Le Corbusier’s Algerian Fantasy

Blocking the Casbah

The 1933 rendering of Plan Obus for Algiers demonstrates Le Corbusier’s superimposition of modern forms: the long arching roadway that includes housing — his viaduct city — connecting central Algiers to its suburbs and the curvilinear complex of housing in the heights that accesses the waterfront business district via an elevated highway bypassing the Casbah.

By the time Le Corbusier trained his sights on the development of Algiers, he had already begun to turn away from his machine-age ideology, in part due to a general disillusionment with technology in the face of the market crash of 1929 and the rise of Fascism and Nazism (all frightful by-products of a collective faith in progress). He began searching for new forms of inspiration beyond the stylistic echo chamber that Modernism had become, looking to nature, vernacular architecture and women for inspiration. While mining these spaces of difference, his impulses and thinking shifted away from angular brutalism toward the more plastic and poetic forms of his later work.

Le Corbusier came to Algiers almost by chance. On the occasion of the centennial celebration of French rule in 1931, a new city plan was unveiled by Henri Prost and the French colonial government. Le Corbusier deeply disapproved, and saw it as an opportunity wasted; he wanted to offer the French colony a bold plan that would raise Algiers to the level of an international city. He argued his case to the colonial government by relying on the anti-capitalist flavor of the month, “Syndicalism,” which intended to structure political power around regional industry. He declared that because colonization was over (the startling, naive general opinion of the time), Algiers was destined to become the world capital of Africa, and thus complete his fantasy of a diamond of Mediterranean centers including Barcelona, Marseille and Rome. Without any formal commission or invitation, he took it upon himself to design and submit his own sweeping scheme, called the Plan Obus.

The project became a personal crusade for Le Corbusier and kept him busy for eleven years, though nothing resulted from his obsessive efforts. While it impacted the discourse of architecture, no part of Plan Obus was ever built in Algiers. Its legacy is intellectual, marked by an encounter with difference in the search for new forms — yet another Western drama played out with appropriated images of the other.

The Plan Obus consisted of three main elements: a new business district on the Cape of Algiers (at the tip of the Casbah) at a site slated for demolition, a residential area in the heights accessible by a bridge spanning over the Casbah, and, finally, the ultimate expression of his “roadtown,” an elevated highway arcing between suburban cities and containing fourteen residential levels beneath it. These levels were raw space that Le Corbusier believed would fill in “little by little” with homes for the working class that would accommodate as many as 180,000 people. His vision of this new Casbah took the layered domestic spaces of the medina and stacked them as if sweeping up a scattered deck of cards. Obus, which means shell, is often taken to refer to the spiraling form of the plan, but could also reference its infrastructural “shell,” within which homes would be constructed. The plan was a modernist megastructure to be laid directly over the Casbah, with its elevated highway and bridges allowing high-speed travel over the prohibitively narrow and complex streets below.

If built, Plan Obus would have been one of the largest and most ambitious modernist projects ever — an inspiring sight of monument and beauty — and likely one of its greatest failures. Clearly disaster loomed in the project’s disregard for Algerian social and religious traditions, the segregation of the workers and the European communities, and of course the abrupt change in the spatial arrangement brought on by its brutal scale. What is most interesting about Plan Obus now is not imagining these problems, but contemplating the extreme disconnect between Le Corbusier’s solution for Algiers and the romantic harmony, sensuality and poetry of the exoticized other upon which he drew.

He was, for example, very enthusiastic about discrete examples of vernacular architecture. In his writings, he passionately declared his appreciation for individual houses: “O inspiring image! Arabs, are there no peoples but you who dwell in coolness and quiet, in the enchantment of proportions and the savor of a humane architecture?” Le Corbusier contrasted such vernacular manifestations with the European city in which “‘civilized’ people are holed up like rats.” He also celebrated the “Arabs” because they ignored the street and cultivated the private garden courtyards that delighted him.

Yet when Le Corbusier referred to Algiers at large, he was less compassionate. In his typically self-aggrandizing form he presented his plan: “Here is the new Algiers. Instead of the leprous sore which had sullied the gulf and the slopes of the Sael, here stands architecture… architecture is the masterly, correct, and magnificent play of shapes in the light.” At the urban scale he is no longer enchanted by the Arabs; he is taken with himself and the fantastic syntheses he proposed. Within his rational, formal organization, he envisioned inserting his beloved pre-industrial, oneand two-story homes, complete with gardens flourishing on each of the levels under the highway.

Women provided another powerful source of inspiration. Le Corbusier’s intense encounter with Josephine Baker (“the most erotic woman he had ever known”) in 1929 precipitated the introduction of nude, mythic woman in his painting. While in Algiers, he was taken by the beauty of two girls and returned to Paris with a notebook full of nude studies of them and several racy postcards of “native” women. As his encounter with Baker unlocked his sense of Rio, it has been suggested that the elegant curves of the Plan Obus, previously uncharacteristic in his work, derived from the fleshy forms of Algerian girls.

Plan Obus was conceived as a collision of the idealized dwelling, mythic feminine and romantic landscape offset by modern technology in the service of colonial needs. Le Corbusier’s encounter with Algiers was turning point for his practice that shook his faith in the power of modern architecture to activate large-scale social reform. It also deepened his longing for a poetic primitivism, a desire to escape the industrial world that was quickly heading toward World War II. It was during the war, in 1942, that Le Corbusier was forced to finally abandon his plans for Algiers, which was clearly for the best. Twelve years later the Algerian revolution exploded out of the Casbah and by its end in 1962, European colonialists had fled to France.