The Tunis Medina: Implications of the French Colonial Rule and the Coexistence of the Vernacular and Modern
Columbia GSAPP | Arab Modernism(s: Experiments in Housing, 1945-Present | Professor: Yasser Elsheshtawy
Nations that have undergone colonial rule have amongst the most complicated of histories due to the amount of intervention and reconstruction of a national and cultural identity. The country of Tunisia is a unique case because of the many different powers that have existed throughout history: the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Vandals, the Ottomans, the Arabs, and finally the French have all had their time in settling in Tunisia. The power and implications of specifically the French colonial rule can come into focus through different urban developments in and around the Tunis Medina.
This paper aims to be a survey and analysis of two projects in the Medina of Tunis. The Victor Valensi plan of 1920 and the Hafsia Quarter I and II each take on the issue of translating vernacular typologies and architectural elements; however, it is in studying the different approaches to this translation that the true understanding and underlying agendas and the inner workings of each project’s governing powers come into focus. The two projects also shed light on the respective time periods and people’s views towards the Medina and the way in which it should be treated. As with many other cities in North Africa, the Medina of Tunis has always been a symbol of the identity of Tunisia, regardless of it truly representing the true conditions of the country. Despite these politically and culturally charged sentiments, it is crucial to understand the history of the Medina before discussing the implications of the different architectural interventions within the Medina.
The Medina was constructed inland on the opposite side of Lake Tunis by the Arab-Muslims who brought with them the religion of Islam, the Arabic language, and Arab culture. The Tunis Medina was the medieval, old Arab town out of which the rest of the capital of Tunisia grew. Established in around 698 CE as a navy outpost for troops preparing for coastal enemy encounters, the Medina was seen as the center of Tunis and eventually the business center of the city. (McGuiness 32) Although Tunisia has seen the settlement and influence of many groups of people — the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Arabs, and the subsequent arrival of the Ottomans and the French — the arrival of the Arab-Muslims influenced the country the greatest and molded it into the Arab country it is seen as today. While the Medina was seen as the business hub of Tunis with the souks, or markets, that threaded the town, it started losing its centrality within the city of Tunis with the arrival of the French in 1881. The French arrival and the subsequent construction of new buildings moved the center of the city right outside the walls of the Medina into the French colonial Ville Nouvelle (new city) known as Tunis Centre. (Figure 1) In “Political Context and Professional Ideologies: French Urban Conservation Planning Transferred to the Medina of Tunis,” Justin McGuiness states that the situation of the Medina becomes even more interesting when considering the “transfer and adaptation of French urban conservation plans and other planning instruments for the Medina (old city) of Tunis and [to] trace out the development of the ideologies of the picturesque and the nation.” (Ibid 33)
This concept of the picturesque and the ways in which the Medina was seen as a part of the Tunis experience became problematic for the economy of Tunisia. The proximity to Europe, warmer climate, French occupation and European presence in Tunisia made the country a popular destination for Europeans to visit during the colder months, especially writers and artists. While Carthage, a suburb outside Tunis, remained a neighborhood famous for its Roman and Punic archaeological sites and antiquities and the colonial ville nouvelle became the business center and space of modernity, the Medina of Tunis – although picturesque and had an element of romanticism to – had not yet improved its cleanliness and hygiene. (Figure 2) To “counterbalance” the “utilitarian nature of modern down-town Tunis,” (Ibid 37) the Municipal Council brought in Victor Valensi, a Tunisian-Jew and architect who had also been born and raised in Tunisia. Valensi was known for his work in the style arabisant, a neo-Moorish style that incorporates decorative forms of traditional architecture into modern building types. He was tasked with designing the first major architectural and urban intervention in the Medina, combining the North African “style” into a modernist style in order to improve and beautify the current conditions of the Medina. Despite the desire to improve the Medina, Valensi’s solution revealed issues that were much more problematic than the supposed issues related to cleanliness and hygiene.
Figure 2: “Bab Souika in Tunis (Tunisia, 1899).” Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., 1890, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsc.06028.
According to Olfa Bohli Nouri in her dissertation, “La fabrication de l’architecture en Tunisie indépendant : une rhétorique par la référence,” the trend of combining modernist principles with the local culture had been established in Tunisia since the beginning of the protectorate, notably with Victor Valensi, Raphaël Guy, Bernard Zehrfuss, and Jacques Marmey. (Nouri 235) The arabisance these architects strived involved not just the fusion of styles but also the introduction of local construction techniques and materials. Despite defining a new style, the actual products of this style come to question the underlying beliefs of these architects and political situation from the 1920s to the end of the French occupation in 1956. The desires to acknowledge a Tunisian style, however, did not begin with the style arabisant. While the beginning of the French rule in 1881 until 1990 saw the dismissal of the local Tunisian architecture, this “pseudo-objective and paternalistic” period between 1900 and saw what Bechir Kenzari calls “colonial consciousness” looking at Tunisian architecture as another form of domination and paternalism. (Kenzari 77) The first period of this colonial rule saw explicit desire to recreate Paris in Tunis: implanting Hausmannian boulevards and promenades up against the Medina and decorating buildings with Italian, Beaux-Arts, and Neo-Baroque ornamentation. The second period between 1900 and 1930 consisted of an orientalist mentality and more subtle form of subjugation through the surface-level acknowledgment of Tunisian architecture and creation of the style arabisant. Kenzari describes this form of colonial consciousness as the colonial acknowledgement of “the other” as a disguise to be further acknowledged as their superior. This recognition came in the form of the style arabisant, as well as superficial celebrations of Tunisian indigenous architecture in books and exhibitions such as Valensi’s l’habitation Tunisienne and the 1931 Colonial Exhibition. (Ibid)
Valensi’s 1920 plan for the Medina is one of the many examples of the ideologies and products that came out of this time period. The plan was officially known as a Projet d’aménagement, d’embellissement, et d’extension de la ville de Tunis and was a project to layout the existing town as well as extend it. (Figure 3) Valensi proposed to move the axis of Avenue Jules-Ferry – today, Avenue Habib Bourguiba – to a new avenue and to establish a new town hall in the location of the Jewish cemetery. The new avenue was planned to be 45 meters wide so as to connect the new building to the Lake of Tunis and open a greenbelt along the lake. (McGuiness 37) Towards this new avenue would have been converging diagonal streets, making this new center a symmetrical urban figure. By proposing the displacement of the center towards the north, Valensi clearly wanted to open the city towards the lake and offer it a real waterfront. As far as the Medina was concerned, Valensi considered it a “jewel” and proposed to preserve it in its entirety, and that nothing should alter its structure, its appearance, its unity and its extent that make up it’s “charm.” (Abdelkafi 76) Thus Valensi was probably, according to Imen Oueslati-Hammami, the first to give importance to the traditional centrality of the Medina, which in his proposal placed it on the same level of importance as the modern center that juxtaposed it. (Oueslati-Hammami 126)
Figure 3: Oueslati-Hammami, Imen. “Les Centralités Du Grand Tunis : Acteurs, Représentations Et Pratiques Urbaines.” Université Toulouse le Mirail, HAL, 2010. 129
In this new city, Valensi envisioned “large avenues, beautiful intersections punctuated by monuments and fountains, urban perspectives tracing the radiating streets, promenades and public gardens that were to create a set of public spaces,” all designed with the purpose of defining Tunis as a proper capital city. The proposal was presented as plans and watercolored perspectives of picturesque public squares, rendered in a clear Beaux-Arts tradition. (Ibid 127) (See Figure 4) Despite its supposed admirable efforts to give equal importance to the Medina, the proposal for the new city center was clearly designed with Euro-centric definitions of public spaces for leisure and did not relate to the ways in which space was actually used by locals who were used to the confined spaces of the Medina.
Figure 4: Oueslati-Hammami, Imen. “Les Centralités Du Grand Tunis : Acteurs, Représentations Et Pratiques Urbaines.” Université Toulouse le Mirail, HAL, 2010. 128
Valensi’s plan to reconsider the center of the city while leaving the Medina as a separate entity that should be treated carefully created a notion of maintaining the balance between two separate nodes of Tunis. In this regard, Jellal Abdelkafi asserts that “this ideology of aesthetic conservation transforms the Medina into an inanimate object, an empty shell of inhabitants and, consequently, of social life.” (Abdelkafi 76) Valensi’s proposal and attitude towards the Medina reflected a strong desire to maintain the “picturesque” and Orientalist notion of a traditional Arab city. The reality of the proposal, despite its desires to be an example of arabisance, was that it became no different than the initial colonialist attitude of building boulevards and promenades. The proposal becomes problematic when considering the public desire to “respect” the Medina as a guise for asserting the colonial dominance over the Medina and traditional city.
Despite the Tunisian independence from the French colonial rule in 1956 and the general positives that come with this historical achievement, the departure of the French caused a rupture in the urban conditions of Tunis, especially in the Medina. The conclusion of the Second World War signaled a growth in population, poverty, and unemployment and the subsequent influx of rural immigration towards the cities. The arrival of rural migrants and their struggle to assimilate into the urban life of Tunis saw a mistreatment of the Medina and consequent deterioration of the neighborhood into slums. It was not until this urban decay and dilapidation that the Association Sauvegarde de la Médina de Tunis (ASM) came into being, organized to improve the living conditions and preserve the Medina, specifically through the protection of its traditional urban environments, historic monuments, and objects that make up the cultural heritage of the Medina.
ASM began in an effort to prevent demolition schemes that would damage the historical, cultural, and architectural integrity of the Medina of Tunis. Its successful reconstruction operations in the late 1980s, slum clearances, and restoration of historic homes have allowed for ASM to gain more control of the conditions in and have more agency of the Medina. In his article “Political Context and Professional Ideologies: French Urban Conservation Planning Transferred to the Medina of Tunis,” Justin McGuinness notes that the “shifting rationales of conservations” – such as ASM – “seem to make an impact only in as much as they fit the dominant political paradigm of the day.” (McGuiness 35) The arrival of a new mayor of Tunis, Zakariya Ben Mustapha, in 1980 signaled a progression of projects run by the ASM. The mayor placed a historian, Abdelaziz Daouleti, who also had significant amount of influence in the ruling party as the head of the ASM. Daouleti’s political clout and the rise of placing academic interest in the built heritage of Tunis set the stage for a renewal of activity in conserving the Medina. Among the projects that started in full force was the redevelopment of the Hafsia neighborhood of the Medina, the financial backing of this redevelopment by the World Bank, and the Aga Khan Award for Architecture given to not just the Hafsia projects but also others in the country.
The Hafsia Quarter projects (I and II) have brought much attention to the Hafsia area of the Tunis Medina, not just locally but internationally after having been awarded by the Aga Khan Foundation. The Hafsia neighborhood of the Medina was mainly inhabited by the Jewish community of Tunis; however, the area went into disrepair after the establishment of the French protectorate and the wealthier Jewish families abandoned the Medina for the new “European” center. The poorer Jewish families who remained in Hafsia were not able to maintain their homes and the neighborhood, the buildings becoming so neglected that the protectorate authorities declared the neighborhood a health hazard in 1933. (Association de Sauvegarde de la Médina 2) Eventually in 1970 plans to reconstruct the Hafsia region became ASM’s main focus. The first phase of the Hafsia Project began in 1972 and ended in 1980 as a reconstruction of the residential and commercial sections of the neighborhood. (Figure 5) According to the summary of the Hafsia II Project by the Aga Khan Foundation, the first phase was done “with particular attention to maintaining a harmonious relationship with the existing morphology of the whole city, and providing suitable housing solutions for the poor.” (Ibid 4) The project included the reconstruction of Souk el Hout and the renewal of approximately 100 shops, addition of 22 new shops with private offices above the shops, and the construction of 95 housing units. The project was so successful that the ASM received its first Aga Khan Award of the Hafsia reconstruction in 1983. Despite its recognition by the Aga Khan Foundation, the project did not reach its full potential in transforming the neighborhood due to minor political and economic interventions. Nonetheless, the ASM decided to continue the reconstruction of the Hafsia neighborhood by initializing a second phase, Hafsia Quarter II. Due to the recognition of the first phase by the Aga Khan Foundation, this second phase had with it the financial support by the World Bank and Tunisian government, as opposed to just the efforts of the ASM. According to the Aga Khan Award summary of Hafsia Quarter II, the general objectives of the second phase included the following:
• “The conservation of the historic character and the cultural heritage of the area;
• The carrying out a comprehensive programme to reconstruct the Hafsia quarter, including the restoration, rehabilitation, or renewal of the residential and commercial sections, paying particular attention to maintaining a harmonious relationship with the
traditional urban fabric;
• The development of institutional and financial arrangements to effectively implement the reconstruction programme, giving due consideration to the financial abilities and needs of the residents of Hafsia; and
• The consolidation of previous efforts to improve the urban environment and living
conditions, and restore the vitality of the area.
Additionally, a set of “functional requirements” was grouped as follows:
• An infrastructure component, involving the construction, installation or improvement of the utilities and street networks, and services;
• A rehabilitation component, involving the upgrading, restoration and reuse of decayed structures as appropriate; and
• A reconstruction maintaining, involving building on vacant land, and on sites cleared by the demolition (this component included social housing units, private developers’ housing, properties for commercial use, offices, underground car parks, and public
facilities). (Ibid 5)
As opposed to the arabisant approach by Valensi in his 1920 plan of leaving the Medina as a separate entity, the Hafsia projects by the ASM took on a more serious approach in involving the local population. Instead of an Orientalist desire to keep the “picturesque” qualities of the Medina, the ASM directly faced the issues of the Medina to reveal its true interest in improving the conditions of the area. The organization conducted surveys and heavily researched the situation in Hafsia so as to carefully define the needs and problems of the locals. Their studies revealed the crucial needs for access, communal outdoor spaces, and proper storm drainage while keeping the impact on the traditional urban fabric to a minimum. (Ibid) Valensi instead made significant changes to the modern city and none to the Medina, creating a direct relation between the allocation of design changes in the city and the underlying interests of the architect and colonial powers.
Figure 5: Association de Sauvegarde de la Médina. “Reconstruction of Hafsia Quarter II.” Reconstruction of Hafsia Quarter II. The Aga Khan Award for Architecture. 50
In addition to the extensive research on the region, the ASM incorporated an architectural vocabulary for the Hafsia Quarter reconstruction informed by the traditional architecture of the area. Plain white walls, an articulation of the facade through the addition or subtraction of blocks, the contrast between white walls and deep openings and dark windows, arcades and arches, traditional bay windows and ironwork for window grilles, the traditional motifs and ornamentation on wall corners and the frames around entrances are among the many design features the reconstruction incorporated. (Ibid) The project also saw the creation of more internal courtyards and secluded balconies to create more spaces of privacy. (Figure 6) Through the careful study of existing architectural elements and the desire to have smaller outdoor spaces – private and public – the continuation of the Hafsia Quarter project became a successful response to the issues of the site and architectural needs for its residents.
Figure 6: Association de Sauvegarde de la Médina. “Reconstruction of Hafsia Quarter II.” Reconstruction of Hafsia Quarter II. The Aga Khan Award for Architecture. 55
As revealed in the 1920 Valensi Plan and the ASM’s Hafsia Quarter I and II plans in the 1970s and 80s, the Medina of Tunis has become a popular topic of discussion and opportunity for intervention. Victor Valensi’s plan from 1920 to consider the center of Tunis revealed the strong orientalist views towards the coexistence of the European ville moderne and the traditional Medina. While a desire to preserve the romanticism of the Medina and revise the European spaces was Valensi’s way of showing respect for the Medina, its inhabitants, and the local culture, it was in fact a complete disregard for the true problems of the Medina and needs for the locals that revealed the paternalistic attitude towards and ignorance of “the other.” It was not until a neighborhood became so decrepit in the 1970s and the creation of the ASM that the Medina got the respect and attention from architects, politicians, and consequently the public that it deserved.
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Association de Sauvegarde de la Médina. “Reconstruction of Hafsia Quarter II.” Reconstruction of Hafsia Quarter II. The Aga Khan Award for Architecture.
“Bab Souika in Tunis (Tunisia, 1899).” Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., 1890, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsc.06028.
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McGuiness, Justin. “Political Context and Professional Ideologies: French Urban Conservation Planning Transferred to the Medina of Tunis.” The Journal of North African Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, 1997, pp. 34–56.
Nouri, Olfa Bohli. “La Fabrication De L'architecture En Tunisie Indépendante : Une Rhétorique Par La Référence.” Université Grenoble Alpes, Université Grenoble, 2006.
Oueslati-Hammami, Imen. “Les Centralités Du Grand Tunis : Acteurs, Représentations Et Pratiques Urbaines.” Université Toulouse le Mirail, HAL, 2010.