef and lamb, domestic birds and fish” were “the best foods” given their freshness and because they were acquired on a daily basis by people with greater purchasing power. On the other hand “spice, greasy substances, stimulants, pork-based products, pickles, marinated dishes, cold meats and shellfish” were “the least likely foods to preserve internal organs”33.

The signs about the occurrence of an epidemic outbreak were based on statements on health, diseases, hygiene, cleanliness, poverty and immigration that involved different urban social segments and allowed authorities to intervene in these sectors and their domestic spaces. The first of these signs referred to death and institutions had to decide whether deadly cases were caused by pestilent diseases and, in the event of a series of similar incidents, declare an epidemic.

Within the context of the lack of structured action —which was intended to consolidate territories— the biopolitical discourse was based on concealment, denial and confrontation34. Meanwhile, the Department of Statistics stated that:

“The processing and corroboration of mortality data in the capital has surprised the Head of this unit since the number of buried people is larger than the sum of the figures provided by Priests, hospitals, the Foundling Home and Protestant Pastors”35.

The elaboration of epidemic signs was intended to ensure a social consensus on institutional actions through the development of a fragmented social model. Such a model was a paradigm of difference that determined and justified social positions. So prevalent was this system that even ten years after its creation, during the inspection of a possible case of yellow fever in which “the condition of the dwelling” seemed to be source of the epidemic, a group of doctors ordered “the immediate eviction of the tenant” due to the “external appearance and condition of cleanliness”, disregarding the healthy condition of the patient36.

The creation of the Municipality in 1856 meant the inclusion of society into State affairs, which was reflected in the first complaints issued by neighbors in the face of the threat of epidemics. Such an institutional recognition transcended the territorial sphere of the city since it was the guarantee and concern of the embryonic national State. Within the context of epidemics, it was stated that:

“The nation is interested in this issue since it would be painful to observe the failure of the municipal regime in Buenos Aires or the faltering progression of an institution which, as the result of structural vices, did not receive proper consideration”37.

Epidemics marked the institutionalization of the Municipality and turned this institution into one of the key elements of biopower and its “somatic bodies”38, whose symptoms could be responded to in a way which was eminently tangible or sensitive which also considered different politically tense subjectivities. The idea was get into the body so as to intervene the social sphere. The physical space of dwellings became the expression of performativity and the ways and forms of inhabiting the domestic space.

The end of this epidemic also marked the ending of the initial period of the Municipality, which only needed to be empowered. The “Ordinance on Inspection, Surveillance and Hygiene of Hotels and Dwellings Inhabited by more than One Family” (06/14/1871) and the “Regulation on Tenement Houses” (06/16/1871) were the first of a series of measures intended to regulate the physical and social space of dwellings and tenement houses, which were inhabited by poor people39. Conversely, the rigorous strategies on hygienic control implemented at domestic level avoided the above “somatic bodies”, which penetrated other differentiated institutional practices, thus exerting direct social control. Indeed, by the sheer fact of housing people, these dwellings fell strategically under institutional control. This was the plan of hygienist doctors who persuasively developed such measures.

Though the intervention of the private space was not institutionally legitimized, it was regarded as a strategic State tool. There was a debate:

“in order to build hygienic streets and dwellings, the intervention of authorities is vital as they have to analyze if the plan of the city is suitable for such a purpose and oversee their construction. Can this be considered as an attack on property or individual freedom?”40

Public hygiene, understood as “the art of preserving and regaining the health of people” and the “hygiene of the poor”, was consistent with a new form of biopower that aimed at controlling the urban space from the domestic sphere and, ultimately, people and their bodies through a series of concrete and proscriptive regulations focused on the eradication of specific ways and forms of inhabiting41.

According to prominent local hygienists Eduardo Wilde and Guillermo Rawson, the city and the domestic space were conceived as a living organism and the target of institutional intervention, respectively. Rawson regarded tenement houses as “sources of infection” and “imperfections” that affected the urban organism through fluids (miasma, sewage liquids, wastewater, etc.) that spread all kind of diseases42. Likewise, Wilde conceived this kind of dwellings inhabited by the poor as a “pandemonium shared by four, five or more people, thus defying regulations, common sense, good taste and the demands of the organism”43.

The latter author pointed out that the urban social organism was composed of two groups, the “rich individuals” or “aristocrats” who lived in the “downtown area” and the “poor”, “miserable” individuals and “beggars” that lived in “neglected districts”. The rich “had access to all kind of domestic comfort” and was the individual who needed to “satisfy his appetite, quench his thirst and cover and protect his body against cold, rain and weather; (…) travel all year round, get some fresh air, change his scenery” and “live” wherever he wants. On the other hand, the “poor” lacked the “resources to satisfy these needs or desires”. Finally, there were the miserable individuals, those “beggars,(...) unfortunate people who had no jobs or position whatsoever”44. This author, in consistency with his ideas, considered the relocation of these social groups and industries beyond urban limits.

According to Rawson, while “the rich and powerful people” from “higher social status” were “at the basis” of society, the “poor and unfortunate people” were found at the “modest” levels in which “laborers” had to “earn their living by the sweat of their brows”.45 This author did not conceive a society which segregated them since the latter group would be socially integrated through the modification of their domestic spaces and, ultimately, their bodies:

“These favors, comfort and the encouragement of cleanliness and honesty should trigger the physical and moral transformation of beneficiaries”46.

It was not until the end of these two epidemics, towards the first half of the 1880s, that the Municipality emerged as the most important institution as far as urban health was concerned since it concentrated all methods of action: definition of statutes, control and regulation of the urban space and the presence of an inspecting body that made a distinction between body and society through the creation of the Welfare Service (03/1883), the Public Disinfection Department (06/11/1883), the Offices of Medics (08/08/1883), the Chemical Bureau (09/14/1883)47 and the Neighborhood Registry (12/14/1883). In this context, the domestic space emerged as a preferential space for intervention:

“Hygiene is one of the most common concerns within the Municipal Administration since the poor living standards of the working class, which represents a fifth of the total population of the city, do not ensure the satisfaction of required conditions”48.

The creation of the Neighborhood Registry in 1883 gave rise to an intensive and demographic type of control. Under such a system, the “family housing units” also fell under institutional control. The goal of this entity was to collect information and create a database for the parish registers. Such a registry was divided into different sections according to two types: “family housing units” and “tenement houses, hotels, hospitals, nursing homes and public welfare centers” (12/14/1883).49 A year later, these checks were conducted by police stations, which included new categories such as “nationality, residence time, age, marital status, occupation and address”. The inclusion of this new classification criteria strengthened social control within the context of demographic control.

The Municipality became professionalized and intensified hygienic and social control mechanisms. In this context, the 22 Offices of Medics were required to reside in their respective areas in order to “eradicate a series recurring of obstacles such as the inspection of the corpses of individuals who died without receiving medical care” (01/19/1884). Doctors aimed at exerting full control over the territory and properly identify social issues such as poverty, vagrancy or indigence. It would take some time for these problems to be specifically addressed since the concepts of care and welfare (and institutions) were still at an embryonic state.

“this was explained by the fact that those begging for public care are layabouts who abuse such a benefit by draining public resources from welfare institutions in order to feed their bad habits.

The wise allocation of these inappropriately used resources would be valuable for the foundation and maintenance of new Poorhouses and the provision of assistance for those in need”50.

During the 1890s the modern scientific discourse derived from social sciences had not been consistently implemented within local institutions and biopower, which was embodied by the Municipality, required the law to adopt a regulatory approach51. In this line the “Regulation on Constructions” (06/21/1887) gave rise to the first abstract ordinance on the control of constructions. While most of these regulations were concrete and proscriptive, the above order became the model for prescriptions and the configuration of a technical dimension associated with the disciplines of engineering and architecture.

The creation of the Cabinet of Sanitation in 1903 marked the end of the progressive social intervention process that aimed at controlling the domestic space through the establishment of the Neighborhood Registry. The objective of this Cabinetwas to encapsulate: “the topographic, hygienic, medic and demographic history the dwellings of a city into a major element in order to assess their sanitary and hygienic condition”52. This event meant the end of the production of social control instruments heavily influenced by a hygienist approach and a biology-based biopower focused on organic-related issues. The turn of the century witnessed the success and limitations of the bureaucratic State, a process that began during the 1880s; such a dichotomy was because, at local level, this mechanism was implemented in no more than 400 cases. These issues were controlled and regulated by a type of power that was labeled by Foucault as “the biopolitics of population”53. In the case of the Municipality of Buenos Aires, the first few years of the XX century saw the peak of such a power which, through a complementarity approach, aimed at combining urban, medic, hygienic and social control. Paradoxically, this form of governance encompassed all public institutions.


Biopolitics within the context of the first housing projects

From the end of the XIX century and the first decade of the XX century, a period that coincided with the first massive expansion of the city, one of the major concerns of the Municipality was related to the control of suburbs and the quality of self-help dwellings. Meanwhile, the first regulatory projects inspired the drafting of the first institutional housing projects.

According to hygienist doctor Samuel Gache, while it was not possible to “displace the poor people from the downtown area, despite the fact that large constructions and the new, long avenues” had replaced “those old, dirty and narrow structures”, the suburbs registered “the highest mortality rates”54. In response to these conceptions, engineer Domingo Selva established some explanatory relationships about such a phenomenon:

“These buildings cover the totality of the suburbs of the city, but not in the form of important developments that may turn into real population centers. A block may contain four or five houses. In general terms, the total number of dwellings may not be more than ten or twelve.

This excessive distribution makes it impossible to implement municipal and health services and transportation means such as locomotion, trams, buses, etc.

Then, waste is thrown to the streets(…) State-owned schools are located far away from here… Laborers had to travel through long distances before taking the tram in order to commute to work and vice versa(… )“55

In the words of Selva, social and urban issues derived from poverty would be solved by providing the laborer “with a family”:

“Because family is, for men, the source of noble passions whose heat gives rise to the most delicate feelings of altruism and sacrifice; it inspires the notion of what is useful and required for good purposes; it insinuates that his job is not being done in vain and his efforts are the response to an objective and, upon the end of the day, when exhausted, unable to support anybody, he will feel the need to live in an ambient governed by love, tenderness and consolation; he can also found in children a space for protection that may ensure his subsistence during his final moments. This suggests that the family is essential to support the laborer, praise him in moral terms and prepare him for material welfare. We should provide a family for the laborer”56.

Let us briefly return to Foucault. His book, Security, Territory, Population reminds us that during the mercantilist French period the family was the model upon which the State government was based; this meant that the territory should be governed in the same way as families. However, this model was replaced when the concept of population prevailed over the concept of family, most specifically after the emergence of statistics which, in the case of the aforementioned epidemics, escaped from such an issue. The family is considered as an intrinsic element of biopolitics and population control, thus acquiring an instrumental value. However, this function is intended to regulate the population in issues such as marriage, vaccination and even death. The latter does not stand in the way of the approach to morality within the working class described in the abovementioned quote. The intervention in a poor family reduces social and urban problems, hence the importance of serving them57. “Providing a family for the laborer” means providing a new habitat, habits and customs. This is what the art of governing was about.

Among the debates on the characteristics of suburbs, the 1890s saw the emergence of the first housing project for the city of Buenos Aires, which was developed by engineers Fernandez Poblet and Ortuzar. This project was conceived as a “working-class neighborhood” that would be located over a municipal territory located in “La Tablada”58. This district was thought to be “a complete city provided with all kind of services and comfort” and was composed of 3142 dwellings, each of them built over an area of 12x10m. This neighborhood included a central park crossed by an avenue that housed a theatre, a reception hall, a conference hall, a library and two schools, each of them with the capacity to accommodate 1500-2000 students (figure 1).


Figure 1. Implementation of the “Working-Class Neighborhood”

Source: Fernández Poblet y Ortúzar, 1909, p. 243


These housing units were attached to another dwelling to their rear and separated “from each other” through “side gardens” delimited by “wired fences” which, when furnished with climbing plants, created a “bright and rural effect”, thus ensuring (from a hygienist perspective) proper light and ventilation and providing adequate and indispensable isolation and privacy (figure 2).


Figure 2. View of Original Dwellings (bottom) and Expanded Dwellings (up)

Source: Fernández Poblet y Ortúzar, 1909, p. 241

While the “bright and rural effect” generated by vegetation was appreciated, the extension of gardens was intentionally reduced in order to avoid the breeding of animals such as “poultry, swine, etc.”, thus conditioning the “extension towards the avenues, forests or public spaces”. Under such a conception, the domestic space would become a mechanism intended to promote sociability in the urban spaces intended for recreation within this working-class neighborhood59.

These dwellings had a “single entrance” to the “lobby or dining room” and three bedrooms. The front room was meant to be used by parents and the other two bedrooms were designed for the rest of the family (for women and men, respectively); there was space for six beds.

This distribution had “benefits at a glance”. The family was “concentrated” in the “common place” of access, thus being “always controlled by the householder”, who was in charge of “building habits”. The centrality of this common space was meant to subordinate all “rooms”, preventing indoor lightning from normally escaping through windowed doors:

“Illumination will be powered by electricity and its most reduced version will consist of a lamp located in the dining room; such a device will irradiate diffuse light through the windowed doors of the other rooms; inhabitants will be able to increase the number of lightning devices according to their needs”60.

In this way, this project explored the ability of architecture to become a factor that defined different ways of inhabiting and living. The proximity of the bathroom “promoted” its use and “the kitchen located next to the dining room” facilitated the “labor of the wife of the laborer”. (figure 3). Out of these two features, it was the bathroom the space that received preferential attention as the result of the “yellow” painting of its fixtures and the composition of faucets, which were nickel-plated in the case of the bathroom and bronze in the case of the kitchen. This kind of equipment blurred hygienic-sanitary connotations and highlighted esthetical details. Latrines and bathrooms became a sign of culture and prestige and the esthetical value meant the development of hygienic habits.


Figure 3. Plans

Source: Fernández Poblet y Ortúzar, 1909, p. 246


This project also considered the extension of dwellings. To that end, the whole first floor would be used as a social space and would include a spare room and a latrine; all bedrooms would be located in the second floor. Families were incorporated into the domestic sphere once they became aligned with the social life developed in the public space. While the number of rooms remained the same, such an extension was directly related to a certain sociocultural and socioeconomic progress and upward social mobility thanks to the incorporation of the domestic service.

In short, the high levels of social stigmatization imposed by the functions of the original floor were compensated with the eventual extension. The incorporation of working-class families into the urban society was a process that began in the urban space and culminated in the domestic sphere. The urban space provided “socialization and education” and, after adopting “a degree of culture worthy of the prosperity and greatness of the nation”, it was possible for the domestic sphere to emerge as the reflection of these virtues. Working-class individuals had the possibility to improve their economic status and the “greatness of the country” enabled the provision of spaces that ensured the acquisition of cultural capital and social progress. This type of biopolitics established a course of action that moved from public to private spheres since biological life could only be guaranteed once incorporated into a proper social life.

According to Foucault in History of Sexuality, families and other institutions such as the army, schools and police forces became immediately part of biopolitics or biopower, which is a force that gained relevance during the XIX century as the “key element for the development of capitalism”61. In this line, these institutions:

“were involved in the development of economic processes and in the forces that sustained such processes; they also operated as factors of social segregation and hierarchization by influencing the forces of certain entities and ensuring relationships of domination and hegemony”62.

As for the projects conducted by Selva, the constant references to the family group became the intervention strategy of a biopower which, through immanence, ensured the transformation process that turned immigrants into productive individuals. The project developed by Fernandez Poblet and Ortuzar, which was based on the creation of a central park intended for socialization purposes, operated as the teaching element of a new form of biopower that aimed at turning socialization spaces into the key element of a social transformation that would eventually be capitalized at domestic level.

However, the creation of the Argentine Social Museum (from now on the Museum, abbreviated as ASM) expanded the concept of “biopolitics” since the use of immigrant manpower in rural activities was part of a political project based on acculturation and reculturalization. Such an initiative would take place in a utopian space represented by the countryside63 as the city was considered to be the focus of social diseases64. On the other hand, within the context of the “colonization” process, Max Nordau suggested one of the founders of the Museum that immigrants had to be “educated or they would remain in a chaotic state, thus posing a threat to the integrity of the country”65.

Indeed, this institution motivated immigrants to work in the hinterland “in order to provide the uneducated and diversified locals with an Argentine soul”66ome of the objectives of this entity aimed at “teaching those who live here or those who are planning to migrate how to think and act as Argentineans”. Roads (especially railroads), housing and education were the key elements of this political project in terms of agricultural production and exploitation of natural resources. This initiative also included biopolitics in order to attract and convert immigrants, who were regarded as productive and self-sufficient family units, through a school education project.

The Museum supported the State policy on the “development of national territories” by establishing the reform on “rural homes” as “one of its most obstinate studies”. The political situation of the country in 1915 facilitated the implementation of this reform. To this end the Museum formed an alliance with Emilio Frers who, as member of the Committee on Agriculture of the House of Representatives, had a pivotal role in this initiative with the submission of the project on the development of national territories, which envisaged the construction of a Pan-American railway67.

In this context, Tomas Amadeo, one of the founders of the Museum and director of the journal issued by this institution, forwarded the national survey on “Rural Homes” in 1914. The goal of this survey was to have a “major educational effect” on the wives of farmers68. Divided into provinces, this initiative intended to collect data from a wide range of sources in order to identify the ways of living of rural laborers within the national territory.

Beyond this urban-rural polarization, the optimal situation was explained as follows: “The laborer and the employee should attempt to own the houses they live in, as in the case of the farmer and the cultivated land”69. In this sense, the common thread running through these positions was the relationship between family groups and the domestic space. According to the educational plan on State schooling, these individuals should own these dwellings, which had to be localized either in the urban or rural space.

Indeed, Mr. Amadeo placed educational projects at the core of his colonizing plan. Acting as an official from the Ministry of Agriculture, Mr. Amadeo engaged the services of Graciela Rood de Rueda, an “American educationalist”, to create “a normal school and train women from rural areas”. According to this educator, the country should create:

“farmer field schools, institutions to train farmers, mobile teaching teams, rural fairs and a series of forms of propaganda to promote and encourage the agricultural activity, improve the way soil is ploughed, selecting seeds in a wiser fashion”70.

The idea was to place the wives of farmers as the key element within the small-scale productive system through their incorporation into self-supply and small-scale trade activities. The family group was conceived as the “heart of the nation”. The training of young ladies in farmer schools also served as a propaganda tool against the “depopulation of the countryside”. These schools were regarded as the counterpart of urban professional schools and their goal was to encourage young ladies to remain in the countryside and avoid the depopulation of rural productive centers71. Apart from being used to refer to these schools, the term “rural home” also implied the transformation of dwellings into implementation models.

Within the context of the Museum, which was regarded as the haven for social reformers, the domestic space was subject to all kind of regulations and administration intended to control biological life —also known as the aforementioned zoe. In other words, “within the acquired space, all procedures related to power and knowledge… took life processes into consideration” and undertook work on the “control, modification” and structuration72 of these processes. In the face of other scenarios:

“Western individuals learnt the meaning of being living species in a living world, having a body, conditions that determined our existence, life chances, individual or collective health, forces that could be modified and owning a space (emphasis added) to optimally distribute these forces”73.

In this case immigrants, the ideal target for the implementation of biopolitics as the result of their sociocultural, socioeconomic and political isolation, would become captive individuals subject to the effect of fully transforming processes. The migration to a different country and to a utopian land that was in the process of becoming a productive territory created the perfect conditions for the implementation of biopower due the lack of opposing forces (which were common within the urban context). These new life-related policies would intervene “living conditions and spaces”74 and all family-based aspects associated with domestic issues.

According to Foucault:

“Bodies emerge as the space where politics and life converge, which is where biopolitcs takes place. The body is the space where the individual and the species body occur together. Biopolitics and the governance over individual bodies and populations give rise to the embodiment of the body metaphor: the body is no longer a legal-political metaphor and becomes a biological reality subject to intervention. In the age of biopolitics, politics, law and economy depend on the qualitative and quantitative welfare of the population, which is reflected in its biological aspect. The government is the power over of biological life”75.

Understood as productive units, families and the domestic space were related to reproduction, nutrition, disease and, subsequently, to education and the association with different types of knowledge that enhanced or reduced some of these aspects. Within the context of the Museum, such a utopian “disciplinary society” proposed during the first decade of the XX century was “the historical effect of a technology of power focused on life”76. This “disciplinary society”, which was consistently articulated through the occupation of the whole national territory thanks to the construction of railways, would conclude with the end of the “railway settlers” project after the fall of Yrigoyen in the 1920s.


Biopolitics within the context of the “Housing Emergency”

Since the Constitution of the City of Buenos Aires entered into force in October 1996, the right to decent housing has not been regulated by any law. Eighteen years on it is estimated that nearly 500,000 people are facing a housing emergency either because they live on the streets or under precarious conditions in poor or highly overcrowded dwellings.

Today, the housing issue can be summarized into a series of interconnected phenomena. 1) The high cost of rooms with a shared bathroom and kitchen in hotels, boarding houses and tenement houses, which matches the rental fees of a studio or even a one-room apartment located in the southern area of the city. Within a context of complete institutional deregulation, families with no access to the formal rental market see themselves forced to live under an illegal rental system due to the lack of collateral security. 2) A policy based on the eradication of low-income sectors as the result of the pressure exerted by the real estate market. 3) The lack of institutional proposals intended to address massive evictions; this item does not include the three existing initiatives that became the nucleus of institutional policy-making: the housing subsidy, which consists in the allocation of a fixed sum of money for the purposes of renting one or more hotel rooms (according to the size of the family group) for six months —such a benefit can also be received in a single payment with a partial release of up to 30 per cent77; the night shelters which, according to case law, emerged as the institutional solution to “homelessness”78; and the Law 341 on housing subsidies which, despite being the only concrete and viable solution for poor segments, has been underfunded and dismantled79.

From a “housing emergency” perspective, this housing issue has been associated with two phenomena, “precariousness” and “evictions”. Within such a context, nothing has been done apart from of resolving or tackling evictions or other type of serious situations that may affect people such as fires, building collapse and accidents caused by these “precarious” conditions. In this sense, the implementation of different approaches and political strategies has been invalidated.

The state of housing emergency was declared at the end of the 1990s in order to stop the compulsive and massive evictions that threw entire families out onto the streets. Such a situation became even more problematic as the result of the political, social and economic crisis of 2001 that triggered the resignation of President Fernando de la Rua. From that moment on, it was difficult for the institutional to provide a proper response to the housing issue.

In this context, despite the unlikelihood of new urban policies being prepared and implemented, some alternative solutions were conceived in a progressive fashion. Based on welfare and a universal-related approach, these initiatives had to include the new forms of participation that emerged during the crisis, which were on a collision course with both the institutional practices implemented up to that moment and the interests of multiple relevant groups such as the then-new social organizations.

The institutional consideration of social organizations had its roots in the 1990s with the emergence of the so-called NGOs. Supported by the World Bank, these new entities implemented tailored policies aligned with the hierarchization of the supranational political organizations that challenged the role of the State.

However, it was possible to observe the promotion of different forms of social participation and territoriality. The 2001 crisis and the emergence of new groups and organizations stimulated the debate on the role, characteristics and perspectives of these forms of expression and their relationship with the State (both at nationwide and local level) in the context of public policies. Simultaneously a social imaginary, in which governmental institutions were completely omitted, was gaining support.

An example of such a process was the enactment of Law 341 on February, 2000. The goal of this instrument was to develop policies on the access to housing, which would be meant to be exclusively and permanently used by “low-income families living in critical housing conditions” through the allocation of subsidies and loans secured with real estate collateral. The purpose of this initiative was to finance new or old dwellings and their extension, renovation or rehabilitation. The novel aspect of this proposal, which was based on self-administration and required beneficiaries to be individual persons or people incorporated into collective organizations such as cooperatives, mutual societies or nonprofit civil associations, marked a turning point in the elaboration of social policies on urban housing.

Beneficiaries had to find the land to be developed, establish the team in charge of conducting the project and lead the administration of the process until the completion of the construction work. However, while such an initiative was initially aimed at social segments living in critical housing conditions and was greatly promoted by social organizations, time, successive regulations, changes within implementation, control and regulation entities and differences in the approach to the establishment, implementation and reduction of budget lines meant the modification of the objectives and scope of this project, thus being dismantled and underfinanced. Some of the constraints of this program were the process in which beneficiaries had to find building land plots and the capacity of beneficiaries to lead projects. In terms of the allocation of this benefit, there were considerable differences between experienced social organizations and spontaneous associations composed of a couple of individuals with housing needs. Management abilities and “cultural capital” as coined by Bourdieu were essential in this matter.

At the same time, social organizations strengthened territorial anchorage; however, as the effects of the 2001 began to disappear, they emerged as the response to the crisis of the governance apparatus, especially in terms of the spontaneous and organized occupation of land and abandoned buildings. The different laws and projects on political representation and voting in the slums and settlements of the city were also a reflection of the crisis that affected social representation mechanisms.

The year 2007, a period that marked the beginning of the first Macri administration80, witnessed the reemergence of massive evictions which, in some cases, occur at a rate of three cases per day. Added to this is the extended staying at hotels and boarding houses and the subsequent illegal renting and informal subleasing in tenant houses and occupied dwellings. Such a practice results in a constant violation of the rights of low-income individuals, who pay the highest rental prices on the market to live under the worst conditions. It should be noted that it was only in October, 2011 when, thanks to the intervention of Habitar Argentina81, a draft law on evictions that refers to the General Observation No7 of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was submitted to Parliament. As of today, this and other proposals on the access to housing are still being discussed.

In this context of evictions, social organizations centered around the housing issue and institutions such as the Council for the Defense of the City and the Council for Public Defense adopted resistance strategies and techniques through the channeling and organization of advice and support.

The Tenant Association of Buenos Aires, the Commission on Justice and Peace of the Claretian Missionaries at the Constitucion Parish, the Movement of Squatters and Tenants, the Poder Barrial association of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires and the Popular Assembly (one of the many popular assemblies of San Telmo) are some of the most important associations that operated or still operate in the southern zone of the city, which is the area most affected by evictions. The main goal of these entities is to avoid or delay evictions in order to find a better solution to this problem. At institutional level, these institutions appeal to procedural issues such as the presence of minors, disabled or sick people. They are also in charge of filing appeals against the termination of subsidies or other type of social benefit, thus generating a heated debate among lawyers about the validity of the prosecution of social policies. As for the occupation of dwellings, these entities provide support and supervision in terms of the organization of the domestic space and advice in terms of the management of subsidies (intended either for housing or food purposes). Likewise, they deploy all possible resources in soup kitchens and eating rooms, childcare facilities, education assistance, generation of income and the provision of job opportunities.

The emergence of a kind of power that gradually moved towards the regulation rather than to the law gave rise to the emergence of a countervailing power focused on the regulation of life.

“Life, as a political object, was addressed from a literal perspective and then turned against the system that attempted to control it. Life, then, became the center of political struggles, even if these were formulated through the body of law”82.

The claims of organizations about housing rights became claims about work, health and education and involved life itself. Therefore, this is a claim about “rights” which, beyond oppression and “alienation”, is based on the right to the satisfaction of basic needs. In the words of Castro:

“Since, according to Foucault, the government is the expression of power; and, since the concept of government should be understood as the control of behavior in which individuals are free, the scope of governability should not be delimited by political governability”83.

According to this last case, which provides another example of biopower, the power of the State collides with the “government of the self on the understanding that life provides the materials for the development of an esthetics of existence that is not related to legal, regulatory or biopolitical systems”84, thus revealing the limits of biopolitics.



Foucault suggested the emergence of an “individualistic-based technology of power which, through the analysis of people, their behaviors and their bodies”, aimed at “producing obedient and fragmented bodies”. This led to the invention of regulatory “tools such as surveillance, control, the monitoring of performance or the constant review of capacities”85. Later on this author included a new dimension that referred to the concept of “population”, which would be regarded as a “biopolitics of the human species” focused on life, reproduction, disease, death, etc. By using the city of Buenos Aires as a case study, this paper aimed at demonstrating how this new paradigm was reflected in, and interacted with, the institutional and regulatory evolution in a sort of a particular historical process.

Through intensive analysis, this research intended to show the inherent tensions that existed with regard to the different forms of construction of biopower in each historical phase and reveal different power relationships between the cities of origin of the intervened subjects and the ideal of the institutions that controlled the urban and domestic spaces and bodies. Societies, now transformed into populations, witnessed the emergence of new political guidelines that turned health, hunger, security, hygiene and lifestyles into the focus of constant struggle, intervention and politization86.

Since the late XIX century, the constitution of the local State operated in accordance with the constitution of the National State. Within the context of epidemics, the development of different alternatives for the regulation of populations (which included different strategies, tactics and subjects) aimed at removing certain groups and sectors from policy-making processes. Meanwhile, certain biopolitical practices and discourses on the intervention of low-income segments referred to as “laborers”, “workers” or the “poor” became consolidated. These exercises excluded the above groups from urban culture and productive processes and aimed at educating them by controlling their bodies, which considered to be sick and dirty as the result of the interaction with the physical spaces of their dwellings.

In conjunction with the first legislative debates on housing that took place during the first decade of the XX century, different scientists and professionals elaborated their own regulatory specifications and objectives referring to the ideal prefiguration of the domestic space. The physical space was intended to be used in order to model the ways of inhabiting of individuals, be it in the town or the country.

By the beginning of the XX century, the control and regulation of the domestic space that emerged during the XIX century derived in the intervention of families in order to reach productive individuals and incorporate them into capitalist methods of production as workers and consumers. The housing units built by the State emerged as the key element of the urban transformation mechanism. The design of the physical space introduced new forms of socialization, privacy and intimacy and legitimized the intervention of architecture within legislative spaces.

By the end of the XX century, some social segments of an indifferent “population” that had historically been considered for intervention purposes took on renewed importance and emerged as subjects with the right to housing and access to the urban space. This situation derived from the crisis of all State institutions in charge of the construction of biopower and, most notably, from the establishment of new types of territoriality.



1 This paper is based on the UBACyT research project 20620110100001: (2012-2015), conducted by the authors of this paper and the PIP-CONICET project 11220110101047, discipline KS5: (2012-2014) and PS1 project ", authored by Sandra Ines Sanchez. Faculty of Architecture at the Inter-American Open University (2014-2016)
4Foucault, 1997, 2004, 2004a.
5Esposito, 2006 and 2009 and Agamben, 2010.
6For further information on the tensions regarding such a concept, please refer to Berger, 2004, p. 16-20 and Esposito, 2009.
7López, 2014.
8According to Borisonik and Beresñak, 2012.
9Castro, 2011, p. 19.
10López, 2014, p. 123.
11According to Castro, “a biopolitical paradigm or trend has been taking shape over the last years”, it was not the purpose of Foucault to inspire or model such a way of thought (Castro, 2014, p. 111).
12Foucault, 1983.
13Segura del Pozo, 2008.
14Deleuze and Guattari, 1993.
15Though enacted in 1854, the Law on the Municipality entered into force two years later (10/11/1854).
16 There were a series of attempts to create a civil code. Dalmacio Velez Sarsfield drafted the first civil code on September 29, 1869 (Law 340) which entered into force in January, 1871.
17 The creation of the clinic can also be referred to for the purposes of providing specific information. The conflict among institutions is also mentioned in the cited text which, in this case, refers to a heated debate about epidemics between the Royal Society of Medicine and the Faculty of Medicine. Such a conflict is related to “the homogenization of the medical space and the overlapping of this space onto the whole social space” (Morey, 1983).
18Archivo Histórico de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1858.
19Archivo Histórico de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1858a.
21Municipalidad de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1859, p. 27.
22Which did not represent the then hegemonic power.
23Municipalidad de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1859, p. 113.
25Archivo Histórico de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1858.
27Municipalidad de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1859, p. 110.
28ibíd., p. 115.
29Municipalidad de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1861, p. 11.
30Ibíd., p. XXXIV.
31There is a letter (04/14/1856) referring to the collection of data about these establishments: 36 and 57, respectively, totaling 93 establishments (Archivo Histórico de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1856).
32Municipalidad de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1861, p. 148-150.
34In 1857, the Municipality and the Council on Public Hygiene reached agreement on in-person medical appointments (Archivo Histórico de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1857a).
35Archivo Histórico de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1857.
36Municipalidad de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1872, p. 52.
37Municipalidad de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1860, p.6.
38Giorgi, Rodríguez, 2007, p. 20.
39Municipalidad de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1872, p. 184, 252.
40Wilde, 1878, p. 273.
41Ibíd., p. 10.
42Rawson, 1885, p. 29.
43Wilde, 1878, p. 37.
44Ibíd., p. 291-293.
45Rawson, 1885, p. 6.
46Ibíd., p. 18, 49.
47Water analyses had to be conducted every 15 days (MCBA 1884, p. 269-270, 288).
48Municipalidad de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1884a, p. 401.
49Municipalidad de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1884, p. 37.
50Municipalidad de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1884a, p. 326.
51Castro, 2010, p.78.
52Coni, 1909, p. 92-93.
53Foucault, 1978, p. 168-169.
54Gache, 1900, p. 69.
55Selva, 1904, p. 5.
56Selva, 1901, p. 99.
57Foucault, 2006, p. 130-132.
58In Sánchez, 2008, p. 156-164 there is a chapter that refers to the topic discussed in this project.
59Fernandez Poblet and Ortuzar, 1909, p. 242.
61Foucault, 1978, p. 170.
62Ibid., p. 170-171.
63Created in 1911, the goal of this initiative was to represent an autonomous “counseling, mediating and informative power” (Museo Social Argentino, 1912, p. 5-6).
64Campolieti, 1915, p. 498.
65Museo Social Argentino, 1912, p. 72.
67The project envisaged the creation of the “Colonizing Bank of the Republic of Argentina” and the colonization of public lands and the provinces o particulars intended for such a purpose (Congreso Nacional, 1912, p. 186-193).
68Museo Social Argentino, 1914, p. 545.
69Museo Social Argentino, 1914a, p. 18-19.
70Rood de Rueda, 1913, p. 42.
71Ibíd., p. 44.
72Foucault, 1978, p. 172.
74Ibíd., p. 174.
75Cited in Castro, 2011, p. 155.
76Foucault, 1978, p. 175.
77Such a benefit would be regarded as definitive and invalidated all future actions taken by the family.
78Though this decision was reversed in another trial in 2013, both cases have divergent legal scopes and it is impossible to discern the actions of judges in future cases.
79Sanchez, 2013.
80Mr. Macri was elected Governor of the City of Buenos Aires (2007-2011) and then reelected for a second period (2011-2015).
81A collective composed of different organizations, academic institutions, social movements and legislative entities. The goal of this group is to establish a regulatory framework and ensure the right to housing, land and habitation.
82Foucault, 1978, p. 175.
83Castro, 2011, p. 177.
85Becerra Rebolledo, 2012.
86Giorgi and Rodriguez, 2007, p. 10-11.



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Received: 01-10-2014

Accepted: 05-06-2015