Fractured identities in Tunis

As you walk through the Ibn Khaldun neighborhood, seven kilometers from downtown Tunis, the unaccomplished state of the area becomes immediately apparent. Since the 1970s Ibn Khaldun has been in constant flux, as residents continuously re-build their houses.

Ibn Khaldun is no anomaly. Cities across Tunisia  are rapidly changing, a reflection of Tunisian’s own crisis of identity – our uncertainties over how we build our neighbourhoods reflects our anxieties over how we see ourselves. There is a sense that we have no clear idea about what defines our “us”, our culture and consequently our architectural specificities. The diverse panoply of backgrounds within Tunisian society– Turks, Moors, Romans, Arabs and ultimately the French — is reflected in our constant shifting tastes and cultural tendencies.

The multi-storey building is exemplary of this, a constant possibility in Tunisian culture, half-finished multi-story buildings dot the urban landscape memorialised by dormant columns rising from the tops of buildings. Elsewhere doors are transformed into windows or completely bricked up, leaving remnants of a previous life. Our cities today are in a constant state of becoming; never finished, much in the same way that Tunisians too, after the revolution, are soul-searching for a common identity.

The post revolutionary atmosphere has set in motion heated debates that have revealed an acute identity crisis across the country. The Islamist versus Secular hot button topic splintered the previously taken for granted identity we used to think we had (as Tunisians, Arabs, or Maghrebeans). This identity splinter is reflected in the way Tunisians build their living environments: homes, squares, cities. The definition of home today expands to be more than a special site, but to also become a reflection of the communal consciousness and identity of Tunisia.

Architectural crisis?

Tunisian architects’ educational background is of course a factor feeding an architectural crisis in the country. Architects, trained as they are in the Euro-American academy, remain entrenched within a postmodern education, importing western aesthetics and techniques that are foreign to Tunisia. On the other hand it is common to see an indiscriminate use of Islamic domes and horseshoe arches, attempts by Tunisians to hybridize their architectural style, estranging and breaking with the local experiences and particularities.

As Abid Sebii, an architect and lecturer at the National School of Architecture and Urbanism of Tunis (NSAUT), notes: “If you look at the old quarters of Mutuelleville and Montfleury, on the other hand, they are accomplished because they were in harmony with the owner’s will and taste…they reflect the harmony between the client and the architect. Now, what we desire is totally different from what we get from the architect, unfortunately.”

When it comes to state funded buildings, such as the ones built by the Société Nationale Immobilière de Tunisie (SNIT), no attention is paid to the way the city is perceived through the eyes of its citizens, the voyeurs. These buildings are mainly characterized by one mediocre balcony in the facade and a standardized interior architecture.

“As far as legislation is concerned, put aside Sidi Bou Said and the Medina, we rarely find urban planning regulations that define the aesthetics and characteristics of the architectural style of the city, taking into consideration the history of the place,” explained Hatem Kahloon, a lecturer at the Institut Superieur des Technologies de l’Environnement, de l’Urbanisme et du Batiment (Higher Institute of Environmental Technologies and Urban planning in Tunis).

Yet it is not only in the hands of the state to implement architectural regulations in the city. Local residents also have a role to play in safeguarding their architectural heritage. Further, the lack of skilled masons in the city complicates the issue. Masons tend to rush to finish buildings and generally avoid using complicated architectural styles, perhaps due to the very harsh labour conditions and the often intense heat of the summer when Tunisians prefer building work to be conducted. The building expenses are also very high in Tunisia and the more sophisticated the architecture, the more money people need to pay for masons to build professionally.

According to Sebii, the architect is a burden on the Tunisian: just a waste of money because no one takes architects’ designs seriously they just require a design. To get a building permit in Tunisia you first have to get the architect’s design. Architects generally lack a comprehensive vision, according to Kahloon. They are more interested in the piece to be designed and  rarely take the global overview of the city into consideration.

Yet, while many blame the designers, the responsibility too must fall upon the shoulders of citizens. Architects are trying to answer and meet the needs of their clientele. Architects can suggest what’s appropriate for the client, propose an architectural style and orient the citizen, but architects can not impose their own visions. They are there simply to impose technical norms.

Home is the reflection of the communal consciousness and cannot be looked upon separately from the rest of the city, nor as a technical imposition by “professional” designers. The unaccomplished homes in Tunis in particular very much reflect the unaccomplished city and its unaccomplished communal identity. Tunis has metropolized but the state lacks a comprehensive vision for the city as an ensemble. This goes hand in hand with Tunisian citizens who have developed the habit of home-ownership, a habit which prioritises efficiency, punctuality, and cost-effectiveness, leading to a rush toward building without thinking about the architecture and sustainability of design, without regard to complementing the city or complementing visions for accomplished houses for all.

Toward a better future?

Three years after the revolution we are invested in the long combustible trials of putting the past to a rest and doing with the previous regimes’ policies that had impacted the Tunisian identity. Now with the new consititution, dubbed as one of the  most progressive constitutions in the world (when it comes to health care, women’s rights, worker’s rights and climate change), many Tunisians are regaining a sense of national pride.  Tunisians are starting anew, shedding their skin for a future era that might be marked by a fervent return for the cultural roots. With the new consitution, the power is now at the hands of the local constituencies and municpalities to determine the future aesthetics of Tunisian cities. Strengthening the role of the municipal delegates and local authorities may bring salvation to the identity problems and wash away the confusion over what defines the Tunisian in terms of architecture. Akin to the municiplaity of Sidi Bousaid, the other local constituencies can enforce some Tunisian architectural aesthetics that citizens have to preserve in their future buildings. This may not only preserve the architectutal identity, but it can also help restore the cultural specificities that may reconcile the Tunisian with her cultural heritage and ultimately lead her to strengthen her sense of belonging and  pride herself in a culture not becoming, but now.

*Article produced in collaboration with opendemocracy.

 

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