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Architecture and Colonization in Libya

As the optimism of the Arab Spring that seized large areas of North Africa and the Middle East now fades into a much more murky fall, it seems a good time to reflect on some of the changes that have been going on in that part of the world and the manner in which architecture and urban space have been implicated. While the changes have indeed been fundamental—new regimes in Egypt and Tunisia with another poised to take over in Libya, serious uprisings in Yemen and Syria, and ripple effects felt throughout the region—in the case of Libya the current events act as a haunting reminder of a century of instability and unrest in which architecture and related efforts to shape the physical landscape have played an important role.

Having spent more than fifteen years of my academic career working on research on Africa and the Middle East, this is not the first time that current events have acted as a reminder of the recent past and, in particular, of the legacy of Western colonization. I spent over a month in Tripoli in the summer of 1994 as a graduate student in the PhD program in the History, Theory and Criticism of Architecture at MIT. My task was to photograph the buildings and spaces that remained from the period of Italian occupation (1911-1945). With the sponsorship of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture and the visa granted to me using my Canadian passport, I was able to gain a measure of understanding of just how the Italian legacy lived on—though sometimes not in the way that I had expected. Without going into the details of how I was able to survive as a foreign traveler in a country that was at that time under the sanctions of the United Nations, I can say that despite the changes that had taken place in Libya under Muammar Qaddafi—including the vast expansion of Tripoli and the unfortunate deterioration of the Old City—there were still many traces of a built landscape that was produced by a regime of Italian leaders (Italo Balbo, Pietro Badoglio, Emilio De Bono, and Giuseppe Volpi) who were intent on making a decisive mark.

Green Square, Tripoli, 1994. Photo by author.

One of those spaces, Green Square—formerly Piazza Italia—was the meeting place of the road system around which the Italians organized the expansion of Tripoli beginning around 1911. At its highest point of development in the mid-1930s, this compact and well-defined open space had a distinctly Italian character—being reminiscent of Piazza San Marco in Venice with twin columns that framed the view to the Mediterranean. In this case, this vital urban space was surrounded by contemporary buildings on two sides and the medina and castle on the other. In its life under the Qaddafi regime a number of buildings—including the Royal Miramare Theater—were destroyed to create a much grander open space for large public demonstrations. In 1994 that space was largely filled with parked cars and the sprawling clothing market that spilled out of the gates of the Old City. The only public appearances were in controlled situations away from the city that were pre-recorded and broadcast nightly on television. In late August of 2011 during the Battle of Tripoli, the space was dubbed Martyrs’ Square by the Libyan rebels. Its full transition to a new identity and use came in early September with the first open public demonstrations of the end of Qaddafi’s rule in Libya’s capitol. This new Martyrs’ Square is a living demonstration of the intensely layered condition of urban space in the post-colonial context, where historic fabric, modernizing efforts and allusions to independence and self-government coexist in an uneasy balance. It is also a powerful example of the manner in which such colonial spaces are appropriated and reshaped to serve contemporary purposes.

Figure 2. Hotel Nalut, 1935. Author’s collection.

Just a year ago today I was contacted by a British architect working for the Libyan tourism authority. They were in the midst of restoring the small roadside hotel constructed in 1935 by the Libyan Tourism and Hotel Association in the pre-Saharan town of Nalut. Designed by the Italian architect Florestano Di Fausto, this project was one of a group of some eighteen hotels that were either constructed or renovated to create a continuous system of travel that was under the watchful eye of the Italian colonial authorities. My research into the tourist organization of Libya during the Fascist period—and the careful balancing of references to the local architecture found in its buildings—brought this tourist organization and its architect to me. They were seeking photographic and other evidence of the design of these colonial structures in an effort to faithfully restore the Italian architect’s interpretation of the indigenous building methods of the region—which included the design of interior spaces to suggest Berber craft traditions. While I was happy to help—and believed that Di Fausto had produced a sophisticated, though entirely Italian, view of Libyan culture—I was struck by the idea that colonialism had itself become a historical category that the Libyans openly embraced under the guise of creating an authentic tourist experience.

Libyan anti-government fighter, Nalut – Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Photo – http://m.ctv.ca/gallery/images/Libyan-Clashes.html

I was further reminded of the close relationship between tourism and colonization in late-February of 2011 when in an online article reporting on the ongoing conflict in Libya I found an Associated Press photograph of a Libyan rebel on the terrace of the Hotel Nalut—the view looking back at the ancient town that was a source of inspiration for Di Fausto’s design. The image was a vivid reminder that the network of hotels and related system of roads and modes of transportation were a reflection of the modernization process that the Italians had put into place in even the most remote regions of Libya—a process that was both closely tied to and dependent upon the military control of the territory. The photograph was also an affirmation that this network’s role as an instrument of surveillance—found in the strategic location of this tourist facility and its heavily buttressed forms—was perhaps always present and ready to be utilized. In this case, it was colonization in reverse, serving the purposes of the military operations of the Libyan rebel fighters that have been attempting to overthrow a very different, though equally oppressive, political regime.


Brian L. McLaren, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Washington, where he teaches in the areas of architectural history, theory and design. His design studios focus on the potential of the contemporary urban and industrial landscape of Seattle, while his history and theory offerings study the connection between architectural modernity and the culture of western colonialism in contemporary Africa and the Middle East. He is also the Director of the History and Theory research stream of the Master of Science in Architecture degree program, for which he teaches the Research Practicum.

Seattle, Washington, October 10, 2011

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