Two shows in London, by Yto Barrada and Ala Younis, suggest that the unwritten future need not be as unjust or limiting as the erased past
In the postcard, the space-age restaurant La Réserve is still standing. Built on the shoreline of Agadir, Morocco, in the early 1950s, by the architects Maurice Bassières and Emile Duhon, the building still looks like an astonishing glimpse of the future. It lasted less than a decade. 20 minutes before midnight on 29 February 1960, while locals were celebrating Ramadan, the earthquake struck. It lasted not much longer than 10 seconds and was deemed moderate in intensity, except for the fact that its power was directly focused below the settlement. Few of the structures were built to withstand the force. Resting on stilts, La Réserve collapsed in on itself. So too did the city around it. A mosque roof fell in on its worshippers. Almost every building in the Talborjt district of the Moroccan city was destroyed, along with their occupants. Fires soon broke out and plagues of rats emerged throughout the ruins. What was left of Agadir had to be abandoned while bulldozers cleared the rubble and the bodies. At least 12,000 people lost their lives.
To understand a city, it is important to examine not just what exists in the built environment but also what used to exist. Structures, and their inhabitants, leave traces; sometimes in the memories of citizens (and accompanying ephemera like photographs), and sometimes in remnants or absences in the surroundings. The Barbican Centre in London is one such place. Its Roman fort has, partially at least, survived the centuries, while nearby Cripplegate did not make it through the Blitz. For all its cultural vibrancy, the complex itself, with its brutalist towers and walkways, offers a sense of what the future used to be. It is a place where time is no longer subliminal.
For her installation in the Barbican’s Curve gallery, Moroccan artist Yto Barrada has connected London with Agadir, joining the two via the imaginary concrete bridge of brutalism but also a combined sense of reconstruction and burial. Both cities have been rebuilt many times after disasters and yet complete rebirth is impossible. ‘So Agadir, the city, is new,’ Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary after the disaster, ‘Born anew, bridal white, and the soft gray of the burnoose. New market, and new shops.’ Yet nothing is entirely new. The concrete modernist structures that were soon erected in Agadir were surrounded not just by enduring elements of the earlier city that shared its name but also by that which had not survived. Given the presence and absence of these fragments (the Dutch inscription at the Casbah from 1746, for instance, translating ‘Fear God and honour the King’), Barrada adopts a multi-media approach. Actors perform scenes from Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s previously-untranslated Agadir (1967). ‘The book [was written by] a bureaucrat sent to do a report on the city’ Barrada explains ‘who doesn’t do what the commission asks him to do. He comes back with a poem-novel.’ There are architectural renderings on the walls, manipulated found footage, a collage series, wicker furniture, and multiple voices. ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’ T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land (1922). Barrada does the reverse; discerning fragments, and those they belonged to, from the ruins.
Alongside ‘what once was’, there is another factor that contextualizes the city of the present – ‘what could have been’. In the late 1950s, the young king of Iraq, Faisal II, embarked on a programme to revitalize the city. To do so, he sought out the talents of the greatest architects of the modernist age including Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. Never burdened by modesty, Wright expanded his opera house commission into an entire Plan for Greater Baghdad with bridges, islands and colossal statues, all informed by his childhood love of One Thousand and One Nights and harking back to the ancient round city of Baghdad with its celebrated House of Wisdom. Wright’s incarnation of Baghdad would exist only in drawings. The young king would be lined up with his family and shot by his own soldiers during the 14 July Revolution in 1958, which gave rise to a turbulent republic and eventually the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. The instability, repressions and wars that followed are marked in urban space. Saddam left his mark with structures like the bisected turquoise dome of the Al-Shaheed Monument, the crossed Swords of Qādisīyah, and the minarets shaped like scud missiles and kalashnikovs at the Umm al-Qura Mosque. When the US invaded, they took over palaces, towers, and sports stadiums turning them into military camps and bases, building the Baghdad Wall and establishing the Green Zone. For many years, the actual citizens of the capital rarely appeared in the international media as anything other than fatalities; this too being defined by urban space with the bombings of Sadr City, Karrada, Al-Mustansiriya University, the stampede on Al-Aaimmah bridge and so on.
Alluding to, and subverting, Frank Lloyd Wright’s title, Ala Younis’s exhibition ‘Plan for Feminist Greater Baghdad’ at Delfina Foundation is almost as much about deletion as creation. Like Barrada, she collects and recreates fragments from those who are often left out of the mainstream discourse. Centred around another brutalist building, Le Corbusier’s Baghdad Gymnasium, Younis demonstrates wave after wave of grand architectural projects, their successes and failures, and the men who produced them. She also crucially allows female voices to speak, through architectural models, photographs, and documents; showing that women like Balkis Sharara, Nazik al-Malaika, Nuha al-Radi and Ellen Jawdat were crucial figures on the development of Baghdad and indeed how they offered other possible versions of the city. The unwritten future, Barrada and Younis suggest in two enlightening exhibitions, need not be as unjust or limiting as the erased past.
Main image: Yto Barrada, Lyautey Unit Blocks (Play), 2010, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Courtesy: © Yto Barrada, The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence, 2017