Attia started out with the idea of ‘concrete globalization’ within modernism. With that, Attia states his interest in the 'archeology of modernity'. His ideas on ‘concret globalization’ first went into how concrete, the material, is fixed and structured and how it has led not only to homogenization of the globe, but also the hegemonic rule. A physical, geography altering material, concrete is now found everywhere and was the main material used by modernists of the 20s and 30s Europe.
Then Attia discussed his installation projects where he constructed the old Algerian town of Ghardaia out of cous cous. The way he put it really illustrated the cycle of the colonized and the colonizer power relations, particularly in the context of spatial control, as well as spatial design, ie the landscape. The cous cous project was a direct remark on Le Corbusier, known to be the father (or grandfather?), pioneer – anyway - of modern architecture. Le Corbusier, as Attia showed us, was very influenced by the shapes and functionality of the Mzeb town formations in southern Algeria. Upon his return to France after his travels, Le Corbusier was among the first to be called in to create social housing schemes. Attia also showed us that a lot of that was also an influence of the so-called vertical cities of Yemeni architecture. (Attia remarked about Yemen’s 2,000-year-old 9-story buildings, pretty much the original skyscrapers of the world.) But the cyclical element of the Algerian-French relationship through architecture came in where after he completed making the social housing in France, Le Corbusier was also sent to Algeria to build housing there. Attia’s project, subject of his presentation, was the cous cous installation, a ‘subtle gesture of re-appropriation’ in response to this architectural history: the modernists’ direct influence from Algerian tribal architecture.
I was so glad to have been able to hear this story. For a while now, I have been wanting to learn more about the Mzeb, who – as it was explained to me – were a tribe who took into the structure of their daily life the allocation and use of space and built environment. I am very interested in this tribe because of the deeply set anthropological value of their use and formation of space. Today, the Ghardaia village, the capitol area of the Mzeb region, is a UNESCO heritage site. But I believe, in my look at the study and questions of urban anthropology, that this town’s formation, a direct relationship between the people, their nature, their environment and their daily culture, is a place that can teach us, in this day of major re-urbanization, many things about pasts that we should still respect.
Attia’s talk had a lot more, but if you can imagine that he spoke of this plus another 2 or 3 themes within 15 minutes, you can imagine that neither my brain nor my pen was fast enough to pick it all up. I would definitely like to have a copy of his paper, because he does go deeper into ‘colonial modernism’, Oscar Neimeyer, more about AfroArab aesthetics, he mentioned a book by Pouillain that seems to talk about Maghrebi architecture, and an interesting seeming collective of some sort that he referred to as Team 10.
more about the Mzab: The Changing World of Mzab