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The Modern Algerian Architect: Nothing More than an Underling?

A construction site in Blida, Algeria.

In Algeria, it is a nearly unanimous observation that the country's architectural output is mediocre. This opinion also occurs at the highest levels of the government, considering that in 2006, the President of Algeria himself commented negatively upon "the inadequacy and repetitive nature of the majority of architectural output." We could legitimately place the blame for the state of things on architects because they are (in principle) the ones doing the designing and the ones who "create" projects. However, in reality, things are far from being so simple.

The process of architectural production is complex, bringing into play numerous individuals, ranging from the contracting authority who makes the request, to the contractor in charge of carrying out the construction, in the meanwhile involving different engineers and other technicians linked to the project. If it is true that the architect is supposed to be the "coordinator" of an entire team and carry out on-site supervision, then he or she must also give in, as Jean Jacques Deluz phrased it, to bureaucratic control that, along with the backer's authority, imposes constraints on the architect that go beyond mere normalization. The homogenized results leave no room for an architect to act independently.

Between administrative rules to follow, technical norms that need to be respected, and international models that are supposed to serve as inspiration, it is ultimately at the level of minute tricks and flourishes (playing with volume and tending to exterior appearances) where the core of architectural "design" is found since it is the only space for innovation left for architecture, with everything else being codified, standardized, and restricted by specifications and administrative and procedural demands. It seems that today, we don't expect an architect to practice his trade as a "researcher" who seeks specific and personalized answers that seem the most well-adapted to a given problem, nor as an artist whose own designs and creations are prioritized. Instead, we expect him to be an "underling" who must strictly conform to the demands of contracting authorities, and sometimes to decrees made by contractors in the guise of a certain established order that must not be shaken up, even in the case of architectural (re)production.

A new building in Blida, Algeria.The new law currently under review concerning architectural and urban project management is inspiring hope not only about architecture as a profession, but also about a renewal in how architecture is perceived, and the role the architect should play in relation to the economic, social, cultural, and environmental realities that underpin each situation. J.J Deluz wrote that "the people in power who complain about widespread, bad architecture in a country are right. But change is not as simple as one would like to believe, and it depends just as much on them as on contractors." As a practitioner and observer of the Algerian urban and architectural scenes, he knew what he was talking about, and he was right, too.

In an era where safety concerns and regulations are of high importance, is it possible to balance the artistic impulses of architecture with the regulatory imperatives imposed by governments and organizations?

Credits: Images and data linked to sources.

Original article, originally published in French, here.