Re-making Algiers, 1830-1848: Urban plasticity, urban resilience

I’m currently writing a paper which explores the colonial re-making of Algiers in the years 1830-1848, focusing particularly on the cartographic and topographic strategies of zoning, segregation, fortification, expropriation and demolition. Drawing on a number of contemporary sources, including accounts by the colonial army’s chief medical officer, Jean-Pierre Bonnafont (Douze ans en Algérie, 1830-1842) and the army captain Eugène Perret (Récits algériens, 1830-1842); the Saint-Simonian social reformer Prosper Enfantin’s Colonisation de l’Algérie (1843); Alexis de Tocqueville’s Travail sur l’Algérie (1841) and Rapport sur l’Algérie (1847), the paper presents a critical overview of the colonial imaginary of – and plans for – Algiers during the July Monarchy. While foregrounding the singularly military urbanism practised by the colonisers, it also explores the uneven application by the colonial army and military engineers of an urban modernity conceived in Paris and geared locally towards the production of a Christian, commercial city which would effectively erase and re-construct what one French engineer described in 1839 as the ‘pirate capital’ (Nightingale, 2012). This spatio-historical analysis will be presented in the context of my current research on the concept of urban plasticity, which at one level can be described as the tension between the city’s malleability and resistance, and at another as the complex entanglement of past, present and future in the very stuff of the urban fabric. It will be argued that an understanding of Algiers as a plastic urban object will shed critical light on the strategic exigencies, complexity and failures of the colonial intervention, and in so doing contribute to a discussion of the active and resistive agency of both the city and its colonized inhabitants.

I’ll also be looking tangentially at some of the works made by French painters commissioned to depict the French conquest of Algeria. I have a feeling that this may grow into another, separate paper…

Antoine Léon Morel-Fatio, 'Le bombardement d'Alger', 1830.
Antoine Léon Morel-Fatio, ‘Le bombardement d’Alger’, 1830.

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