Oran: Architecture in Transformation

It is dark when I wake up. The hillside twinkles between navy sea and sky. Under my window, traffic flows paint the beginnings of day. A single crane on the horizon symbolises the building of this modern Algerian city.

I take my breakfast facing the the coastline as the natural pastels of morning develop beyond the foundations of a new structure.

Oran, of course, has been built before – by the French. Ornate colonial buildings decorate its central squares, such as the city’s theatre.

The politics of architecture is most evident in ‘1st November Square’. Here, a winged figure tops an Obelisk, appearing to hold out an olive branch of peace. 1st November 1954 marked the beginning of Algeria’s struggle for independence.

Some of this architecture, old and new, is occupied. Some of it is boarded up. Trees, plants and sky grow through the empty beauty. Even in the busy square, the city is quiet: an owl hoots among the traffic and construction. Although there are lots of people, many are still, chatting or reading newspapers.

Algeria’s population is rapidly growing. Have I romanticised the empty buildings and the relaxed pace of life when it may mean lack of jobs?

Perhaps. For the locals are very protective of me. They want me to be careful of thieves. A shop owner’s son accompanies me out of the ‘bad quarter’ (which I find rather nice) into the town centre, pointing out other bad areas along the way. Does poverty lead to theft? Or boredom and opportunism? Or is there no problem at all, but people are keen to keep me safe in a world few tourists (especially British ones) ever visit? At no point do I feel unsafe walking around Oran.

Even in the quiet city park I feel safe. There are derelict buildings and graffiti. But there are lone elders and groups of young women walking the lush spaces and exotic borders. If they feel safe, then I must be.

There’s more graffiti on a derelict toilet block.

Is the graffiti a warning against clandestine activity, a coded invitation, or a kid passing the time by drawing a rude image? Who knows.

In any case, I regret not taking pictures of the wider beauty of the park. As one of very few UK visitors, surely I have a responsibility to draw attention to the overall beauty of Algeria?

I leave the park. I stop to take photos. A police car passes, turns, and stops. This is the second time police stop whilst I take photographs:

‘Salaam’alekum’, I say – hand outstretched.

‘Malekuum’salaam,’ replies the policeman, shaking my hand. You must ‘faire attention’ here, he says. There are ‘voleurs … clandestins … tous’.

I thank him for his warning about thieves and illegal migrants, and promise to be careful.

After lunch I walk up to Santa Cruz, the first fort and church built by the Spanish colonisers – long before the French came.

As I climb the steep hill I see more examples of architecture in transformation. Amid the derelict beauty of one street graffiti reads ‘vers un monde réinventé’ [towards a reinvented world]. Is dereliction of colonial architecture an opportunity, a frustration, or both?

I also pass some older social housing reminiscent of the French HLMs (Habitation à Loyer Modéré) [Rent-controlled Housing].

All over Oran, new HLM are being constructed to provide basic affordable housing for those who do not have the means to support themselves. Unlike back home, where social housing is sadly becoming a thing of the past.

Two women stop me. ‘Il faut faire attention, il y a des agresseurs’. Yet the two women are walking alone. Nonetheless, I follow their advice and attempt to flag down a taxi.

I fail. A group of ‘ados’ [teenagers] find me a driver. He takes me up to the fort. He says he’ll collect me in an hour. He seems trustworthy enough.

The Fort is worth it, if only for its commanding views over the city and sea:

It is bare inside, adding to its imaginative charm. I find an oven recessed into a stone wall and imagine generations of soldiers or nuns stoking a fire. Perhaps both or neither ever did.

There is even a 1912 version of ‘BG woz ‘ere’: Individuals, like the missionaries, colonial powers, and other forces they represent, have stamped their mark on Oran.

The fort is a monument to the intertwinement of Christianity and colonialism, Like the city’s graffiti and its modern redevelopment, it is another architectural symbol of a complex and political history.

As I leave, a museum worker stops me: ‘il y a des gens … il faut faire plus d’attention … tu es tout seul? … c’est pas normale … ton conducteur’.

I’ve seen the driver (or at least I think I have), He’s soon identified by the museum worker in any case. The conversation between them is cordial.

We descend the mountainside, my driver smoking a cigarette out of his window and I breathing the cool sea air out of mine. Moroccan music plays on the car stereo.

I’ve experienced only friendliness, care and safety in a place where people frequently tell me to be careful. Perhaps then, the architectural cues, and my interpretations of them, are equally ambiguous.

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