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Provincializing colonial architecture

Mercedes Volait

Entrées d’index

Index de mots-clés :

architecture coloniale

Index by keyword :

colonial architecture

Indice de palabras clave :

arquitectura colonial

Schlagwortindex :

Kolonialarchitektur

Parole chiave :

architettura coloniale

Index géographique :

Afrique, Afrique du Nord, Égypte
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Texte intégral

  • 1 Kathleen James-Chakraborty, “Beyond postcolonialism: New directions for the history of nonwestern a (...)
  • 2 Gwendolyn Wright, The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism, London; Chicago, IL: Universi (...)
  • 3 Tom Avermaete, Serhat Karakayali and Marion von Osten (eds.), Colonial Modern: Aesthetics of the Pa (...)

1Colonial architecture has long represented the primary lens through which modern buildings erected in the global south were considered and analyzed.1 Fueled by post-colonial theory, the focus led to discussions of architecture in relationship to white power and social engineering.2 Since Anthony King’s influential The Bungalow (1984), looking at colonial achievements has indeed helped to highlight the colonial roots of European architectural modernity.3 Both perspectives—the Foucauldian and the cross-cultural—assume that modernity is intrinsically European and reached non-European settings through imperialism. In the process, European architecture is said to have benefitted from exceptional—“laboratorial”—circumstances overseas, the result being innovations that were eventually incorporated back home.

  • 4 A recent but rare counter-example is Preeti Chopra, A Joint Enterprise: Indian Elites and the Makin (...)
  • 5 For the case of France and Germany, see Michela Passini, La Fabrique de l'art national. Le national (...)

2In either reading, most of what was built outside Europe and North America during the colonial era, with little or no European intervention, is left out of the picture and the point of view basically revolves around Europe, at home and abroad. Autochthonous aspirations to change and innovation are not considered, except when resisting colonial forces. Little is known of the production of modernity beyond the West in local termsones that may incorporate and combine, as elsewhere, both exogenous and indigenous elements. Little attention, if any, has been given to the strategies and dynamics of acculturation that concurred to produce new architecture in overseas settings during the colonial era.4 The national or civilizational frames embedded in art history do not help either.5 There is a resistance, perhaps because of lack of expertise and knowledge, to considering what is categorized as “colonial architecture” in a broader sense than pure extra-territorial expressions of European national architecture—French architecture in Algeria, for example, or Italian architecture in Libya—when part of it may have been the result of transactions with local ecologies (social, technical, etc.) and consequently belong as well to the colonized soil. The “longing for authenticity” that inspired so many works in non-western settings and the established scholarly tradition of ascribing difference to non-western societies represent other difficulties.

  • 6 For an overview, see Mercedes Volait, “Multiple modernisms in Khedivial Egypt,” in Martin Bressani (...)
  • 7 Mercedes Volait, “Making Cairo Modern (1870–1950): Multiple Models for a ‘European-style’ Urbanism, (...)
  • 8 Jean-Louis Cohen and Monique Eleb, Casablanca : Mythes et figures d'une aventure urbaine, Paris : H (...)

3Late Ottoman and post-colonial Egypt offers an eloquent illustration of the shortcomings of the “colonial” reading of extra-European architecture. As a matter of fact, many new architectural developments, associated with European styles and partially due to Europeans, happened before or separate from British rule over the country from 1882 to 1922 (when Independence was unilaterally granted), and they involved actors well beyond the colonial realm. Afrangi (Frankish in Arabicized form) or alla franca architecture reached the country, as early as the 1800s, from routes that were not specifically colonial in the usual sense, be they imperial Ottoman channels, Italian exile routes, or as a result of Mitteleuropean migration.6 The reformist and progressive spirit that had developed within the larger sphere of internal Ottoman transformation continued to be in motion after 1882. No major rupture was introduced in architecture and planning by British indirect rule; westernization, colonization, and urbanization were not synchronized processes in Egypt,7 contrary to what may have been the case elsewhere.8

  • 9 Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Oxford; (...)
  • 10 On the reclaiming of pre-1952 architecture in Egypt, see Mercedes Volait, “The reclaiming of ‘Belle (...)
  • 11 Khaled Asfour, “The Domestication of Knowledge: Cairo at the Turn of the Century,” Muqarnas, vol. 1 (...)
  • 12 The example of Villa Djelal in Cairo (built 1898) is illustrated in Album Architetto Antonio Lascia (...)

4The Egyptian experience of European modernity thus invites us to “provincialize” colonial architecture, to borrow Chakraborty’s powerful metaphor,9 and to pay attention to the production left outside its boundaries, whatever their interconnections with European architecture. That “colonial architecture” has no obvious translation in Arabic, because of the association of a positive thing (good architecture), with a negative connotation (colonial), encapsulates part of the problem. Consequently, the architecture of Casablanca is commonly referred to as “twentieth-century architecture” in present-day Morocco, while Belle Époque architecture is the label with the most currency in today’s Egypt.10 A central issue is that of “domestication,” in other words the ways in which Egyptian architecture, conceived for Egyptian patrons, assimilated and incorporated change coming both from within and from elsewhere. In architecture, as in other fields, Egyptian society (not only the elite, but indeed a growing, literate middle class known as the effendiyya) increasingly utilized “Western science for the benefit of local culture”11 throughout the nineteenth century. Furthermore, representations of Egypt as being part of Europe persisted. A significant example of domestication is provided by the new types of sexually-segregated spaces that emerged in residential architecture in Cairo in the late 1890s, such as the villa-cum-salamlik type. An independent structure for the reception of the male guests alien to the household, in the form of a pavilion called salamlik, is connected by a gallery to the main building, shaped along the Italianate villa type, where the family’s living quarters are lodged.12 Something simultaneously familiar but alien to European architecture and familiar but alien to traditional architecture, had been born at the intersection of local aspirations to European modernity and the social requirements of late Ottoman domesticity. Mosque architecture over the nineteenth century offers examples of the shifting outcomes resulting from the naturalization of European typologies and aesthetics on Egyptian soil.

  • 13 Mercedes Volait, Architectes et architectures de l’Égypte moderne (1830–1950): genèse et essor d'un (...)
  • 14 My gratitude to Iain Jackson from The Liverpool School of Architecture for this information.

5A number of such structures were initially designed by non-Egyptian architects responding to local commissions. As the twentieth century progressed, Egyptian professionals increasingly dominated (architectural education was locally available starting in 1887).13 What they produced was barely distinct from the work of their European counterparts. Stylistic attributions are generally inaccurate, as in the case of a seemingly French Art Deco apartment building in downtown Cairo, which was commonly considered to be European-designed on a stylistic basis, until it turned out to have been designed by Aly Labib Gabr (1898–1966), an Egyptian architect sent to complete his training at the Liverpool school of architecture in the early 1920s.14

  • 15 A different view is expressed in Mark Crinson, Modern Architecture and the End of Empire, Aldershot (...)
  • 16 Two architects trained at the École spéciale des travaux publics and active in Tel-Aviv are Zaki Ch (...)

6It can be hypothesized that educational backgrounds had more impact on design than national origin.15 What traveled to Egypt through European architects or European-trained Egyptian architects were the images and knowledge acquired at school, whether in Liverpool, Zurich or Paris. The Beaux Arts connection has acquired prominence in any discussion regarding the American or British dissemination of French architecture at the turn of the twentieth century. It can be similarly proposed to consider the internationalization of an Eyrolles canon, following the name of the founder in 1898 of a less prestigious, but highly populated, private Parisian school (known as the École spéciale des travaux publics) that trained hundreds of nonwestern architects in the subsequent decades, most of whom made careers back home or elsewhere. In many instances, this background adequatly explains the similarities that can be observed in the residential architecture produced, from Casablanca to Tel-Aviv and Ankara, across colonial, semi-colonial, or non-colonial contexts in the 1920s and 1930s around the Mediterranean.16

  • 17 Mercedes Volait, L’architecture moderne en Égypte et la revue al-‘imara (1939–1959), Le Caire : Ced (...)

7The regional or international professional networks that European and Egyptian architects equally joined, or the architectural journals they subscribed to, represent other concrete supra-colonial connections. Many Middle Eastern architects gained exposure to Bauhaus-style design, apart from Brazilian or Turkish modernism, through the first architectural periodical published in Arabic from 1939 to 1959 under the title of El-Emara [“architecture” in Arabic].17

8The architectural outcome of selective borrowings mixed with local constraints may be considered “impure” European architecture. Indeed, references were rarely in keeping with the European avant-garde. In many instances this was deliberate. Patrons and architects alike considered that a vocabulary that was “too modern” was not an appropriate solution for Egypt. The contemporary architectural critic may see the bulk of Egyptian Europeanized architecture as second-rate, if not third-rate. But this would be to miss the fact that societies around the Mediterranean, and probably in other parts of the world too, shared, in the wake of imperialism, a middling modernism of European origin, after having experienced a middling Beaux-Arts that was characterized by compromises and negotiations resulting from varied exposure to the diverse architectural culture of Europe. That the phenomenon had coherence, including visually, may best be apprehended in retrospect, after the imprint of Europe faded away. In the case of Egyptian architecture, a significant change in scale and content took place after the Second World War due to the success of Americanism, and later of Sovietism during the Cold War, within the technical and technocratic elite of the country.

Figure 1: Cover of El-Emara magazine, no. 3, 1948.

Figure 1: Cover of El-Emara magazine, no. 3, 1948.

Building designed by Mahmud Ryad, a graduate from the Liverpool School of Architecture (1932), for Cairo.

Source: Author’s collection.

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Notes

1 Kathleen James-Chakraborty, “Beyond postcolonialism: New directions for the history of nonwestern architecture,” Frontiers of Architectural Research, vol. 3, no. 1, 2014, p. 19. URL: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foar.2013.10.001. Accessed 2 August 2017.

2 Gwendolyn Wright, The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism, London; Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1991; Paul Rabinow, French Modern : Norms and forms of the social environment, London; Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1995.

3 Tom Avermaete, Serhat Karakayali and Marion von Osten (eds.), Colonial Modern: Aesthetics of the Past, Rebellions for the Future, London: Blackdog Publishers, 2010.

4 A recent but rare counter-example is Preeti Chopra, A Joint Enterprise: Indian Elites and the Making of British Bombay, Minneapolis, MI: The University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

5 For the case of France and Germany, see Michela Passini, La Fabrique de l'art national. Le nationalisme et les origines de l'histoire de l'art en France et en Allemagne (1870–1933), Paris : Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l'homme, 2013 (Passages).

6 For an overview, see Mercedes Volait, “Multiple modernisms in Khedivial Egypt,” in Martin Bressani and Chritina Contandriopoulos (eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Architecture. 3. Nineteenth-Century Architecture, Oxford : Wiley-Blackwell (forthcoming).

7 Mercedes Volait, “Making Cairo Modern (1870–1950): Multiple Models for a ‘European-style’ Urbanism,” in Joseph Nasr and Mercedes Volait (eds.), Urbanism – Imported or Exported? Native Aspirations and Foreign Plans, Chichester: Wiley, 2003, p. 17–50.

8 Jean-Louis Cohen and Monique Eleb, Casablanca : Mythes et figures d'une aventure urbaine, Paris : Hazan, 1998 (English translation in 2002).

9 Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Oxford; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000 (Princeton studies in culture, power, history).

10 On the reclaiming of pre-1952 architecture in Egypt, see Mercedes Volait, “The reclaiming of ‘Belle Époque’ Architecture in Egypt (1989–2010): On the Power of Rhetorics in Heritage-Making,” ABE Journal, no. 3, 2013. URL: https://abe.revues.org/371. Accessed 2 August 2017.

11 Khaled Asfour, “The Domestication of Knowledge: Cairo at the Turn of the Century,” Muqarnas, vol. 10, no. 1, 1992, p. 125.

12 The example of Villa Djelal in Cairo (built 1898) is illustrated in Album Architetto Antonio Lasciac – Cairo, plates 45–51, Rome (Italy), Library of the Accademia San Luca, pressmark 1688bis.

13 Mercedes Volait, Architectes et architectures de l’Égypte moderne (1830–1950): genèse et essor d'une expertise locale, Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 2005 (Architectures modernes en Méditerranée).

14 My gratitude to Iain Jackson from The Liverpool School of Architecture for this information.

15 A different view is expressed in Mark Crinson, Modern Architecture and the End of Empire, Aldershot: Ashgate; 2003 (British art and visual culture since 1750, new readings), p. 38–40.

16 Two architects trained at the École spéciale des travaux publics and active in Tel-Aviv are Zaki Chelouche (1891–1973) and Alexander Penn (1900–1979).

17 Mercedes Volait, L’architecture moderne en Égypte et la revue al-‘imara (1939–1959), Le Caire : Cedej, 1988.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Cover of El-Emara magazine, no. 3, 1948.
Légende Building designed by Mahmud Ryad, a graduate from the Liverpool School of Architecture (1932), for Cairo.
Crédits Source: Author’s collection.
URL http://abe.revues.org/docannexe/image/3508/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 3,3M
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Référence électronique

Mercedes Volait, « Provincializing colonial architecture », ABE Journal [En ligne], 11 | 2017, mis en ligne le 27 septembre 2017, consulté le 22 octobre 2017. URL : http://abe.revues.org/3508 ; DOI : 10.4000/abe.3508

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Auteur

Mercedes Volait

Senior Researcher, InVisu (CNRS-INHA), Paris, France

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La revue ABE Journal est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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