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Architecture of Counterrevolution: The French Army in Algeria, 1954–1962

PhD dissertation, Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta), ETH Zurich, 2016.
Samia Henni
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Architecture of Counterrevolution: The French Army in Algeria, 1954–1962, PhD dissertation, Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta), ETH Zurich, 2016

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1Over the course of the Algerian Revolution (1954–1962), the French colonial civil and military authorities profoundly reorganized the vast territory of Algeria (France’s longest colonial presence in North Africa, which began in 1830), drastically transformed its built environments, and rapidly implanted new infrastructure and settlements across the country. In addition to the destructions of war, the colonial regime decreed a number of laws, orders, and directives for the evacuation of certain areas and the construction of new spaces to allow for the strict control of the Algerian population and the defense of the European population living in Algeria. The forced relocation of civilians and construction of settlements in rural and urban areas was a key factor in isolating the Algerian population from the influence of the liberation fighters, and in impeding the support and spread of the desire for independence (or of “contamination,” to use the French army’s technical term). This dissertation focuses on these resulting constructions and seeks to portray the modus operandi of French colonial planning and architecture during the bloody and protracted armed conflict, as well as that architecture’s roots, developments, scopes, actors, protocols, and design mechanisms. This study calls the involved infrastructures the “architecture of counterrevolution.”

  • 1 Fanon’s rejected doctoral dissertation was published as a book in 1952 under the title Peau noire, (...)

2The dissertation examines the intrinsic relationships between military maneuvers, political ideologies, colonial doctrines, and built environments. It reveals the politico-socio-economic meanings of laws, maps, structures, infrastructures, shelters, and other buildings, and discloses how these groups (and their broad network of actors) embody what psychiatrist and author Frantz Fanon (1925–1961), best known for his 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth, called the psychology of colonialism in his rejected doctoral dissertation.1 The chapters of the dissertation do not pretend to offer a comprehensive history of the ninety-four months of the French war’s destruction and construction in Algeria; nor do they claim to provide an exhaustive description and analysis of the buildings that the French colonial authorities constructed in Algeria during the Algerian Revolution. Rather, the dissertation seeks to probe the colonial practices of control and domination through juridical means, military operations, and housing units, and to highlight the roles that various officers, technocrats, architects, planners, and ethnologists played. It does so by delving into the practices of the Vichy regime and of the French colonial wars of the nineteenth century; it undoes the nexus of these two French systems and their links to the French war machine in Algeria under French colonial rule in the twentieth century.

3In addition to contributing to a multifaceted understanding of modern architecture and planning, the thesis provides an interdisciplinary analysis of large-scale colonial planning and architecture at wartime. To scrutinize these spatial counterrevolutionary measures, a number of primary sources were consulted in France and Algeria, including the Archives nationales d’Algérie in Algiers; the Archives nationales de France in Pierrefitte-sur-Seine (Paris); the Archives nationales d’outre-mer (anom) in Aix-en-Provence; the Service historique de la Défense (shd) in Vincennes (Paris); the Établissement de communication et de production audiovisuelle de la Défense (ecpad) in Ivry-sur-Seine (Paris); the archives of Paul Delouvrier at the Centre d’histoire de Sciences Po in Paris, and of Charles de Gaulle at his Foundation in Paris. The majority of these archival records have not been published to this day.

4The thesis is structured in three parts that discuss various times when politico-military operations and planning policies converged. The first, “Camps Called Centres de Regroupement,” examines the ways in which the French army invaded the daily lives of Algerian civil society in rural and urban areas alike, forcibly relocated vast numbers of Algerians into militarily controlled camps, oversaw Algerians’ movements and activities, and transformed the people’s domestic space across the country. The second part, “Housing in General de Gaulle’s Plan,” investigates the premises with which de Gaulle launched a colossal socio-economic development plan called the “Plan de Constantine” (named for the eastern Algerian city in which it was announced) that included the construction of housing units for one million people. It also explores the intentions, typologies, actors, and effects of de Gaulle’s dwellings during the War of Independence. The final part deals with the mechanisms involved in the construction of a new administrative city, which was to be located roughly fifty kilometers east of Algiers, near the Mediterranean Sea, the military base of Reghaia, and the airport at Maison Blanche. The French stronghold was to be inhabited by the French government in Algeria and its civil servants; it was exclusively designed to protect these men and their families from the bloody terrorism of the French paramilitary terrorist group known as the Organisation de l’armée secrète (oas, or the Organization of the Secret Army).

  • 2 The term camps de regroupement is difficult to translate, but it essentially means “resettlement c (...)

5Part one includes two chapters, covering the period between November 1954, which marked the onset of the Algerian Revolution, and May 1958 that coincided with the first Algiers General’s Putsch and the collapse of the Fourth Republic. Chapter one, “Discreet Violence,” examines the genesis of the camps de regroupement2 by investigating the missions of the French ethnologist Germaine Tillion (1907–2008) and the practices of the aforementioned ethnologist Jacques Soustelle in the Aurès Mountains of northeastern Algeria. The chapter also explores the roots of the colonial doctrine of guerre moderne, its theorists and practitioners, including David Galula (1919–1967), Charles Lacheroy (1906–2005), and Roger Trinquier (1908–1986). It probes the socio-spatial relationships between this type of warfare, the military policy of pacification, and the positions of the forefathers of “modern war,” who include Marshals Thomas Bugeaud (1784–1849), Joseph Gallieni (1849–1916), and Louis Lyautey (1854–1934). Chapter two, “The Bâtisseurs of the Camps,” is devoted to the officers of the sections administratives spécialisées (sas, or specialized administrative sections), who supervised and partly built the camps, as well as to the policies and conditions in which the camps were built in a number of rural regions of Algeria. The second part of the chapter focuses on the development of the camps de regroupement in the Algerian Department of Constantine during the tenure of the former Vichy regime civil servant Maurice Papon (1910–2007). Papon was convicted in 1998 of crimes against humanity for his participation in the deportation of Jews in Bordeaux to concentration camps during the Second World War; this background did not stop him from serving both as General Inspector of Administration in the Extraordinary Mission (civil and military) in Eastern Algeria and as Prefect of the Department of Constantine between 1956 and 1958. The second part of the second chapter highlights the legacies between the French fascist regime and the French colonial regime.

6Part two of the dissertation, “Housing in General de Gaulle’s Plan,” also includes two chapters. It explores the period between the return of General de Gaulle to power in May 1958 and the end of the mandate of Paul Delouvrier in November 1961 as General Delegate of the French Government in Algeria. Chapter three, “On the Colonial Project,” chronicles General de Gaulle’s attempts to partly divert the scope of the armed conflict and surveys Delouvrier’s assignments to transform the Algerian population. The chapter discusses the typologies of housing programs that the French technocrats planned for Algeria, as well as these programs’ affiliations with postwar housing programs in France. It also debates the controversy of an additional colonial typology called habitat semi-urbain (semi-urban dwellings), which were specifically designed for Algerian people who were deemed neither urban nor rural. Chapter four, “Between Officers and Technocrats,” examines three levels of profound spatial transformations during the War of Independence: 1) army officers’ clearance of the bidonvilles (shantytowns) in urban areas; 2) the transformation of permanent camps de regroupement into villages in rural Algeria through Delouvrier’s mille villages (one thousand villages) program; and 3) French technocrats’ and architects’ regulation and construction of mass-housing projects in Algeria’s urban areas. The chapter looks at the role of certain protagonists in Algeria such as former minister of reconstruction and urbanism Eugène Claudius-Petit (1907–1989) and architect Marcel Lathuillière (1903–1984). It also seeks to trace the frictions and legacies between four influential French groups in Algeria: those who served at the French Ministère de la Reconstruction et de l’Urbanisme (mru, or Ministry of Reconstruction and Urbanism), such as Pierre Dalloz (1899–1992); those who worked for Le Corbusier (1897–1965) in Paris, like Pierre-André Emery (1903–1982); those who collaborated with Fernand Pouillon (1912–1986) in Algiers, like Alexis Daure (1921–2015); and those who graduated from or taught at the Institut d’urbanisme de l’université de Paris (iuup, or Institute of Urbanism at Paris University) and/or the Institut d’urbanisme de l’université d’Alger (iuua, or Institute of Urbanism at Algiers University), such as Jean de Maisonseul.

7The final part of the dissertation, “The New Capital,” covers the period between 1961 that coincides with the second General’s putsch in Algiers and 1964, when the French army abandoned the newly built city. It consists of Chapter five, “Rocher Noir,” which examines the ways with which General de Gaulle and the French civil and military authorities built a new fortified city in an attempt to protect French civil servants from the violent terrorism of the oas —which firmly disapproved the policies of the Fifth Republic and its leader and fiercely defended French colonial sovereignty over Algeria. The chapter explores the circumstances in which this stronghold was swiftly designed and built in 1961, attacked by the oas, protected by French officers, temporarily inhabited by civil servants of the French general government in Algeria, claimed by the Algerian independent government, occupied by the French army, and eventually abandoned in 1964.

8The five chapters are treated as narratives that are guided and framed by a number of protagonists and antagonists who represented the French institutions and government (both civil and military authorities) in Algeria under French colonial rule and during the Algerian Revolution. Each historical “frame” examines an aspect of the French architecture designed for a counterrevolution and suggests a reading of the psychology of French colonialism in Algeria. It is therefore not concerned with any one Algerian city, any one practice, or any one project. The dissertation relies on particular biographies and specific situations of military character that the French authorities created or faced in order to obstruct and dominate the Algerian Revolution. Not surprisingly, while the revolution and the war went unimpeded, the Algerian population suffered from massive uprooting, and Algeria’s territory and built environment were transformed in profound ways.

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1 Fanon’s rejected doctoral dissertation was published as a book in 1952 under the title Peau noire, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks) by Éditions du Seuil. Fanon discusses the psychology of colonialism in the first chapter. See Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks [Initially published as: Peau noire, masques blancs, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1952. Trans. Markmann Charles Lam], London: Pluto Press, 2008, 8–27.

2 The term camps de regroupement is difficult to translate, but it essentially means “resettlement camps.” The question of the translation of the camps de regroupement will be adressed in Chapter 1.

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Samia Henni, « Architecture of Counterrevolution: The French Army in Algeria, 1954–1962 », ABE Journal [En ligne], 9-10 | 2016, mis en ligne le 28 décembre 2016, consulté le 24 novembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Samia Henni

Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer, ETH Zurich, Switzerland

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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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