12/02: Towards An Architecture

Part of no longer being in school means I have time to read all sorts of things that I skipped while in school. I recently read most of Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture (Towards an Architecture, or Towards a New Architecture), and am trying to finish Atlas of Novel Tectonics and Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. Here are a few notes from Vers une Architecture:

-‘Plan’ as having dual meaning, a type of drawing and a set of directives.

-‘Machine for living’ sees housing as having a set of universal needs and therefore an optimized solution

-Contemporary housing has many forces acting on it, people’s habits and preference, zoning and building codes, financial constraints (terms/preferences for construction loans or mortgages), light & air (supposedly defined by zoning), structure and conditioning (building code). Corb makes a strong point of the importance of a clearly stated problem in finding an elegant or economical solution. All of these forces create a very messy problem statement, and could use some summation and creative combining.

-“Architecture has for its first duty, in this period of renewal, that of bringing about a revision of values, a revision of the constituent elements of the house.”

[-Corb seems to think that values can be standardized the same way dimensions can be. (This may be a poor reading of his intent.) Others have made the point that standard measure of humans is an average, and is ill suited to all but the very few who happen to be average height/weight/etc. In much the same way a standardized system of values would be some sort of tyranny of the crowd, majoritarianist at the expense of pluralism, no rights of the minority.]

06/08: Medinas

Why are medinas worth exploring? They are some of the most densely populated areas on earth and represent some of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements. Their organization and structure are informed by climate, religion, social structure and transportation modeled after pedestrians and goods-laden animals. Public and private realm are extremely well defined and delineated. In some places these worlds still define gender relations and the separate realms of men and women. Some places have seen household structures shift from extended families to nuclear and single person households.
These places also defy description in many respects. Written accounts are often clouded by oriental, colonial or romantic lenses. Photography struggles to capture all of the streets, alleys and courts. Examples of cinema such as Pepe le Moko and The Battle of Algiers are successful at capturing both tectonics and the character of the medina. Physical models have their limitations as well, as they often must choose between a complete representation or an accessible representation of these tunnel and canyon like spaces.
A casting of the void seeks to inverse the positive/negative relationship in order to accurately model all sides of the public realm. The sky becomes the base and alleyways and courtyards protrude down to the ground plane.

06/02: Places of Protest

editor’s note: this post is third of four written in December 2011 about 

In Sidi Bouzid the location of protests was determined by two factors. One, where Bouazizi decided to set himself on fire (the local seat of government) and two, where the local seat of government decided to situate itself within the urban fabric. Bouazizi’s and subsequent protests occured outside the provincial headquarters along the main boulevard of Sidi Bouzid (since renamed in Bouazizi’s honor). The building is located in the middle of town, the physical and political center of life there. It is also within the central downtown neighborhood, notable for its rigid orthogonal grid layout, similar to cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and hundereds others spanning six continents, similar to the western style urban planning described by Bianca.

sidi bouzid

Tunis’ protests tell a similar story. A town with a historic medina goes through an intense period of expansion which introduces a number of orthogonal grids radiating out from the old city. The homes of government palaces, ministries and other institutions are found in this euro-style new city, and the wide and grand boulevard connecting all these seats of power become the place of choice for protesters to congregate and voice their displeasure with the powers that be. In Cairo, protesters almost happened upon the large traffic circle called Tahrir Square, which is not a public square in either the traditional western or Islamic sense of the word. It is, however, a product of western planning and within close proximity to a number of high profile government headquarters (and much further away from the old city). Figure three shows Tahrir Squares’ (red circle) location in comparison to a number of ministry buildings and the old city.


Sana’a offered protesters many open spaces to camp in, however police maneuvering pushed these gatherings to the outskirts of town at the campus of Sana’a University. The campus’ suburban layout offered ample space for a protest camp, but also found itself outside the city grid (old and new) and out of sight, and earshot, of most of the city (including President Saleh)(see figure four). While this protest camp provided a home base for the civil unrest, it is arguably the impact of smaller and more violent skirmishes within the city proper which had the most influence on domestic and international sentiment. For protesters in Manama, Bahrain, their choice of location was similarly on the outskirts of town, but benefited from the iconic landmark of the Pearl statue located in the Pearl Square. Like the other protests mentioned, Pearl Square is a product of western urban planning and is located closer to western style neighborhoods and block grid systems (which, similar to the other cities, is home to government headquarters and international banks) than any neighborhoods of traditional Islamic urban fabric.  


06/01: Islamic City Planning

 The five cities in four countries mentioned in yesterday’s post find themselves with the Dar-al-Islam, within the historic boundaries of the Islamic Empire of the middle ages and later the Ottoman Empire. As a result of this shared history, certain urban structures and organization patterns can be seen as shared amongst the five cities. Stephano Bianca outlines much of this history and its influence on the development of Islamic cities in the book Urban Forms in the Arab Word: Past and Present.

Bianca begins by describing the influence of Islam on the social and urban structures of the Arab world. The strength of its ritualized living patterns dispensed with the need for many formal institutions. A large number of administrative structures which are normally identified with cities- at least in Europe- did not develop, simply because the society had internalized its structuring constraints, which minimized the need for external controls. … Traditional Islamic cities had no municipalities comparable to those of the Western world. … The lack of formal institutions resulted in the absence of outstanding government buildings such as city halls, courts or audience halls and related formal open spaces. Most of the institutional functions were fulfilled by the Friday Mosque, the prime public building, which … had not only religious but all sorts of political and social functions. … While being the major religious building, it usually remained a polyvalent structure integrated into the urban fabric, with no intention of expressing the power of religious or secular authorities.1 Here the point is made that the increased presence of institutions in society is not only a modern phenomenon but a western one as well. The physical manifestation of the state was limited to city walls, a few citadels and the Mosque, which payed tribute more to the Almighty than the local political leaders. The mosque served as both a civic and a religious center. “Joint prayer is encouraged and is mandatory for men at Friday noon, when it coincides with a civic assembly of the community. On this occasion, the inhabitants of a township or a region are addressed by their political leader, his representative or another trusted member of the community who acts as their ‘imam’”2. “This weekly ceremony involved the implicit (but not less obligatory) confirmation of the social contract between the ruler and the ruled. It implied both the acceptance of the executive authority of the ruler by the community and the adherence to the given religious laws by the ruler.”3

The city became a fabric of residences surrounding the central mosque, with a few other public buildings (markets, baths) serving as urban nodes. The residential districts are shielded off from the main streams of public life. The houses, often closely knit together, or built wall to wall in the case of the courtyard structures, form inward-oriented autonomous units which are protected against visual intrusion from the street or from neighboring buildings. … the sanctuary of the house is not directly exposed to alien influences … which preserves the ‘aura’ of the family sphere and prevents friction with the public realm.4 The non-linear streets, dead end alleys and organic growth patterns are an extension of this privacy bestowed upon individual residences. The street one lived on was not subject to excessive traffic, and the lack of linear streets prevented individual homes being subject to attention from the public realm.

1Bianca, Stephano. Urban Form in the Arab World. Pages 30-31

2Bianca 101

3Bianca 109

4Bianca 38

05/31: Beginnings of the Arab Spring

The Tunisian Revolution started in the town of Sidi Bouzid, the seat of governance for a rural province of the same name in central Tunisia. By January 21, Time magazine summarized the catalyst of the unrest with the following record of one Mohamed Bouazizi: …on Dec. 17 his livelihood was threatened when a policewoman confiscated his unlicensed vegetable cart and its goods. … Not satisfied with accepting the 10-dinar fine that Bouazizi tried to pay ($7, the equivalent of a good day’s earnings), the policewoman allegedly slapped the scrawny young man, spat in his face and insulted his dead father. Humiliated and dejected, Bouazizi, the breadwinner for his family of eight, went to the provincial headquarters, hoping to complain to local municipality officials, but they refused to see him. At 11:30 a.m. … Bouazizi returned to the elegant double-story white building with arched azure shutters, poured fuel over himself and set himself on fire.1 After initial protests and riots occurred outside the provincial headquarters in Sidi Bouzid, the protests spread throughout the country. The unrest amongst large portions of Tunisian society could easily be broken down into the marginalized and unemployed (and those supporting their cause) protesting against the corrupt leaders at all levels of governance. The situation was more complicated than that, however. The sprouting of fancy shopping centres, yacht marinas and housing developments along Tunisia’s breezy coast provided a shiny veneer of prosperity. … But the exterior sheen conceals a growing sense of anomie, compounded by swelling unemployment and material expectations fed by rising educational standards.2 While the underlying causes of the unrest are still being discussed, its immediate effects were witnessed world wide. (Sidi Bouzid below, Tunis after)

sidi bouzid tunis diagram

On January 25th protests were planned across Egypt. The location of these protests were always in the public realm, plazas and government ministry buildings. “Some 80,000 Egyptian web-surfers signed up, pledging to march on the streets to voice demands for reform.” Exploiting a subdued police presence, “demonstrators in Cairo managed by late afternoon to seize control of Tahrir Square, a broad traffic junction in the city centre.” “The minister of interior, Habib al-Adli, issued a stern warning that no further street gatherings of any kind would be tolerated.”3 Any street within Egypts major cities held the potential for protest, and the Interior Ministry was intent on regulating such activity. Protests continued for weeks, with Tahrir Square serving as ground zero for the movement, and after many casualties and much internal and external political pressure, President Hosni Mubarak resigned February 11th, 2011.

In Yemen protests were also planned for January 25th. In the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, protests against President Ali Saleh were preempted by police action. A February 14th report by Al Jezeera mentions “state forces have blocked access to public squares, several coincidentally named “Tahrir Square” – both in Sanaa, and around the country. … Several checkpoints have appeared on streets leading to Sanaa’s presidential palace, and many have been blocked with razor wire.”4 Whether confronted by armed police forces or armed supporters of President Saleh, the protesters were forced to regroup and set up camp on the campus of Sana’a University. “If you ignore the burned-out and smashed-up cars, the anti-government demonstration at Yemen’s Sana’a University looks much like a summer music festival, with its fluorescent tents and juice stalls decked with artificial flowers. … Now the demonstrators have set up camp and say they are staying put”5. The power of the presidential palace as setting for protest was understood by both the supporters and the dissenters of President Saleh. It was a matter of either luck or police machinations that the supporters of the presidential set up camp outside his palace first. Dissenters on the campus of Sana’a University found themselves miles away and on the periphery of the city fabric.

On February 14th, 2011 protesters in Bahrain took to the streets (via similar social network organization) of the capital Manama to protest the social and codified discrimination of the majority Shia populous. By February 24th, the Economist had this to say: AFTER the most explosive week in its recent history, with seven dead and hundreds injured when troops opened fire on protesters, an uneasy truce is holding in Bahrain. Protesters have reoccupied Pearl Square in the capital, Manama, after the crown prince, Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, ordered the troops off the streets. The site now houses a sprawling camp of several thousand, with free-food stands and a barber doing a busy trade. From a small stage, a steady queue of speakers call for the downfall of the regime.6 Pearl Square, the location of the protest camp, was located in the middle of a traffic circle, around which multiple major highways circumnavigated. The square, today, is no more, demolished by government officials in an attempt to break up the protests. “Members of the opposition expressed their disappointment at the demolition of a structure the government itself had described as one of the kingdom’s ‘most striking landmarks’”7. In one violent act, the government of Bahrain disrupted the protest camp and killed off a possible symbol of the political unrest. If the Pearl Square statue no longer represented the government, it would represent no one. (Cairo below, then Sanaa, Manama after)

cairo sanaa manama

These four events share much in common. The four countries share language, religion (albeit with different minority groups and different demographic break downs), common history (in either the Islamic Caliphate or Ottoman Empire), and political interest (all are members of the League of Arab States while none are members of OPEC). Each nation came to be defined by its current borders within the last sixty years. For Egypt and Tunisia, this meant they were colonies of England and France, respectively until their independence was gained in 1952 and 1956. All four countries operated under some sore of martial law for an extended period of time running up to the beginning of 2011. Each of the five cities mentioned had examples of neighborhoods with western style orthagonal grid organization patterns in addition to large remnants of a history pre-western city layout (either of Ottoman or Islamic origin). Each city mentioned served as a capital (for Sidi Bouzid, this meant being the location of the seat of the provincial government of the same name) for their respective countries. The capitol buildings themselves are found in the modern/western parts of the respective cities.

1Time Magazine, “Bouazizi: The Man Who Set Himself and Tunisia on Fire” by Rania Abouzeid, 1/21/ 2011

2The Economist, “Tunisia’s Troubles: No End in Sight” 1/14/2011

3The Economist, “Protest in Egypt: Another Arab Regime Under Threat” 1/27/2011

4Aljazeera.com, “Thousands Rally Across Yemen” 2/14/2011

5The Economist, “Protests in Yemen: Getting Together” 1/24/2011

6The Economist, The Nervous Gulf: Bullets and Bribes” 1/24/2011

7CNN.com, “U.S. Condemns Arrest of Opposition Figures in Bahrain” 3/19/2011

05/25: Indigenous House

In 1930 the French government celebrated the French Algerian Centennial, marking 100 years of colonial occupation. As part of the event, architect Leon Claro designed the Indigenous House of the Centennial based on a standardized version of the courtyard house found in the Casbah of Algiers. This description is from Dr. Zeynep Celik from her book Urban Forms and Colonial Confrontations:

“Architectural and aesthetic appeal of the houses in the casbah had already been highlighted during the centennial celebrations of the French occupation. Following the lead of ethnographic research but focusing on the urban type, a model house was built at the intersection of the Boulevard de la Victoire and Rue de la Casbah, near the citadel, to “convey to tourists an idea of the habitation of Arabs in Algiers.” Léon Claro, the architect in charge, designed the Indigenous House of the Centennial (maison indigène ducentenaire ) as a two-story structure in the middle of the irregular lot and surrounded it with gardens behind high walls and a row of shops facing the Rue de la Casbah, to incorporate a trace of the souks (Figs. 47 and 48). He replicated the colonnaded courtyard, organized the main spaces around it, separated men’s and women’s quarters and gardens, and mimicked all the elements of the “traditional” house. Details and ornamentation, realized with the help of old materials and fragments gathered from the casbah, accentuated the aura of authenticity. The architect’s concern for authenticity was reflected in his drawings of details of the building considered especially significant. Belonging more to the architecture of world’s fairs than to Algiers, this building formed an uneasy relationship with the casbah. Its location at the edge of the casbah signified its ties to the old city, but the unusual circumstances of its creation alienated it from its sociocultural context. The Indigenous House of the Centennial was a sanitized summary of the architecture of the casbah, intended for outsiders and accessible without necessitating contact with indigenous neighborhoods.”

Two images accompany the prior description, one a photograph of the exterior of the house and one a series of drawings from the architect.

picture drawings

I had the opportunity to visit this house last May, as it is still part of the tours of the Casbah. Now it is a preserved and protected part of the architectural history of the area.

SAM_0721 SAM_0722 SAM_0723 SAM_0724

05/24: After Amnesia and Colonial Interventions


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.