You are here:Home/News/ Oilcan City in Casablanca

Oilcan City in Casablanca

Posted On July 25, 2019 | 15:57 pm | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Sheila Crane challenges the “Slumdog Millionaire” narrative in colonial Moroccan history

Sheila Crane, associate professor and chair of architectural history at the University of Virginia, was a recent Mellon Fellow in Urban Landscape Studies. Her Mellon Midday Dialogue, “Towards a History of the Bidonville/Karian as Urban Landscape,” traced the emergence and transformations of the shantytown in Morocco, Algeria, and France between the 1920s and 1970s.

Q&A with Sheila Crane

What was a bidonville?

In the 1920s, Morocco was under French control, and there was considerable interest in using the latest architecture and urban planning to transform cities like Casablanca and Rabat into showcases of France’s global power and economic prestige.

The few new housing projects the French Protectorate initiated for local populations could not accommodate rapidly growing numbers of workers who were drawn to the city. While the French state and select industrial firms sponsored workers’ housing initiatives, there was a disconnect between the scale of those projects and the need.

Generally speaking, bidonville means “container city.” Bidon referred to metal containers, and by the 1920s it more specifically referenced oil barrels that were flattened down and used as building materials. So you could say bidonville translates as “oilcan city.”

Between the 1920s and the first decade after World War II, the shantytown began to develop at a new scale around the world. The term bidonville first appears in the popular press around 1930 in reference to seemingly unplanned, spontaneous settlements created in Casablanca by recent migrants from rural areas. This is around the same time the favela emerged in Brazil and urban planners began decrying slums in cities like Mumbai. I’m interested in looking at the bidonville as one important thread in a global history of similar forms of urbanization.


How has your research surprised you?

I’ve been surprised by the degree to which the voices of bidonville dwellers can be excavated from existing documentation, including the fact that residents in Casablanca used the term karian, a local Arabic variant on the French word for quarry, instead of bidonville. Many larger communities formed their own neighborhood committees, which often successfully pressured the city to provide services and utilities, efforts that were reported in the press. For later iterations of the bidonville in Casablanca, as well as in Marseille and the suburbs of Paris, there have been more recent efforts to collect oral histories from former residents.

Beginning in the late 1940s, Michel Écochard, a celebrated figure in the history of modern architecture, was head of urban planning in Casablanca. I was surprised to discover that Écochard and his colleagues were, in fact, implementing many strategies that had been initiated in the previous decade.

Almost from the very moment the term bidonville came into existence, there were strategic efforts to forcibly displace residents into new, regimented settlements, administered directly by the city. Ironically, the same political authorities who were actively reshaping the bidonville continued to insist these were unauthorized, spontaneous settlements. They disavowed their role in the situation: subjecting people to aggressive administrative and even police control without providing the infrastructure available to other city residents, including sewer systems, electricity, trash collection, and water provision.


How could your historical research help us better manage the urban environment today, a key goal of the Mellon Initiative in Urban Landscape Studies?

Ananya Roy has observed that there are two opposing perspectives through which the slum has been understood: either as a product of heroic ingenuity or as the result of dire crisis and unmitigated failure. A film like Slumdog Millionaire, for instance, is important insofar as it introduces a broader public to spaces and urban dynamics they may be completely unfamiliar with. But the film also trades on tropes that are remarkably close to those that appeared in the popular press in Casablanca in the early 1930s, focused on the frisson of perceived danger and the recasting of urban poverty as a picturesque landscape.

The Dumbarton Oaks online resource documenting the history of Ottoman and North African and Andalusian gardens has helped me better understand the history of key sites in Morocco and Algeria long before they came under French control and were transformed into communities designated as bidonvilles. For instance, in Algiers, the Mahieddine bidonville, which was the focus of a now-famous study by a group of modern architects, developed on the site of a luxurious villa and extensive terraced garden created on the outskirts of the capital city during the Ottoman period.

My research considers the multiple forces at work in the creation and proliferation of the bidonville as an urban landscape and as a concept that enforced an absolute distinction between these sites and the surrounding city. To move forward, we first need to recognize the integral relationship between seemingly unplanned and planned urban landscapes. How can we grapple with the environmental and social challenges posed by radically uneven urban development if we don’t understand the historical dynamics that shaped such disparities in cities around the world?


Julia Ostmann is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, postgraduate digital media fellow.