Africa: Northern Africa

Saturday, July 30, 2011 , Posted by HB at 11:45 PM

Compared with the rest of the continent, the countries of North Africa form an immediately recognizable region and appear as a more cohesive bloc than do their neighbors south of the Sahara Desert. They derive their apparent cohesion from a common language (Arabic), a common religion (Islam), and a shared cultural identity as heirs of the Ottoman Empire. Like their sub-Saharan neighbors, all shared the historical experience of European colonialism and of the struggle for independence. Unlike their sub-Saharan neighbors, however, pan-Arabism has been a more powerful force than African unity.


On closer examination, all the countries of North Africa have developed their own distinctive cultural identity and historic perception of themselves and their role in the world. Egypt, with its overpowering legacy of its Pharaonic past and its small but influential Coptic Christian minority, has always perceived itself as distinctively different from the Maghreb (the countries to the west) and more naturally internationalist in outlook. Morocco, which was the only country in North Africa that did not suffer the experience of Ottoman rule, prided itself on the purity of its national culture and the dignity of its sultanate.


At the beginning of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire was collapsing all around the Mediterranean: Its final death throes came after it allied itself with the German and AustroHungarian Empires at the beginning of World War I. Egypt had effectively become a protectorate of Britain in 1882, to the intense annoyance of France, which had enjoyed most-favorednation status in Egypt since Napoleon’s short-lived expedition to Egypt in 1799–1801. Algeria (or at least the coastal strip) became a French colony in 1830, to which the mountainous hinterland and the desert interior were added in 1848, and by 1900 it was effectively part of metropolitan France. Tunisia, as a consequence of the dey of Tunis’s indebtedness to French bankers, was annexed by France in 1881. The Sudan, over which vast territory British troops had campaigned sporadically for 20 years, was absorbed into the British Empire in 1899 as an Anglo-Egyptian condominium. Libya was invaded by Italy and incorporated into the infant Italian Empire in 1912; in the same year, Morocco became a protectorate of France by treaty, proudly safeguarding its cultural independence as the brightest jewel in the French imperial crown.


The European colonial experience was, with the exception of Algeria, short-lived and, again with the exception of Algeria, relatively bloodless. Egypt gained its independence in 1922 under the Albanian dynasty, whose founder, Mohammed Ali, had seized power from the Ottomans and imposed himself as khedive on the long-suffering Egyptian people in 1805, shortly after Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt. Effective independence was not really secured until the revolution under General Neguib and until Colonel Nasser overthrew King Farouk and seized power in 1952. With the exception of Algeria, all other North African states gained their independence in the 1950s: Algeria, after a long, bloody civil war between the European settlers (10 percent of the population) and the indigenous Africans, finally followed suit in 1962. (A couple of insignificant Spanish enclaves on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco still owe allegiance to Europe.)


For the first half of the 20th century, the architectural and urban development of North Africa was European directed and European driven. At the beginning of the century, European imperialism was at its apogee, and between 1900 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, with a few significant exceptions, colonial governments, architects, and developers aimed to recreate Europe in Africa. By 1900 regionalism and vernacular revivalism had become respectable, even fashionable, architectural styles in Europe in a period when eclecticism reigned.


Physical manifestations of imperialistic rule, such as the Union Jack-inspired town plan of the new capital of the Sudan (Khartoum) and the Hausmannesque boulevards imposed on the organic city plan of Algiers were characteristic of this period but by no means were universal. Equally popular were the garden suburb, garden city developments that were fashionable in Europe: the Garden Suburb along the Nile in Cairo, the more ambitious New Town of Heliopolis on the desert fringe of the same city, and the Parc d’Hydra and the hilly suburbs of El Biar in Algiers were laid out in European lines for a mainly European settler population.


(Arabism) and the Hispano-Mauresque Revival were eagerly adopted by French architects in Algeria, as the Saracenic, Coptic, and even Pharaonic styles were adopted by the polyglot architects practicing in Egypt.


Representative buildings of the pre-World War I period, when European imperialism reigned supreme, were the Post Office (1890–1900, Algiers) by Tondoir and Voinot, the Galerie Algerienne (1902, Algiers) by Voinot, and the Prefecture (1904, Algiers) and the Hotel St. Georges (1910; now the Hotel El Djezair, Algiers), all in a highly decorative and stylized part Ottoman, part Hispano-Mauresque style inspired by the wealth of handsome 18th-century Ottoman buildings in the city. Also representative, in Cairo, are the eclectically classicist Egyptian Museum (1900), the vernacular revivalist Coptic Museum (1910), and the Beaux-Artian, symmetrically planned buildings of the Cairo University (founded as Fuad University in 1908); in Khartoum, the neo-Byzantine Anglican All Saints’ Cathedral (1909–12) by Robert Weir Schulz and the late Ottoman-style Gordon Memorial College (c. 1905; now the University of Khartoum) by Fabricius Bey and Gorringe are representative.


Lieutenant Gorringe was a British army officer serving with the Royal Engineers; Fabricius Bey was architect to the khedive in Cairo and of southern European (probably Maltese) origin. Under the autocratic rule of Lord Cromer, British consul-general in Egypt from 1883 to 1907, whose job title concealed the virtually absolute power he wielded, Cairo and Alexandria were boom cities, and architects and engineers flocked to Egypt from all over Europe. The indigenous Egyptian elite—the educated middle classes who had enjoyed a privileged position in society under the Francophile rule of Khedive Ismail before the British invasion of Egypt in 1882—were increasingly sidelined under Cromer’s administration and agitated for a national university and for a school of fine arts under Egyptian control. The foundation of the École des Beaux-Arts in 1906 and of Fuad University in 1908 were the results of their efforts. By 1920 both institutions (now the University of Helwan at Zamalek and Cairo University, respectively) had schools of architecture. Not until the 1920s, therefore, were indigenous Egyptians able to study architecture in their own country. The few Egyptian architects who were in practice in the early decades of the century had studied abroad at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris or at Constantinople. A similar situation prevailed throughout North Africa: not until the École Polytechnique d’Architecture et Urbanisme (EPAU) was founded in Algiers after World War II were there any schools of architecture in North Africa outside Egypt. Inevitably, it was well into the second half of the century before indigenous African architects were able to make a major contribution to the physical development of their homelands.


If the period before World War I was the high point of European imperialism, the period between the world wars was the decline of empire; however, the architectural and urban development of North Africa was still almost entirely European driven. Morocco, under its first French resident-general, Hubert Lyautey (1912–25), pursued a clear-sighted policy of state intervention in urban development (as did Libya) after Benito Mussolini seized power in Italy in 1922 and sought to revive the splendors of Rome’s imperial past in Africa.


Marshal Lyautey sought conscientiously to conserve what remained of the Moroccan architectural heritage—Hispano-Mauresque, Arab, and Berber. He stated, “While in other parts of North Africa we only found social debris, here…we have found a constituted empire, and with it a beautiful and great civilization…. A remarkable Morocco can be created, that will remain Moroccan and Islamic” (quoted in Betts, 1978). However, he was not averse to contemporary architectural developments: Auguste and Gustave Perret designed and built the Dock Installations and Warehouses (1915) in Casablanca, but the cities of Casablanca and Rabat were replanned on grandiloquent lines and had public buildings that were both neoclassical and embellished with Hispano-Mauresque decoration, as in the Law Courts (1915) in Casablanca by J.Marrast and the Post Office (c.1920) in Rabat by J.Laforgue.


The Italian administration showed no such sensitivity in Libya, except toward the imperial Roman sites. Tripoli was replanned as the colonial capital, and the new town was created on provincial Italian lines, designed by the architects A.Novello and O.Cabiatti; in building during the 1920s and 1930s, it was a prototype of Giovanni Pellegrini’s Manifesto dell’ architettura coloniale (1936).


No such high-mindedness drove the architectural development of the other North African countries. Where appropriate, arabisance prevailed, as in the Waqf Ministry Building (1925) by Mahmould Fahmy Pasha and the Bank Misr (1927) by A. Laseiac in Cairo; in general, however, North Africa followed European precedents: a pared-down Neoclassicism in the 1920s with some commercial Art Deco in the downtown streets of major cities, a tentative adoption of modernism, and the International Style in the 1930s. Algeria generally set the pace: the Palais du Gouvernement General (1930; now the Palace of Government) designed by M.J.Guiauchain with A. and G.Perret, the Maison des Etudiants (1933) by C.Montaland, and the Town Hall (1935) by L.Claro, all in Algiers, are no less advanced than are their contemporaries in Europe. In addition, Algiers was the subject of Le Corbusier’s most sustained urban-planning initiatives. Between 1933 and 1942, he published no fewer than three major plans for the city; formal concepts first proposed for Algiers were eventually realized elsewhere (such as the Ministry of Education building in Rio de Janeiro and the UNESCO headquarters in Paris).


The struggle for independence and the consolidation of power after achieving it preoccupied the governments of all North African countries during the first decade and a half after the end of World War II (part of which was fought over North African terrain), and the series of Arab-Israeli wars, culminating in the disastrous war of 1973 and the devastation of the Suez Canal Zone, deprived the region of the economic security and political stability that is a prerequisite for sound and sustained physical development. In contrast, the final quarter of the century saw massive investment in building and a transformation of the built environment throughout the region (with the exception of Sudan, where a civil war has been waging for 20 years).


The provision of adequate housing for the mass of the people has been a major priority of all governments in the region since independence. The rehousing of immigrant squatters on the outskirts of all major cities, the protection of the limited areas of fertile agricultural land from population invasion, the reconstruction of the devastated Suez Canal cities, and the creation of new towns to accommodate the overflow of population from the major cities have become major areas of architectural activity. Hassan Fathy was one of the first North African architects to engage seriously with the problems of popular housing: his modest book Architecture for the Poor, which describes his attempt to create a humane environment in the resettlement village of New Gourna on the west bank of the Nile at Thebes in Upper Egypt, has been acclaimed worldwide and has transformed architects’ perceptions of their social responsibility as housing providers. Hassan Fathy was also one of the pioneers, along with his contemporary Ramses Wissa Wassef, in the revival of traditional materials, constructional systems, and craft skills. The bulk of his practice, however, was the design of individual houses and villas for private clients. Abdel Wahid El Wakil is an accomplished younger Egyptian architect designing in a similar manner.


Inevitably, however, given the enormous shortfall in housing provision, the emphasis in most state-funded social housing schemes has been on quantity rather than quality, and four-, five-, or six-story walk-up blocks of apartments have become the norm. Some architects have handled such assignments well (for example, Elie Azagury’s apartment blocks in Rabat and Casablanca [1960s] or Candilis, Josic, Woods and Pons’s residential estate Sidi-bel-Abbes in Oran, Algeria [1950s]), but the scale of most state housing schemes necessitates the formation of large international multidisciplinary teams of architects and engineers, as in the huge new cities in the desert hinterland of Cairo established by the Egyptian Ministry of Reconstruction, New Communities, and Land Reclamation in the 1980s: Sadat City, 10th Ramadan City, and 6th October City.


Also in the state sector, major building programs for education and health care have sought to remedy the neglect of these areas by the colonial authorities and to demonstrate governments’ commitment to the provision of education and health care for all. Provincial universities and regional hospitals are perceived as flagships of government policy, and architects of international reputation are commissioned for major projects (such as James Cubitt and Partners for the University of Garyounis, Benghazi, Libya; Oscar Niemeyer for the University of Constantine, Algeria; and Charles Boccara for the 1982 Regional Hospital, Marrakesh, Morocco).


Tourism has generated large downtown hotels and holiday resorts. Good examples of the latter include work by architects A.Faraoui and Mazieres in Morocco, Fernand Pouillon in Algeria, and Serge Santelli in Tunisia. In addition, the demands of tourism undoubtedly generated several major historic and archaeological conservation projects, the most spectacular being the UNESCO-sponsored re-erection of the temple of Rameses II at Abu Simbel on an elevated site overlooking Lake Nasser in Upper Egypt.


A major factor that was instrumental in the evident raising of standards of architectural service and of the quality of architectural design in the last 20 years of the century was the institution of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (AKAA). Conservation of the environment, community involvement in the design decision-making process, and the appropriateness as well as the quality of the executed design are among the criteria for selecting buildings for an award. The patronage of the Aga Khan through this award scheme has both publicized and promoted, as models for other architects to emulate, several excellent buildings and conservation schemes in North Africa, among them the Arts Center at Harrania near Giza in Egypt by Wissa Wassef, the revitalization of the Hafsia quarter of the Medina in Tunis, and the Dar Lamane Housing Community in Casablanca, Morocco.


Finally, two outstanding buildings that have become icons of their countries’ commitment to excellence in architecture and the arts are the new Cairo Opera House and Cultural Center (1987–92) on Gezira Island by the Japanese consortium Nikkei Sekkai Planners Architects and Engineers and the Great Mosque (1986–93) in Casablanca, commissioned by King Hassan II from the French architect Marcel Pinseau. By way of postscript, with about 20 schools of architecture in the region at the turn of the millennium, the 21st century can expect a much higher proportion of buildings in North Africa to be designed by indigenous architects than was true in the 20th century. ANTHONY D.C.HYLAND.



Regional Military Hospital (1982),

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