Oscar Niemeyer in Algeria

By Eric Broug

The Université des Sciences et de la Technologie Houari-Boumediene, just outside Algiers, is one of the twelve buildings designed for Algeria by one of the great architects of the twentieth century, Oscar Niemeyer. Only four were ever completed, the other eight were abandoned when Boumediene, the second president of Algeria died.

Niemeyer is better known for this architectural projects in Brazil in Europe, so it is all the more fascinating to come across some of his lesser known works.

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I attended a conference in Algeria for academic publishers a few years ago. At the last minute, the venue was changed from the huge Palais de la Culture, perched high up on the hills overlooking Algiers. Instead we were driven to a university campus outside the city centre. I did not realise that our publishers conference was held at one of North Africa’s modernist masterpieces but as soon as I walked across the campus from where the taxi dropped us off to the venue, it became clear to me that this was a significant architectural environment. It presented a comprehensive, all-encompassing creative vision.

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Knowing the artist of a masterpiece before you first see it, spoils the experience in a way because you are aware that the consensus is that it is a masterpiece. It makes it more difficult to have an authentic, personal interaction. So, it was all the more memorable for me to be to experience the bold vision of Oscar Niemeyer as he intended. Once Algerian campus wifi permitted, I was able to discover who the architect was. I snuck away from my stand at the publisher’s conference as often as possible and walked around the campus, discovering the shapes, the vistas, the long lines disappearing to a vanishing point.   

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Two other things that I remember about that day spent at Oscar Niemeyer’s university campus in Algeria: Inside one of the main buildings was a large faded mural of Frantz Fanon, anti-colonialist, Marxist revolutionary, author of The Wretched of the Earth and member of the Algerian National Liberation Front. Secondly, the taxi driver got into a verbal altercation with the gentleman who was in charge of allowing cars to leave the campus. Unsurprisingly, the wooden beam would only be lifted if some money exchanged hands.  As we finally left the campus, my vexed taxi driver informed me that in Algeria this is called “pouvoir du plankton”. People will exert power to their advantage, however limited it is.

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