Magazine article Artforum International

Urban Renewals: Sean Anderson on Dakar's Urbanism

Magazine article Artforum International

Urban Renewals: Sean Anderson on Dakar's Urbanism

Article excerpt

Dakar would eventually become both a source for and an image of modernity.

IN 1856, at the height of aggressive empire-building campaigns across Africa, a French official claimed that Dakar would become "the capital of all our African possessions." The westernmost point on the African mainland, Dakar had much to offer France's colonial regime: resources, geography, and labor. Indeed, through a complex history of planning, building, and sometimes-deferred development, the city would eventually become both a source for and an image of modernity.

The conjunction of modern design techniques with colonial mandates allowed for a number of French cities throughout Morocco, Algeria, and Vietnam to be organized according to spatial divisions that replicated (or reified) the structure of its "civilizing mission." Scholars have described this fashioning of urban space as a dialectical model in which the historicized medina, with its dense passages and exoticized image, was mainly reserved for "natives." Meanwhile, the ville nouvelle, in which new civic buildings were constructed, served as a residential and commercial zone for colonial administrators and other Europeans alike. This racial and economic divide was intensified by a cordon sanitaire, a border zone that promoted division through desire. By contrast, the colonial city plan of Dakar aimed at a more ambiguous mix of renewal and assimilation, with a recoded Haussmannian grid of boulevards and traffic circles cutting through extensive preexisting villages. These, in turn, stood in tension with the offshore settlement of Goree Island, a disputed edge of the Black Atlantic. The city that emerged is reflected today in a complex staging of an African modernity found not only in Dakar's access to global markets but also in an ever-increasing movement toward urban and domestic structures that eschew a unified aesthetic or linear evolution.

These incongruities linger, and they are perhaps nowhere more visible than in the architecture that serves as a backdrop to the Dak'Art biennial and its associated events. Regular musical performances took place in the now-disused train station, dating from the early 1900s, in which technological transformations were wrought by a transcolonial infrastructure. …

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