So here his story dated May 26, 2019, and titled Oscar Niemeyer in Algeria: Modernism in the Maghreb.
After spending time among the seminal modernist architect’s works in Brasília the year prior, I was keen to see more of his futuristic and red-adjacent vision in other parts of the world. And despite an array, impressive works in France and Tripoli, Lebanon, my heart was set on Africa.
Oscar Niemeyer, Brazil and Beyond
But Oscar Niemeyer had a long road from Rio de Janeiro to Algeria, and to get the right context, we need to start in Brazil.
Oscar Niemeyer is the 20th century’s quintessential Brazilian architect. He joined the modernist movement after an extended relationship with Le Corbusier in Rio, where Niemeyer served as a drafter in the 1930s. After a thrilling exhibition at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, Niemeyer began his relationship with Juscelino Kubitschek, future president of Brazil, who promoted Niemeyer’s works heavily in his home state of Minas Gerais. Ultimately, Niemeyer achieved national icon status after his completion of Brasília – his crowning glory.
General Castelo Branco’s military coup and successive dictatorship spelt trouble for Niemeyer, an out and proud Communist. Ultimately, he left Brazil for Paris in 1967, where the Algerian connection was made.
Houari Boumediene, the second president of independent Algeria, was a socialist himself, and wanted an architect of Niemeyer’s stature and belief system to design modern universities in the fledgling nation’s major cities of Algiers and Constantine. The work took the better half of a decade (1969-1975), and resulted in the Mentouri University in Constantine, the Houari Boumediene University of Science and Technology in Algiers, and a modern sports hall called “La Cupole” thrown in for good measure. Many of Niemeyer’s plans for Algiers remain unrealized, such as the flamboyant Revolutionary Mosque.
I had to see them.
Traveling and photography as an independent-minded traveler are tough in Algeria. More often than not, you’ll travel with a military escort, bureaucracy for even the simplest seeming tasks is maddening, and many places are simply off limits. Case in point, upon my arrival to the country, I was told to “not take a photo of anything if there is an Algerian flag.” As in, no government buildings, public spaces, or any place a brutophile would consider interesting for photography.
I wondered if I would be granted access to the campuses at all, and if so, would I be allowed to take photos? I was in Algeria near the beginning of the anti-Bouteflika protests of March and April 2019, so security was tighter than normal. I was very aware of the benefits of not looking like a journalist.
Mentouri University of Constantine/Constantine 1 University (1969-1972)
Mentouri University of Constantine was Oscar Niemeyer’s first project in Algeria. Built in Constantine, Algeria’s third city and commonly thought of as its eastern capital, it is of a rather modest scale – at least when comparing the campus to Niemeyer’s work in Brasília or Bab Ezzouar.
For the casual visitor, Mentouri was the easier of the two universities to access. I had arranged a city tour in Constantine, and asked if it were possible to skip a couple of the city’s famous bridges to see the university instead. While my guide thought this was a rather strange request, she obliged, and we headed to the Mentouri University after a lunch of hmiss (fire roasted peppers and tomatoes with olive oil) and delicate Algerian shakshuka.
Campus is located across town from Constantine’s historic core, on the road to the airport. From far away one can see the university’s female dormitories stacked low on the crest of one of the city’s many hills, right next to the looming, fortress-like Marriott Hotel. We parked outside the main gate and made our way to the rectory, the tallest building on campus, hoping to be able to look over the concrete from a high vantage point. On the losing side of bureaucratic red tape, we weren’t allowed to enter, and instead made our way around the grounds as inconspicuously as possible. A tall task when you’re the only ones on campus.
Oscar Niemeyer designed the campus with various objects of learning as inspiration. The main lecture hall building was shaped like a ruler, shops like pencil erasers, and the library with an entrance made to resemble a pencil sharpener. Niemeyer’s centerpiece of the campus was the quite literal administration building modeled after an open book. With concrete wings arched high over campus to represent the pages of a book, the building supplies the concrete fiend with plenty of shadows and geometry to frame inside one’s viewfinder. It was even possible (though not expressly permitted) to climb the pages of the book to the top of the building – useful to get a panoramic view of the campus when not allowed inside the rectory.
Photography was relatively simple – so long as I had my guides by my side. No sooner had I split off from my minders to snoop around with my DSLR, I was approached by several men who I assume were plainclothes policemen. They asked to see my passport and why I was taking photos. In situations like this, my approach is simple: Smile a lot, compliment them on their beautiful country, and play dumb as a rock. Our encounter was quick, and we parted ways smiling – myself because I’d gotten off scot-free, and them because of their strange encounter with a strange foreigner.
Houari Boumediene University of Science and Technology (comp. 1974)
After finishing Mentouri University, Niemeyer started on a project of grander scale – the Houari Boumediene University of Science and Technology, named for the second president of independent Algeria and a socialist chum of Niemeyer’s. The university is located in Bab Ezzouar, a satellite city of Algiers near the airport.
The university is rather complicated to visit. In fact, when I visited I found more security guards than actual students. How I came to see the university was very much kismet; I met a friend on Couchsurfing who, as it turned out, worked at the university, and he kindly offered to show me around. Security was certainly tight, and it helped immensely to be under the care of an actual employee. I took all photos discretely with my iPhone, as my friend told me it was too conspicuous and suspicious to carry around a professional-looking camera.
I arrived back to Algiers early in the morning from Constantine, and my new partner in architecture photography crime picked me up from the airport. He stood tall and gaunt, and spoke frankly about his own desire to travel the world. Algerian passports, however, are not among the world’s most powerful, granting visa free access to just a few neighboring nations formerly part of French West Africa, and strangely enough, Ecuador. He’d recently been in Tunisia – driving the grueling fourteen hours to he border, simply to spend a day in a different place.
Bab Ezzouar was unlike downtown Algiers – grittier and more lived in. We wound through traffic, casually careening about in a human game of Frogger. And we chatted about my visit and how strange he thought it was for me to be so far away from home, alone, and visiting a near-empty university on the wrong side of town. I guess that is strange.
The university was empty for a reason, though. I visited Algeria in the midst of the largest scale protests in thirty years, ultimately ending with then-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepping down from office.
The protests continue now, every Friday, even during Ramadan – as of May 25, 2019, protests are seeking to prevent the postponement of a scheduled July election. If you’re interested in learning more about the current political unrest in Algeria, here’s where you should start.
The entrance to the university was nondescript. Just a low-hanging, rusted iron (dare I say prison-looking?) gate. I admit to a tinge of Western-panic – Where was my just-met-you-off-the-internet friend taking me? Would he rob me with his mother in the back seat? Why again did that person block you on Couchsurfing? But fear quickly dissolved as the moldy concrete came into view as we swerved to avoid potholes on the main road into campus.
We started off through a long corridor of classrooms, half underground, of sexy poured concrete. Despite being roofed, the string of lecture halls was open air, with a gorgeous administration building (very similar to his work immediately following, back in Brasília) to the right.
Further exploration into the guts of the university led us through its commons and cafeteria, and into various department buildings, each with their own unique architectural embellishments. One highlight was the school’s library and its interior decorated with aged dusty orange, teal, and coral carpeting. It smelled like mothballs and sleeping volumes.
The school’s main auditorium was a treat, too. Resembling a boat on its side, it is surrounded halfway by a reflecting pool. Well, not so reflecting when I was there, more a thriving algae environment – Mashallah, life springs eternal!
Rounding the back side of the auditorium, my friend told me, “Back here is where women come to smoke.”
My guardian angel was then kind enough to drive me into downtown Algiers to my hotel, despite it being half an hour out of his way. This ubiquitous hospitality was one of the only constants during my time in Algeria, and has me keen to revisit and spread its gospel.
As I was with a connection I made on Couchsurfing, I did not visit Houari Boumediene University of Science and Technology with a tour guide. That said, I’m sure Wassim at Algeria Tours could easily arrange a visit for those who are interested. Wassim gave me tremendous service and helped me visit some rather off the beaten track places, and I’d recommend using his service to anyone with an interest in going to Algeria.
Architecturally, Algeria is better known for its Roman ruins and French colonial influence than modernism. But for the modernist architecture snob or beton brut obsessed, Algeria is a great destination, so long as you do your research, and are willing to play by local rules around security and photography. Make friends, and be as inconspicuous as possible – difficult for this particular fair-skinned person. And if you find some students, please do let me know.
For more pictures, see the original document.