Form Follows Appropriation
A review of 'Colonial Modern', or the reciprocity between people and buildings
First published at Architecture Today #211 (September 2010)

Architecture Today #211

Colonial Modern is the eventual outcome of the eponymous conference and exhibition In the Desert of Modernity: Colonial Planning and After, held in Berlin in 2008. The highlight of the book is the large-scale housing development Cité d’Habitacion of Carrières Centrales, built in 1952 to relocate the migrant population of the ever-growing bidonvilles or slums. Architects Bodiansky, Candilis, Piot and Woods studied the spatial and social structures of the adjacent non-planned settlements, and transferred their analysis onto two housing typologies – cité verticale and cité horizontal – which reflected a new concept of ‘habitat’ in contrast to the classical modern ‘living machine’. In 1953, the project was presented at the ninth Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM) and it drew the attention of Aldo van Eyck and the Smithsons. Eventually, Candilis and Woods would form part of the inner circle of Team 10: colonial Africa was becoming a fertile laboratory for western modernity.

Colonial Modern shows how architectural and urban experiments in north Africa in the 1950s and 60s represented a decisive shift in the modern movement paradigm. Centred mainly on Morocco and Algeria, this masterfully edited reader provides a well-rounded debate on how universalist positions merged with local cultures in the design and appropriation of colonial housing projects.

Together with the CIAM congress, there is frequent mention of the exhibition This is Tomorrow. Held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1956, its participants included Alison and Peter Smithson, then young architects ‘challenging the modernist consensus’, as Mark Crinson suggests in his captivating essay From the Rainforest to the Streets. Their installation Patio and Pavillion (in collaboration with Nigel Henderson and Eduardo Paolozzi) was concerned with the basic elements of the human habitat, based on observations of non-Western cultures, which aimed to find solutions to the crisis of post-war housing.

This crisis is the basis for the contributions to Colonial Modern. Architecture and art history, visual and cultural studies, sociology and philosophy are agreeably presented through personal records, artistic and political perspectives, scholarly research and historical documents. In a post-colonial era, the negotiation of modern architecture in the everyday has its roots in the ‘arenas for social expression’ (Smithsons) that Candilis and Woods presented at Aix-en-Provence in 1953 – a colonial modernism adapted to local customs and no longer just to climate, claiming a reciprocal relationship between people and buildings.

Colonial Modern depicts something other than a perfect version of modernism. People and buildings coexist in a state of dynamic tensions and the book explores these tensions, offering up-to-date perspectives into post-colonial theory and modernism, high-lighting the key roles played by non-Western actors. Colonial Modern shows that form no longer merely follows function – form follows appropriation.

Colonial Modern – Aesthetics of the Past, Rebellions for the Future
edited by Tom Avermaete, Serhat Karakayali and Marion von Osten
Black Dog, 320pp, £30