“Urban Gynecology” and Dangerous Femininity

“Urban Gynecology” and Dangerous Femininity: Techniques and Representations of Colonial Urbanism in Marseille and French North Africa in the Interwar Period

Natalie Smith

Natalie Smith is a second-year master’s student in the Global, International, and Comparative History program at Georgetown University and hopes to pursue a PhD in history following graduation. She is particularly interested in urban and environmental topics in southern France and the Mediterranean region.



The malaise that plagued France in the decades after the humiliation of the Franco-Prussian War inspired a frenzied outpouring of potential solutions—political, economic, and social—all designed to reinvigorate French national character, health, and pride. In the rush to revitalize and modernize the nation, both architects and government officials consistently linked the transformation of physical space to the regeneration of national vitality with improvements of urban space often at the center of proposals to shake France out of its perceived fin de siècle decline. As architectural historian Gwendolyn Wright has written, however, political and economic difficulties obstructed plans to radically remake cities in the metropole, and architects and urbanists turned with increasing frequency to the colonies, where greater political authority gave them the opportunity to enact plans that would not have been possible in France itself.[1] Work in the colonies was tempting for architects looking to make a reputation for themselves in places that offered a unique degree of artistic freedom and a chance to address pressing needs of housing and economic development. And yet, policies for colonial urban renovations addressed many of the same problems that affected French cities: urban squalor caused by overcrowding and insufficient sanitation systems, class and race-based social tensions, and the perceived degeneration of morality associated with modern urban life. The colonies were therefore seen as a kind of laboratory in which the state could experiment with techniques of urban reform that could be brought back to the metropole and ultimately help France to reassert itself as a global leader in the twentieth century.

Marseille offers an especially fascinating example of how ideas of colonial urbanism were reimported and applied in a French setting. The city was seen as the ‘gateway to the orient’ by virtue of its role as a critical commercial and administrative Mediterranean port that linked France with its global empire. Both urban planners and government officials portrayed Marseille as the capital of ‘Greater France’ or of the nebulously defined ‘EurAfrica’ region.[2] Marseille’s position as a lynchpin in the French Empire are made clear by advertisements for passenger lines, for example, that emphasize direct passageways from Marseille to the North African coast, or by Le Corbusier’s famous meridian that would connect the French Empire from Le Havre, to Paris, Lyon, and eventually Marseille to Algiers. It is perhaps unsurprising then, that many of the techniques and representations of colonial cities would be applied to Marseille, their closest metropolitan counterpart, in the early part of the twentieth century.


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Figure 1: Advertisement for the Paris-Lyon-Mediterranean (PLM) railroad from Algérie, Maroc, Tunisie via Marseille, 1930.[3]


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Figure 2: Le Corbusier’s “On a meridian,” from Propos d’urbanisme, 1946.[4]


In her work Mediterranean Crossroads: Marseille and Modern Architecture, architectural historian Sheila Crane has called attention to some of the techniques taken from the colonial context and brought back to Marseille in the interwar and postwar period, but she does not explore specifically where or how they were used in North African cities nor what exactly we can learn about the French treatment of urban space from these similarities. This paper will dive more deeply into the connections between French management of urban space in Morocco and Algeria and the treatment of Marseille’s Vieux-Port neighborhood as one of the most obvious metropolitan cities in which these ideas of colonial urbanism were directly applied. It will focus primarily on the early French presence in Algeria and the work of Marshal Lyautey in Morocco in the 1910s in contrast with the work of Gaston Castel and Eugène Beaudouin in Marseille from the 1920s to the 1940s to demonstrate how similar patterns of urban reform appeared in both places.

There were a number of similarities in the techniques of urban planning used in both regions, including, for example, the rhetorical conflation of moral and physical squalor to justify heavy-handed reforms, or, the shift in emphasis over time from the destruction of urban space to the selective preservation of politically symbolic places. However, this paper will explore one of the most pervasive rhetorical similarities of urban reform in Marseille and North Africa, namely, the discursive feminization of ‘unruly’ spaces that needed to be controlled. Specifically it will argue that urban space which proved difficult to manage, whether native residential space in Algiers or red light districts in Marseille, were given feminine attributes in both popular and official discourse before being forcefully brought to heel by concerted policy efforts.

None of these similarities were a coincidence, nor merely the result of a widespread sensibility of the period, but the product of a number of architects and urban planners who worked across both regions or shared close personal relationships and ideas with colleagues working across the Mediterranean. Highlighting some of these connections will underscore the fact that influence never flowed unilaterally from France to its colonies and, in fact, the lessons learned in the context of colonial urbanism had a significant impact in certain areas of the metropole. Therefore, in addition to helping historians better understand the nature of French colonialism, French urban policy in the colonies can shed light on the treatment and significance of urban space in France itself.


Part I: Marseille: Where Empire Disembarks

Colleagues in EurAfrica:

Before delving into the similarities of urban space in Marseille and North Africa, it is first useful to examine both why and how such parallel techniques of urban control were possible and specifically used in both places and why Marseille represented a unique space for the application of colonial methods in the metropole. Indeed, the connections between urban space in Marseille and the capitals of colonial North Africa were numerous throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century and into the years following the Second World War. The first and most striking of these was the continuity in personnel and the close personal relationships between the architects and urban planners who worked across both regions. Most famously, for example, in 1943 Le Corbusier put forward a vision for the postwar reconstruction of the Marseille that relied directly on pieces taken from his rejected plan for Algiers. Besides Le Corbusier, who transferred plans from one side of the Mediterranean to the other (though neither actually came to fruition), a number of architects who worked both in the metropole and in the colonies were winners of the Prix de Rome architectural contest, a prestigious grant offered to the nation’s most promising up-and-coming young architects. These young men knew each other well, either directly or through the network of architects who had spent time together in Rome. In Marseille specifically, Eugène Beaudouin, winner of the Prix de Rome in 1928, was commissioned to work on a plan for the comprehensive renovation of the city in 1940. Immediately prior to the war, Beaudouin had worked in Paris alongside Henri Prost, the famed architect behind urban designs in Morocco and Algeria, on his Plan d’Aménagement de la Région Parisienne. Several key components of Beaudouin’s designs for Marseille would be taken directly from Prost’s plans for Rabat, including the mass deportation of native residents to a location on the outskirts of town and the intentional preservation of select neighborhoods to function as a ‘ville-musée.’ As Crane notes, the Special Delegation responsible for appointing Beaudouin pointed specifically to his work with Henri Prost and his experience with “large foreign cities” as their reasons for his selection, suggesting a desire that he apply some of the lessons learned in a colonial setting to their own city.[5] The overlapping careers of the architects and urban planners who worked both in France and the colonies during this period would have allowed ideas about the proper treatment of urban space to move fluidly between Marseille and the capital cities of North Africa.

In addition to the architects themselves, however, there were also important continuities in the government officials who oversaw both regions. Urban historians rarely comment upon the role that Marshal Pétain played in determining the management of urban space in both Marseille and Rabat, for example. Pétain replaced Marshal Lyautey as the commander in Morocco in 1925, supplanting Lyautey’s carefully crafted strategy of preservation with one more reminiscent of the early period of French presence in Algeria, dependent on heavy artillery, the systematic conquest of territory, destruction of crops and economic infrastructure. This contrast was stark and significant, as Paul Rabinow writes: “Pétain’s strategy was ‘based more upon spatial and temporal rationalization and the use of mass-produced war equipment than upon the manipulation of social structures.’”[6]

As leader of the Vichy regime, Pétain would also attempt to reshape Marseille using similarly heavy-handed measures. During the occupation of France, Marseille went from being merely the so-called ‘capital du sud’ to the most important port and largest city in the unoccupied zone. Urban plans for the city, which had previously been only local or regional in nature, suddenly took on national importance. As Pétain would declare in a speech from the Hôtel de Ville in 1940, Marseille represented “the key to Europe and to Africa,” claiming “the recovery of France is linked to that of Marseille.” According to Sheila Crane, the Vichy government prioritized renovations for the port and the city’s roads, and within days of Pétain’s carefully orchestrated visit to the city, the Vichy-appointed Special Delegation, which had replaced the local conseil municipal, had named Beaudouin as the architect that would lead the project to develop a comprehensive plan for the city.[7] It was no coincidence that Beaudouin’s emphasis on the city’s circulation and his treatment of the poorest Vieux-Port neighborhoods coincided exactly with Pétain’s priorities. Indeed, he would use a quotation from Pétain’s speech at the Hôtel de Ville as the opening epigraph of his final proposal for the city’s renovation. Lastly, as Crane notes, Beaudouin’s emphasis on clearing the brothels of the Vieux-Port was a reaction to Pétain’s call for a renewed “battle against the slums” and represented “a simultaneously architectural and moral battle firmly in line with the patriarchal and antiurban values at the core of Vichy ideology”[8] As a military commander in the colonies and the head of state during the Vichy regime, Pétain’s influence is therefore visible in the treatment of urban space in the colonial cities of North Africa and in plans for the renovation of Marseille.


Governmental Authority and Artistic License:

As Marshal Pétain and the involvement of the Vichy regime might suggest, Marseille shared one other important feature with colonial cities across the French Empire that made the treatment of urban space in both places similar: extraordinary governmental authority to enact new urban plans. As Gwendolyn Wright has written, the leeway available to architects and urban planners in the colonies was critical to their success in implementing large-scale changes to the cityscape that were not necessarily possible in France itself. The attraction of architects to the colonies during the early twentieth century was due both to personal artistic frustrations and limited professional opportunities in the metropole. As Wright explains, at the turn of the century a series of recipients of the Prix de Rome began to feel that the Académie des Beaux-Arts, which awarded the prize, stymied their creativity and any attempt to implement a new modernist approach to city planning. Henri Prost, winner of the prize in 1902, wrote that during his time in Rome, he and the other architects of his cohort began to feel the need to shift their plans from solitary buildings to cities as a whole. This shift was not merely an artistic calling, but an effort to keep up with architects in England and Germany who were already incorporating such ideas into the work. However, when Prost and his colleagues submitted citywide plans to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, often with unornamented, modernist building designs, the Académie flatly refused to accept them, angrily demanding “that [they] produce the kind of work expected of pensionnaires in Rome.”[9]

The professional opportunities offered to urban planners by the colonies were coupled with extraordinary political leeway to demolish and rebuild, unmatched in the messy political and legal situation of metropolitan France. While colonial officials remained hesitant to radically alter traditional ‘native’ neighborhoods or forms of architecture in a way that might threaten their image of Arab quarters as ‘backward’ or in need of French governance, the French quarters of North African cities provided a site for intense experimentation in modernist architecture and urban planning. This was made possible in North Africa—as in French colonies around the world—by extensive legislation that laid out codes and plans for future development in the colonies, which preceded by several years any similar requirement for urban plans in metropolitan France. Hubert de la Casinière, head of the Service du Contrôle des Municipalités du Maroc, explicitly credited the success of urban planning in Morocco to the political freedom available in the colonies. In contrast to the urban legislation in the metropole, which, he argued, remained unenforced and “platonic,” Moroccan officials were “unconstrained by electoral contingencies” and were therefore capable of making real change.[10] As Wright notes, however, this power was not absolute, but “Tempered by political opposition at home, certain local traditions they chose to honor, and the fiercely independent private sector of European colons…Yet it far exceeded the authority of any official or urbanist in a democracy like France.”[11]

Though generally accurate in her description of political obstacles to similar urban planning in the metropole, Wright ignores the fact that even before the intervention of the Vichy regime, local officials in Marseille enjoyed extraordinary authority to remake the cityscape. In the wake of a devastatingly inept response to the fire that destroyed the Nouvelles Galeries department store on the Cannebière in 1938, officials in Paris removed Marseille’s mayor and replaced him with a “special administrator” sent from Paris. The city’s ongoing urban renovation projects were put on hold while the city was placed under the direct authority of the capital. After signing the Armistace, the Vichy regime would further reduce the authority of local officials by replacing le conseil municipal with its own specially chosen Special Delegation, which would manage the city’s affairs. As Crane notes, “Following this series of events, Marseille was subject to the dictates of the national government to a degree previously unimaginable.”[12]

As alluded to in the previous section, Marseille became even more critical under the Vichy regime as the largest and most important city in unoccupied France. Pre-war efforts to renovate the city gained new importance in the period after the French defeat. More than a symbol of French resilience (and suspected hotbed of Resistance activity), Marseille was a strategic link in the French global empire, and a source of potential strength in the wake of the metropole’s collapse. As Crane explains, Pétain’s drive to modernize Marseille’s infrastructure was part of a “last-gasp attempt to wager his imperial card and to leverage Vichy’s economic independence through its ties to the French Empire. Under the banner of EurAfrica, Vichy could assert a degree of continued autonomy and hold out the promise of future resurgence by way of its overseas territories while nonetheless remaining safely within the bounds of Franco-German collaboration.”[13] Ensuring that Marseille remained a strong link to the larger French Empire was therefore crucial to Pétain’s ambitions for France after the war.

As such, architect Eugène Beaudouin, granted extensive authority by the Special Delegation, created a comprehensive plan for the entire city’s renovation, including proposals to dramatically streamline circulation and to reduce the visible physical and moral decay of the city’s central slums through selective demolition. These plans would largely come to fruition, though perhaps not in the way city leaders initially planned, when German forces began evacuating and systematically dynamiting the Vieux-Port quarters in January 1943. Therefore, while Gwendolyn Wright is correct to argue that colonial administrators had greater authority to enact new urban plans in the colonies than they would have had in the metropole, Marseille appears to represent a notable exception to the rule. Even before the outbreak of the Second World War, the national government had already taken over the management of the city’s day-to-day operations, wielding extraordinary authority. With the subsequent intervention of the Vichy regime and occupation of the city by German forces, the authority of those in control of the city to radically remake the city’s urban landscape became even more sweeping. Thus, Marseille shared a number of important conditional factors with colonial cities that makes the similar treatments of urban space in both contexts less surprising. Both a continuity in personnel and wide-ranging authority to enact new comprehensive plans set the stage for the relatively seamless transfer of ideas and techniques of colonial urbanism from France’s North African Empire back to the metropole via Marseille.


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Figure 3: German military engineers preparing dynamite for the demolition of the Vieux-Port neighborhoods[14]


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Figure 4: Dynamiting of the Vieux-Port neighborhoods[15]



Part II: Techniques and Representations of Urban Colonialism

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Figure 5: Le Corbusier’s illustration of Algiers showing the casbah as a veiled woman’s head[16]


“Urban Gynecology”: Dangerous Femininity

Overlapping city officials, both architects and political leaders, and vast political authority in Marseille and the North African urban centers made it possible to easily transfer urban control techniques from one setting to the other. One of the most pervasive of these rhetorical strategies was the discursive feminization of uncontrolled spaces. Both the Arab quarters of North African colonial cities and the slums of Marseille, impediments to modern French urban planning, were feminized and sensualized in contrast to the masculine rationality that French leaders and urban planners sought to impose on them. The feminization of ‘The Orient’ is not a new concept.[17] According to Zeynep Çelik, however, who has written extensively on the gendering of space in an urban environments, the feminization of space in the colonial setting was somewhat unique in that “the gendering of Algerian society and culture became blatantly referential to power structure.”[18] For example, administrative officials and popular writers made references to Algeria and to the casbah specifically as “a single and undifferentiated Algerian woman”: sensual, mysterious, exotic, and sometimes dangerous. A wide range of contemporary writers solidified the stereotype, referring to Algeria as “a wise and dangerous mistress,” and to the casbah as “the vamp of North Africa,” with a “capricious charm” and great “sex appeal.”[19] The narrow, winding, feminized streets of the casbah stood in stark contrast to the geometric, rational, and therefore masculine, streets of the European quarters.

Alluring though it might be, order would be violently imposed on the feminized urban space of North African capitals. With their conquest of Algeria in 1830, French planners immediately began making changes to the urban landscape of Algiers, envisioning a division of the city in which the upper casbah would be preserved for native residents, while Europeans would occupy the lower casbah and Marine Quarter. French forces needed to control the area near the harbor, according to Çelik, because they required large streets with room for cartage and commercial movement and therefore demolished large swaths of lower casbah, imposing a grid street system that would allow for orderly commerce and a strong military defense of the city. The new streets would cut through the city’s most densely populated areas, allowing for rapid military maneuvers and the forceful subjugation of an otherwise dangerously ungovernable urban space. In this way, the feminized casbah referred specifically to space that would be conquered and controlled by masculine forces of strength and order.

Çelik also identifies the Algerian home of the casbah as a feminized space that represented an enduring preoccupation for French colonial forces. The Algerian house, argued sociologist Djamila Amrane, protected Algerians from the ever-present observation and influence of the colonizers and allowed them to cultivate their private domain according to their own cultural customs and beliefs.[20] The home then represented a place where the Algerian could find his identity and transmit it to future generations. As Çelik notes, the architectural structure of Algerian homes also “deleted the foreign presence in the city visually” with adjacent terraces that would block any view of the European quarters in the lower town.[21] Therefore, the subtle independence offered by the home threatened the authority and control of French colonial authorities and began to serve symbolically as the last residual area to be conquered by French forces.

As Çelik explains, however, these domestic spaces were also gendered female. In addition to European misconceptions about the idea of a harem, which made the Algerian home a place of particular fascination, the architecture of the Algerian home and of the city separated male and female spaces with the home being primarily female. Çelik writes, “Regardless of the family’s income or the size of the building, the houses of the casbah were organized around a court surrounded by arcades. This was the center, indeed the ‘principle room,’ the setting for the ‘theater of work and women’s leisure, for children’s games.’”[22] Connected internal terraces linked homes and buildings together making it possible for women to move about the neighborhood and interact with neighbors without having to use the public streets. As such, French presence in Algerian homes, and specifically within internal courtyards, served as a symbolic conquest of the Algerian private domain and of a traditionally female space. During his visit to Algeria in 1865, for example, Napoleon III was careful to have his picture taken inside an Algerian courtyard. The symbolism of such cultural “breaking and entering,” as Çelik calls it, endured, with French soldiers during the Algerian War taking similar photographs. The message remained the same, however: with their entry into the Algerian home, the French has finally “broken into the core of Algerian life” and in doing so, brought an elusive female space under control.[23]


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Figure 6: The internal courtyard of an Algerian home shown as a place primarily for women and children.[24]


Figure 7: (Left) Napoleon III inside an Algerian courtyard with senior officers, 1865. (Right) French soldiers in an Algerian courtyard, 1960.[25]


The feminization of space that needed to be better controlled was not unique to the colonial context, however. In fact, around the same time as the invasion of Algeria the Vieux-Port neighborhoods of Marseille were being represented in both popular and in official discourse in very similar ways. From an early period the prevalence of prostitution in the Vieux-Port neighborhood gave the space a distinctively feminine character. During his 1838 visit to the city, for example, French writer Stendhal described the old town of Marseille, writing, “La vielle ville est au nord et au couchant de la Cannebière; mais un homme comme il faut ne va jamais dans la vielle ville; seulement, on y a un apartement, quand on a l’honneur d’être amoureux…”[26] So that his reader was not left with any misconceptions as to the type of woman to which he was alluding, Stendhal added, “A Marseille on n’a d’amour que pour des personnes assez difficiles à nommer dans un livre, je dirai que pour des grisettes.”[27] Nearly a century later, the vast array of women one could find around the Vieux-Port also fascinated Albert Londres. He emphasized in particular the exotic women to be seen there, writing,


Je vous ferai connaître toutes les femmes, celles dont le voile prend au-dessous des yeux, celles au voile blanc, celles au voile noir; celles au bambou coupant leur front. En kimono, en pagne, drapées ou culottées. Vous sentirez se poser sur vous des regards dont vous n’avez encore nulle idée. Il y en aura de brûlants, de tranchants, d’insistants, de royaux, d’indéchiffrables. Vous verrez des femmes qui, lorsqu’elles marchent, font le bruit d’une vitrine de joaillier qui s’écroule, tellement elles sont, ces créatures, couvertes d’or, d’argent, d’ambre, d’ivoire et de verroteries. Vous en verrez aux cheveux coupés franchement en brosse, d’autres à qui il faut deux jours et l’aide de toute une famille pour preparer une coiffure qu’on ne touche plus pendant un mois. Vous verrez celles qui se tiennent sur des pieds brisés, celles qui s’avancent comme un oiseau sautille, et des esclaves marcher comme des princesses.”[28]


Therefore, the association of the Vieux-Port with femininity, specifically with exotic women or women of ill repute, persisted into the mid-twentieth century but reflected a long standing stereotype. During the nineteenth century, city officials had attempted to halt the spread of syphilis by restricting brothels to a carefully regulated and policed area known as the quartier réservé in the Vieux-Port. Superficially then, the feminized space of the Vieux-Port had been brought under control, and yet the presence of brothels just steps from the Hôtel de Ville presented an image to tourists and foreign observers that the city was being taken over by moral depravation. Furthermore, prostitutes from the quartier réservé often congregated in the narrow alleys leaving windows and doors to the brothel open and visible to passersby. In this way, the feminized space of the interior literally threatened to spill out into the street. In 1935, the writer André Saurès, himself a native of Marseille, described his hometown as “the grand whorehouse” and included an elaborate and sexually explicit metaphor of the city as female genitalia.[29] The buildings of the Vieux-Port were described as “the teeth of a dirty comb” or as a veiled woman, which was exactly the same language so often used to refer to Algiers.

Similar themes are seen in official discourse. For example, Gaston Castel, winner of the Prix de Rome in 1913, began working in Marseille as the departmental architect of Bouches-de-Rhône in 1918. He published a series of essays in the literary magazine Les Cahiers du Sud detailing his ambitions and plans for the urban renovation of Marseille. In November 1928, Castel prefaced an essay on the need for Marseille to adjust her new role as global city with an elaborate metaphor of the city as a girl who had grown into a woman. “Pour jouer ce role nouveau,” he wrote, “Marseille n’a besoin que d’une parure, d’une toilette intelligente.”[30] Similar to contemporary descriptions of North African cities, Castel represented the city as a professional seductress, a woman experienced in enticing men who needed to deploy all her tricks of the trade in order to attract commerce and outdo her competitors. He wrote, “Or, c’est depuis quelques années une concurrence severe. C’est à celle qui retiendra ses fidèles, en attirera de nouveaux, captera les curieux au passage, accrochera le fil des caravanes.”[31] Castel himself would encourage the Special Delegation to name Eugène Beaudouin as the architect to develop the new city plan for Marseille in 1940, an architect who would popularize the technique of “curettage,” in his proposals to selectively demolish and remove the quartier réservé. In an architectural sense, curettage was the process of specific and strategic demolition, usually intended to ‘air out’ overpopulated areas of the city. Contemporary urban planners lauded the technique as a more sensitive tool than the mass demolitions seen in Haussmann’s plans for Paris, for example. As Crane, notes, however, this was not merely a technical architectural term, but was a term with well-established associations with abortion procedures. The domination and removal of feminized pieces of the cityscape was, therefore, a type of “urban gynecology.”[32] On the one hand then, the architects and urban planners of Marseille celebrated the city’s femininity, which if properly molded and controlled might act as an instrument for attracting commerce. On the other hand, excessive, uncontrolled, or embarrassing femininity in the case of rampant prostitution along the city’s busiest streets was not to be tolerated, and with the dynamiting of the Vieux-Port, would be forcibly removed.


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Figure 8: Prostitutes of the quartier réservé sitting in the street, Rue Bouterie, 1924.[33]


Therefore both North African colonial cities and the slums of central Marseille were given feminine attributes by both popular and official actors. They were depicted as exotic, alluring, and yet elusive domains of female independence that needed to be—and eventually were—brought violently under control by city administrators. This was one representation of colonial urbanism that moved fluidly from side of the Mediterranean to the other, Stendhal applying the feminine attributes to the Vieux-Port in 1838, just eight years after the initial French conquest of Algeria. During the interwar period, however, the feminization and orientalization of Marseille’s poorest neighborhoods justified a heavy-handed approach to urban planning, similar in many ways to what had been seen in the capital cities of North Africa only a decade beforehand. The feminization of space was not the only significant similarity in urban reform across both sides of the Mediterranean, but it represented an important parallel in terms of how and why urban planning might be implemented both in the French colonies and at home in a metropolitan setting.



Previous scholarship has suggested that French modernist architects of the early to mid-twentieth century were particularly attracted to work in the colonies as a vibrant laboratory of architectural experimentation because they were prevented from doing similar work in metropolitan cities by political and financial obstacles. This paper has shown that Marseille represents an exception where ideas about the proper treatment of urban space and lessons learned from the colonial context seemed to come back to the metropole with greater ease than they might have in other areas of the country.

There is no single reason for this seemingly close relationship, but many overlapping conditions that combined to create similar working environments in both locations. For example, in addition to close geographic proximity and regular contact as critical urban centers of the French Empire, Marseille and the capital cities of French North Africa shared a number of administrators and political officials. The architects working in Marseille had extensive experience travelling and working in North Africa, as was the case with Le Corbusier, or had close, recent professional relationships with other architects working in the colonies, as was the case for Eugène Beaudouin and Henri Prost. Furthermore, the unique political domination of Marseille by Paris and then by Vichy in the late 1930s and 1940s meant that urban planners had both the artistic license and political freedom to enact comprehensive urban plans that were matched only in the colonies.

The smooth flow of ideas and personnel and the unique conditions of local government in Marseille allowed urban planners, architects, and government officials to apply techniques from the colonial urban setting to their plans for Marseille. One of the most prominent techniques of urban manipulation applied in both contexts was the rhetorical feminization of ‘unruly’ space—both in the casbah and in the slums of Marseille—to signify space that needed to be brought to heel. Though the feminine traits of both spaces could be appealing, indeed both native districts and Marseille’s quartier réservé were noted for their exotic appeal, this sexuality was ultimately threatening in both settings. In the Algerian context, this was most clearly in the seen in the efforts of French officials to enter into the private domestic space of Algerian homes—a space that was not only the domain of women, but a space where Algerian language, culture and institutions could be protected and reproduced and thereby threaten the dominance of the French colonial enterprise. In Marseille, the feminized Vieux-Port represented a threat to the moral and social order of the city. Furthermore, the impoverished and sexualized slums acted as a physical impediment to the reform projects that urban planners and government officials hoped would reinforce Marseille’s position as the commercial and administrative center of their growing global empire.

While the sexualization of threatening spaces was one of the most pervasive rhetorical techniques applied in both a colonial and metropolitan setting during the interwar period, it was far from the only one. For example, a similar rhetorical technique evident in both places is the conflation of moral and physical degeneration of urban space, a technique used to justify heavy-handed reforms, often articulated in terms of public health. In Marseille, for example, the moral degradation represented by the red light district was thought to manifest itself physically in the neighborhood’s dilapidated condition. Plans to level the district assumed that a improving the neighborhood’s physical condition would improve the its moral character as well.[34] Similar notions inspired the creation of municipal hygiene bureaus in Morocco, which had vast authority to enter and inspect homes, regulate prostitution, and monitor the urban Arab population under the guise of collecting health statistics. Such institutions assumed a similar association between moral promiscuity and physical and social degeneration.[35] One could also explore the evident parallels in the transition, which occurred in both Marseille and the colonial cities of French North Africa, from sweeping proposals to demolish problematic sections of the city, as was the case in Algiers and proposed many times in Marseille throughout the nineteenth century, to a more sensitive and strategic policy of manipulating the social life of the city through selective demolitions in the early part of the twentieth century.[36] Preservation of old sections of the city would not only stimulate a tourist industry, which was increasingly important in the interwar period, but physically represented a narrative beneficial to French political elites by preserving old neighborhoods as a ‘living museum’ that would highlight a nostalgic view of traditional life, while emphasizing the inherent superiority of modern French cities.

From these patterns, it becomes clear that architects and urban planners in the mid-twentieth century did find opportunities to apply some of the practices learned in a colonial setting to cities and the metropole, and that influence did, in fact, flow in both directions. More significantly, perhaps, they suggest that urban reform as a tool of governmentality was never so different in the colonies and in the metropole. Indeed, these sources suggest that, when given the opportunity, urban planners were ready and willing to use colonial forms of social control in a metropolitan context.



[1] Gwendolyn Wright, The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991).

[2] These terms were used by both urban planners and government officials with growing frequency during the interwar period. See Sheila Crane, “The City in the World: Marseille’s Mediterraneanisms” in Mediterranean Crossroads: Marseille and Modern Architecture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 67-109.

[3] Sheila Crane, Mediterranean Crossroads, 86.

[4] Sheila Crane, Mediterranean Crossroads, 108.

[5] Sheila Crane, Mediterranean Crossroads, 93.

[6] Paul Rabinow, French Modern, 317.

[7] Sheila Crane, Mediterranean Crossroads, 93.

[8] Sheila Crane, Mediterranean Crossroads, 126.

[9] Gwendolyn Wright, The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism, 58.

[10] Paul Rabinow, French Modern, 291.

[11] Gwendolyn Wright, The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism, 11.

[12] Sheila Crane, Mediterranean Crossroads, 92.

[13] Sheila Crane, Mediterranean Crossroads, 96.

[14] Sheila Crane, Mediterranean Crossroads, 151.

[15] Sheila Crane, Mediterranean Crossroads, 156.

[16] Zeynep Çelik, Urban Forms and Colonial Confrontations, 23.

[17] See Edward Said’s classic text, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2014).

[18] Zeynep Çelik, Urban Forms and Colonial Confrontations, 22.

[19] Zeynep Çelik, Urban Forms and Colonial Confrontations, 22.

[20] Zeynep Çelik, “A Lingering Obsession: The Houses of Algiers in French Colonial Discourse,” in Walls of Algiers: Narratives of the City Through Text and Image, ed. By Zeynep Çelik, Julia Clancy-Smith, and Frances Terpak (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009), 135.

[21] Zeynep Çelik, “A Lingering Obsession,” 135.

[22] Zeynep Çelik, Urban Forms and Colonial Confrontations, 15

[23] Zeynep Çelik, “A Lingering Obsession,” 157.

[24] Luce Ben Aben’s Ecole des Broderies Arabes, hand-painted photograph, c. 1900. Zeynep Çelik, “A Lingering Obsession,” 149.

[25] Zeynep Çelik, “A Lingering Obsession,” 150, 157.

[26] “The old town is to the north and touches the Cannebière, but a respectable man never goes to the old town; one only keeps an apartment there, when one has the honor of being in love.” Stendhal, Voyage dans le midi (Saverne: l’Imprimerie Savernoise, 1956), 153.

[27] “In Marseille, one only loves women who are rather difficult to talk about in a book. I will say only grisettes.” Grisette typically describes a young working woman with flirtatious connotations. Stendhal, Voyage dans le midi, 153-154.

[28] “I will tell you about all women, those with a veil up to their eyes, those with a white veil, those with a black veil, those with bamboo cutting their foreheads. In kimonos, loincloths, draped, or wearing pants. You will feel the looks of those whom you have never imagined. They will be burning, cutting, insistent, royal, undecipherable. You will see women who, when they walk, make the sound of a jeweler’s window collapsing, so covered are these creatures in gold, silver, amber, ivory, and beads. You will see women with crew cuts and others for whom it takes two days and the aid of an entire family to prepare their hair, which they leave untouched for a month. You will see those who stand on broken feet, those who walk like a hopping bird, and slaves who walk like princesses.” Albert Londres, Marseille Porte du Sud, 17.

[29] Sheila Crane, Mediterranean Crossroads, 129.

[30] “To play this new role, Marseille only needs an ensemble, a smart attire.” Gaston Castel, Marseille et l’Urbanisme (Marseille: Les Cahiers du Sud, 1932), 127.

[31] “Now for many years, there has been an intense competition. It is the one who retains the faithful and attracts the new, who captures the curious in street, who will win the line of caravans.” Gaston Castel, Marseille et l’Urbanisme, 125.

[32] Sheila Crane, Mediterranean Crossroads, 129.

[33] Sheila Crane, Mediterranean Crossroads, 133.

[34] See Sheila Crane, “Urban Gynecology and Engineered Destruction” in Mediterranean Crossroads: Marseille and Modern Architecture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 111-154.

[35] See Paul Rabinow, French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), 293-294.

[36] See Gwendolyn Wright, “Morocco: Modernization and Preservation,” in The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991), 85-160. See also Sheila Crane, “Urban Gynecology and Engineered Destruction” in Mediterranean Crossroads: Marseille and Modern Architecture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 111-154.



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