5 March 2010

Modernism in Cansado, Mauritania - 1966, Architectural Digest

In a hotel and "cultural embassy" in the former dockland quarter of Amsterdam, I found old copies of Architectural Digest magazine from 1966, back when modernism was still modern.

I remember being surpised in urbanism school just how 'developing world' modernism really was. Paris may have been Haussmannised, but high modernism only got the chance to realise its urban masterplans in the places where city development was still somehow new - and planning legislation in its infancy. An April 1966 copy of Architectural Digest offered an amazing case study of this: from Mauritanian desert, from nowhere, the construction of a new town, called Cansado.



The magazine described it like this:

"In 1952 Milferma, a mining company, was formed to exploit the rich iron deposits in the Kedia d'Idjil mountains near Fort Gouraud. The considerable yield, in the region of six million ton a year, posed transport and administrative problems. A railway was built from Fort Gouraud to Port Etienne, 636 kilometres away, from where the ore could be shipped to Europe. Port Etienne, a makeshift conglomeration of fishermen's huts and military installations was suitable neither as a port nor as a town for the staff administering the port and railhead. It was decided therefore to plan a new town, Cansado, in the neighbourhood."



"Planning started in 1957. Homes for 5000 were to be provided in the first instance, though an eventual population of 35,000 was envisaged. The peninsula on which the new town was to be built is neatly divided between the north-south frontier between the Rio de Oro (Spanish Sahara) and Mauritania, but the coastline available, overlooking the great Levrier bay, was in any case the most protected and suitable for development. The whole consists of a soft and porous sandstone. There is no arable earth. Winds tear across the sandstone and sand erosion presents a considerable problem. Neither the temperatures nor the humidity are excessive. Rainfall is low. Dry winds are liable to cause discomfort from three to five months of the year (at its worst in August and September)."





"The nature of the site, the varied human and social forces, all have greatly affected the form of the development. Houses are oriented north-south, with few openings on the north. Materials have been chosen for their low thermal transmission. Buildings have been kept low to protect and shelter the site. But it is the different ethnic and social background of the inhabitants that has most marked the character of the town. The inhabitants of a wide and distinct origin have different needs. The Arab workers, for instance, wanted houses that allowed all domestic activity to centre around a courtyard that was altogether private. The administrative staff placed more emphasis on the need for cross-ventilation and a view. The whole was thus divided into various quarters, each with its own centre, which was related to the main one which is to be extended when the town is enlarged at a later stage."

"Seven hundred and fifty houses together with churches, mosques, schools and shops were built between 1961 and 1963. The structural system was the same for all houses - load-bearing outer walls of a lightweight aggregate concrete, identical tie beams and cross-beams, enabling all elements to be prefabricated in a temporary factory."




In the 50 years since it is hard to see how a town of 5,000 - let alone the proposed 35,000 - could prosper simply from a railhead, and a port. In this age of automation, where are the jobs? The trains running from Zouerat may perhaps be the longest in the world, but what that means is all that freight only requires one driver. Nonetheless, lafraque on Flickr shows that Cansardo's buildings are still gleaming white, and still apparently uninhabited:



There is another perspective on these places, you understand. First I found these words on the Wikipedia page for Zouérat, another modernist European oasis constructed at the other end of the rail line, in land. Perhaps they will be edited out by moderators seeking to preserve an objective tone. I want to keep them. Whoever wrote them - Mauritanian or not - I think they say something:

"Zouerat is born at the end of the 1950's from nothing, at the end of the Kedia's glacis. The raw materials is transported from Nouadhibou by trucks, on the same way than the future Mauritania railway. Its plan is clear and well ventilated. Three places are made for europeans workers, commanders and executives. All the europeans houses are air-conditionned and furnished.
...
A shanty town grows around and a wall is made to separate the two cities. It is called "mur de la honte" (wall of shame) by the zouerati. The lack of houses for the mauritanians workers has gone to build new flats between Zouerate and the Kediet.

The climate is dry (no mosquito), and the most displeasing is the sand wind.

In 1976, the polisario attacks. A lot of Europeans leave and do not comme back."

And now the Mauritanian coast is another kind of modern, a nodal point of another global trade not in mineral ores but in people. They are not only West Africans: The NY Times reported in 2008 of an Italian fishing trawler towed into Nouadhibou carrying 369 people trying to reach Europe who had come from a continent away: Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Burma, India and Pakistan.

"A new route has opened up", the UN say. From South East Asia migrants fly to Dubai or Abu Dhabi, and thence to Addis Ababa. Then Ethiopian Airlines to Bamako in Mali, Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, or Dakar in Senegal. Then to the ports: Nouadhibou, Conakry, Dakar, and the hope of the the porous points in the European border: the Canary islands; Ceuta & Melilla, Spanish enclaves in North Africa, now closely walled; the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Consequently the Global Detention Project note that:

"Mauritania operates one dedicated immigration detention centre in Nouadhibou, nicknamed “Guantanamito” by detainees, which has been sharply criticised for its poor conditions (USCRI 2009; Amnesty 2008a; CEAR 2008; WGAD 2008; Reuters 2006).
...
Spain’s involvement in establishing the detention centre has raised questions over which authority controls the facility. While the centre is officially managed by the Mauritanian National Security Service (NSS), it is not governed by any regulations applicable to detention centres in the country (Amnesty 2008a, p. 24). Rather, as stated by Mauritanian officials “clearly and emphatically” to a delegation from CEAR in October 2008, Mauritanian authorities perform their jobs at the express request of the Spanish government (ESW 2009).
...
The high number of migrants taken in on a monthly basis has led to severe overcrowding, as noted by several groups who visited in 2008 (Amnesty 2008a; CEAR 2008; WGAD 2008). According to Amnesty, in March 2008 there were 216 bunk beds spread throughout the former classrooms, although only three rooms were being used during their visit. The organization reported that during its visit “a group of 35 who had been expelled by Morocco were being held in a room measuring 8m by 5m, with bars at the windows, which contained 17 bunk beds” (Amnesty 2008a, p. 21)"

So. From high modernism, to a room of displaced people in disputed state space and 1 sq m per person.

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