Infrastructure and urban planning: The port and city of Algiers under French colonial rule, 19th-20th century


The interaction between infrastructures and urban development has increasingly become an important object of urban history studies.This in part is due to the role played by infrastructures in the definition of political, economic, and social strategies.This tendency to “Infrastructuralize a city' or to the urbanization of infrastructure”1 has been the subject of several academic articles, where researchers analyze infrastructures from an historical and interdisciplinary perspective.2 However, historical research on urban infrastructures has taken relatively little interest in colonial ports, even though these left a major impact on the geography', politics, and economy' ot the colonized territories.3

The evolution of maritime technology, beginning with the Industrial Revolution, propelled European colonial expansion. This process reinforced the strategic and military importance of port cities as centres ot influence in colonial empires, as is clearly the case of Algiers and Dakar to name former French colonies. In addition, these ports became terminals where raw material congregated before leaving the African continent tor the European mainland. Thus, these infrastructures became economic centres attracting investors, merchants, and workers from all walks ot life and nationalities who formed the urban community. Therefore, port-cities “receive, on one hand, movements of the colonies and they' are new stages for discovering other regions or conquering other continents” (Gras, 2010).

On the other hand, colonization favoured the maritimization of the world economy and the system of modern ports restructured port-cities, as Daniel Headrick explains:

The new technologies associated with the colonizers explain the founding and growth of colonial cities. They also figure in their settlement and land-use patterns. Certain uses of land were directly' related to the functions ot the city. Harbors, docks, and warehouses occupied large areas of port cities, as did the stations, yards, and workshops of railroad centers.

(Headrick, 1988)

Taking Algiers as case study', this chapter sheds light on how port activity' during this period shaped colonial maritime cities. It focuses on three points.The first is the process of port planning during the French colonial period, when the foundations of the main infrastructures, still in use today, were laid out. The second is the interaction between port and city areas through dynamics and issues generated by this harbour activity. The third concerns the integration of the port area in the major urban planning projects of Algiers, from the end of the 1920s to the present day. The objective is to explore how the port infrastructure interacts itself with and within the different urban contexts.

We have chosen a methodology that articulates two approaches which allow an understanding of the interdependence of port-city relations in a colonial context. The first we have is morphological. It is based on the assumption that the development of port infrastructure has initiated a modernization of the colonial city. The second is political, analysing the interactions, at local level, between the Chamber of Commerce and City Council. This approach is based on the assumption that the system of port authority established during this period prompted new institutional dynamics that impacted on urban policies.

Besides this introductory section and conclusion, the chapter is structured in four main sections. The second section deals with the role ports played in the colonial conquest of Algeria, followed in the third by an historical account of the port of Algiers, 1830—1930.This is complemented by an analysis of port governance issues and the role that the Chamber of Commerce played in that process. We then consider the relation between the port, the city, and urban planning, followed by an examination of the current situation of the port.

Ports as strategic areas for the colonial conquest of Algeria

From the outset of the French occupation of Algeria in 1830, colonial troops immediately controlled the strategic ports of the country’s Mediterranean coast, starting with Algiers, besieged on 5 July 1830, then Oran in 1831 and Annaba in 1832. These became the principal Algerian ports. Algiers, being the capital, was the first port city and formed the backbone of colonial trade. Oran, in the western region, situated close to Gibraltar, became a port of call. Its military importance was enhanced by the taking of the fortress of Mers el Kebir (Lespes, 1930a). Annaba, in the east, became gradually Algeria’s first mining port due to its proximity to the iron and phosphate mines in the region of Constantine (Lespes, 1930b).

These port facilities enhanced development of a railway network linking these ports to the hinterland for the transport of raw materials. Therefore, the then-Minister of Algeria and the Colonies decreed, as early as 1857, the importance of constructing a large national railway system connecting Algerian ports with the rest of the country: “The network should be built parallel to the sea, eastwards from Algiers to Constantine, and westwards, from Algiers to Oran, with branch lines departing from the most important ports to the principle line”.4 This project began in 1860, with several railway lines being inaugurated, such as the Algiers-Oran line in 1871 and the Algiers-Constantine line in 1887 (see Figure 5.1).

This connected “port-railway” system is closely linked to the territory’s colonization programme. The railways were powerful “pacification” tools that helped secure ways of penetrating remote areas of the country to be colonized and therefore more easily repress insurrectional movements. This is confirmed by a thesis presented in 1881 by an engineer, de Lepiney, who emphasizes that railways allow: “troops [to be brought] quickly to the battle field”, demonstrating “the strategic utility of a line penetrating directly into the south, linking the highlands to the Mediterranean Sea”.3 These lines also made it possible to connect directly “the port of embarkation or the place of consumption to the production centers of the south”,6 considerably speeding up the commercial traffic.This railway network built from the strategic coastal points created a littoralizationoi the Algerian territory, the economy of which relied decisively on the

Map of the railways of department of Algiers in the early 1900s. Source

Figure 5.1 Map of the railways of department of Algiers in the early 1900s. Source: Personal archive.

sea and metropolitan France (Cote, 1988).This system encouraged a reconfiguration of the port cities at the centreof colonization strategies.

The development of the port of Algiers: A modernizing benefit to the city

The increasing economic and political development of the colony in the 1880s led to new port requirements in order to manage and store large volumes of goods transported from all over the country as outlined in the following extract from a letter of the Algerian Chamber of Commerce in 1892:

Cereals, wines, building materials, ores, coals, all kinds of imported or exported goods cover our docks and our port so well that it is almost always a problem, difTicult to solve in terms of finding a suitable location to store the drop-off cargo. Most often this is only provided by the use of coercive means taken against traders occupying the land.This situation becoming disastrous [...] Traders and trade unions clamor for place.7

The development of the colonial economy and commercial exchanges between the metropolis and the colony therefore compels new functional requirements in the ports, in particular a greater regularity of the maritime services and a rapid circulation of the goods to cover the costs of investment in the port apparatus. These new challenges imply a rationalization of the port area, which gradually expands and redesigns itself by generating industrial infrastructures adapted to each task in the maritime transport chain. This industrialization of the port brought about a modernization movement in the city, which also had to meet the requirements of flexibility demanded by the maritime trade. This modernization movement is reflected in the construction of wide-ranging structures linking port to urban space such as the waterfront, the

Port-city of Algiers in the 1930s. Source

Figure 5.2 Port-city of Algiers in the 1930s. Source: Service historique de la Defense, Vincennes.

railway and maritime stations, and warehouses and jetties, offering a new industrial landscape to the colonial capital (see Figure 5.2).

From the start of the conquest in 1830, it was the responsibility of Ponts-et-Chaussees engineers to design and implement port infrastructure in Algiers. Placed during the first decades of the occupation in the charge of the Ministry of War and then under the administrative supervision of the Minister of Public Works, these engineers were moved from the city to a local department of public works following the advent of civil government in 1870. Faced with hostile Algerian coasts, the occupation war and the colony’s budget restrictions, they had to even more refine their creativity, efficiency, and rationality' in the face of the urgent need for port installations enabling necessary supplies for the creation of the colony.8

These colonial challenges led some of these engineers, often at the start of their careers, to experiment with new technical processes to save money and time. These colonial experiments played an important role in maritime developments taking place in the French metropolitan territory as well as other European ports, as one engineer, Laroche, explains:

The need to build a shelter on an inhospitable coast had led not only to a change in ideas with the design of fully artificial ports, but also to realization of work that once had been considered very difficult. From that time, engineers became more daring: material difficulties disappear before the development of tools. Harbor construction is now considered a much more important branch of engineering.

(Laroche, 193 i)

The construction of the dykes and docks of the port of Algiers illustrates these innovative processes. The construction of the northern dyke in 1832 allowed the Pont-et-Chaussees engineer

System of artificial concrete blocks designed by the engineer Victor Poirel, 1838. Source

Figure 5.3 System of artificial concrete blocks designed by the engineer Victor Poirel, 1838. Source: Bibliotheque nationale de France.

Victor Poirel to experiment with a system of artificial concrete blocks4 hitherto unknown, which was to be deployed subsequently in several European ports (see Figure 5.3).The construction also allowed an elaborate system of dredging machines to be put in place for the construction of the harbours refit basins in 1869 to extract sand and laitance in the rocky bottom and stabilize the foundation (see Figure 5.4). The extension of these port infrastructures that were integrated into several government-sponsored development programmes10 were to help transform the Algiers seafront by serving as a foundation for the development of a new adapted architectural typology, adapted to port constraints such as those of the docks and maritime shelters.

Maritime docks: A new fagade for Algiers

Unlike dykes and quays built from the beginning of colonization, the realization of the maritime docks, to meet the growing need for storage of port goods, did not begin until 1890. The first maritime docks designed in the port of Algiers were built by the French architect Flenri Petit (1856—1926) who presented the Chamber of Commerce with a project tor the development of dock-warehouses on 8 July 1891. His proposed facilities consisted of sheds for goods formed within a building of two floors with a 3600m2 ground-floor and a level floor of5600 m2 (see Figure 5.5).This dock located in the southern part of the basin of the old port near the dry docks forms a rectangle of 160 mlong parallel to the sea 10 m from the edge of the dock, and 45 nr wide with a total area of 7,300 nr2. The structure of the building is irrixed with a timber frame that incorporates openings to illuminate the first floor, wood floors consisting of 6-hole hollow brick slabs and I-beanr joists reinforced with soles at points of support of the floor level which allows a range of about 10 nr; the floor is covered by a clevis and is supported by nretal pillars.11

System of harbour's refit designed in 1869

Figure 5.4 System of harbour's refit designed in 1869.

Source: Fond ancien de I'Ecole nationale des Ponts et Chaussees (ENPC).

Docks designed by the French architect Henri Petit in 1894. Source

Figure 5.5 Docks designed by the French architect Henri Petit in 1894. Source: Archives Nationales d'Algerie.

However, it was not until the 1930s that the construction of the hangars accelerated, consolidating the port. Their typology is considerably streamlined, the mixed structures in iron and wood giving way to a linear and rigidly reinforced concrete structure, as well as fasciae the ornamentation and arrangement of which were akin to classical architecture have been replaced by quasi sprockets walls. Therefore, the architecture of the hangars is standardized to fulfil only a

The port of Algiers in 1950s. Source

Figure 5.6 The port of Algiers in 1950s. Source: Entreprise portuaire d'Alger (EPAL).

strict function of shelter tor a commodity in transit facing an increasing speed of maritime flows. If, proportionately, sail vessels remained still important in Algiers until the beginning of the 20th century, these mostly disappeared during the 1930s to give all the space to steamships and fuel tankers, thus accelerating the pace of shipping.12

This network of port facilities is completed by the realization of a hub of maritime stations forming new access gates to the city. These gates are, in actual fact, a way to reconfigure and revitalize adjacent urban neighbourhoods. Therefore, the economic and morphological links between port and city have contributed to the redefinition of urban constructions, creating new institutional dynamics impacting on the way of planning the city (see Figure 5.6).

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