Architectural Reimaginings of Le Corbusier’s Only African Project

TUNIS, Tunisia — About 2,000 years ago, Carthage — near Tunisia’s capital of Tunis and just south of Africa’s northernmost tip — was the wealthiest city in the Mediterranean, nestled into a vast harbor and dominating the region’s trade. But Rome razed Carthage in 146 CE, then built a new city over its wreckage. Carthage is now a mosaic of ancient ruins, grand villas old and new, political residences, even evidence of Tunisia’s current disparities and recent upheavals: The match for the Arab Spring was ignited in Tunisia in 2011, but in 2021 the country’s fragile democracy toppled, and the country now finds itself in a dire economic crisis. 

Two recent exhibitions have delved into Carthage’s intricacies and more recent history via — a villa. Villa Baizeau, a white modernist structure perched on Sainte-Monique hill overlooking the Gulf of Carthage, was the legendary French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s only project in Africa. Commissioned in the late 1920s by French industrialist Lucien Baizeau and completed in 1930, the Baizeau family first used the building as a holiday home, and moved in full time in 1947. Five years after Tunisia claimed its independence from the French protectorate in 1956, the Baizeaus vacated the property. Today the villa sits near the country’s Presidential Palace and is occupied by the Tunisian General Intelligence Archives — now entirely inaccessible to not only the Tunisian public but also architectural scholars or the otherwise architecturally curious who might want to study the villa’s history and structure. 

Mr. Baizeau and Le Corbusier (who worked with his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret) diverged on how Villa Baizeau should take shape. At 32Bis, a cultural venue in central Tunis, the architecture exhibition Villa Baizeau Carthage, Le Corbusier & Jeanneret: Simple Architecture, on view through May 15, displays a model along with the many blueprints and correspondences that bounced back and forth between Paris and Tunisia during the building’s planning: Corbu apparently often ignored the industrialist’s wishes, but Baizeau was just as stubborn, so multiple architectural modifications were made before reaching a consensus. The villa’s slab-like construction is sculptural, with broad, pillared terraces offering ample outdoor space on multiple floors, while its interior spaces, stacked a little like pieces in a Tetris game, were created to optimize ventilation in the scorching Tunisian summers. 

The architect never visited the site, in itself an intriguing commentary on what was considered valid, or not, in the throes of Africa’s colonial period. For the show, however, curator and acclaimed architecture scholar Roberto Gargiani asked contemporary architecture firms like Dogma in Brussels or Experience from Paris to create responses to the building’s idiosyncrasies. These projects range from breezy curtains-as-installation to AI-rendered takes on the Villa’s interior spaces. Dogma’s project “Faux Corbu” is a hypothetical reinterpretation of the villa as a six-floor communal housing project; in a series of renderings running with Corbu’s pared-down cantilevered balconies and horizontal slabs, adding color, texture, and dimension for a multiple-family structure (a contemporary expansion on the idea of a machine of living). Paris-based architecture firm Experience created the project “Maison Baizo: Indescribable Architecture” — renderings of an imaginary interior based on verbal accounts culled from interviews with Baizeau’s grandchildren, who spent holidays there. In her intricate bird’s-eye rendering of another hypothetical interior, Sophie Delhay, also from Paris, envisions how the villa’s spaces might be used today if it were still a residential space: We see mussed beds, a messy kitchen, people dining, walking up staircases, and working on laptops. Many of the responses take up the notion of memory — and the idea of how life affects the built environment, and vice versa. 

In Carthage, Only Ruins to Be Found, which closed on March 16, moved away from architectural considerations and instead addressed what Villa Baizeau symbolizes. Curated by Tunisia-born curators Aziza Harmel and Myriam Ben Salah, the show was compact but potent: works installed in the domed chapel of the Sainte-Monique church considered place, space, and agency; delivered subtle critiques of Le Corbusier’s methodologies; or illuminated ongoing political tensions. From the seaside grounds behind the church, the real Villa Baizeau was visible in the distance, its roof now a mess of satellite dishes. 

In the chapel entrance, Vlatka Horvat’s “Vague stationnaire” (2024), a series of aluminum newspaper printing plates arranged in waves on the floor, alluded to the villa’s inaccessibility. El Wacha, a collective of local circus performers, used a large metal structure situated in the chapel’s altar area to perform acrobatic feats on opening night, reactivating an otherwise underutilized built environment. 

Several pieces directly addressed the villa: In one, a short story by Tunisian author Mohamed Harmel read aloud through headphones, the narrator accesses the villa as the world is ending, searching for its secrets and finding only darkness. Another critiqued Corbu’s maxims: France-based architecture office FREAKS freearchitects’ video “Modulor” (2015) shows two atypical bodies (one very tall, the other very short) moving through a Le Corbusier structure in Marseille, jumping to reach cabinets, or crouching to use mirrors; Le Corbusier based his ideal proportions on a “standard” human height of 1.83 meters, or around six feet (asserting that, ahem, “standard is the way to perfection”), excluding most humans. And ongoing Tunisian tensions were brought to light. Installed in the chapel’s small balcony was a large-scale figurative mural by Tunisian artist Yesmine Ben Khelil. The artist rendered a street scene of the route between her Carthaginois neighborhood and the Roman-era Baths of Antoninus. But amid the ruins and apparent wealth are security guards, wild dogs, and wrestling young men. Even the work’s form is a critique: State-commissioned murals are common here, but usually depict mythologies or sanctioned narratives.

Tunisia in general, and Carthage in particular, are like aging beauties — the ongoing frictions occur in an atmosphere of faded grandeur infused with centuries of rich history, incredible hospitality, and warmth. Both exhibitions were supported by La Boite, a foundation whose director, the local art collector and entrepreneur Fatma Kilani (who also founded the La Boite center for contemporary art in 2007) has worked toward securing Villa Baizeau’s official protected status and hopes that access will someday be granted. Considering the many ongoing efforts to decolonize culture institutions on continental Europe and beyond, it’s intriguing to see this tangible relic of colonization, created by European men in northern Africa nearly a century ago, reconsidered as the object of a deep local desire for equality and transparency. 

Villa Baizeau Carthage, Le Corbusier & Jeanneret: Simple Architecture continues at 32Bis (Rue Ben Ghedhahem 1000, Tunis, Tunusia) through May 15. The exhibition was curated by Roberto Gargiani.

Editor’s Note, 12/4/2023: Travel for the author was paid for by the La Boîte Centre D’art Contemporain.

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