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Cultural capital: the ongoing regeneration of Algiers' Casbah

02 casbah algiers architectural review

A sense of promise hangs in the air over Algiers, accompanied by renewed interest in the fate of the Casbah, but its proposed regeneration is cause for concern

Algeria is best known in the West for its violent 1954-62 revolution against French colonialism, most famously portrayed in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 neo-realist film The Battle of Algiers. Now, 60 years later, a joyful popular uprising against the government – the same party has been in power since the 1960s – is being described as the second Algerian revolution, lending potency to plans to update the city of Algiers for a young and restless population. Projects like the opening of a modern subway, installation of sandy beaches along the bay, and the building of a grand mosque to advocate a moderate vision of Islam have been completed or are nearing completion. This momentum has also brought renewed attention to the project to revitalise the Casbah, begun as early as the 1970s, which up to now has suffered from inadequate funding, mismanagement, policy failures and building collapses that, after heavy rainfall in April, killed a family of five.

An ancient citadel at the eastern tip of the Bay of Algiers, the Casbah is a UNESCO World Heritage Site bearing traces of Roman, Arab, Berber and Ottoman influence, its history dating back to fourth-century BC Carthaginian civilisation. 

01 casbah piri reis architectural review algiers

01 casbah piri reis architectural review algiers

Source: Art Collection 2 / Alamy

The Casbah is seen as a walled citadel curling around the bay in this 15th or 16th century map by Turkish artist Piri Reis

Embedded with heightened meaning by sites connected to the revolutionary war and excited by recent debates about postcoloniality, the governmental revitalisation project must balance questions of for whom the city should be made – property owners, residents, the wider public or tourists – with economic questions of how an urgent renovation programme can be accomplished with limited resources. It could be a chance to model a deliberative process and virtuous economic cycle that will be an inspiration for the world.

Unlike neighbouring Morocco, the revolution, fear of terrorism and restrictive visas have largely limited Westerners’ entry into Algeria for a half-century, making Algiers refreshingly free of tourism and its attendant pushy guides and salesmen, preying on unsuspecting visitors. Encounters on the street are unusually free from pressure, and there’s an enormous feeling of latent potential for its bright-eyed young people, even before the recent popular uprising brought a new order of hopefulness about Algeria’s future. But, while the introduction of tourism and inflationary real estate presents risks of displacement and demographic change, the absence of economic incentives has constituted a major impediment to preservation. The question for the government, building owners and residents may be how to inject financing and a vibrant economic life into this particular context, with the goal of not only preserving the Casbah’s buildings but also sustaining the exceptional social capital and preventing displacement of the 60,000 residents living precariously inside its collapsing structures. 

03 street scene algiers casbah architectural review

03 street scene algiers casbah architectural review

Source: FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP / Getty Images

The insular character of the Algerian economy, managed since independence in 1962 by the governing National Liberation Front (FLN) party and a shadowy group of military and intelligence chiefs known as ‘the power’, has not helped the process of restoring the Casbah’s historic structures. Dozens of 17th- and 18th-century mosques, Ottoman palaces, religious schools and places of prayer suffer from severe neglect and deterioration. Rising inflation in the 1980s halted most government-run revitalisation projects. Then, in 1991, Algeria recognised the Casbah as a national heritage site and UNESCO began to provide planning and technical expertise for preservation: one rare success was the Centre of Arts and Culture in the Palais des Raïs, but a decade of civil war between Islamists and the FLN then followed, leading to further destruction. 

By 2003, the civil war had ended and the national administration for protected cultural sites was established, an agency dedicated to safeguarding the Casbah that developed a coordinated plan for the preservation and restoration of buildings in 2012. But the challenging conditions and administrative problems remain epic and unresolved. Among these are questions of private property: renovation is complicated by a lack of clear title to land that, over time, could be split among hundreds of descendants. Countless owners abandoned family homes and vacant buildings were often taken over by squatters; encouraged by a 20-year-old policy of relocating families from the Casbah to newly built government housing, these squatters would move into unsafe buildings hoping to attain a new apartment. The conditions of publicly owned land are no better: 60 per cent of the Casbah’s property belongs to its cultural patrimony and an Islamic law directing that it should be managed to benefit everyone requires more public financing than that available.

05 ketchaoua mosque algiers casbah architectural review

05 ketchaoua mosque algiers casbah architectural review

Source: Cie des Arts Photomécaniques

Archive photograph of Ketchaoua Mosque

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04 ketchaoua mosque algiers casbah architectural review

Source: RYAD KRAMDI / AFP / Getty Images

Following the end of the Algerian civil war, the national administration for protected cultural sites undertook a few limited projects, including the gradual return of the 17th-century Ketchaoua Mosque to its former glory, a project which has been under way since 2008

With limited progress on public projects, a few private residences have renovated their homes to uphold the value of the Casbah’s history. The restored family-owned home of 84-year-old Djamila Bouhired offers a glimpse into its potent heritage and the attraction of an expansion of the Casbah renovation programme being contemplated by the government. The home preserves the hideout of Bouhired, a hero of the Algerian revolution, depicted in The Battle of Algiers, who was imprisoned for a café bombing that killed 11 in 1957. Inside, her cousins prepare traditional meals for guests and offer tours of the restored structure, its light-filled courtyard supported by arches held up by thick carved wooden columns, its walls covered in tiles, and a central staircase leading up to a rooftop with views of the restored minaret of Ketchaoua Mosque.

Lifelong resident and local authority Ami Zoubir guides visitors through a formal entrance hall with a fountain and an internal courtyard. He demonstrates an underground well inside the walls, dropping a stone that takes an eternity to hit the bottom, and leads a group through salons outfitted with built-in benches up to the rooftop, which opens to a jagged landscape of rooftops above the bay. Down on the street, Zoubir points out the exposed wooden buttresses holding up improvised oriels, extending rooms above the narrow alleyway to fit growing families within the confines of the old city. He complains to the group of visiting architects about the lack of effort on the part of architecture schools and their graduates to restore historic buildings: ‘in the end, it’s a problem of a lack of political will’.

07 palais des rais algiers casbah architectural review

07 palais des rais algiers casbah architectural review

Source: DeAgostini / Getty Images

The Palais des Raïs reopened in 1994 after eight years of work undoing decades of slow decline

06 palais des rais algiers casbah architectural review

06 palais des rais algiers casbah architectural review

Source: De Agostini / Getty Images

Standing in isolation in the lower Casbah due to widespread demolitions during the French colonial administration, the 16th-century Palais des Raïs was a rare success of restoration

In 2016, the Algerian government shifted authority from the cultural ministry to the Waliya of Algiers in an effort to more effectively fund and oversee progress. In 2017, the Wali signed a co-operation agreement with the Paris regional government; wanting to associate the revitalisation of the Casbah with the name of a renowned architect, at the end of last year the parties announced their joint selection of Jean Nouvel. Whether his experience on projects like the Institut du Monde Arabe, National Museum of Qatar, and Louvre Abu Dhabi was the right sort of expertise for a sensitive site with competing stakeholders remains an open question, but if new strategies can be brought to socio-economic conditions in the Casbah, it could benefit everyone. 

Soon after the news, a young French architect named Léopold Lambert released an open letter in opposition to Nouvel’s role, anonymously co-written by two others and published in his magazine of spatial politics The Funambulist and French newspaper L’Humanité. The letter argued that the Casbah’s residents should be in control of its fate: French colonisation had already caused enough damage to the district, and Nouvel should not accept a commission that might lead to its tourist development and gentrification. The architect had been chosen with no public process. Altogether, 410 signatures, including some from the Casbah residents, endorsed Lambert’s open letter. While it makes legitimate arguments that should help empower local agency, it also resurrects colonial antagonisms that ideally will be overcome by time. Two months after its publication, a non-violent revolution began. In mid-February, Algeria’s infirm four-term president Abdelaziz Bouteflika had announced he would run for a fifth term. Millions took to the streets, forcing Bouteflika to resign, joined in subsequent months by the speaker of the parliament, the head of the constitutional council, the cultural minister and the Wali in charge of overseeing the Casbah’s restoration and protection. Progressive administrators have since been placed in positions of authority but, for now, ‘the power’ is still in charge.

08 corbusier algiers french plan model architectural review

08 corbusier algiers french plan model architectural review

Source: © FLC / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Hot on the heels of a hundred years of French rule, Le Corbusier arrived in Algiers. Declaring colonialism to be done with, he simultaneously presented his unsolicited plans for the city – the 1933 visualisation of which shows sweeping, sprawling structures stamped over the top of the Casbah

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09 jean nouvel algiers casbah architectural review

Source: CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT / AFP / Getty Images

One can only hope Jean Nouvel’s plans are more humane

The results of Nouvel’s study are expected this autumn. For now, the French office says it’s too early to comment, apart from a defensive letter published reiterating the relevance of Nouvel’s expertise. It left open questions regarding what his research process would entail, who would be consulted, how he would engage the stakeholders, what technical knowledge of historical architecture would be brought to bear, and even the scope of work the commission entailed. Lynda Ouad, an architect in charge of technical advice on the Casbah for L’Institut Paris Region, suggested the scope would principally be limited to temporary urbanism projects reimagining empty sites where collapsed buildings have been taken over by informal uses or dumped with piles of debris. But without an integral process for engaging residents and stakeholders, the project is likely to fail in terms of economic and social equity. 

Fez, home to equally contested ancient heritage sites, can offer some tools: for its medina restoration, a central point of contact was established to build confidence with local stakeholders (involving one-to-one discussions with as many as 1,200 families) and public notices were posted on houses alerting absentee owners of forthcoming work. The government also provided half of the financing for renovations; the other half had to be supplied by occupants, thereby ensuring stakeholder buy-in. 

10 bouteflika demonstration algeria casbah architectural review

10 bouteflika demonstration algeria casbah architectural review

Source: Farouk Batiche / dpa / Alamy Live News

Scenes from The Battle of Algiers were recalled on 22 March 2019 when Algeria remonstrated against Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to postpone presidential elections

11 battle algiers casbah architectural review

11 battle algiers casbah architectural review

Source: akg-images / Album

Masses take to the streets of the Casbah in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, a historical fiction depicting rebel action against French colonial rule

Concerns about who benefits from revitalisation and for whom the city is made, expressed forcefully by Lambert’s letter, are central questions for Algiers, as its popular uprising pushes for more change in the governing power. With policies that encourage investment from the private sector while protecting residents’ interests, the Casbah can be a model for how a country that led the era of postcolonial revolution can be equally ambitious in a time of authoritarian retrenchment, creating an open city that resonates with local customs and shares the benefits of revitalisation throughout society. Some are confident that Algerian culture can withstand the onrush of capital; it’s important to engage residents and ensure that guarantees and policy protection are put in place. 

Lead image: Algiers’ historic Casbah has suffered criminal neglect and is now interspersed with vacant lots and loosely crumbling structures. Image courtesy of Ferhat Bouda / Agence VU

This piece is featured in the AR September issue on money – click here to purchase your copy today