The Nineteenth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence 2017
Berkeley Prize 2017

[ID:1851] Vanishing vernacular in the Casbah of Algiers: building sustainable communities based on traditional knowledge to empower future generations.

United Kingdom

“For historic material to reach from past into the present, it must be continually recontextualised, reinterpreted and renegotiated as being of intrinsic value to society today.”

Omar Akbar; 2007,168

Every city is a product of its past, each new layer conditioned by those preceding it. How a community inhabits a city is informed by centuries of growth, an inherent understanding of its built environment and the interaction of social structures and their surrounding urban fabric. Historic buildings provide a repository of collective memory within this rapidly changing environment; a document of how past generations inhabited the city. However, if these buildings are to make a productive contribution to future urban development, they must continue to be relevant and meaningful to today’s population. The ancient Casbah of Algiers exemplifies a district caught at the transition point between past and future; a priceless heritage in need of conservation, and the necessity for modernisation and development. Restoration of the Casbah would be an invaluable opportunity for a society to rediscover its sustainable building heritage, and inform new social housing and community structures across the region. Apprenticeships in traditional construction techniques would be an ideal way to realise this restoration and provide education and employment to a largely impoverished and disenfranchised section of an urban society. This essay explores how a small project might be used to mobilise and empower the local community, and restore the value it places on its built environment.

The Mediterranean Bay of Algiers has been settled since pre-Roman times. An Islamic society since the eighth century and part of the Ottoman Empire from the early sixteenth century, the traditional architecture of the Casbah draws on strong influences from around the Mediterranean and Middle East. In 1716 Algiers was devastated by an earthquake that paradoxically served to improve the seismic performance of traditional building design. Houses constructed after 1716 include many features introduced specifically to improve their seismic stability, including timbers embedded in the corners of masonry walls to enhance their structural integrity, and rolling joints at the tops of ground floor columns to isolate upper storeys from earthquake ground motion. Such features are unique to these houses and have helped them to withstand many earthquakes since.

The layout of the dwellings is based around a central courtyard with balconies at higher levels. This shades the interiors from direct sun, keeping rooms cool but allowing plenty of diffuse light – ideal for the local climate. Windows on the external facades are very small – large enough for natural ventilation, small enough to maintain the privacy of the home. Walls over half a meter thick, built of solid clay bricks, lime plaster and white wash are well suited to provide thermal mass and maintain a comfortable temperature throughout the day with little need for additional heating, even in winter. The apparently flat roofs in fact have a slight slope, and channels lead to a pipe feeding a large tank in the central courtyard, a feature designed to maximise rainwater collection in the semi-arid climate. Any extra water the family needed could be taken from public fountains found in small squares throughout the Casbah. The overall fabric of the neighbourhood is also a response to its climatic and cultural environment – narrow, shaded alleys promote through breezes; houses built into the slope of the hill provide room for small workshops at street level, while the main courtyard is typically accessed by a short flight of stairs, preventing passers-by from looking into private areas of the building, where several generations of an extended family would have lived. The Casbah was originally a dense agglomeration of buildings, and like many traditional Muslim medinas it would have been home to a wide variety of artisans and traders, benefiting from the city’s location at a crossroads of the Ottoman Empire, Europe and Africa.

Following the French occupation of Algeria in the 1830s, huge strips of the Casbah were destroyed and replaced with Haussmanian boulevards, powerful symbols of the Western colonialism that fragmented the local community. Further destructive changes occurred during the War of Independence (1954-62), when the Casbah was used as a base for guerilla activity and many houses were destroyed by bomb blasts. More damage, to both the physical and social structures of the Casbah took place in the civil strife of the 1990s. Many of the houses are now squatted by families who fled the impoverished and often terrorised rural regions in search of a safer and more prosperous life in the city. Since the election of President Abdel-aziz Bouteflika in 1999 the political situation has stabilised considerably, and upcoming elections in April 2009 promise the continuation of peaceful negotiations between central government and rebel groups. The end of the civil war has left many citizens with a strong desire to rebuild both their city and their society after ten years of enormous upheaval – historic centres like the Casbah need to be the focus of rebuilding work before their cultural heritage is lost forever.

The Casbah today is in the paradoxical position of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a proud symbol of Algeria’s history, and simultaneously one of its poorest slums. Located at the heart of the city, it is often seen as a source of shame to this oil-rich nation. What little of the Casbah that remains today is still under threat of collapse as decades of neglect take their toll. The introduction of running water to many of the houses has accelerated their deterioration as inadequate drainage means that timbers in the building fabric quickly rot away in the Mediterranean heat. Few of the estimated eight hundred families living in the Casbah can afford the much-needed repairs to their homes, and for many the imminent collapse of these buildings promises the prospect of being re-housed in new apartment complexes provided by the government elsewhere in the city. As a result, many families are currently living in unimaginably difficult and dangerous conditions, delaying even the most basic and essential repairs in hope that the government might soon make good on its promise to give them new homes. While such a move might benefit an individual family, the general dispersal of people living in the Casbah would mean not only the loss of a priceless physical heritage, but the loss of a whole community and way of life.

At present, only two voluntary organisations are working to restore some of the oldest palaces and mosques, identified as priorities for preservation as historic “monuments”. While the importance of their work is unquestionable, it inevitably raises fundamental issues about the role of conservation within the modern urban environment. By neglecting the houses that give these “monuments” their social context, we strip them of their meaning and relevance. Conversely, a regentrification of the area that restored the Casbah to its original, eighteenth century state would deny the validity of the community living there today. The Casbah is an integral part of the city’s ongoing narrative and if the area is to inform the development of sustainable built environments for future generations, it is imperative that we understand its potential role as a revitalised part of the modern city, and how it might reflect the emerging collective values of today’s inhabitants.

Sadly many of the traditional skills needed to restore the buildings to a habitable condition are rapidly being lost. As in many parts of the developing world, residents often equate improved quality of life with living in new buildings, equipped with all modern conveniences and so the demand for traditional construction skills has decreased dramatically.

Rehabilitation of a derelict site somewhere in the Casbah could be used to train young people in traditional building methods and so keep the knowledge base alive before it is too late. Combined with methods of adapting historic houses to provide clean running water and other modern amenities, this program would also demonstrate the intrinsic value of traditional architecture. The project would require a hands-on approach, whereby students were given the opportunity to try out skills ranging from brick making to metal working, from stone masonry to ceramic tile painting. To promote a sense of ownership in the project, young people would be involved in identifying a suitable site, and clearing it for use in practical teaching. Design sessions would ensure that students understood the climatic principles underlying vernacular building and give members of the community a chance to identify their own priorities for what purpose the finished building will serve. Empowerment of young people living in the Casbah will encourage them to take a more active role in shaping their built environment and so leave the city with a legacy of sustainable urbanism.

Training in plumbing and electrics would ensure that on completion of the project there would be a local skills base, not only for the refurbishment of historic buildings, but also for their adaptation to meet modern needs and aspirations. As students’ skills develop, opportunities would be made available for them to gain paid employment restoring other houses in the Casbah, funded by government subsidies and contributions from individual householders. This would effectively mobilise an apprentice workforce to begin the rehabilitation of the area, and stimulate employment in a country where nearly thirteen per cent of the population is currently jobless. In a similar restoration project in the Hadhramaut valley in Yemen, instigated and funded jointly by the Yemeni Ministry of Culture and the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation, the demand for skilled labour quadrupled over an eight-year period as international development subsidies and community efforts encouraged people to take greater pride in their rich architectural heritage.

The program of training in traditional building skills would have to be part of a more extensive project in the Casbah – restoration just for preservation would be futile in today’s rapidly changing urban environment. For the local community to appreciate the relevance of refurbishing, rather than allowing their houses to collapse, it is important that the scheme is incorporated in a wider-reaching effort to rehabilitate the Casbah and reintegrate it in the modern city. Many residents of Algiers see the Casbah as separate and dangerous – a perception due in part to the narrow alleys and lack of lighting after dark, but mostly, as one might expect, to the general poverty of the area. Its reputation as a “slum” means many are reluctant to venture into the neighbourhood. To challenge this mistaken perception of the Casbah by outsiders, local residents need to be given the tools to use their historic environment to draw people in, the sympathy and understanding of their surroundings to allow the history of the area to inform how the wider community responds to the current urban context. Perhaps by creating new public spaces on the site of houses that have already collapsed; small squares, gardens, or cafes for example; people living or working in the area around the Casbah might be encouraged to see it not as a historic enclosure, isolated from the rest of the city, but as an equally valid facet of the urban environment, somewhere pleasant to walk, meet friends, visit a gallery or get lunch. The workshops located under the houses at street level are not used a great deal today as the goods traditionally produced there are no longer in demand on the local market – how might these spaces be modified to revitalise the Casbah’s economy? As modern workshops or artists’ studios they have the potential to stimulate a renewed interest in highly crafted goods and make the architecture of the Casbah of greater relevance to the needs of its contemporary society.

By encouraging people to get involved in preserving their heritage and promoting traditional arts and culture, the development program will be of relevance to a broad cross-section of the Algerian population. This will open up channels of funding from many different areas – the success of charities such as Muslim Aid show the potential to derive support for development schemes from within the local community, and those interested in promoting cultural programs will no doubt be eager to support heritage projects. A community-based organisation in Oran, another Algerian coastal city, although primarily focused on slum improvement work in the historic quarter, attracted many volunteers and a great deal of financial support from local university students and their families who recognised the cultural value of the work that the organsiation carried out. This wide support base raises the profile of such projects, and helps in securing funding from government ministries and international development agencies. By bringing in partners from all levels of society, the program will reinforce the ongoing dialogue between traditional values and the aspirations of a young society with a greater global conscience.

Once the community centre building has been completed, training in traditional construction techniques could continue through apprenticeship programs run as part of restoration work in the Casbah. The community centre would serve as a focal point where householders would have the opportunity to discuss the refurbishment of their own homes and how they might be adapted to suit changing family structures of the twenty-first century. It is crucial that residents participate pro-actively in shaping the future development of the Casbah.

The community centre could also house an advice and training service, helping people to set up small businesses, secure micro-loans and boost the local economy. Embracing tourism as a means of generating income has huge, and so far un-tapped potential. At present, few people visit the Casbah in spite of its World Heritage status. Two small museums are open to the public on the fringes of the neighbourhood, but the heart of the Casbah remains largely unexplored. While tourism alone is by no means the answer for the Casbah, it will undoubtedly provide valuable earnings that can be invested in further restoration and development. Local projects focused on preserving cultural heritage and reinforcing regional identity may well gain greater momentum as the community sees how these things are valued by the wider world.

Over the centuries, the houses of the Casbah have shown themselves to be ideally adapted to the region, sustainable and socially appropriate. The rehabilitation of the Casbah could therefore benefit the development of housing on a broader scale. By preserving not only the houses, but the construction skills and traditional knowledge of what is an inherently sustainable building typology, we ensure that it can be used as a model in the planning and design of modern housing. In a region where the threat of climate change and the increasing desertification of the Sahara are only too real, demand for housing in northern, coastal areas is increasing fast. Recent events around the world have demonstrated the shortcomings of non-engineered concrete construction in earthquakes – modified, vernacular construction methods, particularly those used in the Casbah, have shown their enduring worth. The lessons to be learned from this historic site are invaluable to the future of sustainable housing and sustainable communities throughout Algeria and the Maghreb.

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