I have been thinking about the notion of boundary — geographical, cultural, sexual, religious, philosophical — for a long time. I am interested in that issue, notably through the way architecture and urbanism have an impact on peoples’ everyday life, and particularly the way power has always used them to oppress pop- ulations.
One of the most famous politicians to have used this is Napoleon III. He came into power in 1848 fed up with the riots that occurred during the first half of 19th century. Afraid of a new revolution, Napoleon asked Baron Haussmann, then Prefect of Paris, to redesign the capital’s urbanism. At that time, popular neighborhoods of Paris were an entanglement of narrow and complicated streets. Napoleon III decided to make the neighborhoods easier to access in order to better control them in case of an uprising.
Baron Haussmann created wide boulevards, linking neighborhoods and surrounding Paris, to protect against fortifications (shantytowns) around the capital. The poorest populations were already separated from Paris by a boundary that still exists: Boulevard Périphérique. The segre- gation of the poor continues in France, as poorest of populations have been gathered in the ban- lieues (shantytowns).
During the 1930s, 1940s and the 1960s immigrant populations were placed in shanty- towns as soon as they arrived in France. My father arrived in 1957 at the Nanterre shantytown, and was moved to the Juvisy-sur-Orge. When the overpopulation of the shantytowns made life unbearable, social and health authorities placed families in public housing. Concrete buildings sprang up everywhere in French suburbs marking the beginning of social progress (public hous- ing units / Moderate Rent Houses) that became the banlieues, or open sky jails, as they are referred to by locals.
In Algiers, like in Paris, Baron Haussmann had a strong influence on urbanism such as the wide boulevards that run through the capital. Additionally, an architect in Algiers named Fernand Pouillon also worked for power, building experimental houses and attempting to create the first form of social progress. He loaned his name to what is now Cité Pouillon, one of the most pop- ular cities in Algiers. Cité Pouillon is a collection of buildings that resemble the French concrete banlieues by their austerity and their absence of identity. They look like big bunkers.
In Algiers, near the Bab el Oued neighborhood, there is a beach that young people nick- name “Rochers Carrés”. Constructed by Boumediene ́s government, it looks like a breakwater beach that is made out of huge concrete blocks, whose sides can be up to 3 or 4 meters, and faces the sea. Until age 16 I spent my summer vacations in Bab el Oued, one of Algiers’ poor neighborhoods, where young people go to hangout, smoke, fish and sometimes prostitute them- selves. Above all, they spend hours, sitting on the blocks, watching, as if hypnotized by boats going back and forth between Algeria and Europe.
This beach is the ultimate boundary that separates them from this continent but above all from their dreams about a better life. This massive and strange construction imprisons them in their cruel reality, as it is also the case in French banlieues, where many immigrants end up. As time goes by, I find it ironic to have grown up in the middle of concrete buildings of Parisian ban- lieues, and to have frequently spent my summer vacations playing on this beach’s blocks, also made out of concrete.
The architecture of this beach and the way it has been created look like the urbanism of Parisian banlieues. Do these young people, who scrutinize the horizon hoping to find an answer to their misery, know what kind of environment they will end up in when they will have accom-plished the journey through the Mediterranean Sea? The boundary embodied by this beach is not only physical; it is also psychological. Nevertheless, as years go by, I realize that some sim- ilarities exist on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea. The hard existence of these young Algerian people reminds me of that experienced by young people in the French banlieues: the same lack of hope in the future, same sexual misery, same frustration, same lack of social acknowledge- ment, same feeling of failure and same suffering.
On the surface level, there is no boundary. Poverty indeed has no boundaries. Still, these young people keep on dreaming about a world they think is better on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea, whereas reality is worse and worse for illegal immigrants in rich countries — France or elsewhere. Often stated by the young people who try risk the danger of crossing the Mediterranean Sea and often perish on makeshift boats: “I would rather be eaten by fishes than by worms.”