Architectural Backdrop of Algerian Resistance and Counterrevolution:

Centres de regroupements (1954-58) and Fernard Poullion’s Climat de France (1955-59)

Maura McCreight
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Introduction

From 1954 to 1962 Algerians armed themselves in the revolutionary struggle of the Algerian National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale - FLN) in the fight for independence from Colonial France.[1] Anti-colonial resistance was challenged as housing complexes and residential districts became targets of strategic militarization and spaces of domesticity were threatened. In an attempt to control the FLN and cut off their resource supply, the French army built centres de regroupement in both urban and rural areas that served as internment camps for the civilian population from 1954-1958 – a counterinsurgency tactic conducted by Colonel Galula.[2] Meanwhile (beginning in 1955), French architect Fernard Pouillon put together plans to build the largest housing estate in Algiers called the Climat de France, located on the hill of Bab el-Oued, in an effort to relocate indigenous peasant populations from the bidonvilles (shantytowns) to the urban center of the city, the Casbah. Pouillon grew up in Marseille where he attended l’Ecole des Beaux-arts until he moved to Paris to study architecture from 1932-34. His biggest passion was creating low-cost housing for the greatest number of people using inexpensive materials with sophisticated modern design. He gained a reputation through the rebuilding efforts in France after World War II when he claimed he could build 200 apartments in 200 days using only 200 million dollars. The success of the project leg him to gain not only attention in France but North Africa and the Middle East as well.

When he was officially hired by the French Algerian government to begin drawing plans for the Climat de France in 1953 he asserted that the building would be made for a poor population with “something grander to live up to.”[3] Though his efforts may have been genuine, he completely disregarded and masked the colonial violence done to Algerian civilians across the country during this period.[4] Nonetheless, Jacques Chevallier, mayor of Algiers at the time, admired Pouillon’s ability to create large scale housing projects with low material cost and summoned him to become chief architect of the city. Viewed as progressive, Chevallier was interested in Algeria becoming independent, but only so long as there is a cultural and economic link to France.[5] From a colonial perspective, Pouillon’s design was a useful remedy for dislocated native Algerians trying to survive under colonialism. In what follows I will trace the ongoing history of anticolonial resistance of Algeria as it is captured in the centres de regroupements and Pouillon’s Climat de France. I argue that the attempts made by French military, Pouillon, and Chevallier to try and solve problems of impoverishment and mass uprooting of civilians through architectural means perpetuates the French colonial agenda to contain and control the native Algerian population.

 

Centres de regroupements

Over the expanse of the Algerian War (1954-1962), Algeria’s urban and rural territories were being drastically transformed. Changes in infrastructure included not only physical destruction and reorganization of villages but legitimized methods for the French military to surveil civilians. Officers in the French Army drew new borders and displaced people in an effort to oversee and monitor “potential suspects”, or members of the rebellion movement.[6] The camps de regroupement, which opened in 1954 through 1958, were one of the ways that these forced changes in Algerian society were justified.[7] These camps appeared in both rural and urban areas that included 40% of the Algerian population, but it was specifically aimed at displacing liberation fighters in order for French military to keep an eye on them. Between 1958 and 1962 the camps were turned into ‘rural settlements’ due to General Charles de Gaulle dividing military from civil powers. However, as Algerian architect and architectural historian Samia Henni argues both the camps and revisited rural settlements share a common attitude that the Algerian population should be controlled and continuously overseen by France. The person in position to make these decisions was Colonel Galula who was in power from 1954 to 1958 before military governance was separate from civil ruling. He referred to members of the FLN and other guerilla groups as “insurgents” and French authorities as ‘counterinsurgents’[8]:

"The ideal situation for the insurgent would be a large landlocked country shaped like a blunt-tipped star, with jungle-covered mountains along the borders and scattered swamps in the plains, in a temperate zone with a large and dispersed rural population and a primitive economy.[9] The counterinsurgent would prefer a small island shaped like a pointed star, on which a cluster of evenly spaced towns are separated by desert, in a topical or arctic climate, with an industrial economy."[10]

 

This vision of his counterinsurgent model became a reality when the centres de regroupements were built under his governance of the regroupement des populations. Although not widely documented because of France’s attempts to congeal the camps, one estimate for 1960 evaluated 2,157,000 forcibly resettled persons, another from 1961 considered 2,350,000 people were forced in the camps, while an additional 1,175,000 persons were forced to leave their homes because they felt threatened by military operations. So, a total of 3,525,000 people displaced in Algeria under French colonial rule with a reported total of 3,740 camps built in 1954-1958.[11]

The camps were regulated by the Sections Administratives Spécialisées (SAS, or Specialized Administrative Sections) who followed orders of Colonel Galula to carry out missions that were both militaristic and civil.[12] Their role was to gather information about the camps, put out propaganda against the rebellion, and provide social, economic, educational, sanitary, and medical facilities. Factsheets found from these officers are now archival records that show recordings of camps’ names, dates of creation, geographic locations, populations, conditions of their shelters, hygienic circumstances, medical services, and their clothing and food requirements. However, the stark layout indicates that the quality of living in these spaces was very low. A typical plan in either the urban or rural areas consisted of one-floor units composed of two identical spaces; one for indoors and the other an outside space with a courtyard, which both (indoor/outdoor) areas just 6 by 5 meters each. The indoor space consisted of a main room of 4 x 2 meters, a smaller room of 3 x 2 meters, a tiny kitchen, and a very small bathroom or water closet (which had no sink).[13] Not enough space for a family was made worse by the lack of privacy. The outside courtyard was surrounded by three other indoor spaces for other families or persons and was shifted in a way that remained completely open to the other units.[14] Reports of high rates of infant and elderly deaths caused by malnutrition and disease, the reality of living in these spaces meant basic needs were not met and no proper treatment given.  

 

Rural Settlements

In 1959 as news of the of the poor conditions of the camps arose in France, Colonel Galula was replaced by General de Gaulle who attempted to turn the camps into rural settlements. News of the scandal was provoked by two Frenchmen who returned from a visit to colonial Algeria and launched an emergency humanitarian aid campaign upon seeing the miserable conditions. Newspapers broke out headlines indicating that Algerians were forced to relocate, children and elderly people were dying, and also instances of sexual assault and unjust imprisonment. One case of the latter in particular included a young supporter of the FLN Djamila Boupacha who was tortured and raped by French military officers after being arrest for her political views. Her story was picked up by French media outlets and her trial was followed by renowned French feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. A book by Beauvoir and Boupacha’s attorney, Gisèle Halimi, was published in 1962 and shocked French liberal opinion on the colonial enterprise of maltreatment toward Algerians.[15]

Colonel de Gaulle appointed a general delegate from the French government in Algeria to transform these camps into the rural settlements, which he claimed would immediately improve housing. However, control and containment were still enacted, and every move and activity of native Algerians was reported to Colonel de Gaulle. The Equipes Itinérantes d’Aménagement (Mobile Teams for Rural Planning) were expected to demand work out of Algerians, rather than allowing them agency to learn skills they were interested in. Further, no new designs of the camps were ever conducted, it was merely a change in the way civilians were controlled that allowed the new general delegate and colonel claim a helpful and peaceful objective. Still an intervention and control of their lives, the French claimed that their economic model would improve the lives of Algerians and forced them to work on farms surrounding the settlements. However, after uprooting entire populations of millions of civilians and forcing work, no socio-economic structure would fix the violence of colonialism on this region, and the new and improved rural settlements were merely an excuse for exploitation.

 

Fernard Pouillon’s Climat de France

The public campaign for Pouillon’s Climat de France was one of positivity, transformation, and social reform; yet, guided by the former practices of France’s involvement in Algeria, what hope, or trust was there in a French architect? Commercials for the project depict a completely Western model of domestic life. Well-dressed families enjoying their dinner in a spacious living room seem to be from another world completely removed from the reality of Algeria at this time.[16] Given that the so-called rebel fighters were kept contained in the settlements, Chevallier and Pouillon envisioned these homes for the elite Algerian Muslims that would remain loyal to France’s involvement in their country. Their intention was to present French and Algerians cohabitating in a gesture of liberal social reform that upheld the fate of colonialism as life-saving rather than life-taking.

The particular topography of the Climat de France area in Algiers includes steeply sloping hills, ravines, and chiseled riverbeds, indicating that this area actually belongs to natives, or cites indigénes (native quarters).[17] Chevallier and Pouillon’s campaign referred to these areas as bidonvilles (or shantytowns), expressing concern of hygiene and promiscuity. The transformation of this native land was framed as a project that would fix problems of housing and uncleanliness, but the result was the destruction of cites indigénes. The displaced residents of the bidonvilles were not actually given apartments in the new complex. It was more important that the Climat de France served as an emblem of France in the central urbanized part of the city than participate in its native history.[18]

Originally intended to house 30,000 Algerians in 4000 apartments Pouillon wanted to implement modern apartment blocks that provided a solution to the severe overcrowding due to the sprawl of civilians. The most prominent part of the structure is the 200 Columns Building, which had a portico lined interior courtyard built with thick and weighty limestone. On the interior perimeter of the monumental agora, shops and facilities line the block. The thick walls that enclose the courtyard entirely resemble the architecture of a prison, where the main goal is to create containment and surveillance. In this instance, people live in the apartments and are not under custody like they were in the camps, but the intention remains to make an impasse of Algerian culture – to stunt movement or evolution of native life.

Pouillon thought that his housing project would transform rural Algerians into modern Europeanized city dwellers. He refused to use any kind of design that did not feel modernized and had direct reference to European cities. The entire complex is made up of linear buildings, interior courtyards, series of buildings linked to each other (the columns) and single towers. He varied the structures by small and large, intentionally creating a sense of balance from the sloping hills it sits on. All of the towers and buildings are geometric and crisp with small modular openings for ventilation and windows. The facades are decorated by bricks and stones and the roofs are equipped with terraces. The choice of units is either 2-bedroom, 2-bedroom with a patio, or a studio type apartment, and every unit comes with a kitchen and a toilet-shower closet. The entrances to where the majority of the apartments belong in the 200 Columns (the short, long building structures) further Western ideals in their resemblance to monumental propylaea structures taken from ancient Greek architecture. The massive columns create a dramatic entryway, but the austerity and crisp geometry of its shape continues on the interior façade, making it feel public and urban. Continuing upward is the roof terrace, a major feature dotted with small, domed washhouse pavilions so that work and socialization could take place. Many women dry laundry between the rectangular nooks, a feature that almost seems strangely domestic and out of place in a space that is meant for the public eye. Pouillon felt as if it was French and Algerian culture mixing together in modern life, a very idealistic and unrealistic view of the actual social and political climate of this space.

The colonial empire tried their best to compare Climat de France with the bidonvilles saying that these new apartments were like “paradise” compared to the former lifestyle of native Algerians. However, the residents here never really settled, in fact, they moved to the streets and joined massive demonstrations in the fight for independence. On December 11th, 1960, sixty people living in the 200 Colonnes left their domestic spaces to join the resistance taking place in the streets that day.[19] The very housing project intended to acculturate Algerians is also where the national demonstration projects of independence emerged. To their fate and in a darkly ironic twist, the 200 Columns residents were all killed by French forces – the same colonial powers allegedly making their lives nirvanic were also the ones to take their lives away.

The end of the film Battle of Algiers heavily features Climat de France as a backdrop to the people’s struggle. The film’s intention is not to tell the story of the colonial history of the architecture in the background of street demonstrations, but rather its monumentality speaks for itself; the colonial empire’s power and domination are exactly what agitators are fighting against. The edifice of the 200 Columns building fills the screen, establishing the drastic opposition of the overpowering European city with the displaced people forced to be contained within it.[20] The camera in the film exaggerates the prison and fortress-like exterior of the 200 Columns, looking up from the point of view of a demonstrator at its encapsulating monumentality. The resistance captured from Battle of Algiers carries throughout history, long after Algeria’s independence in 1962, the 1988 October Riots and the early 2000s Arab Spring indicate the same district of Climat de France as a site of protest.[21] Both the October Riots and the Arab Spring include the same problems as those originating in the urbanization of Algiers, unemployment, economic inequality and once again, a lack of housing.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, France’s attempt to assert its own political and cultural dominance over Algerian people is evidenced not only by the shocking centres de regroupement but also the social housing project of Climat de France. With the mission to civilize a country by dictating its urban and rural populations to live under conditions in line with the modern European ideal, France robbed Algeria of any opportunity to have agency in their nationalist identity. The impetus for colonialism is so often the desire for power and domination, which is evidenced by the forced relationship between Algeria and France. But there is another facet to their relationship that we can learn from its architectural evolution: the colonial mind is also stricken with fear of losing the power they assume to have. After all, the motivation behind the reorganization of the city and native Algerians was to control and contain the rebellion and its members. And although the Climat de France’s intention was propagandized as modernizing the Algerian people for their own well-being, it was only another way to emphasize France’s agenda to take autonomy from the poor.

As a final concluding thought I would like to share a few words from an Algerian artist, Lydia Ourahmane, who currently lives and works in Algiers, that she shared with me in speaking about her family’s history fighting for independence. She told me that her grandfather, once forced into fighting alongside the French against his own country, pulled out all of his teeth in order to be excused on medical grounds. He was not a nationalist, she said, but he loved his country and like many Algerians at the time, built a safe house for civilians to pick up guns and ammunition to defend themselves against the French military. Lydia moved back to Algiers this past year from London, where she went to school for art at Goldsmiths University, to feel reprieve from the hectic environment she no longer felt inspired to work or live in. “I feel safer in Algiers with riots outside my window every day than I do in the United States, and I feel more inspired and calm here than I ever could while working (as an artist) in London. Algerians are proud people, we are proud to be Algerian and our history of resistance is not taken for granted.” Hearing Lydia’s words made me realize that not only is it fear that drove French colonialism to assert such abusive power, but their unwillingness to understand political unrest and resistance. What the Algerians had under colonialism is what they still hold onto today, not solely a desire for independence and liberation, but also the outright refusal to be contained or controlled.

[1] Peasant revolts in Sétif and Guelma, containing Arab and Bedoin Muslim populations, grew out of a celebration on May 8th, 1845, the same day that Nazi Germany surrendered in World War II, where pieds-noirs police set fire on protestors for demonstrating in the streets. French military authorities suppressed a celebration of an ending to western fascism with subsequent attacks in Sétif and Guelma, carrying out a massacre lasting until June 26th, 1945 that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 45,000 people.

[2]  The term camps de regroupement is difficult to translate, but it essentially means “resettlement camps.” 

[3] Keith Sutton, “Army Administration Tensions over Algeria’s Centres de Regroupement, 1954 - 1962,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 26, no. 2 (November 1999): 243–70.

[4] Graham McKay, “Architecture Misfit #29: Fernand Pouillon,” Misfits’ Architecture (blog), May 14, 2017, https://misfitsarchitecture.com/2017/05/14/architecture-misfit-29-fernand-pouillon/.

[5] Ibid.

[6]  Samia Henni, “On the Spaces of Guerre Moderne: The French Army in Northern Algeria (1954–1962),” FOOTPRINT, February 4, 2017, 37–56, https://doi.org/10.7480/footprint.10.2.1157.

[7] Ibid., 43.

[8] Sutton, “Army Administration Tensions over Algeria’s Centres de Regroupement, 1954 - 1962.”

[9] Figure 3.

[10] Figure 4.

[11] Even today, historians have yet to agree on the exact numbers of the resettled populations, the devastated villages, and the camps, but these numbers are in no way far enough off to prevent one from having an idea of the vast amount of displaced bodies. Henni, 44.

[12] Samia Henni, “Architecture of Counterrevolution: The French Army in Algeria, 1954–1962. PhD Dissertation, Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (Gta), ETH Zurich, 2016.,” ABE Journal. Architecture beyond Europe, no. 9–10 (July 12, 2016), http://journals.openedition.org/abe/3105. Also see Figure 5.

[13] I could not find any diagrams online; my sketch is based off of the description from Henni.  See Figure 8.

[14] Sutton, “Army Administration Tensions over Algeria’s Centres de Regroupement, 1954 - 1962.”

[15] Simone de Beauvoir and Giséle Halimi, Djamila Boupacha, trans. Peter Green (Macmillan Education UK, 1962).

 

[16] Figure 9.

[17] Sheila Crane, “Housing as Battleground: Targeting the City in the Battles of Algiers - CRANE - 2017 - City & Society - Wiley Online Library,” AnthroSource, April 2017, 193, https://anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/ciso.12118.

[18] Crane, “Housing as Battleground: Targeting the City in the Battles of Algiers - CRANE - 2017 - City & Society - Wiley Online Library.”

 

[19] Zeynep Çelik, Urban Forms and Colonial Confrontations: Algiers under French Rule (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997), https://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft8c6009jk&chunk.id=d0e3011&toc.depth=100&brand=ucpress.

[20] Gillo Pontecorvo, Battle Of Algiers, 1967.

[21] Paul Delaney and Special to The New York Times, “Toll Is Put at 200 in Algerian Riots,” The New York Times, October 10, 1988, sec. World, https://www.nytimes.com/1988/10/10/world/toll-is-put-at-200-in-algerian-riots.html.