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Concrete Spring: Oscar Niemeyer’s work in Algeria

Rarely seen projects in Algerian designed by Brasilia architect Oscar Niemeyer are the focus of a new photography exhibition at Smiths Row, Bury St Edmonds

From 1969 to 1975 Brazilian architect Niemeyer – in exile from his homeland for his Communist leanings – worked at the invitation of Algerian president Houari Boumedienne to help create a new vision for the country.

Niemeyer’s built projects in Algiers, which include two universities – the University of Science and Technology and University of Mentouri – and La Coupole, an Olympic sports hall, are the focus of an exhibition of works by architectural photographer Jason Oddy at Smiths Row.

Oddy said: ‘These buildings were Houari’s way of projecting the idea of Algeria as a modern, outward-looking nation. The president was trying to internationalise the country and to influence a new generation.’

He added: ‘Niemeyer’s architectural style provided a clean break with the past. Niemeyer was also a communist, and with Houari’s socialist leanings, this connection should not be underplayed.’

The photograhper’s project began in November 2010 when he took up an EU-sponsored residency in Algiers to look at the architectural heritage of the country. He says that the beginning of the Arab Spring soon after he arrived gave a political aspect to his work from the beginning, with the architecture of Algeria’s postcolonial generation resonating with recent developments in the region.

Oddy said: ‘I was drawn to this architecture because of its relevance to now. Niemeyer’s architecture was trying to do then what these political movements in the region are trying to do now; to open up societies and to improve democracy.’

He added: ‘Niemeyer’s spaces are very democratic – they have a very democratic feel to them, and were built by Niemeyer to foster a democratic attitude between student bodies and between faculties. As an example, the Humanities Block at the University of Mentouri was designed with no barriers between departments, to try and remove hierarchies.’

However, the buildings have been badly maintained, with poverty, the civil war and even an earthquake adding to the damage and neglect.

‘Before the civil war, people were more mindful of looking after these places. Since then, there has not been enough care of these Modernist masterpieces,’ said Oddy.

‘But I don’t want to overstate the neglect, as it detracts from the interest in the buildings themselves. I didn’t approach the project as if I were photographing ruins.’  

Mentouri University, Constantine, Algeria, 2013. Photo: Jason Oddy

Mentouri University, Constantine, Algeria, 2013. Photo: Jason Oddy

Concrete Spring
Until 15 March 2014 – Smiths Row, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk
From 25 March to 5 May – University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield
Admission: Free


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