Skip to main content

New Approach of European Architectural History

Published in 2A Magazine Issue #15&16 Autumn 2010 Winter  2011

Dr Nabila Oulebsir

Dr Nabila Oulebsir is Architect, Historian and Historian of Art, and currently Maître de conférences at University of Poitiers (Department of Art History and Archaeology), where she teaches History of Architecture and Heritage. Her publications include Les Usages du patrimoine. Monuments, musées et politique colonial en Algérie, 1830-1930 (Paris, 2004); Alger, paysage urbain et architectures, 1800-2000 (ed., Paris, 2003), and L’orientalisme architectural entre imaginaires et savoirs (ed., Paris, 2009).

New Approach of European Architectural History.

A Contemporary point of view on Orientalism and Modernism

Dr Nabila Oulebsir

Université de Poitiers / CRIA, EHESS


New approaches are developed currently in history of European architecture, related for some to the history of colonial heritage and orientalism. The historiography of orientalism and colonial architecture can be useful today to clarify the role of non-Western world in the European architectural creation of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and in the definition of patrimonial categories.(1) The former colonial cities have been an experimental laboratory in architecture and urban design, and their study can help us to understand the interactions and the cultural transfer in a colonial context.

The controversial debate which has surrounded the publication of Edward Said’s book Orientalism (1978, New York), has permeated the Anglo-Saxon studies and has generated two poles of interpretations which, between detractors and defenders, has formulated an imperialist explanation of the phenomenon or an aesthetic of the orientalist practice.(2)  It had echoes in France where the production on the literary and pictorial orientalism is important but left on the margins of other disciplines. (3) Certainly, a renewed interest manifests itself today in the museum sphere through exhibitions dedicated to the East and to the Islamic Art 4 – due to the celebration in 2010 of the year of Turkey in France and to the future opening of the Department of Islamic art at the Musée du Louvre –, nevertheless, historians of architecture are still too few to develop scientific works about non-Western world because of the persistent stigma associated with the colonial experience, and mainly because of the youth of the discipline of history of architecture, taught in departments of history of art of French universities for less than thirty years.

1 Nabila Oulebsir. 2004. Les Usages du patrimoine. Monuments, musées et politique coloniale en Algérie (1830-1930), Paris, MSH ; Nabila Oulebsir, Mercedes Volait (ed.). 2009. L’Orientalisme architectural entre imaginaires et savoirs, Paris, Picard/cnrs.

2  Linda Nochlin. 1983. « The Imaginary Orient », Art in America, 71/5: 118-131 and 187-191; John M. Mackenzie. 1995. Orientalism : History, Theory and the Arts, Manchester, Manchester University Press.

3  See the various books published by Sarga Moussa, François Pouillon and Christine Peltre.

4  Rémi Labrusse (ed.). 2007. Pur décors ? Arts de l’Islam, regards du XIXe  siècle, Collections des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, Les Arts Décoratifs; Christiane Demeulenaere-Douyère (ed.). 2010. Exotiques expositions… Les expositions universelles et les cultures extra-européennes, France, 1855-1937, Paris, Archives nationales/Somogy; Danielle Molinari (ed.). 2010. Le Orientales, Maison de Victor Hugo, Paris, Paris Musées.


Fig. 1. View of Algiers, 1802, watercolor realized by Boizot from a drawing made in August 1802 by Hullin, adjutant in the palace of Napoleon, whose boat was on the bay of Algiers © Private collection.

Constructing Architectural Knowledge

In France, the sensitivity for the East in the literature, painting and architecture, has emerged in the nineteenth century. The Battle of Nazareth (1801) of Antoine-Jean Gros, The Mosque of Al-Azhar in Cairo (1831) of Adrien Dauzats, Women of Algiers in their Apartment (1834) of Eugène Delacroix, offer pictorial variations of the East between atmosphere and phantasmagorical projections. The science is applied to art during the Expedition to Egypt, differentiating architectural orientalism from the pictorial one by the use of geometrical survey. The drawings realized by the architect Jean-Constantin Protain of the mosques of Cairo, in particular those of Ibn-Tulun, form the basis of the knowledge of islamic art that inspired other artists such as Pascal-Xavier Coste, (5)  architect between 1817 and 1827 of the viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad’Ali Pascha.

In the newly conquered Algeria, it is especially Roman architecture which has interested Amable Ravoisié, head of the architectural exploration during 1840-1842. The architect has provided a methodical inventory of Roman ruins, temples and amphitheatres, moving the Roman referent towards the south shore of the Mediterranean. Besides the desire to legitimize the colonization by the use of the Roman past of North Africa, the settlement of the Parisian Academy of Fine Arts at that time has erected Rome such as the single model for study and practice. Less subject to strict rules, the English architects like Owen Jones, has invested nearby, the monuments of Muslim Spain, especially the Alhambra, to define a theory of ornament. (6) It must await the rationalist theories defended for gothic architecture in the second half of the nineteenth century by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc to see a similar approach undertaken by his disciples Jules Bourgoin, Léon Parvillée and Edmond Duthoit, who applied his method to the monuments of Egypt, Turkey and Algeria, by extracting mathematical and geometrical laws of oriental architecture. They joined finally the reflections of Owen Jones. French and English architects have established filiations and posed the patrimonial references in relation to Andalusian Spain, Christian and Muslim East, and ancient Mediterranean. Their drawings were used as models for pavilions at World’s Fairs.

Fig. 2. The Boulevard de la République (de l’Impératrice/ Zighout Youcef) and the docks, Algiers, [ca 1880], architect: Frédéric Chassériau (French, 1802-1896) © École nationale des Ponts et Chaussées, Paris.

Modern Space as Urban Landscape

No other city in the East or North Africa has undergone such radical transformations than Algiers. First works are less motivated by modernization and more by an attempt of ordering space and adapting to military requirements, in order to facilitate the meeting of soldiers and the control of indigenous population. The creation of places, erection of statues, expansion of roads, installation of clocks, etc.., materialize a progressive change, however, it is with the creation in 1860 of a monumental urban promenade over 1200 meters, the Boulevard de l’Impératrice designed by the architect Frédéric Chassériau, that the old urban landscape has been disrupted.(7)

The Boulevard with a large street uses technical performance and promotes changes in heights through ramps organized between horizontal lines and inclines plans, saving space while establishing a connection with the port growth. Algiers based its economy on free trade, a liberal system favored by Napoléon III in France and its colonies. The site imposed the destruction of 450 Moorish houses, but similar sacrifices are recognized in Paris where the construction of the Avenue Napoléon III (Avenue de l’Opéra) led by Georges Haussmann, has required the expropriation and demolition of 350 houses. In Catalonia (Spain), the government of Madrid imposed the plans of ldelfonso Cerdà instead of the project of Antonio Rovira, more adapted to the site, to the municipality of Barcelona. Is it a colonial city planning or modern?

Besides the colonial dimension of the Boulevard de l’Impératrice whose role was to attract European population, this project is a direct application of modern urban planning which exploiting light, sun and sea, and comfort. It maintained the Mediterranean character of the city, but it erases its Ottoman, Berber and Moorish’s characters which disappeared, hidden by the new front sea, thus giving place to the French city.

It was only in the early twentieth century that we can observe in Algiers, such as in Tunis and Rabat, a use by the French colonial administration of a stylistic local repertory – Islamic, Arab-Moorish – and the invention of a neo-Moorish aesthetic. It is at this time that the knowledge accumulated in the nineteenth century have become operational and have allowed the identification of a stylistic approach so regarded as modern. This modernity rooted in the local tradition is a political act which differs from the domineering gesture of the nineteenth century, but it limits the tradition to the forms and decors, it freezes the society in a golden age. Past the Neo-Moorish fashion, the architecture in colonial context adopts the modernism defended by the international movement, through Le Corbusier theories, the projects of armed concrete of the brothers Perret and of the local architect Jacques Guiauchain.

6 Owen Jones. 1856. Grammar of Ornament…, London, Day and Son.

7  Nabila Oulebsir, Jean-Louis Cohen (ed.). 2003. Alger. Paysage urbain et architectures, 1800-2000, Paris, L’Imprimeur.


Fig. 3. The M’dersa Thaâlibiya, 1905, rue Marengo (Ben Cheneb), Algiers, neo-Moorish style,

architect : Henri Petit (French, 1856-1926) © Private collection.

Fig. 4. Project of traffic for Algiers, [1931-1932], Le Corbusier (French, born Swiss, 1887-1965).

This drawing, said Le Corbusier, is an urban Biology which expresses the necessary and sufficient

to circulate in a dazzling efficiency, in a town of 500 to 600,000 inhabitants, quoted in his book

La Ville Radieuse, Boulogne, Éditions de l’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, 1935, p. 245 © Fondation

Le Corbusier, Paris.


Fig. 5. House of Government (Palais du Gouvernement), 1933, architect: Jacques Guiauchain

(Algerian, 1884-1960), realized by the entreprise of the brothers Perret, drawing realized for the

first cover of the journal Techniques et Architecture, 1937 © Private collection.


Heritage and its contemporary uses

After decolonization, the discourse on the colonial architecture was critical and activist in Algeria whereas in France the colonial past was hidden by conscious oblivion. Abderrahmane Bouchama, the first Algerian architect, has denounced the loss of authentic artistic and architectural expertise during the colonization. He has advocated a return to Arab-Moorish design and has emphasized on the richness of arabesques and carvings, the plastic quality of the columns, capitals, arches and domes. (8)  Astonishing back to Moorish style whose uses in the colonial architecture has been criticized by him, qualifying it as a voiceless entity. However, he has integrated it without hesitation into the national history and has considered it as “national asset”, attitude which is a sort of patrimonialization of the colonial architecture. This latter can be read on the stones and the urban space whose materiality marks the present environment. The urban landscape of a city like Algiers is linked more to the early twentieth century or the 1930s and 1950s than to the Ottoman era. The medina is until now relegated in islets scattered in a perpetual growth city.

When a group is inserted into a space, said the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, he turns it to his image, but at the same time, it folds and fits to the things that resist him. (9) This memory of forms is continually revisited by the contemporary society in its everyday uses. The heritage, whatever the period it represents, is a question of the present time. The revaluation of the colonial past as a transnational and entangled history is essential today. Analyzing the colonial heritage or the phenomenon of orientalism help to examine simultaneously the past of colonial empires and the present of the decolonized contemporary societies – Africa, India, Indochina, Maghreb. Colonial traces explain the context of their creation and the successive colonial policies – brutal or conciliatory –, and their history informs on the evolution of European architecture and city planning in contact with cultural alterity, gives information on various inventions of urban landscapes, the professional trajectories of architects, the choices and the stylistics borrowing, the technical innovations and the uses of new building materials, and ultimately on the interactions and transfers of knowledge between European and non-European areas.


8 Abderrahmane Bouchama. 1966. L’Arceau qui chante, Alger, SNED.

9 Maurice Halbwachs. 1980. The collective memory, New York, Harper & Row Colophon Books (French edition, 1950).


Fig. 6. House of Agriculture, 1933, Boulevard Baudin (Amirouche), Algiers, architect : Jacques

Guiauchain (Algerian, 1884-1960) © Private collection.


Fig. 7. City Hall, 1951, rue Constantine (Asselah Hocine), Algiers, architects Jean and Édouard

Niermans (French, 1897-1989 and 1904-1984) ; on the left, the Prefecture (now Wilaya), built

between 1908 and 1913 in a neo-Moorish style, architect Jules Voinot (ca 1855-1913).









Leave a Reply