Taxidermy Vs Urban Dynamics

Prior to the industrial revolution and the advent of the modern State, people were directly involved in the continuous building process that kept changing the built environment and improving their quality of living. Paradoxically, with the  protection of the heritage against loss, preservation policies thus put an end to this process and turn old buildings and cities into untouchable but somehow dead objects.

On focusing on the incremental process, the urban dynamics and the social genius that once stood behind such urban and architectural  heritage, scholars and professionals could go beyond this paradox and establish a new paradigm  that bridges the gap between the past and the present practices.
This work aims at presenting the undesired impact of the preservation policy through case studies on one hand, and the generative process behind old cities and buildings on the other that reflects urban dynamics. The output of such work is believed to: a-review and assess preservation theory, b-enrich the present practices, and c-propose an alternative vision to urban preservation through the reconsidering of the urban dynamics.

1 Historical Background

The Muslim and Arab cities witnessed during the sixties and seventies eradicating and tabula-rasa policies that were highly influenced by  modernism and aspiration to progress and development. Old buildings and cities were considered an eyesore in the country that reminded people about the past and thus a sign of   backwardness (Rapoport 1969a).

During the eighties, a lot of cities lost their urban fabric consequently to the carelessness, and migration  of original societies to the outskirts and/or the new urban developments outside the old cities. Historical city cores  turned into slums for low-cost classes and migrants coming either from hinterland such as in Algeria, Tunisia, or expatriates, mostly coming from the Indian continent and Far East  such as in the Arab Gulf countries.

Paradoxically,  an acute identity crisis appeared progressively in most Arab countries within which architecture was a major aspect. Societies and individuals start reviving  their identity through mosques and homes although superficially through mimic architecture (Frishmen M & Khan H.E. 1994:14). Old buildings gradually became landmarks in this back journey to the past and in the process of cultural referencing and revival.

Old historical cores that luckily escaped from demolition, requested pressing and inevitable intervention, thanks  to their strategic location within the modern metropolis,  to improve their quality of life. Services and utilities such as water, electricity, telephone and sewerage were introduced and accessibility was improved. Too often, shy urban upgrading works, such as walls painting, cracks repairing  and streets paving were made along the paths that were often undertaken by tourists and visits of officials.

Gradually, preservation in the Arab world found its place in urban policies consequently to the western reaction to modernism and rise of cultural sensitivity that was summed up in the post-modern movement, regionalism and recently through cultural sustainability. Most remaining historical buildings and cities are now more or less benefiting  from the new trend  of  preservation  and consideration that promote  the past as an image  of local culture and patrimony.

In practice, preservation was initially and mainly interested in the famous buildings, monuments and archeological sites. This is the case of the Algerian legislation for preservation that was approved in 1967 (Boussaa 2008, 145, Necissa 2007).  Castles, palaces, religious buildings and large houses of wealthy people turned into landmarks in the cultural master-plans and the “itinerary” of  tourists, officials  and visitors.  Later on, with the echo of academia, cultural tourism  and international institutions such as  UNESCO and Agha Khan programmes,  it gradually enlarged its scope to embrace cities and if not,  the largest  remaining urban fabrics (Aga Khan 2007). Structurally, it was found that the building itself couldn’t be understood without its context. Due to compactness, interlocking  and incremental process of  building systems, constructions were found within blocs sharing the same partition walls.

2 Preservation as a Taxidermy process

Taxidermy is basically a chemical term that is mostly used in biology and natural sciences. It connotes a process of  keeping early species of animals and living creatures that  serve human knowledge as scientific evidence, or simply as leisure objects for laymen. In practice, it consists of emptying animal species  from their  organs and preserving  their skins to look  as if they are  real and alive (Figure 1).

Allegory  is used here to describe similar practices  in old Muslim cities. Old buildings and urban fabrics are often becoming objects of freezing actions. Their original social structure, administrative apparatus that once governed them, economic activities  and daily urban life that shaped their physical entities have entirely disappeared. Preservation  often becomes  a reaction to the eradicating and pro-modernists parties, and is fed by the emotional attitude to the past. It thus  leads to an action of urban and architectural taxidermy that aims at safeguarding the old buildings from loss and demolition.

Old buildings and cities if analyzed in the light of morphogenesis are an outcome of a continuous process of evolution, transformations and changes over decades and centuries. Such a  process has never stopped evolving as it reflects the essence of urban life. The taxidermy has thus the major drawback of disregarding this reality and even clashing with it. Continuous changes and transformations, conflicts and exchanges of interests among urban actors and the shifting modes of use and reuse of spaces are an integral part of urban life.
Instruments of preservation involve  intervention of the State,  expropriation of the private buildings and restriction measures that  prevent users from unpermitted actions. These instruments have direct and diverse effects on legal, financial, social and economic aspects of the preservation projects. They deeply affect the right of property, freedom of people, public financial resources and use of buildings and land.



Figure 1: The Badgeer in Manama as an object of  architectural taxidermy. It is a strong architectural element that is however outdated due to the present and widespread use of air-conditioning technology.  Source: National Museum of Bahrain.

Owners and users of old buildings frequently find themselves in clash with the authorities due to the constraining measures and policies. Sometimes and ironically, these measures that aim to preserve the buildings from collapse lead to their destruction through malicious actions. Inhabitants in old houses threatening collapse may speed-up the process of degradation in order to benefit from the social  housing programmes as is the case in Casbah of Algiers. In other cases, collapse without evident human intervention is initiated as this is the only way to by-pass the law and  get the land back for redevelopment .

Historical buildings after preservation often turn into public assets. They are managed by municipalities and public institutions, and  are in the best cases used  as museums, guest houses, cultural centres, public offices  and tourists destinations. At a large scale, i.e.  the entire city, such a preservation  action is limited by the financial resources. Even if the city is hypothetically preserved, it cannot regenerate its real urban life without its residents or with residents deprived from their freedom of action that enable them adapt their built environment to their ever-changing needs and desires.

Newly “injected” activities such as restaurants in Damascus , hotel-like and guest houses as in Fez ,  are often in conflict with the private and community life of residents that is offended by the flows of the tourists and strangers.

3 Two Case Studies

3.1. Manama

Manama was founded around 1783 as a small fishers’ and farmers town (Figure 2). It was a group of scattered  villages that became later parts of its neighbourhoods (Ben-Hamouche M. 2008). The British authorities decided to develop it as a rival city to Muharrraq that was the capital of  the Al-Khalifah ruling family. The two cities became equal in size by the early 1930’s,  the time of discovery of oil and shift of Bahrain economy from pearl trade and agriculture to oil-based heavy industry. After this date, Muharraq entered a period of stagnation and decadence while Manama witnessed an unprecedented urban growth.

As a new capital of Bahrain and the Gulf region during the British protectorate, it accommodated the British political agency and many public and financial buildings that were laid in the undeveloped land around the historical core. Socially, and unlike Muharraq, Manama was characterized by its cosmopolite society that kept growing consequently to the continuous arrival of social groups from the region and then expatriates.
The oil boom coupled with the collapse of the traditional economic sectors, i.e.  agriculture and fishery, generated a double effect on the urban growth of the city (Table 1). It increased the  number  of  expatriates and speeded up the outmigration of the locals from the old core to new settlements.  Wealthy locals, among which merchants and members of the ruling families,  were the first to initiate such as a gentrification process. Statistics show the rapid growth of population as well as that of the expatriates. For political reasons, recent statistics are not released by public authorities (Table 2).

Opposite to European and developed countries where gentrification takes the shape of the migration of locals to the outskirts due to the increase in rent and living expenses in the centre (Colin B. 2007), Bahrain and the Arab Gulf witnessed another type of outmigration. Due to the abundance of oil resources and their concentration in the hands of the public authorities and ruling families, most countries entered a welfare policy that provided free high standing public housing to locals. Old houses in the historical cores were then left to expatriates who benefited  from low rents as well as their closeness to places of work.  Old cores have consequently entirely lost their original populations and were occupied by expatriates who are mostly bachelors.

Figure 2: Manama preservation project. Source: UNDP-Ministry of Municipalities Affairs & Agriculture, 2006.

Such a social “emptiness” has many consequences on upgrading and preservation policies. In a vicious circle phenomenon, houses were most often  left without any maintenance due to their  low turnover. Leaseholders who are in majority expatriate bachelors show no interest or  care to the buildings due to their dilapidated sate and low quality services.

Speedy modernization and high living standards of Gulf societies also conducted to the neglect of the traditional cities, some of which have been completely eradicated.  It is only recently that preservation started to take place in the urban policy. As regards the remaining urban fabrics, experiences often show immaturity and lack of seriousness.

The few examples of maintenance and revitalization consist of the redevelopment of the old souk of Bab Al-Bahrain, and repair of the few houses (such as Mohamed Mubarak Al-Fadhel, Abdullatif Al-Saad, Al-Saegh, Zubari, Abdulaziz Lutfally, Ali Reza,  and Sheikh Mohammad Bin Salman Al-Khalifa palace), in the historical core that still  keep their original character (Ministry of Commerce 2004). Such isolated projects coupled with the ongoing  degradation of the remaining parts of the urban fabric show the domination of the  concept of taxidermy approach and the failure of the top-down policy adopted in this regard.

Table 1:The growth of Manama population as a percentage of the total population Source: Rumaihi p24, Lawson p12, BAR 1959, p 733.

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Manama Population














As a Percentage







Table 2:The growth of expatriate population in Bahrain. Source: Rumaihi p24, Lawson p12, BAR Vol VII, 1959, p 733.



















Total Population







Expat. As a %





17.53 %


3.2. Casbah: The old Algiers City

Algiers formation goes back to 950AD when it became the residence of Bologhine Ibn Ziri Ibnou Mannad, the local governor representing the Fatimid dynasty in Cairo. Its limited site that covers a hill of 45 hectares giving onto the Mediterranean witnessed an unprecedented urban growth due to the Andalusian massive migration after the reconquista events, and the arrival of Ottomans (Ben-Hamouche M. 1995).

During the French colonial administration, it went through many “Haussmanian-like”  urban interventions that aimed at easing military access to its core and controlling  its indigenous society. Arteries were thus pierced through its compact urban fabric, a fact that deeply affected its urban morphology. At the social level, despite these physical  changes, its population kept a high level of homogeneity and solidarity that manifested itself in its popular resistance during the revolution of liberation 1954-1962.

After independence, a huge housing stock in the modern city of Algiers and all over the country was left empty by European residents. A massive and double shift of population occurred.  A lot of residents of Casbah old city migrated to the  empty luxurious European houses, while the empty houses of Casbah were occupied by a fresh rural population that migrated from the hinterland. Only about 15% of the houses were owner-occupied, while the rest was inhabited by mostly low income tenants (Boussaa D. 2008, p129).

Being victim  of “progressist” ideology and like other  old cities such as Constantine, Tlemcen and Ghardaia that  have maintained most of their traditional character, the Casbah  old Algiers was entirely neglected by the authorities and put at the bottom of political concerns and development priorities of the national government.          

It is only during the 1990’s that Casbah passed into the UNESCO list of World Heritage list, a fact that pushed the government to pay some concerns to it. In 1998 regulations for the safeguard of  Casbah and other historical sites was  promulgated (Boussaa D. 2008, 148). On the ground  however,  the many conflicting public bodies in charge of its preservation that were established, and the successive projects of revalorization that were launched had very humble results, mostly limited to religious buildings and famous houses.

Early strategies that aimed to alleviate the historical core from its high density and empty some quarters and buildings from their residents for rehabilitation purposes have failed. Although tenants were  forced to get out through paramilitary actions and  others were  given new housing units in the suburbs, new comers often infiltrated into the site  during the political events and agitations. Under the pressure of the national housing crisis, authority always find itself in a weak position to confront new comers and re-organize operations of evacuation (Figure 3).

Some humble efforts of preservation and revitalization in the taxidermy have however succeeded in maintaining some houses such as Khedaouj Al-Amiya and  Khojat al-Khail’s  houses, palaces such as Jenina, and forts such as Haute Casbah most of which have turned into public buildings.    

In both cases the two cities are suffering from gentrification and erosion of social community, a phenomenon that is common in many other old cities (Kovacs Z. 2007). Tenants in Manama are low-class workers that pay low rent and are not concerned with the preservation  of the heritage. In Algiers, tenants are considering the house as a transition place to a socio-economic  insertion in the capital city and have the right to its services and prestige.

Figure 3: Casbah, Old Algiers. The remaining urban fabric (Google-Earth).


4. Scenarios that face both cities

The paper, based on earlier academic works on both cities,  discusses the most probable strategies that  could be established for the two cities. The two extreme terms of these options are taxidermy on one side and urban dynamics on the other.

4.1. The Laissez-Faire option

This option is based on the continuity of the present situation where old buildings are slowly but continuously degrading and vanishing. Politically, officials and politicians seem not to be seriously concerned with the urban heritage .The loss of the old city thus becomes a matter of time to the public authorities that have a passive standpoint policy. The shy efforts that are made are evidently not sufficient to save these cities from the loss. Strong forces of market and globalization are the major factor that  shapes  the future of these cities. Investors as well as proprietors have their interest in the replacement of the old buildings for commercial purposes and higher turn-over of the expensive pockets of  land. New buildings will slowly take place over the old urban fabric that is mostly marked by the street pattern and  boundary lines of ownership. This is in fact what already happened in old cities like Kuwait, Riyadh, Dubai that still have old pattern governing their contemporary urban fabric.

According to this strategy, it is evident that the old city will be subjected to the forces of urban dynamics that will prevail on the  taxidermy approach.


4.2.The Interventionist  Option

It consists of the heavy involvement of public authorities. Such involvement should be  legally based on the concept of “Public Interest”. Safeguard  of urban heritage should be considered part of the national sovereignty and a priority in national policy just  like the classified natural and archeological sites that deserves protection. Sufficient financial resources for  maintenance, rehabilitation and revalorization should thus be mobilized accordingly.

Historical areas should be established  as Protected Urban Zones,  PUZ,  under the direct supervision of the authorities. It should be regarded as a symbol of local or national pride and thus should be “nationalized”.  This will reflect the full image of “taxidermy”. The whole area will turn into a “frozen” zone that doesn’t allow any change or alteration from users. Such a result could be achieved in case the area is entirely expropriated by the government  and  completely rehabilitated up to the modern standards.

It could be  used as a tourist area and thus become a large hotel-like,  a guest Area for VIP,   or  a high standard tourist resort. It could also turn into a studio-like area for cinematography and mass-media documentation. It could also turn into a Special Public Housing that reinforce public  housing programme. Upgraded houses could be  rented for newly married couples for a  limited period, say 2 years and renewed once only . Such an option was partly applied to the Bastion 23 in Algiers area where the renovated quarter was used as public offices and an open museum, known as Centre des Arts et de la Culture (Bertagnin M. ) (figure 4).


Figures 4a, b and c: The renovated blocks of Bastion 23, Algiers Casbah. An example of Taxidermy preservation. Source: Wilaya d’Alger.

Waqf mechanism could also provide an alternative for the preservation of the old city . This practice  is deeply rooted in the Muslim culture and has  the advantage of turning properties into a “sacred and frozen” status, i.e.  a property of God that is sanctified, usable but  untouchable . It also provides a good example of sustainable maintenance system that covers expenses and repair by itself (Ben-Hamouce, 2006). Preserved houses and buildings could be purchased from their owners through shares by charitable  institutions.  A financial system based on religious motivation for scientific and cultural purposes could be mounted in this regard. Purchase, repair and upgrading of historical buildings or quarters could be made through a system of market shares. Similar projects are undertaken by  religious NGO, civil  associations and wealthy pious persons in Muslim countries  such as in Lebanon, Kuwait and  Bahrain.

The shift of the legal status of the city to waqf will however depend on the political willingness of governments, the religious motivations of the society and availability of charitable resources.

4.3. The Regenerative  Option

This option is based on reconsidering the Private Right of Property in a conditional form. It consists of the  revival  of the generative process that dominated the old cities (Besim H. 2007). In its present form, it will permit a large margin of freedom to proprietors but it dictates some regulations that aims at preserving urban heritage  without hindering the urban dynamics. Most protective measures in preservation policies fail to prevent changes in protected urban areas because it simply opposes to the nature of life. Giving this freedom will thus not only go in line with urban dynamics that is the essence of cities, but also helps recover the generative process that had been producing   urban fabrics for centuries. Preservation, in other words will in this case be focused on the maintenance of the process rather than the product.  Beyond the preservation policy, the “re-establishment” of the generative process will  also correct the  current  urban practices, adjust  the over-involvement of the public authorities, reduce the  hyper-regulations in the present system, and rectify the laissez-faire attitude that characterizes the private action.

It is not possible to understand the structure and morphology of old Muslim cities, let’s alone to operate preservation actions  without understanding  the process that generated it. The city and buildings are an outcome of many mechanisms that made the buildings and urban fabrics as a set of layered,  cumulated and incremental actions. Analyzing its morphogenesis is thus the first step in the diagnosis that  traces its stages of development and finds out the “hidden rules of games”  that governed its structure.

The built environment in the old cities should be understood as an outcome of a social genius that  reflects an interaction between  different private actions with the  restrictions of the public  realm and physical environment, i.e. site conditions, climate, building technology,  etc. The factor of time represents in this process  a support axis along which this development took place in a sequential and cause-effect  order.  Departing from the present situation of old cities, a recurring approach could uncover such a development, help  dismantling their  geometry and discover mechanisms behind their  complexity.

These mechanisms, mostly stemming from  Islamic  legal concepts such as succession law, pre-emption, agreements, legal power, and public welfare constitute  the “rules of games” that ruled  individuals and social groups in shaping their environment, responding to their needs and interacting with each others. Each of these mechanisms had its direct impact on geometry that were explained elsewhere (Ben-Hamouche M. 2009, a and b).  Such rules should also be considered not as isolated concepts but as part of an integrated system in which they simultaneously and intermittently interacted.

Due to the novelty of this third option, sections below will elaborate it thoroughly.

5. Proposal of a preservation Vision

5.1. Permanence Vs Changeability

The physical  environment should be understood as a co-presence of elements that have different degrees of permanence  and changeable ones. Such an approach is better understood through the theory of Fernand Braudel who considers history as an outcome of  layers  of permanence (Braudel F. 1977). Accordingly, constituents of the urban fabric could be classified gradually from the most permanent to the least one i.e. the changeable constituents.

Geographic features that reflect natural site conditions, such as rivers, hills, mountains and coasts,  are   the most lasting  constituents of urban fabrics. Paths and roads that attach the city with its region and territory  may also be considered as most permanent constituents .  Man-made elements   that are related to religious and societal public life  come in second position of permanence. Mosques, castles and fortresses have high degree of permanence as they may last for centuries. Streets and public places may also be added to this category due to their long-lasting permanence that is often measured in terms of decades and centuries. They are mostly dictated by topography, poles of attractions and destinations. Other constituents in which houses are the most dominant elements have in general a low degree of permanence, due their  ever-changing nature. Transformations are often made in response to events and rhythm of the daily life. Years and decades are the most convenient units of measures of this changeability. Houses that last for centuries exist but are exceptional .

5.2. The approach

In current preservation policies,  “archeological” approach is often adopted in architecture and design in response to zealous nostalgia to the past and lack of a strategic view. For instance, architectural details are kept and fixed for ever in housing domain that is considered as a sphere of high changeability. Like in taxidermy, such a perpetuation for changeable constituents should thus be limited to very few cases of representative samples in the city that  may serve as scientific evidence of past and  specimen for reproduction to residents depending on their utility.
The proposed  preservation policy aims at insuring a cultural sustainability through the maintenance of city constituents, but also, and most importantly  the culture of city-making and social sustainability.   It thus aims at preserving the product as well as the process.

The proposed approach consists of two stages:
A-Establishing the map of permanence of a city into three hierarchical categories. This will help defining the domain of the taxidermy preservation and that of urban dynamics. Listing and limiting the number of constituents will help public authorities establishing the action plan of preservation. The list of buildings to be covered by taxidermy preservation will greatly depend on the financial resources and the size of the city. The more resources are available, the larger the preserved buildings and elements could be. However, even with the availability of resources,  preserving the whole city would lead to “interventionist approach” mentioned above.

B-establishing the set of rules and institutions that would monitor the urban dynamics and permit residents to shape and change their homes and immediate environment in the light of their right of action as well as the preservation policy. Mechanisms such as wilaya khassa, irtifaq and Ihiyaa al mawat could be developed into new flexible regulations (Besim 2007, Ben-Hamouche 2009b).

It is evident that such an approach has reached its limit in theory. Its technical details could be developed through a workshop applied on a concrete case and its validity  wouldn’t be confirmed or falsified unless it is put into practice.


6. Conclusion

Preservation policies fundamentally aim at protecting urban and architectural heritage from loss. Buildings and urban fabrics under such policies are subjected to protective measures that prevent their change and alteration. Such measures are too often in clash with urban dynamics that are the essence of cities.

Most of old cities witness a social shift due to the migration of their local population and their replacement by new residents that are mostly tenants. Rules of conducts and social institutions that once used to manage and organize the urban space in these cities have also vanished and were replaced by the modern bureaucracy  that reflects  the domination of the State in preservation.

Despite the continuous awareness about urban heritage, results on the ground seem to be very humble. Most old cities witness continuous degradation. The few lucky buildings and blocks that were preserved reflect the taxidermy approach that deprives them from their real cycle of life and process of regeneration.

An alternative approach based on establishing the map of permanence of the constituents of old cities would present a compromise between taxidermy vision that tends to freeze buildings and spaces, and urban dynamics that feed changeability.



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[1] This is especially the case of residents of Algiers Casbah who damp walls of old constructions that are made of mud, mortar, wood and stones and that leads to their slow rotting and collapse.

[1] Visit of the author on 22-24 October 2007.

[1] Visit of the author on August 2008.

[1] However, they cannot verbally express their opinions as this is against their political reputation and career. In the case of Algiers, the culturally pro-western French officials are often in charge of the preservation projects, a fact that leads to the failure of these projects or in the worst case a hidden sabotage. In the case of Bahrain, the city of Manama, gradually became a religious city of the Shia rite and a fortress of political opposition, a fact that doesn’t motivate public authorities to undertake a serious preservation policy. Around 1.000 Maatams are located in the old city.

[1] Politicians avoid such housing projects due partly to their short mandates, and the “visual humbleness” of such projects as an evidence of achievement during that mandates on the other side. They rather prefer investing in entirely new projects that could be easily seen by public and that become landmarks in the new developments.

[1] During the XV century, Algiers witnessed a massive arrival of Andalusian communities. A lot of houses and shops were endowed to accommodate the refugees who used them as a transitional shelter for socio-economic insertion in the new territory of Magrib (Ben-Hamouche 2006).

[1] Due to their religious status, people generally refrain from operating any alterations or destructions.

[1] This is the case of the Aleppo mountain that uphold the famous fortress, the coast that forms the front of Algiers and Manama, and the rivers that split Cairo and Baghdad into two sides.

[1] Architects often wrongly design for permanence in the sphere of housing that is supposed to be dynamic and ever-changing. Consequently, clash often appears on the ground between the physical environment and residents that leads to transformation and alteration of initial designs.

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