By Gabriele Oropallo, on 20 March 2011
Al Bayyadah is a town in Cyrenaica that was founded in 1938 and originally called D’Annunzio, after the famous Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. These agricultural settlements were built around an architectural core formed by a church, an administrative building, and a section of the Fascist party, which functioned as space for events and public gatherings: “God, Fatherland and Family”. The image is taken from a publication called “The Twenty Thousand. Photographic Documentary of the First Mass Colonial Migration in the frame of the Intensive Demographic Colonisation Plan”: I Ventimila. Documentario fotografico della 1. Migrazione in massa di coloni in Libia per il piano di colonizzazione demografica intensiva (Tripoli: Maggi, 1938).
Art historian Elisabetta Longari on Domus decries the damage that the Italian colonial architecture in Libya suffered through the Allied bombings in the Second World War and the erratic post-colonialist fury of the dictator. I had once the chance of viewing the videos Lorenzo Pezzani shot during the first stages of his research in the after-lives of colonial buildings in Libya. It is surprising how much has been left behind, most interestingly the colonial settlements, which in their structure are surprisingly similar to the West Bank settlements of today. It is true, as Longari says, that what is still standing survived “simply because there was no will to destroy it”. She adds that true conservation of the built heritage also means “renovate, reinterpretate, rehabilitate” and calls on the Italian government and other Italian institutions to intervene to save this wealth of heritage. This is a delicate task, not only because of the risk to reiterate colonial attitudes to space, but especially because to this day an atlas of the afterlives of this as other colonial architecture is still lacking.
Alessandro Petti of Decolonizing Architecture proposed that three general approaches can be discerned in dealing with evacuated colonial architecture: destruction, re-occupation, and subversion. Destruction is often based on the desire to turn time backwards, reverse development into virgin nature, or into a tabula rasa on which all potential forms of development and land use would be possible. This is a very appealing approach, particularly given the abhorrence aroused by colonial development, although demolitions or even the forced ruralization of built-up areas may sometimes create further planning problems or environmental damage. Another strong temptation present throughout the histories of decolonization was re-occupation of colonial buildings and infrastructure and reuse them in the very same way they were used under colonial regimes. Such repossessions tended to reproduce some of the colonial power relations in space: colonial villas were inhabited by new financial elites and palaces by political ones, while the evacuated military and police installations of colonial armies, as well as their prisons, were often used by the governments that replaced them, recreating similar spatial hierarchies. Subversion, finally, aims at profanation of structures that are both symbol and instruments of spacial control, in order to restore the common use of spaces. The first stage when looking at colonial architecture in Libya should be investigating how and whether these strategies have been used and – in perspective – how they could be used on buildings and urban centres on which intervention is still possible.
The word I like in Longari’s article is “reinterpretation”. In fact, we also have to reckon with the fact that no building should be allowed the privilege to last forever. In a way, sometimes the energy spent in harnessing the space must be released to be vital again – and this is a form of reinterpretation. Sometimes monuments that crumble down are not “lost”, but “regained”.
The right the local population indeed has to be granted now is exactly the right to reinterpretate. These attacks launched today with the Odissey Dawn operation will surely claim more lives, may they be Libyans or mercenaries. The Europeans could not afford losing access to Libya’s oil, the Arab League is happy to do away with the Libyan dictator’s antics and the international public opinion could not take the news of the brave rebels being crushed any longer. A tricky alliance of intentions, most certainly. We cannot anticipate where this will lead, but in the short term anything seemed better than just seeing mercenaries slaughtering freedom fighters. In the medium term all depends on the right leadership emerging from the rebels, a leadership that is able to twist this mismatched alliance of intentions and reinterpretate it toward the best outcome for the Libyan people.