The Algeria Issue


John Burns


Walid Bouchouchi / Youcef Krache


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Some cities move into the 21st century as museum pieces or tourist traps. Algiers is neither. Long overshadowed by its North African neighbours, the largest country in Africa has been under the radar for decades, leaving its capital, Algiers, largely untapped and tourist-tat free. Behind the scenes, though, a creative community has been flourishing and an upbeat new generation of designers, artists and entrepreneurs are dusting off and getting ready to spread the word.

Creative concepts popping up all over the city are attracting attention, from appealing product design stores to contemporary kitchens and innovative start-up spaces. In a country dominated by its mega corporations, many of these ventures appear to seek the opposite – working creatively in a smaller, more intimate way and reaching out on a human scale amidst Algiers’ urban sprawl.

As the world’s greatest cities adapt and change with their residents, Algiers too, albeit slowly, is fixing up. ‘The mayor is working really hard to make Algiers a great place to live,’ says Yasmine Bouchène, editor of the city’s local ‘what’s on’ guide, Vinyculture. Indeed, large-scale projects are afoot to redevelop the coastal strip that extends east of the port. Over 140 building permits have been granted since 2005 to those wishing to invest in the tourism infrastructure.

In the meantime the city is ticking along just fine and, though routine prevails, Algiers has a captivating rhythm. Drinking coffee is a local art form that can last all afternoon – cups are kissed, rather than sipped – and Algiers’ neighbourhood cafés are throbbing with WiFi and people. In the balmier months, Algerians flock to the city’s huge leafy gardens, swimming pools and social clubs, or else hit the beach to cool off against the Mediterranean sea.

The steep amphitheatre of white buildings and tree-lined streets that form the city’s core is a jumble of architectural gems, where daringly Béton-brut structures such as the concrete church of Cathédrale du Sacré-Cœur d’Alger and the iconic 1970s Hôtel El Aurassi shake hands with the crumbling colonnaded avenues and regal palaces of downtown. Restoration projects are gathering pace too – the ancient kasbah was recently renovated and an old department store downtown has been transformed into an impressive modern art gallery.

Hip neighbourhoods, like Telemly, with its colourful homes and independent businesses, are also beginning to appear. Here, design-led start-ups – like the contemporary cafés, galleries and boutiques found along its main strip – are mixing innovation with a workday conviviality, carefully crafting a culture that is calling to a generation newly energised by contemporary design.

For this issue, Brownbook visited Algiers and discovered a city where a spirit of creativity permeates the underground and booms with an authenticity Marrakech could only dream of. ‘Culture is like an iceberg in Algeria. Everything happens beneath the surface,’ we were told by Samir Toumi, who we met at La Baignoire, a brand new space encouraging creative community collaboration.

Following his advice, we hooked up with four ‘city insiders’ – a photographer, an artist, an entrepreneur and a fashion designer – who showed us around Algiers’ offbeat gems, as well as down some of its more beaten, beloved paths. From contemporary architecture to a thriving manga scene, there’s a tireless pasion running through the streets of Algiers, not to mention the good old joie de vivre that fills the city’s public parks and plazas.

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