When celebrated Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer died in 2012 he was venerated the world over. But amongst all the eulogies to the United Nations buildings, to the French Communist Party headquarters and, of course, to Brasilia, some of his boldest, most politically significant works barely received a mention.
In 1968, six years after Algeria’s hard won independence, the country’s socialist president, Houari Boumediene, asked Niemeyer – then a communist exile in Paris – to help transform the country into a modern, outward looking nation.
Between 1968 and 1975 Niemeyer designed two enormously ambitious university campuses for the fledgling state, as well as ‘la Coupole’, a standalone Olympic sports hall. Niemeyer considered the University of Mentouri in Constantine (1969-1972), ‘one of my best projects…. I was reluctant to create another university campus; rather, I wanted this one to reflect contemporary architectural practice’. Whilst the Houari Boumediene University of Science and Technology (1972-1974), is no less impressive. Located on the outskirts of Algiers, its scores of sometimes angular, sometimes curved buildings push concrete towards its sculptural, even poetic limits.
In 2013 Jason Oddy spent the summer investigating this remarkable modernist legacy. His aim was twofold. Firstly, to highlight these forgotten or at least hard to visit masterpieces of twentieth century architecture. Secondly – and perhaps more critically – to ask how these places which had been designed to forge and empower Algeria’s postcolonial generation might still be relevant today.
After four decades marked by disillusion and a bloody fifteen-year civil war, it’s hard to match present-day Algeria with the one Niemeyer encountered. ‘The country’s conquest of freedom had brought about a wonderful transformation that I could sense in the euphoria and easy laughter of its people’, he wrote in his memoirs. Yet with the region in the throes of another great political upheaval, this architecture of liberation is crying out to be remembered and for its values to be brought into circulation again.
With his slow-moving, large format camera Oddy immersed himself for days, sometimes weeks, in each of Niemeyer’s three Algerian projects. The precise and sensitised body of work Oddy produced attempts to show how such an architecture might shape the people who inhabit it. The work also seeks to reinscribe this architecture of hope into the often less than positive political discourse that since those heady post-revolutionary days has everywhere come to predominate.
Niemeyer was a lifelong leftist. Faced with these images of his universities in Constantine and Algiers, it is impossible not to feel that they are true democratic spaces, an open, sovereign society their goal. Such a vision might appear at odds with some of the details discernible in Oddy’s work. But despite the disjointed furniture or the fractured concrete, Niemeyer’s buildings manage to defy the grim gravity of history, the many distinctly unmodernist modifications visited upon them less a desecration and more a reflection of various possible futures. All lying dormant in these inspiring structures, waiting for the moment they might yet tip Algeria their way.
Jason Oddy’s work is an investigation of place. From the Pentagon to Guantanamo Bay, and from ex-Soviet sanatoria to cryonics facilities in America, it seeks to take us beyond the specific sites that he painstakingly photographs to the ideas and forces that lie behind them.
His work has been exhibited internationally including at The Photographers’ Gallery (London), Yossi Milo Gallery (New York) and Paris Photo. The series Concrete Spring has recently been exhibited at the Milan Triennale, the Tropenmusem (Amsterdam) and currently forms part of the exhibition “Made in Algeria, Généalogie d’un territoire” at the MuCEM (Marseilles). Oddy’s work is held in a number of important public and private collections including those of the Wellcome Foundation, Channel 4, Citibank Private Bank, the Michael Wilson Centre For Photography and the Elton John collection.
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