Homes from Elsewhere: The impact of imported housing typologies in Algiers

Meriem Chabani, TXKL, NEW SOUTH, France

As a historically significant Mediterranean port, Algiers has been shaped by successive foreign invasions, settlement and withdrawal. The city testifies to these layers in its built form and housing typologies in particular exhibit a broad diversity. As rural exodus and demographic growth impose an exponential tension on the capital of Algeria, the provision of sufficient housing to meet need often leads to the reproduction of already bankrupt models of standardized architecture, whether imported or imposed. Though it is a truism that a globalized process of housing production generates a homogenization of cities, Algeria’s colonial history and its complex aftermath have, in turn, had an impact on these generic imported forms. This presentation examines cross-cultural influences through an examination of collective housing typologies in Algiers, whether in French colonial buildings and planning, the Casbah, contemporary collective housing units or the multitude of self-built single houses, and confronts them with the built proceeds of a broader French Colonial project in other regions of the Mediterranean, as well as in mainland France. Various forms of collective housing in Algiers are viewed through the dual notions of “Houma” and “Dar”, Algerian linguistic forms that refer to the neighborhood and the home, respectively. The combination of these two concepts may most readily be viewed in the Casbah where unitary houses are at once characterized by their strong interiority and their clustering as a dense urban fabric whose spaces are inhabited and cross-cut by a diverse social structure. This spatial form suggests a sliding between scales, the construction of a mutually constitutive tension that requires negotiated thresholds and shared space as part of its continued functioning. By framing collective housing in these terms and not only according to its resemblances, it should be possible to view its spatial functionality – or lack thereof – as an entity defined both by how it takes part in the collective and though its domestic condition. The domestic cell generates and frames a social structure of its own, while being linked to a wider social fabric; the interweaving of domestic and collective practices informs how interior and exterior may be inverted. Collective housing is thus considered as a fragment of a neighborhood, a place where shared practices and notions of belonging are forged, holding the potential to reverse the logic of the globalized reference model. More broadly, it is hoped that this approach may inform an examination of how spatial forms impact upon, destroy, create or restructure social practices and – more specifically – decolonize and de-standardize the way in which the housing and cities of tomorrow are imagined.

Meriem Chabani currently teaches urban planning at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. She has been invited to intervene at the ENSA Paris Malaquais, ENSA Nantes, ENSA Marseilles (FR), Urban School Ruhr, IKA Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna (AT), Akademie der Künste Berlin (DE), Mandalay Technological University (MM), the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building Construction and City Development (ET) and the Department of Architecture at the University of Algiers (DZ). Her work has been showcased at the 4th design biennale of Istanbul (TR) in 2018, and she was a recipient of a Holcim Award for Sustainable Development Next Generation in 2014.