This is the last of three posts of a review of the book After Amnesia: Learning from the Islamic Mediterranean Urban Fabric
Colonial interventions receive surprisingly abbreviated attention in After Amnesia’s analysis. This is not to say that the role of colonization had been marginalized, nor is it to say the costs of such occupations are ignored. It simply reflects the focus of the analysis: vernacular architecture and its growth. Much of the book discusses the courtyard house and its variations, which have not significantly evolved during the colonial years (mid nineteenth to mid twentieth centuries). The section on “The Colonial Tenement House in Algiers” gives a detailed account of French intervention in the urban plan and the introduction and evolution of the apartment block. Initially the introduction of streets was limited in size and number, resulting in the reduction of many courtyard houses but the destruction of few. New street grids attempted to simplify the urban geometry but topographical concerns limited the size of city blocks. With these new developments came new regulations and building practices. “…in spite of the importation of alien ideas and technology a certain local substratum remained active, as can be seen in the measurements of the ceiling spans, the reduced size of the urban blocks, and in general the tendency to maximize the existing fabric.” As decades pass the building regulations changed and city blocks grew accordingly. This process plays out with the incorporating of a radial plan (concurrent with the Hassmann transformation in Paris) in Algiers. Within the resulting urban fabric “complications were introduced, such as aligning the apartments at 45 degrees to the external wall and multiple stairwells- as if the new type aimed at recuperating in a single plot the lost complexity of the old medieval fabric.” By the 1930s, Modernism has come to Algeria and “the separation between building type, building tissue, and urban fabric is complete.” The continuity and connection with the past is severed. Of note is the fact that the dramatic changes imposed upon Algiers seem to warrant an analysis at the urban scale, not simply at the scale of housing type. But Professor Petruccioli does not make this decision, instead focusing on cities whose plans have for the most part survived colonial rule unscathed, or focusing on cities before a foreign presence was felt.
In his introduction, Petruccioli explains his reason for focusing on the Islamic Mediterranean basin. He sees that world as a truer extension of European antiquity that medieval or renaissance Europe. In the wake of the Modern movement, the west has such a tenuous grasp on its past that Petruccioli looked to the Muslim world. It is not a unique sentiment. Susan Gilson Miller, in her investigation of Tangiers, remarks that in regards to urban institutions, “the Moroccan city had much in common with the premodern European city, even though the two grew out of different cultural matrices.” The implication is not that Tangiers is stuck in the Middle ages, but that it shares a connection with ancient city planning and culture that is lacking in ‘modern’ or ‘post-modern’ Europe. Even Stefano Bianca, who spends dozens of pages outlining the differences between Modern Western and Middle Eastern customs and practices, outlines “The Problem of the Modern Movement” and represents the Middle East as having opposing (and thus non problematic) values.
After Amnesia serves as a valuable resource if only for the enormous amount of information packaged into the 200 plus pages. The inclusion of numerous thesis projects (with Petruccioli serving as adviser) suggests a future use for the analysis of building typologies and urban fabrics without distracting from the analysis itself. The work as a whole serves to explore a topic of immense cultural importance, and does so with thorough and substantiated research of building types, building tissues, and urban fabrics.