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Crucibles, Vectors, Catalysts: Envisioning the Modern City

Hosted online across two days in March 2021, the Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational and Liverpool School of Architecture’s “Crucibles, Vectors, Catalysts: Envisioning the Modern City” seminar investigated 20th century identities for postcolonial and post-independence cityscapes in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East.

Convened by Iain Jackson, Professor at the Liverpool School of Architecture, Clara Kim, the Daskalopoulos Senior Curator for International Art at Tate Modern and Nabila Abdel Nabi, Curator for International Art at Tate Modern; the seminar explored stories from these ‘highly charged moment[s] in the history of city making or shaping’.[1]

The seminar specifically positions cities as incubators for the generation of national identity and for ‘Modernity’. However, were individual cities sufficient for such grand objectives, or were they more isolated and fragmented sites for local, yet innovative gestures? Presenters demonstrated examples where both centralised urban contexts (including major urban planning initiatives and more piecemeal developments) and wider networks proved valuable in creating or indeed reasserting national and regional identities.

The destructive process of creating mid-century urban environments defined many global contexts. Whether in response to the need for new national identities in postcolonial contexts, reconstruction and housing following the devastating effects of war and a baby boom or strategies to address perceived ‘blight’ and urban flight, urban renewal, with its top-down, Bauhausian, car-focused, and federally funded backbone epitomised Modernity.

Some cities benefitted from a relatively early reconsideration of the blank slate approach to city planning. Lukasz Stanek described how Miastoprojekt, a Krakow-based state planning office of designers envisioned the future of post-revolutionary Baghdad through their experiences with reconstructing historic Warsaw after the Second World War.[2]

Using architectural and design services as a politically and financially motivated form of state aid during the Cold War, the Miastoprojekt plans rejected key aspects of Baghdad’s first modern city plan, including the demolition of the city’s Ottoman era historic and vernacular architecture, and tripling the size of the city at a local level without consideration for expansion through regional developments.[3]

Miastroprojekt’s legacy continued beyond the Baghdad planning commissions through design work and education with Polish and Czechoslovakian architects teaching Polish perspectives of Modernism in Iraqi universities. By the 1990s, with the fall of communism, Polish designers reversed Miastroprojekt’s strategy and were thinking Warsaw through Baghdad to revitalise their cities.

Big plans were not constrained to single urban environments. Fahran Karim’s ‘archaeology of the future’ presentation explored the role of a foreign designer in creating Pakistani nationalism; Greek architect and planner Constantinos Doxiaidis. Karim asks, “How do you represent a country without a past. Fractured geographically into East and West wings… 1000 miles of India between it?”[4]

Doxiaidis preferred stark Modernism, justified through statistical analysis and designed without classical Islamic aesthetic details. He utilised plan forms, practical details and building types that he believed (or presented) to be essentially Islamic.[5] Doxiaidis planned refugee settlements and Islamabad to include ’gossip squares’, souks, Dochala huts and central mosques.

Despite conducting ethnographic fieldwork and survey (aerial photography), Doxiaidis imported his understanding of Islamic community planning and architecture from his research in the middle east and projected the needs and traditions of widely dispersed refugees on narrow local contexts. Unsurprisingly, the communities adapted or removed many of Doxiaidis’ design features or simply did not use the spaces created for them, preferring to adapt their homes or build vernacular sites suited to their cultural preferences instead. While in practice, many of these adaptations and rejections were practical, Doxiadis’ technical expertise and foreign perspective failed to deliver built environments that suited and sustained the needs and preferences of Pakistan’s new citizens.[6]

Considering what was happening between East and West Pakistan, Ram Rahman shared a richly illustrated and personal view of the cultural and political context for his father Habib Rahman’s contributions to the ‘Nehruvian post-independence renaissance of Delhi.’

Habib Rahman, a young MIT-trained Bauhausian architect, was recruited by Nehru to work in Delhi, where he organised an international low-cost housing exhibition in 1954, including plans and a model for his own design for low-cost housing. Rahman’s house design was reproduced across India 100,000’s of times to address a critical housing shortage.

Rahman was a prolific designer and his work, including the World Health Organisation headquarters building of 1963 (demolished) and later designs for three monumental tombs epitomised Indian modernity.

Professional training and architectural education were key vectors for transnational exchange and development in postcolonial contexts. However, as Patrick Zamarian described in his presentation, the development of the Department of Tropical Architecture (DTA) at the Architectural Association (AA) in London was related as much to the independent administrative structure of the AA and its struggling economic position in the 1950’s as it was to meeting the challenges of Modern design in foreign contexts.

Zamarian recognised the problematic and homogenizing term ‘Tropical Architecture’ and then described the global networks of designers, patrons and educators who delivered training for a generation of British and international students, with a curriculum based on technological solutions for climatic design and a Modern design aesthetic that disregarded local aesthetic and cultural traditions.[7]

When the department visited Ghana, “these ideas for Tropical Architecture fell apart. [The curriculum] shifted from a generic science-based approach to a local and sensitive one, focused increasingly on housing, planning and eventually sustainable development.”[8]

Ola Uduku’s exploration of Modernist Lagos focused on the cumulative impacts of the DTA trained architects, engineers and Italian contractors who contributed to the rapid development of the marina district for independent Nigeria’s first capital city.[9] Although Lagos benefitted from major infrastructure improvements, the architecture described in Uduku’s presentation was piecemeal and demonstrated the evolution and intensification of development for the district from colonial centre to financial district.

Examples include Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew’s Co-operative Bank Lagos (1959) and the Architects Co-Partnership’s Bristol Hotel.[10] A Lagos building that encapsulated the international design collaborations for the time is the James Cubbitt and Partners’ Elder Dempster Lines building (1961), which introduced sleek modern lines, natural cross-ventilation, engineering innovations (pile foundations) contributed by Ove Arup and a distinctive funnel-shaped top structure alongside a notable collection of Nigerian artworks in the lobby. Nigerian designs for the time include Oluwole Olumuyiwa’s Crusader House (1955) and elegant villas outside Lagos by Obi Obembe Associates.

In other contexts, a national approach to recreating identity was accomplished through the redevelopment of pilgrimage networks and tourist destinations, including hotels and museums.

Talinn Grigor introduced the Society for National Heritage (SNH) and the role of the Shah’r in asserting the hegemony of the ruling class and Iranian elite (and recreating national identity) through the demolition and reconstruction of over 40 historic mausoleums to encourage secular and cultural tourism.[11] Examples include the mausoleums of Ferdawsi (1934) in Tus and Hafiz (1938) in Shiraz. Grigor argues that these new Modern mausoleums were integral to the creation of an aspirational middle-class culture in Iran, becoming a network for national tourism that remains today.

The Shah’r and the tremendous wealth generated by the Iranian oil industry funded the design and construction of avant-garde Modern environments and later more traditionally inspired art and architectural contexts, culminating in the uniquely Iranian expression of modernism inspired by traditional wind towers for the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (Kamran Diba, 1977).[12]

Lahbib el Moumni and Imad Dahmani’s presentation on post-independence Moroccan architecture included a second example of state-sponsored activities to promote tourism with Modern architecture. This was developed through hotels constructed outside urban centres in the country’s dramatic landscapes. Examples of exquisite and richly contextual forms from architects Abdeslem Faraoui and Patrice de Mazieres include the Hotel Les Gorges du Dadès (1974) and Hotel at Taliouine (1971-72) were shared, both to demonstrate the value of these sites and to explore the challenges of engaging communities with their recent past. [13]

The expressive and contextual Modernism of Morocco was certainly not isolated for post-colonial contexts. Amin Alsaden’s presentation demonstrates how urban renewal programmes in Baghdad in the 1950s created a sense of cultural and heritage loss, which predicated a culturally specific interpretation of Modern art and architecture for the city. He focused particularly on the work of architect Rifat Chadirji who merged globalism and regionalism in his designs.[14]

Alsaden described Rifat’s earliest buildings as somewhat derivative but noted that through the 1960’s his designs evolved to incorporate traditional shapes and plan forms, marrying social needs to social forms, and incorporating the narrow round arch form, in both elevation and plan.

Anna Tostoes’ presentation on the work of Amâncio (Pancho) Guedes in Mozambican cities clearly demonstrates how the architect’s designs coupled global technical, aesthetic, and cultural movements for the time with traditional and vernacular forms to create unique buildings for Maputo which continue to engage with local communities, including the Saipal Bakery (1954), Smiling Lion Building (1954-55) and the Abreu Santos and Rocha Building (1953-56).[15]

These Guedes landmarks remain relevant to 21st century contexts, but many other postcolonial buildings have been heavily altered or demolished. In my experience as a built heritage professional, architecture of the recent past, whether in postcolonial contexts, Europe, or the Americas is especially vulnerable to inappropriate alterations and loss.

Coupled with the experimental, academic, inefficient and sometimes foreign or dehumanising aspects of mid-century Modern architecture and urban renewal, it can be difficult ‘to love’ and costly to restore for sustainable 21st century purposes. Outside losses from the traumatic impact of military conflict or political maneuvering, it comes as no surprise that the architecture that has sustained and remains relevant to local communities is the architecture that originally engaged with its local context and traditions.

These landmark buildings need champions like Mémoire des Architectes Modernes Marocain’s (MAMMA) and DoCoMoMo to promote their value against ever greater development pressures. “Crucibles, Vectors and Catalysts” moved the discussion forward, but there are clearly collaborative opportunities for research and advocacy to be progressed.

Heather McGrath Alcock is PhD researcher at University of Liverpool’s School of Architecture studying the global development of planned company towns. Heather returned to academia after twenty years as a built heritage practitioner based in New York City and later London and the Wirral. Heather had the opportunity to work on landmarks of the Modern movement, including the United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan, a thematic survey of mid-century modern houses in New Canaan, Connecticut started by “the Harvard Five”, and the former Pan American Building at 200 Park Avenue, Manhattan.

References

Daechsel, Markus. 2011. ‘Seeing like an expert, failing like a state? Interpreting the fate of a satellite town in early post-colonial Pakistan.’ in Marcel Maussen, Veit Bader and Annelies Moors (eds.), Colonial and Post-Colonial Governance of Islam (Amsterdam University Press).

Talinn, Grigor. 2004. ‘Recultivating “Good Taste”: The Early Pahlavi Modernists and Their Society for National Heritage’, Iranian Studies, 37: 17-45.

Uduku, Ola. 2006. ‘Modernist architecture and ‘the tropical’ in West Africa: The tropical architecture movement in West Africa, 1948–1970’, Habitat International, 30: 396-411.


[1] Jackson, Ian. “Introductory remarks for Crucibles session” from “Crucibles, Vectors, Catalysts: Envisioning the Modern City”. Online. 2nd March 2021.

[2] In his presentation, “Rupture, Transition and Continuity in Baghdad’s Master Plans: From Minoprio to Miastoprojekt” on 2nd March 2021, Stanek noted that the Iraqi coup which toppled the monarchy in 1958 instigated a new era of collaboration with Eastern European architects and planners; networks established to “compete with and confront Western European and American hegemony to establish a new independent Iraq through its capital city Baghdad.”

[3] Baghdad’s first modern city plan was completed in 1956 by the British architect and town planner Sir Charles Anthony Minoprio, Hugh Spencley and Peter Macfarlane for the country’s Western aligned Hashemite monarchy.

[4] Karim, Fahran. “Archaeology of the Future: Constantinos Doxiaidis in East and West Pakistan”, from Crucibles, Vectors, Catalysts: Envisioning the Modern City seminar, Session 2, Vectors; 2nd March 2021.

[5] Ibid. According to Fahran Karim, Doxiaidis’ patron Ayub Khan “subscribed to a social theory of development but weakened democracy to validate his authoritarian rule because he felt that the poor, uneducated [masses] couldn’t participate in democracy.” 

[6] According to Markus Daechsel in his 2011 contribution ‘Seeing Like an Expert, Failing Like a State?

Interpreting the Fate of a Satellite Town in Early Post-Colonial Pakistan’, in Colonial and Post-Colonial Governance of Islam, ed. by Marcel Maussen, Veit Bader and Annelies Moors (Amsterdam University Press, 2011), p 159-160, there were many problems associated with the rapid and uneven development of the refugee settlements (lack of basic services (running water, electricity, sewers) and infrastructure (storm sewers), unfinished civil engineering works and the relatively poor refugee communities could not afford rents for the shop spaces, so were not used.

[7] Including Michael Pattrick, Director of the AA in the 1950’s who saw the new department as a way to improve the Association’s finances and academic standing, to Maxwell Fry who supervised the first few years of the department and then culminating in Otto H. Königsberger’s (1908 – 1999) leadership. From Zamarian, Patrick. “Global Perspectives and Private Concerns: The AA’s Department of Tropical Architecture”, from Crucibles, Vectors, Catalysts: Envisioning the Modern City. Online. 2nd March 2021. 

[8] Ibid. 

[9] Lagos was the original capital city for independent Nigeria. However, it is now the capital of Lagos State since the Nigerian capital city moved to Abuja in 1991.  

[10] Ola Uduku, ‘Modernist Architecture and ‘the Tropical’ in West Africa: The Tropical Architecture Movement in West Africa, 1948–1970’, Habitat International, 30 (2006), 399.

[11] In ‘Recultivating “Good Taste”: The Early Pahlavi Modernists and Their Society for National Heritage’, Iranian Studies (2004), Talinn Grigor noted that “For the modernists, therefore, the control over the physical and conceptual “heritage” enabled them to erase the immediate past to construct the “progressive” future. Destruction of building-as-representation [traditional sites of religious pilgrimage] proved central to the construction of the pending utopian future. Architecture was imperative to the success of the [Society for National Heritage] SNH’s modernizing agenda.”

[12] The Museum opened months before the revolution started which saw the monarchy overthrown and exiled from the country.

[13] While more ancient histories and built heritage are preserved and underpin 21st century cultural identity in Morocco, the architecture of the mid-twentieth century has been over-looked, inappropriately altered or destroyed. Mémoire des Architectes Modernes Marocain (MAMMA) was created in 2016 by young architects concerned with the loss of these sites. 

[14] Alsaden noted in his 9th March 2021 presentation “Syntheses Across Disciplines: Rifat Chadirji and Art-Architecture Liaisons in Modern Baghdad” for Crucibles, Vectors and Catalysts: Envisioning the Modern City, Chadirji was part of the elite bohemian culture of Baghdad, which included artists and architects who were educated in Europe and America. Against the backdrop of political turmoil, they created a vibrant, creative society that embraced Modernism ‘as an act of rebellion against the legacy of British architects who had used Neo-classical designs with orientalist tropes’. 

[15] Tostoes, Ana. “Correspondences, Transfers and Memory: Maputo’s ’Age of Concrete’”, from Crucible, Vectors, Catalysts: Envisioning the Modern City seminar, Session 2, Vectors; 2nd March 2021.

PhD Profile: Here’s the latest in our PhD profile series

Name: Rim Yassine Kassab
PhD Research Title and Summary: The medina’s continuity, between revitalization and reconstruction – Cases of Old Rabat and Old Aleppo

The difficult balance between preservation of heritage authenticity and integrity, and adaptation to contemporary needs requires urban heritage to change and evolve. Transformation is a natural process of a city, but when the change is drastic, sudden and unplanned due to a conflict, a new context emerges. This is the case of Old Aleppo in Syria, that has seen 75% of its heritage being either destroyed or damaged. On the other hand, new socio-economic dynamism and urban practices can also transform the face of the urban heritage. The pace of this transformation is slower, but can be equally drastic. Rabat’s old city, in Morocco, for example, is currently undergoing many such ‘rehabilitation’ projects. 

Both of these medinas are inscribed in the Unesco’s World Heritage Sites. A medina is the historic core of the city, and the cultural, social and economic hub of everyday life in the cities of the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa). The urgency of reconstruction and revitalisation are crucial : safeguarding the values of the urban and social fabrics of the medinas is not only important for them as World Heritage Sites, but also pivotal for the continuity of lives and livelihoods in these historic places. 

However, community participation is lacking within government and international regulations for the processes of reconstruction or revitalization. Without taking people into consideration, many issues arise: 

-a furthering of the conflict, 

-a neglect of the community’s needs 

-the loss of the medina’s values through inacceptable change. 

How can we safeguard the continuity of the past, to inform the future of the medina, particularly in the face of its current challenges ? How does the authentic medina look in the eyes of its various communities? How should reconstruction and revitalization be considered, so that the values and tangible/intangibles attributes of the medina are preserved while meeting the current needs of its users ? 

The choice of Morocco and Syria is not arbitrary: they were the first countries to be studied in the literature, and they belong to the extreme West and East in the Islamic World, as well as diverse conditions of change. This will allow us to study the nuances of the concept of continuity and the values associated with it: continuity in times of peace (Morocco) is totally different than after a conflict (Syria), as the first is about bettering peoples lives, while the latter is about reconciliation as well.

The methodology is built around primary data gathered from cases studies, along with conducting field work, such as mapping, photographing and cataloguing, as well as interviewing a wide range of current users of medinas (inhabitants, shop owners, street vendors, police officers, tourists) and the old community that have a strong link and many memories associated with it. 

Aims and Objectives: 

-Presenting the voices of the medina’s community 

-Documenting the changes of the medina, from archival to before the current transformations to now

-Cataloguing the tangible and intangible attributes of the medina

-Presenting the values on which reconstruction/regeneration should be considered

-Incorporating methods such as the Walk and Talk interview, and gathering data through social media

  • What did you do before the PhD Research? 

Before the PhD research, I completed both my masters degree: one in Architecture at the National School of Architecture in Rabat (Morocco), and one master research in University of LeMans (France) on history, civilisations and heritage. Throughout my double degree studies, I wrote three master dissertations. The first one, “Habous district, a colonial urban adventure”, shows how the French have understood and built a district in Casablanca following the urban model of the medina. The second one, “Damascus : resilience of a city at war”, which is an urban analysis of the Syrian capital city and provides solutions to its resilience during and after the crisis. The last one, “The old city of Damascus, history of its urban resilience” investigated the resilience of the city’s historic core whilst facing urban modernity.

After graduating, I started directly applying for a PhD. While sending applications and doing interviews, I was doing an internship at the United Nations, working on research in conflicted areas, through the lens of international relations. I also joined “Rabat-Salé mémoire”, a non-profit organisation for Rabat’s cultural heritage, where I was the head of the research department, and carried out a comprehensive analysis on a Moroccan urban heritage called the Oudayas Qasba. I was also responsible for training volunteer tour-guides for this same heritage, for the ‘week of heritage’ in Rabat.

  • Why did you pursue a PhD, and what made you choose University of Liverpool?

Born in a mixed family and being exposed to two different cultures (Syrian and Moroccan) always triggered my curiosity about people’s culture and the impact it has on their building and tangible and intangible heritage. As a result, from my youngest age, I became aware of the cultural diversity the world has and was interested in its representation in form of cultural expressions, architecture and urban heritage. This also gave me hope about human kind, because we don’t just fight each other through war, but we can achieve many beautiful things. I became interested in cultural heritage, but more specifically the heritage of my countries: the medinas. Even if I studied them in my Masters, I wanted to know more because not enough attention has been paid to their set of tangible and intangible values. The subject is the first reason why I wanted to do a PhD. The second reason is that pushing boundaries and exploring new ideas is the core of my personality. I don’t like repetition and predictability, whereas research is a continuous new intellectual adventure. Each day we learn something new about the world but also about ourselves. Finally, my aim is not only the educational qualification, which is absolutely great, but I hope to make even the smallest impact on people’s life and experience. 

For the choice of Liverpool University, I started by looking for an UK institution thanks to its reputation for research and all the good things my cousins said about the excellence of the anglo-saxon system. Secondly, I wanted to challenge myself. Being in the French system all my life, I aimed to explore a new system of thoughts and new ways of doing research . Also, having a better proficiency of the english language is a remarkable asset to have in life, and another challenge I was looking forward to. The University of Liverpool brought an optimal environment for me to carry out my research: its reputation as an excellent university in terms of teaching and research encouraged me to pursue the application process. Also, my research aligns with the Heritage theme, one of the key research theme at the University of Liverpool in general and the School of Arts in particular. Finally, the research group ArchiAM provides a notable research platform where I can share my ideas and exchange reflective and critical discussions with fine researchers.

  • What have you found the most fun part of the PhD, and the most challenging?

The most fun part of the PhD is the data collection: going to the field (in my case the medina), meeting and interviewing a considerable range of people, taking pictures of beautiful monuments, of everyday life activities, of domestic buildings, of street atmospheres, immersing yourself in the old city. Each day, people surprise me with original information. Some even invited me to their house to visit, others came to me asking me if I needed anything, some gave beyond what was asked because they were happy to have their opinion listened to. It is a pleasure to see people eager to talk about their heritage. I feel the most grateful when I realise that I am studying a subject people are passionate about, that I am doing something worthwhile and meaningful. This is when I feel the most productive: when my research is progressing, I feel the most motivated by it. However, this is not to idealise field work neither, because setbacks, rejections and difficulties are omnipresent. 

The most challenging part of the PhD is this roller-coaster of emotions between being confident about your research’ subject and thinking you’re going in the right direction, then loosing track of your initial idea by getting lost in a myriad of interesting subjects. Feeling like you have no idea what you are doing and that you lost valuable time is the worst feeling that I have during the PhD. There are so many interesting methods, concepts and problematics that it is difficult for me to focus on one thing. Besides, there is an ongoing anxiety about feeling like I haven’t read enough: literature review never finishes !

  • Post-Phd? Any ideas of what you’d like to do next? 

I would like to leave my options open at this point. Like during PhD, there are so many interesting options, both academia and industry sounds good. Academia will allow me to continue doing research and to teach, something that I would love to try. Another considerable option is working with my home country government or international organisations like Unesco to implement better management policies for heritage.

In general, I know that the best end result of doing a PhD is to develop valuable transferable skills: problem-solving capacities, working independently, managing stress, better communication skills (both oral and written), time management. So no matter which job I will take up after, a PhD is definitely an incredibly useful experience for me.

  • Any advice for others interested in doing a PhD? 

The first and most important advice is that you should embark in a PhD for the right reasons: a drive for research and a subject you’re passionate about. Do not apply just to be called Dr. one day.

The second advice is for the PhD journey: it is a marathon, not a sprint. It is crucial to have a good work-life balance. You should be prepared for difficult times, and if you don’t take care of yourself properly, it will be harder for you to continue, or worse, you might hate the PhD. As much as you can, enjoy the process ! It is as important, or even more important, than the end result, which is obtaining the degree.