Tim Abrahams

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Casablanca: The romance of a city

Canadian Centre for Architecture January 2014

If it is hard to separate Michel Ecochard the popular persona from a calm consideration of his pioneering work as a planner, then in some ways his book Casablanca: Le roman d’une ville makes the separation even harder. To add to the image we have of him as a planner-adventurer— the photographs of him conducting aerial surveys from the cockpit of his own aeroplane or riding his motorbike into areas of the bidonvilles that even Morroccans shunned—we have his thoughtful book. It was first published in 1955 and it offers an often unexpected response to the tumultuous times in which he planned new areas of Casablanca.

Let this civil servant die, but let the city live on.
On one level it is pragmatic. The book begins Ecochard’s description of Casablanca with the Place de France—he contended that everything starts at Place de France—and expands out in an ever widening gyre through the villas of the European districts into the bidonvilles. It is quite literally a tour de force, both of observation and description. The chapter is driven forward not simply by Ecochard’s ability to convey the energy of what he always refers to as a young city in a young country but also by his feeling that the youthful energy of the city is confounded by the complete lack of planning. The book ends with his descriptions of the new neighbourhoods in which priority is given to the pedestrian, in which there is plenty of public space, in which there is as much flexibility built in as possible.

Much of what Ecochard proposes is well known – his planning grid of 8m x 8m in particular. Less well known is what he says about the management of the city before his arrival. Ecochard presents a very clear picture of what Morocco’s fate was under colonial administration. He states that from the delivery of a plan by Henri Prost until his own tenure, there was no planning done in Casablanca, just the maintenance of attractive town squares in the city centre. His description of life at that time is telling: “In order to please the topography and legal experts that were put there, Morocco should have remained static, following the slow-paced life of our sub-prefectures, ignoring the fever of new countries, industries and business that creates, despite all opposition, beautiful, grand or terrible things,” he writes.

Given that the book was published as the terms of Moroccan independence from France were being decided, it is surprising that Ecochard couches his description of the political nature of planning in a technocratic way, citing the need to create a specialized department for urbanism and for wider co-ordination of planning to counteract the negative impact of land speculation. However, the reason he does not address the independence movement is not because he feels embarrassed that he operated within that colonial system but rather because he sees his work as separate from that system. The only political statement he makes is to advocate for the collective ownership of urban centres in order to prevent speculation.

That is not to say the neutrality that Ecochard describes in his book is insipid: far from it. His vision of modernism involves an interaction – not always a gentle one – between the energies of the new undeveloped country of Morocco and the principles of modernist planning. He accepts the principles of the Charter of Athens entirely. However he does imbue the principles of the charter with a unique vigour. “With the imagination and love that form the basis of such studies, we can solve the major problems of our new cities as well as ensure that old cities adapt to modern life,” he writes.

Indeed the book is ultimately an attempt to show how the principles outlined by CIAM in the Charter of Athens could be used to create a dynamic city. Time is a factor that the planner must deal with. “What would have been the point of establishing ideal neighbourhood plans that correspond to the dictates of our European standard of living, if under existing budgets only one-twentieth of the population languishing in bidonvilles could be rehoused in these modern neighbourhoods? We must determine the time it will take to attain our idea and then pave the way accordingly.”

It is hubris to pretend otherwise. He concludes his book with an anecdote. “‘Urbanism gets certain Departments excited every 25 years. We just have to let it pass,’ said a high-ranking civil servant of the Protectorate who could only think about his retirement in the serenity of a clear conscience. “Let this civil servant die, but let the city live on.”