Architectures of decolonization by Marion von Osten

In the post-war period, from early 1950s till end of the 1960s, global geopolitical conditions went through most radical changes. Not only the system competition between the capitalist North-Western to the communist North-Eastern system known as the Cold War constituted in that period, moreover, it was the era of colonial empires withdrawal as well as radical state led modernization programmes. From the late 1940s onwards many countries of the global South gained their independence due to anti-colonial struggles or many other forms of resistance and disobedience against the dominance of European colonial rule and their governmental techniques. A variety of projects and alliances of the global south, like the Non-Aligned and the Tricontinental Movement, tried to establish an alternative third way to Cold War ideology. Moreover, decolonization as such challenged the very foundation of Western thought. Social struggles and independence movements against ruling powers in the West and non-West were major actors in changing ideas of the role of the intellectual. Not only in France, decolonization was a movement that constructed new ways of thinking. They questioned the epistemological basis of Western knowledge production and opened an alternative map for social struggles and new political actors like Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, and new ways of thinking that are followed by today’s gender, queer, subaltern and post-colonial studies. Decolonization questioned the domination, segregation and discrimination by Western forces and governance techniques, as well as the Eurocentric episteme and capital led modes of production. Decolonization brought also radical changes in the understanding of the role and function of aesthetic practices. Architecture and planning was one of many of these fields in which these political shifts were negotiated.

After the Second World War, modern housing and urban planning projects in Europe acquired a symbolic function for the future-oriented reorganisation of modern societies and their ways of life under Fordist conditions. By the mid-1960s, the social housing complexes built for hundreds of thousands of families in France, England, Holland, Germany, Switzerland and the U.S.A. had already become, and would remain, international symbols of the failure of modernism. Described as inhospitable because of their strict functional separation of work, leisure and housing and their isolation from city centres, post-war modernist architecture and above all social housing represents a frequently cited negative backdrop. Most research, however, tend to leave wholly unexplored the context in which these plans were able to arise. Even in current historiography, they also largely ignore the broader planning structures in which modernist construction projects was embedded. The architect’s view and the authorship of the object of his / her analysis and planning also remains unquestioned, along with the question of the representation of architecture itself, which is generally photographed in the uninhabited state of its first completion. Above all, however, there is no explanation of the motives behind the large scale building activities that have been first developed in the former French colonies in North Africa. Many architects that were building in the colonies have been engaged in the Modernization programmes in Europe after the independence of their former working context. The colonial and anti-colonial conditions in which the discourse of architecture as town planning arose were also forgotten in the discourse about European post-war modernism, whether it was being vilified or historically reconceptualised. Thus, the influence of both colonialist and anti-colonial movements have been underestimated in the discussion on large scale housing projects and satellite cities.
Taking the Empires withdrawal as a starting point to discuss the large epistemological shifts in the late 1950s and the 1960s, discourses of Modernism and Post-Modernism need a revision today as they have to be understood as spaces of social struggles and transnational negotiations. Already Modernism was an effect of transnational and transcultural encounters. In "The Short Century" of Independence as Okwui Enwezor has described the era of decolonization in his eponymous exhibition, Modernism went through a phase of re-appropriation and resulted in an heterogeneity of multiple, local modernisms which emerged in a constant flux of domination and resistance in the post-, cold war era of decolonization. Thus, also the relationship of the West to the non-West has been constantly transformed under colonial, anti-colonial, and post-colonial conditions. Moreover, Modernism has never been a coherent unity, but an internally conflicted movement that created a multiplicity of outcomes. Nevertheless, the disciplines of art and architecture history, as Kobena Mercer has pointed out, are often lacking this specific perspective in their methodologies and objectives, although:

"Modernism, one might say, was always multicultural ‒ it is simply our consciousness of it that has changed. Each of the ruptures inaugurated in European modernism circa 1910 made contact with a global system of trans-national flows and exchanges ‒ from Malevich’s conception of monochrome painting, shaped by his reading of Vedic philosophy and Indian mysticism, to Duchamp’s ready-mades, which mirrored the de-contextualised mobility of tribal artefacts. Modernist primitivism may be the generic paradigm in which these (unequal) exchanges are most visible, but a broader understanding of cross-culturality as a consequence of modern globalisation also entails the necessity to question the optical model of visuality that determines how cultural differences are rendered legible as ‘readable’ objects of study.“¹

This paradox immediately emerges, when trying to grasp transcultural and transnational relations and encounters. As encounters, conflicts and negotiations cannot be easily extracted from an image or an object itself, art and architecture history is challenged to create new ways of hermeneutics and needs to accept its limits. Because the different ways in which the various spheres of modernity – socio-economic, artistic, and political, etc. – are interrelated and still regulated by a regime that changes through negotiations, conflicts, and struggles is one of the central research demands of post-colonial studies to understand the fabric of our present.

The crisis of High-Modernism in the third phase of globalization (in the post-war era of the 1950s and 1960s) caused the erosion of a whole visual, conceptual and epistemological framework. Many architects in that time attempted to engage with the experience of colonization / decolonization by synthesizing the way of living of people in the North African colonies, usually apostrophized as "premodern", with the project of modernization into a new and "other" modernism. One path of this movement was to learn from vernacular architecture, to acknowledge the pre-industrial city as well as dwelling practices of nomadism as major influences for new designing and planning methods. Such references are to be found in the influential exhibitions Mostra Di Architettura Spontanea by Giancarlo de Carlo in Milano 1951 and This Is Tomorrow with the involvement of Alison and Peter Smithson at the Whitechapel Art Gallery 1956 or in the famous show Architecture Without Architects by Bernard Rudofsky at the MoMa New York 1964. Theoretical writings followed like the influental book The Matrix of Man by Sibyl Moholy-Nagy published in 1968.

In the writings and projects of the Swiss architect André Studer in North Africa, this concept of a new synthesis between the modern and the pre-modern can even be found more than ten years earlier. His housing complex "Sidi Othman" built in 1952 in the outskirts of Casablanca reflected these concepts. The building complex was embedded in the larger extension plan of Casablanca designed by the Service de l’Urbanisme, which was led by the architect and urban planner Michel Ecochard. Another path of this post-war modernism engaged with the locus of anti-colonial liberation movements – the bidonville – and drafted from there a new perspective that focused on dwelling practices and hence was critical of previous modern approaches of the dwelling. As a dwelling environment the bidonville was not only the locus of the first encounters and negotiations with the modern city for a lot of people coming from rural areas, above all it was also the spatial expression of a non-planned way of organizing an urban environment. European architects like George Candilis and Shadrach Woods declared the bidonville as a study object and investigated this environment in an anthropological manner. They "learned" from the inhabitants of the bidonville how everyday dwelling practices enabled an urban neighbourhood through self-organisation. This trajectory of architectural debate acknowledged the self-build environment in the colonial city as valuable housing practices from which European planners would need to learn.
The studies in Casablanca or John Turner’s similar studies on self-build housing in the shanty towns of Peru influenced a generation of non-plan architects as well as participatory planning strategies. Moreover, as well non-western architects and planners of the era of decolonization created new adaptations and methodologies of the modern movement, some directly on the ground of colonial modern town planning in Africa or South-America. Architects like Elie Azagury, Patrice de Mazieres, Abdeslem Faraoui, Yona Friedman, Yasmeen Lari, Moshe Safdie, and many others developed approaches and perspectives that related to the colonial condition of the city and local climate and dwelling practices. As the architecture historian Udo Kultermann argues ‒ who has published Neues Bauen in Afrika already in 1963 ‒, the process of decolonization did not only change the former colonized world, but also questioned the Western hegemony of universal planning methodologies.

Moreover, many new urban developments had been tested in the colonial and evoked strong reactions from inhabitants and users in Europe and its former colonies. This focus on the colonial modern’s cracks, and the resistance against it and within it opens the possibility of new perspectives that correspond with areas of thought opened up by decolonization. As in response to the global liberation movements in the post-war era, critics of imperial Europe started to write a new post-colonial modernity, one that wanted to exist outside the realms of dominance, control, and discipline. Even European countries defined themselves over the colonial area ‒ and / or over this area populating allegedly "others" at the same time the contact zones established through colonization produced many breaks and criticism. Existing narrations were questioned and revised. New participants entered the stage of history. Moreover, the negotiations (in the colonial and post-colonial context) that continue to take place in the form of different types of aesthetic expression, planning techniques, and development of modern housing are also the product of physical and / or mediated encounters between different actors, as in the case of the utopian projects of modernist Western architects and planners with non-Western politicians, inhabitants, artists, and activists. The colonial era and the anti-colonial movement were highly transnational. Many intellectuals from the global South studied in Paris, Berlin and London and the anti-colonial struggles have been mostly organized exterritorially and internationally as one can witness in the movement of the Tricontinental, of which Mehdi Ben Barka was such an important member.

This concept of transnational relations and concrete negotiations detaches itself critically from approaches that regard modernism and modernity solely as impositions. And emphasising these lines of transnational relations, connections and conflicts has been important not just because they have been overlooked by historiography and its colonial archives, but also because they point to commonalities, to a post-colonial future, which began then and which is still unfinished and rife with conflict till today.

Today, self-proclaimed "Indigènes de la République" is a political movement fighting against racism and discriminations. Born from the urban fights coming from immigration, this rather controversial movement presents contemporary France as a "neo-colonial Republic". It does not only condemn the social conditions in the banlieues as being the administration of people and social relations and thus as analogous to techniques of colonial rule. It also aims at the core of the janus-faced character of modernity, since as the colonized, or as Jacques Rancière has put it, the "uncounted" in general, by claiming their rights represent the true meaning of democracy. Thus, with their critique, they go beyond the conclusions of research into colonialism which demonstrates that certain techniques of rule are (post-)colonial re-imports. What they rather put on the agenda is the tension within modernity between the governance of people as populations and their appellation as subjects, as citizens.

Text published in Le Journal des Laboratoires, January-April 2011


¹ Kobena Mercer: “Art History after Globalisation: Formations of the Colonial Modern”, in: Tom Avermaete, Serhat Karakayali, Marion von Osten (eds.), Colonial Modern: Aesthetics of the Past, Rebellions for the Future, Londres, Black Dog, 2010, p.236-237.