Friday, December 30, 2005

Contemporary Architecture in Tunisia (2)

Universal Studios, Orlando (USA)

Sidi Bousaid, Tunis (Tunisia)

"Medina", Hammamet (Tunisia)

"Medina", Hammamet (Tunisia)

"Medina", Hammamet (Tunisia)

In Hammamet, a coastal touristic city-region south of Tunis, a new project was recently built; it's called: "Medina". I visited "Medina" in Summer 2004. And I thought immediately of it as a key project summarizing the major trend that has been dominating many Tunisian contemporary monuments for at least two decades now. The principal idea driving this major trend can be described as following: whereas "classical Islamic architecture" in Tunisia is clearly very hard to define there is, in effect, a populist image of such a "Tunisian Islamic architecture", and it's exactly this populist-fabricated-image that is inspiring the "creativity" of our contemporary architects. Here there are many issues at stake: how can we explain such a populist image? what is the stratigraphy of such an image? why does it matter NOW for Tunisian architects to be inspired by such an image?... etc.

Let's first talk about Hammamet's "Medina". The main goal of the project is obviously to serve foreign tourists since Hammamet, and especially the fast-growing area "Yasmine Hamamet", is mainly filled with hotels usually hosting foreign visitors. Still the project targets Tunisian visitors as well: Hammamet is only 60 Km away from Tunis, a trip that would take at most 60 minutes. The basic idea structuring the project is a visual summary of Tunisia's architectural history with a special emphasis on the Islamic part (the majority of the monuments repeat well-known "Islamic" models and the "city" walls and gates imitate also specific examples of Islamic mouments). This visual summary is encompassed within the enclosed walls of a seemingly harmonious "city" (which is the literal Arabic meaning of "Medina").

So to put it in its context this is above all a touristic project. The overall intended impression is easy to capture for a western visitor as we see in this piece: "Hammamet Tunisia:Disney or Vegas?" . In other words a city-wonder-kind of thing (besides Vegas and Disney other examples from the US come to mind: Universal Studios, Sea World, Hershey's...) So the first specific point about the project, which is not necessarily the case for other similar projects in Tunisia, is its strong connections with a universal touristic model. In other words "Medina" is a Tunisian wonder-city as Vegas is an American one. Putting aside this generic element "Medina" is made out of a local "Tunisian school" that has its own conditions and imagination.

This not the first fabricated "city" in Tunisia. This is also not the first fabricated "city" that is meant to embody a certain sense of a fabricated local identity. The French established such a tradition by the end of the 19th century: the famous now Sidi Bousaid, a northern small suburb of Tunis. Then, when the new rulers of Tunisia were organizing the 1889 "World Exposition" at Paris, they chose to represent their new colony with an architectural model directly inspired from a building in this small village. From that time on the small village of Sidi Bousaid was gradually metamorphosed: Originally the location of the burial of a local saint, whose name became the village's name, and which was a small residence of a small community of peaseants and fishers (with some small monuments, a fountain for instance, built during the Ottoman period as it's attested from some inscriptions) has became a model-city of an "oriental" Tunisia. The French simply decided to invent a new Sidi Bousaid with specific standards including almost everything: colors of paint (blue and white, not necessarily the colors of "traditional" housing, if ever painted), the structure and models of windows and doors... Creating a harmonious picture that does not reflect a specific reality: it was rather reflecting an idealistic tiny urban paradise very well established in the French minds: We are talking here about the Romanticist # Orietalist (mostly French) century; an oreintalist dream of a quite-dreamy-exotic package of urban life. When they did not find it they simply decided to create it.

The French went. But Sidi Bousaid stayed in the minds of the ex-colonized as the "real" representation of them; here we'll be entering a new historical phase of illusion that continues up until now, what we can call: Self-Orientalism.

What seems to be Neoclassical (in our case a return to a certain "Islamic-classical" architecture) is in effect self-orientalist.

What seems to be Neoclassical is, ironically, post-modern.

But if the convergence between post-modernist and neoclassical architectures is a universal trend, and Tunisian "post-modernist" architecture is no different in that sense, the convergence between neoclassicism, postmoidernism, and self-orientalism is definitely a Tunisian (and we can fairly say "Islamic") case.

The major paradox facing Tunisian contemporary architecture is the following: is it possible to enter a "post-modernist" phase if the modernist experience is practically absent?

(To be conitnued)


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