Colonial Modern | book review

Colonial Modern | black dog publishing, 2010

Colonial Modern: Aesthetics of the Past, Rebellions for the Future’ is a highly recommended book by black dog publishing in 2010. It tells the story of architecture, urban and cultural development in Morocco and Algeria, focusing on the post-war and pre-independence period, and its influence on and relevance for European urbanization at the time. But it does much more than that. A review.

The publication is a reader exploring the relationship between modernism and the project of modernisation in architecture, intertwining these in the context of colonialism and decolonisation. It is the result of an exhibition called In the Desert of Modernity: Colonial Planning and After, at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt [House of World Cultures] in Berlin and Les Abattoirs de Casablanca. A short blurb from the publisher:

Colonial Modern reflects contemporary research into architectural modernism and colonialism, and uses the thesis of “negotiated modernism” to initiate new debates on conceptions of modernism — and inevitably postmodernism — in an interdisciplinary context. The book includes significant texts by Nezar AlSayyad, Mark Crinson, Francoise Navez-Bouchanine, Sven Olov Wallenstein and other specialists in the field, and provides a strong visual representation of the subject with the work of artists and architects forming a well rounded debate on issues relating to modernism and colonialism.

Colonial Modern | black dog publishing, 2010

Hygiene school in Oran, Hamman Bou Adjar, Algeria | ABTAT-Afrique, 1957

The book is sharply divided into three chapters; 1. Negotiating Modernity, 2. The Urban Laboratory and 3. The Postcolonial Imaginary. To us, interested in urban development, chapters one and two were most interesting. The interdisciplinary approach – bringing together writers from different disciplines – makes it possible to look beyond the history of building and the format of a standard book on architecture. The essays demand a certain dedication and oftentimes a presupposed knowledge of the discourse on the modern movement and its key protagonists.

At the beginning, we believed that under the umbrella of ‘colonial modern’ various architecture projects in the African or Asian context would be presented and analyzed. Gradually we came to understand that the focus lays on the North-African context and specifically in Morocco and Algeria. We accepted this because we suspect that an advanced and intelligent understanding of the intertwining relationships between Le Corbusier, CIAM, the modern movement, Team10, the French colonies and their motives, results and consequences is at the heart of this. But ‘Colonial Modern’ is a bit of a misleading title. Although the book makes an occasional side-step to Israel – How Israeli Architects Appropriated the Palestinian Aesthetic – and Austria – Adolf Loos and the Colonial Imaginary – these contributions feel out of place.

Algerians rallying in support of Angolan independence (1963) | photo: Elia Kagan

Chapter 1 draws in various essays a broad picture of the colonial history of these North-African countries. A story of bidonvilles, carpet settlements, Cité verticale, industrialization, modernization, identification and habitation. Soon the names of Le Corbusier, Candilis Woods and Shadrach Woods (operating as the GAMMA Group, Groupe d’Architectes Modernes Marocains) and Team X pop up. It is refreshing to read for once extensively about habitat and identity and not, lets say, about high-rises and icons. The planning of the presented case-studies should not be understood as pure implementations of the ideas underlying the objectives of the modern movement, but as breakthroughs happening through the study of local building and living cultures. These studies, so is argued, would in their turn influence the later large-scale construction of new towns in Europe. Serhat Karakayali writes in ‘Colonialism and the Critique of Modernity’ that:

…the architects in North Africa wanted their designs to be based on the living conditions and needs of the people. What was new, and indeed almost revolutionary in the world of architecture was to carefully study the slums, to discover traces of functioning social structures in the settlements, and then to integrate them in the architects’ planning.

Besides this research-component, a more crucial one is to understand the relationship between the struggle for independence and the use of urban planning, almost as a military instrument, to deal with this conflict. Nezar AlSayyad present this case in ‘Culture, identity and Urbanism: A Historical Perspective from Colonialism and Globalisation’ as following:

This was the era when modernist ideas followed from countries of the North to the South. Ironically, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the countries of the South launched their wars of liberation and independence, the North resorted to an age-old urban strategy. Thousands of traditional villages were destroyed in order to group the population in checkerboard resettlement towns under the banner of modernization. This uprooting operation was meant to break the subversive influence of the rebels. There was little desire to improve conditions for the local population.

Cité d’Habitacion of Carrières Centrales, Casablanca, by Bodiansky, Candilis, Piot and Woods, 1952.

Even more ironically is that after these independent struggles modernism turned from an instrument of oppression into one of obsession:

The obsession with modernity which accompanied the early years of nationalism and independence has preoccupied most governments in the developing world. As a result, the Western pattern of urban development has continued to serve as the reference for indigenous populations, particularly the urban middle class who stepped in after independence to run the bureaucracies of developing countries.

Moving on from the cultural, colonial, social and political turmoil, the second chapter – The Urban Laboratory – looks at the specific implementation of the architectural and urban design, and the modification of the modern movement in these places. The main ideas deal with finding responses to decolonization and the urban boom (of the 1950s and 60s). There is hardly a parallel with the present condition. Today we are kept hostage by globalization and urban doom. Chapter 2 presents some though-provoking ideas about the tension between the architecture of medina and the agenda of the modern movement, between the culture of the cashbah and the construction of the contemporary city.

Housing project in Casablanca | Sidi Othman settlement, 1955

Housing project in Casablanca | Sidi Othman settlement, 2008 photo: Marion von Osten

In particular the two essays by Tom Avermaete (one co-written with André Loeckx) are highly recommended. In ‘Nomadic Experts and Travelling Perspectives’ he probes ‘into the reciprocal relationship between urban planning experiences on colonial grounds and their equivalents on the European continent’ and more precisely by taking case-studies from Algeria and Morocco and metropolitan France. Case-in-point is CIAM 9 (1953) where a group of North African architects – the CIAM-Alger group under the leadership of architects such as Roland Simounet and Michel Emery – presented the ‘Bidonville Mahieddine Grid’ and the group GAMMA (Group of Modern Moroccan Architects) which was preceded by Michel Ecochard and the architect George Candilis, the “Habitat for the Greatest Number Grid”.

According to Tom Avermaete both of their views ‘was completely new in modern architectural and urban debate. It represents an epistemological shift which would alter the ways that modern architects looked upon the built environment.’ Next to these cases the authors brings to the foreground two important research concepts of the time, the “nomadic experts” and “traveling perspectives”. In her contribution Monique Eleb cites another points of influence on this generation of young architects, the ‘ATBAT-Afrique (Atelier des batisseurs), a subsidiary of the desing office set up to build Le Corbusier’s Unite d’habitation in Marseille.’ Set-up by Vladimir Bodiansky in Casablanca in 1949, ATBAT-Afrique, Candilis Woods took over its management in 1951. Monique Eleb points at a very interesting fait-divers when she writes that ‘Peter and Alison Smithson dedicated a passionate 1955 article to the ATBAT building in Carriers Centrales. The latter stressed in 1991 just how much the North African research transformed the universalist positions of the modern architects by reviving the notion of adaptation to local culture.

Colonial Modern Exhibition | Haus der Kulturen der Welt

Colonial Modern: Aesthetics of the Past, Rebellions for the Future ’ is a highly advised reader for those interested in the intersection of urbanism, architecture, sociology, political and post-colonial debate of North Africa. It well explains this period and place as a laboratory, as an incubator, a site for investigation that would later influence a rethinking of the international role of the modern movement in architecture. It also present ideas about human and artistic development, but foremost gives an in-depth re-visit of the modern movement, the idea of the habitat, the transfer of ideas from one continent to another, from one generation to another, from the objectives of military to the organizations of modern planning and that with an almost-candid and surely critical rereading of architectural history. Its arguments are very convincing, its thesis well build-up and case-studies clear. A must-reader.

Pictures provided by black dog publishing


Colonial Modern: Aesthetics of the Past, Rebellions for the Future
edited by Tom Avermaete, Serhat Karakayali and Marion von Osten
black dog publishing, 320pp, £30


In the Desert of Modernity: Colonial Planning and After | Haus der Kulturen der Welt
Candilis-Josic-Woods: dialectic of modernity review by Hans Teerds on Archined
Architecture Without Architects— Another Anarchist Approach by Marion von Osten


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