Reconciling

If architecture really is the simplest means of modulating reality, what does the future hold for Algiers and its crumbling colonial restructuring?
words and photography – farida alvarez
location – london, uk

“For its ordinariness is what strikes one first about the town of Oran, which is merely a large French port on the Algerian coast…

The town itself, let us admit, is ugly. It has a smug, placid air and you need time to discover what it is that makes it different from so many business centres in other parts of the world.

During the summer the sun bakes the houses bone-dry, sprinkles our walls with greyish dust, and you have no option but to survive those days of fire indoors, behind closed shutters.”

Algiers born Albert Camus wrote ‘The Plague’ in 1947 based in Oran, Algeria’s second city, 15 years before the end of 132 years of French occupation.

In that time, France’s Haussmannian re-imagining and restructuring of Algeria’s main coastal cities, chiefly Oran and the capital Algiers, saw large-scale implementation of a very alien, European architecture. Urban planning, designed by [amongst others] Le Corbusier, consciously dismantled indigenous ways of life as part of an effort to establish French dominance. Huge swathes of the casbah and traditional living quarters suiting communal clan-like structures were demolished to make way for boulevards, squares and arteries connecting the city centres to the ports and other points of industry.

In the 60+ years since Algerian independence in 1962, the cities have remained structurally the same. But without French imperial wealth to support or maintain them, nor the sense of civic pride to care for them, many buildings are heading for irreparable damage.

And so the question remains; should the colonised reconcile with their colonisers and take responsibility for the cities they have inherited at the loss of their own histories and traditions?

Today, walking round Oran feels like going back in time to southern France after an apocalypse. The buildings; sunbaked pastels or off-white meringue, fragile.

As though by touching them, they might disintegrate and crumble.

Rusty balcony rails and guttering, exposed wiring, broken tiles, shattered window panes. The faded glamour, all reminders of France’s brazen occupation.

The debris from the buildings coated in layer upon layer of dust, a sort of colonial hubris, falling from the sky.

A French ghost town, inhabited by people for whom it was intended to oppress; the discord between Oran’s architectural past and the present day is jarring. Central urban spaces are often difficult to negotiate; streets are potholed, squares have fallen into disrepair, cafes are almost exclusively male. But what if it was somehow all subconsciously intentional?

What if it was believed that if left alone long enough, these sunbaked husks of former colonial glory would eventually collapse into heaps of dust? That this was how they could take back control of their own narrative? Become their own lupo in favola, and with a huff and a puff it will all be blown away.

And from the dust, rise again.

“Architecture is the simplest means of articulating time and space, of modulating reality, of engendering dreams.”
– Russian-born French political theorist Ivan Chtcheglov, c.1953

Chtcheglov’s essay ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’ greatly influenced the psychogeographical movement which, in very basic terms, examines the specific effects geographical environments have on the behaviour of individuals.

The Algerian War of Independence and the ensuing decades have marked huge shifts in individuals’ perceptions of reality. Many moved from their impoverished countryside villages and into European cities, adapting from rural to unfamiliar urban environments.

While the 60’s and 70’s marked a time of huge change and social and political experimentation for the country, the 90’s brought in a decade of civil war and orthodox Islamic attitudes. 

If architecture, as Chtcheglov claims, is a means of modulating reality, the dilapidated buildings could serve as an outward expression of a country with very real unprocessed trauma. Added to this, the Algerian diaspora in France continues to perpetuate a link to a country the state wants to turn away from.

“Architecture is, above all else, a materialisation of power relations and the enforcement of their potential violence.”
– Leopald Lambert, architect and writer

In the early 60’s, in the wake of independence, it is estimated approximately 1 million European settlers fled the country, many hastily, escaping skirmishes and violent attacks. Their apartments and homes abandoned, often fully furnished, many became occupied by disenfranchised and uprooted Algerians during a brief wave of victorious, if unregulated “house grabbing.”

It was a fitting end to a bloody decade of French military ambushes wiping out villages, destroying homes and rehousing Casbah residents in vast social housing blocks [precursors to what was later built in the Parisian banlieue to house their eventual diaspora] in order to better control rebel groups.

This happened at a time when Algiers became a “Mecca for Revolutionaries,” when Algeria inspired further pushes for independence in sub-Saharan African countries and beyond, earning the respect and friendship of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Today, many families that continue to occupy those very same French downtown apartments simply haven’t the collective means to maintain the buildings.

So things break, and they stay broken.

A lift suspended mid-floor when it stopped working decades before is a common sight in many apartment buildings. So what does the future hold? Is reconciliation possible?

Nurturing a spark of a potential future, opposite Oran’s grimy seafront, overlooking the port that brings in so much pollution to the city, is a mural.

The message, daubed in blue in naive cursive script reads, in Italian, “It should not be a privilege what is meant to be a right.” The piece was commissioned by the Algerian Agency for Cultural Influence, Aarc, for the Mediterranean Games, hosted by Oran in 2022, and carried out by Italian-based artist Alessandro Calizza.

Aarc hosts several artist residences a year for sculptors, writers, painters and poets. Their mission is to promote Algerian culture and to facilitate exchanges with international multidisciplinary artists. The agency is housed in a former Ottoman palace dating back to the 18th century. It lies nestled on a hilltop overlooking the Fine Arts Museum of Algiers, the Botanical Gardens and the Port of Algiers beyond.

The building, both inside and out, is spotless. Inside are a series of inner patios and courtyards, naturally cool, allowing sunlight in and ensuring maximum shade.
Under French occupation, it became Algiers’ answer to the Villa de Medici in Rome; a de facto artists’ residence for which there were awarded bursaries to live there for two years and practice. Abandoned in the 1960’s after Algerian independence, Aarc took over the space in 2005, and under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture has been based there ever since.

From the roof terrace, you can see out towards the Casbah, the port of Algiers and the Mediterranean sea; a beautiful but bitter reality of broken souls and drowned dreams.

“There has been a marked change in society in Algiers, especially since Covid,” says Myriam Ait, artistic director of Aarc. Indeed, there does seem to be a conscious effort to be outside, create networks and invest in art. The government, conscious of releasing pressure valves on a fairly controlled society, is tolerating public street art carried out by young and emerging artists, breathing new life into the new age ghost town of their memories.

Tellingly, Aarc’s building, typical of the many Ottoman palaces in Algeria dating back to the 1700s, is well-maintained. Ottoman heritage is revered. This is despite the fact that, while closer in culture than the French, they were, at the time, no less foreign – and certainly no less bloody in their methods of acquiring territories. How long before Algeria reconciles with France and looks upon their Haussmannian architecture with a more loving and objective eye?

For now, it is too fresh. The pervasive colonial and orientalist narrative is still with us today. Western supremacy is still very much a current topic and fuels Algerian foreign policy. To this day, the country still has exceedingly good bilateral relations with Turkey and China; the two being among the few foreign investors permitted to operate in Algeria.

While French occupation technically began in 1830, Emir Abdelqadir led the Algerian resistance until 1875 when he was forced to surrender.

He wrote that year;

“I am grieved, o world, about Algiers! The French march on toward her . . .

O regrets for Algiers, for its houses and for its so well-kept apartments!

O regrets for the town of cleanliness,

The Christians inhabit them, their state has changed!

They have degraded everything, spoiled all, the impure ones!”

Plus ça change.

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