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Tunisia, 1940–1970: The Spatial Politics of Reconstruction, Decolonization, and Development

Doctoral dissertation (Degree Conferred October 2015) under the supervision of Professor Esther da Costa Meyer, Department of Art & Archaeology, Princeton University
Nancy Demerdash

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1This dissertation investigates the dialectical discourses of modernism and the vernacular in Tunisian architectural and urban projects, from the late French protectorate into post-independence, 1940–1970. With a particular focus on issues of habitation and heritage, this project tracks the reorganization of social space in the reconstruction efforts of the postwar French colonial administration and the architectural and patrimonial discourses of the Tunisian nation-state that came into existence in 1956. In an era that witnessed mass-scale land expropriations, rural-urban migrations, and popular anti-colonial sentiment, this dissertation traces the material effects of Tunisians’ displacements and urban adaptations to their rapidly changing socio-political condition. Underscoring the dialectics intrinsic to the postwar notion of development, namely, the tensions between formal and informal settlements, vernacular building traditions and prefabrication methods, and patrimonial preservation and erasure, this project explores the ideological negotiations of architectural progress in the longue durée of decolonization. Chapter one concentrates on the spatial effects of the brief but tremendously consequential occupation of Tunisia during World War II. During this period, the capital of Tunis and the coastal cities of Bizerte, Sousse, and Sfax were bombed by both the Allied and Axis Forces. Reconstruction efforts to treat these dommages de guerre were led by the Swiss-born, Grand Prix de Rome recipient and Chief Architect Bernard Zehrfuss (1911–1996) in the governmental division of Les Services d’Architecture et d’Urbanisme. Throughout this tumultuous period, social housing projects sprouted in parallel with the spread of gourbivilles (earthen dwellings) and bidonvilles (“tin can” towns) on the outskirts of Tunisia’s urban centers. Chapter two considers the colonial continuities of the fledgling nation-state and its simultaneous liberal economic turn, with special examination of the late protectorate’s continuing urban policies of expropriation and demolition. Both colonial and postcolonial institutional and state-led reckonings with vernacular architecture forwarded not only modernist building agendas, but promoted primitivizing mythologies of local construction techniques, rooted in the act of racializing the so-called indigène. Chapter three investigates how the rural-urban population flux affected not only the re-appropriation of abandoned buildings and quarters (notably across the entirety of the Maghreb), but also probes into the role of the state, economic developmentalism, and its formation of a preservation and patrimonial discourse to serve those very same developmentalist ends. Challenging the predominant historiographical narrative that presents the independence of 1956 as a stark political rupture, this dissertation demonstrates that the vestiges of urban and preservationist policy schemes remained ingrained, on an institutional level, from protectorate rule. How the spatial and political processes of decolonization, nation-building, and development intersect with the ethics and economics of habitation undergirds this project.

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Nancy Demerdash, « Tunisia, 1940–1970: The Spatial Politics of Reconstruction, Decolonization, and Development », ABE Journal [En ligne], 9-10 | 2016, mis en ligne le 28 décembre 2016, consulté le 17 octobre 2018. URL :

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Nancy Demerdash

Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History, Department of Visual Arts, Wells College, Aurora, NY, USA

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La revue ABE Journal est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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