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Expedition to Algiers

On invitation by the Royal Netherlands Embassy, an introduction visit was made to Algiers in April 2012. The ideas behind the invitation were to search into possibilities to develop an educational cooperation between EPAU, TUDelft and AAMatters.

In meetings with various partners – the EPAU, the EC Delegation, Vie de Villes and a couple of local avant garde architects – following topic themes surfaced :

Peri-urban issues

For an outsider, the city seems to expand without a well framed plan or vision. High-rise, exclusively residential neighborhoods pop up next to farms, industrial activities, old suburban tissues, ecological fringe areas etcetera.

This development does have its roots in Algiers’ history it seems, as the city expanded in the past by adding seemingly independent neighborhoods. However, this was mainly due to the geographical situation and segregational colonial policy. Even Le Corbusier’s 1933 Plan Obus was based on a strongly segregated city, notwithstanding the revolutionary ideas.

Both these conditions are left behind, as Algiers is expanding on the plains this time and government is not based on segregational policy.

The growth of the city, up to the 1980ies followed this organic pattern in a rather natural and loose fashion, leaving the extension time to gradually embed in cultural, technical and natural context.

Now, the situation is different, because of the near limitless horizon of the plains and the sheer volume of the growth itself. This causes serious strain on the ecological, infrastructural and cultural context. The rivers and embankments are polluted, mobility is a serious issue, and lack of attention to public space and amenities is dearly felt.

However, after consulting various professionals, the situation appears to be quite different. What you see is not what is being conceived in terms of vision and plans, it seems. There is a great and visionary Strategic Plan (Plan Stratégique de développement de la Wilaya d’Alger 2009-2029, PSA’29) in the pipeline, near to being endorsed by the government and issued as guideline for the development of the city. This PSA’29 provides an integral vision on the Algiers urban area as well as its expected future limits within the Province of Algiers (Wilaya d’Alger).

What may be lacking, within this ambiguous situation of ‘what you see is not what is being conceived’, is the connection between the numerous (relatively) small scale initiatives on the city edges and this grand vision. Where is the bottom-up attention for the local scaled issues of public space, ecology and cultural context, for instance ?

built heritage issues

Heritage is a touchy issue in Algiers. The Casbah is receiving increasing attention, and rightly so, because of its rich material and immaterial (La bataille d’Alger) heritage.

Yet the modern heritage, of, say the period 1900-1975 – in terms of volume exceeding the pre-modern heritage – is being related to colonial history and thence an excuse for disregarding and demolition is easily found. There is only a small elite that is aware of the tremendous value of Algiers’ modern heritage. Great architects have worked in and on Algiers : Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer, Kenzo Tange, Roland Simounet and Fernand Pouillon, just to name a few. Algiers is, in this respect, comparable to other African cities such as Casablanca and Maputo, where an innovative generation of architects found more fertile ground to realize their dreams than at home.

Other African cities with a comparable volume of built heritage are realizing that this heritage is not a burden but can be a generator for city revitalization : to think of Marrakech, Fès and Tunis in the Maghreb, Djenné, Asmara and Zanzibar in subsaharian Africa as well as the ‘Waterfront’ in Capetown.

generosity of space in the urban fabric

A specific issue that was noted by both Tom Avermaete and author from the visits and study of literature and plans is the development of public space in the urban fabric in Algiers through time. Algiers offers a broad range of interesting solutions in this realm throughout history : from the Casbah, via the pre-Hausmannian waterfront, squares and boulevards to the modern experiments of the Aero-Habitat and Pouillon’s neighborhoods of 200-Colonnes and Dar Mahçoul. The rich imbrications of public space and private residence provide examples from which a lot can be learned.

It seems however, as already touched upon under the above heading of the peri-urban issues, that the contemporary developments in Algiers disregard this rich tradition. Researching this tradition of ‘generosity of space’ and applying this approach in a contemporary adaptation, could stand at the base of a sustainable development of the city.

This issue is of particular relevance to the Dutch situation as well, as the initiators have discovered through their preceding research and education program on Casablanca (Learning from Casablanca, African Perspectives Casablanca November 2011) and could become a basis for cross-views and exchange between Algeria and Europe.

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