Posts Tagged ‘french colonial empire’

“Bouhired was a member of the Algerian FLN (National Liberation Front). During her trial, she was convicted to have placed a bomb in a cafe in Algiers that killed eleven French colons. She was not the first one to be judged for similar crimes referred by the French colonial administration as “terrorism.” Most of the lawyers who were pleading for accused Algerians were French leftists who were trying to attenuate the circumstances of their client’s crime to the colonial court; a sort of negotiation that proved not to be efficient. Vergès, when he undertook Bouhired’s defense however, used this “rupture strategy,” which consists in rigorously accepting the description of facts that the colonial prosecution deploys, embracing the absence of attenuating circumstances to the crime, and furthermore, to affirm that the accused does not regret her or his crime and would be eager to commit more if given the opportunity.

The point of rupture consists instead in the categorical refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the court itself, as well as the larger authority that it represents. In the case of colonial Algeria, this means denying the right for a French court to judge Algerians, and rather than defending the position of Bouhired, to attack colonialism itself. Vergès, who was particularly fond of the literary genre offered by tragedy as we will see later, regularly tells the story of Bouhired bursting in laughter when receiving her condemnation to death — she was finally pardoned and liberated in 1962 — and the judge reacting to this laughter by telling her: “Do not laugh Miss, this is serious!” The laughter is the most dramatic evidence of the impossibility of a dialogue between the accuser and the accused. As Henri Bergson wrote in Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (1900), laughter is essentially functions on a discrepancy. In this case, the discrepancy consists in what both parties recognize as legitimate authority; the dumbstruck outrage of the judge that betray his absolute impossibility to understand the first thing about Bouhired’s position.

Vergès often refers to Antigone (see this 2009 lecture for example) as paradigmatic of his interpretation of justice — the comparison with tragedy being admittedly a way to dramatize his own role. In the past, I have analyse the difference between two types of crimes (see past article): the selfish crime (murdering someone for one’s own interest for example) and the crime against the law itself (like in the case of Rosa Park sitting in the white section of the Montgomery bus). Antigone, however, offers a third type: the necessary crime. Such a crime is not a crime against the law itself but, rather, a crime that is characterized by the impossibility of its perpetrator not to commit it, and therefore also by the acceptance of its consequences. Antigone cannot not bury her brother Polynice after he was killed by the ruler himself, her uncle King Creon. The latter who had forbid anyone to bury Polynice, judges Antigone and condemns her to death. She does not try to defend herself; on the contrary, she attacks the legitimacy of Creon to have issued such an unjust order.

Bouhired and Antigone’s stories carry similarities indeed. Their trials do not have for subject their crime, but rather, they investigate and debate the very rationale of the system (colonial for Bouhired, despotic for Antigone) of which the court is fully part. What Vergès noticed with Bouhired’s trial and the rest of cases he took in his life, is that the dramatization of the court simultaneously affirms a legitimacy and offers the conditions for it to be contested. There can be what is commonly called “simulacrum of justice” only if all parties involved in this dramatization take the parts that they are being attributed. The rupture evoked by Vergès precisely consists in refusing this role and returning the spotlight that a court has meticulously constructed against it.”

– Léopold Lambert, ‘The Rupture Defense of Jacques Vèrges: From Antigone’s Anger to Djamilah Bouhired’s Laughter.’ The Funambulist, New York on April 29, 2014

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”I recently traveled to Algeria to do some researches for my next book dedicated to the space of the French state of emergency; I am hoping to write a few of these non-rigorous articles about it soon but, in the meantime, I would like to write a short piece about a national liberation struggle against the French colonial empire we usually evoke less often than the Algerian Revolution: the Moroccan liberation struggle. One moment of this struggle is of particular importance when evoking the relationship between colonialism and architecture, in particular when comparing it with the strategies adopted by the successive French governments in Algeria in the years that will follow this specific moment. The event considered here consists in two days of strike and protests organized by the Moroccan worker union confederation (UGSCM) and the main Moroccan nationalist party (Istiqlal) in December 1952, described precisely by Jim House in an essay entitled “L’impossible contrôle d’une ville coloniale?” (The Impossible Control of a Colonial City?”, Genèses vol. 86, 2012). Although this article is partially motivated by the attempt to translate some components of House’s depiction of the 1952 strike (what the first part of this article is dedicated to), it also finds its motive in the absence in his paper of consideration for the massive urban transformation that the colonial authorities were undertaking at that time. This, as well as what it tells us about architects’ responsibilities in the colonial counter-revolution, will therefore make for the second part of this article.

An Anti-Colonial Event in Casablanca’s Carrières Centrales ///
On December 5, 1952, Tunisian nationalist and union member Ferhat Hached is assassinated in a plot that seems to involve the French colonial authorities in Tunisia. As a transnational response, the Moroccan UGSCM and the Istiqlal organize a general strike in Morocco on December 7. This strike finds its core in the shantytown of the Carrières Centrales (now Hay Mohammadi) in Casablanca where over 130,000 colonized people reside. Some of them moved here from rural areas of the country; others were displaced in 1938 from the city center after a typhoid epidemic was used by the authorities as a pretext to destroy smaller shantytowns adjacent to the “European quarters” and expel their residents outside of what were then the city limits. The massive shantytown that therefore exists in the beginning of the 1950s is considered by the French authorities as a political threat to the colonial order — we will see in the second part in what the subsequent counter-revolutionary strategy consisted. Consequently, a specific suppression plan has been created to respond to any anti-colonial movement in the Carrières Centrales: in addition to the French and Moroccan (the latter being under the orders of the makhzen) police officers, the colonial authorities have imagined several layers of military reinforcements such as Moroccan or Senegalese tirailleurs (infantrymen), goums (Berbere military units), and other branches of the colonial army.

The strike originally organized by the Istiqlal is called a “mouse strike.” It consists in simply refusing to leave home to go to work. In the evening of December 7 however, town criers circulates in the shanty town to declare that the strike is forbidden and that everyone will have to open their shops like any regular day. Moments later, the police open fire on residents who were throwing stones at them in response to the interdiction. Demonstrators gather in front of the local police station; some are shot and killed. Police officers then undertake to search the shantytown and enters systematically into the houses, while nationalist activists are arrested. The next day, settlers who live close by are evacuated and more shot are fire by the police in the neighborhood, killing in particular a 15 year-old boy who was digging a trench inside his house to protect his family. In the afternoon of December 8, a massive march is organized, leaving the Moroccan poor neighborhoods and heading to the city center, towards the Union House, where a meeting is scheduled. When later describing the events, the French press evoke the “attempt to invade the European city.” The police fires and kill at least 14 people in the march. Many others are arrested. Some are released in small numbers among a crowd of settlers who proceed to assault them. Meanwhile, important military reinforcements are called to circumscribes poor Moroccan neighborhoods. Scout planes fly at low altitude above these neighborhoods in an effort that has as much to do with surveillance than it has with intimidation. Similarly, light tanks and machine guns parade around the Carrières Centrales. Within the neighborhood itself, the Moroccan police force residents to open their shops and destroy those that remain close, in what prefigures the French response to the FLN-organized general strike in Algeria five years later.

During the days that follow, thousands of police officers and soldiers are deployed in Moroccan neighborhoods, and 1206 people are judged guilty of harming the state orders by the colonial courts. Some of the arrested protesters are tortured by electricity in police stations — here again prefiguring the following years of the Algerian Revolution (1954-1962). 51 French union members, close from the Moroccan Nationalist movement are also deported back to France. As it is often the case with colonial massacres (the state having a strong interest to prevent the archive to exist), the number of protesters killed during these days of suppression remain unclear, but is believed to be between 100 and 300. (Jim House, “L’impossible contrôle d’une ville coloniale?“, 2012).

Architects and the Counter-Revolution ///
As mentioned above, the information provided by Jim House in his essay are extremely valuable, but also miss to mention how the Carrières Centrales were simultaneously the site of a drastic urban transformation that remains today well-known in the history of architecture. The political and historical account therefore fails to involve architecture and, unsurprisingly, most of the architectural account fails to involve the violence of colonialism or does so with too little insistence. During his tenure as director of the Morocco Department of Urban Planning (1946 to 1952) French architect and urban planner Michel Ecochard designed a master plan for the Carrières Centrales, along with his collective, whose name, GAMMA for Groupe d’Architectes Modernes Marocains (Group of Moroccan Modern Architects), deceives about which kind of architects were involved (“Moroccan” here means French and Western in Morocco, such as Shadrach Woods or Georges Candilis).

As mentioned above, this master plan and its recognizable 8×8 meter grid, as well as his (more or less orientalist) attempts to adapt it to the Moroccan population, belongs to the canonical history of architecture. In the rare occasions that the political context of this project is mentioned (not ‘simply’ the French colonial order in Morocco, but also the suppression of the Moroccan Nationalist movement), such a context is understood as the background of the project, rather than its very essence. This is, in my opinion, a fundamental dimension to understand, not simply the role of architecture here; not even only the relationship that architecture maintains with colonialism, but even more broadly, the very function of architecture in its crystallization and enforcement of political orders (and, in a very few occasions perhaps, disorders).

In other words, we should not simply be struck by the fact that the 1952 massacre happened while the urban transformation of the shanty town was happening — if anyone knows of any photographs that would show the strike in relation to the construction site, please contact me! — we should consider this transformation as the colonial effort to shut the anti-colonial movement down, as it will later be the case in Algeria in the late 1950s with the construction of massive housing complexes by the French authorities as the second counter-revolutionary wave (after and simultaneously with the legal and military one) against the anti-colonial Revolution. Of course, the project itself is not in response to the 1952 strike but, rather, it constitutes a preemptive response to such a political struggle. Affirming this is not a proposal to reread history through the prism of a colonial conspiracy involving architects and urban planners at every level of military and administrative decisions. I have not personally read of any account involving Ecochard and the military regarding the counter-revolutionary characteristics of his urban design and do not know if any exist — nor did I for Fernand Pouillon in Algiers a few years later. However, the degree of intentionality manifested by architects when it comes to participating to the colonial order is secondary when the clients consist precisely in the guardians of such an order, and that architects consist in members of the settler society. Furthermore, through its extreme valuing of rationality, modern architecture, perhaps more than any others, embody the ideal spatial paradigm when it comes to population control (see this 2014 article about Brasilia for instance) and the framing of most aspects of the daily life of its residents. The various modernist housing complexes built by the French colonial authorities in Morocco and Algeria should therefore be seen at both political and operative levels for what they are: architectural counter-revolutionary weapons.

Architecture and the Anti-Colonial Revolution ///
As expressed countless times on The Funambulist, I am convinced that architecture has a propensity to embody the colonial order. Its intrinsic violence easily materializes the walls that the colonial state necessitate to sustain itself, and nothing is easier than to extrude a line traced a map where borders are colonial constructions. A part of me still believes that an anti-colonial design can be achieved if somehow one accepts to embrace such an intrinsic violence in favor of an anti-colonial agenda. Nevertheless, the relationship between architecture and the anti-colonial revolution is never greater than when the order embodied by the former is subverted (voluntarily or not) in favor of the latter. Although the liberation of Morocco occurred in 1956 and that it is doubtful that such a process had been already achieved by then in the Ecochard grid in the Carrières Centrales, the visit of the modern architecture of current Hay Mohammadi certainly suggests such a subversion in the difficulty we might even experience trying to recognize it. Of course, the subversion here was mostly based on the appropriation of a domestic space for daily needs, not on the political anti-colonial effort; yet, just like settler architects do not need to voluntarily contribute to the colonial order to actually do so, colonized and post-colonial residents (Hay Mohammadi remains a proletarian neighborhood today) do not need to voluntarily subvert this order to actually do so. If we may conclude with an ultimate comparison with Algiers, the Casbah did not need to be politically transformed to constitute an ideal spatial condition for the Algerian Revolution, its continuous existence in discrepancy with colonial logic, as well as its embodiment of a multitude of rational processes (in opposition to a uniform one, always manifested in a master plan), made it this way. May the following photographs in comparison to the previous one of the Ecochard grid therefore represent less the effectiveness of a past anti-colonial struggle, than the symbol of its potentiality in the present or the future in the subversion to the colonial order they incarnate.


Photographs provided by

Léopold Lambert & Hay Mohammadi. 

Top to bottom:

1) The Ecochard master plan and the shanty town. / Photothèque du ministère de l’habitat marocain.


March of the strikers towards the Casablanca city center on December 8, 1952


The so-called building “Nid d’Abeilles” (Bee Hive) designed by Georges Candilis and Sadrach Woods in 1952 and in 2016.

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Manuel Orazi (French, born Italy, 1860-1934), Le lieutenant de Saint-Avit et la Mort [Lieutenant de Saint-Avit and Death], 1920-21. Gouache on paper, 113.5 x 154 cm.

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