University of Virginia, College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Sheila Crane, "Inventing Informality"

Project Summary: Training a critical, historical lens on these issues, my current book project, Inventing Informality, traces how the bidonville––a term first coined in the 1920s to describe an area on the periphery of Casablanca distinguished by the rapid construction of unauthorized dwellings by recent rural migrants to the city––came to be understood as a distinct urban form and social space. From the outset, these areas were contested spaces, defined by divergent mappings, representations, and perceptions, evident not least in the fact that a Moroccan Arabic term, karian, a reinterpretation of the French word for quarry, was coined around the same time to describe these same spaces. Examining the emergence of the bidonville/karian first in cities in the Maghrib in the 1920s and 1930s and subsequently in France, the book reveals that these developments were direct consequences of late colonial policy.  Products of strategic exclusions yet fully enmeshed in rapidly expanding urban infrastructures and material processes of industrial production, these sites varied considerably in their response to local topography, conventions of property ownership, and patterns of rural-urban migration. 

Through the analysis of buildings and constructed landscapes, maps, urban plans, written reports, photographs, and literary descriptions, Inventing Informality considers the bidonville as an urban form, a subject of visual representation, a site of knowledge production, an object of reengineering, and a place of social and spatial reinvention on the part of its inhabitants.  My research aims to contribute to a broader rethinking of planetary urbanism through the lens of the aesthetics and ethics of the informal, one that reconsiders how the bidonvilles of Casablanca, the slums of Mumbai, the shantytowns in Lagos, the favelas of Rio, the gecekondu in Istanbul, and the ‘ashwa’iyyatof Cairo have been conceived at once as globally distributed symptoms of distinctively 21st-century urban conditions and as productive paradigms for urban theory and design practice.  While Mike Davis and other have understood mega-slums as defining architectures of neoliberalism and global economic restructuring, such assessments have overlooked the longer-term historical processes through which these urban areas first emerged. 

Project Update/Status:  One of the surprising discoveries that I have made in my research is the wealth of photographic documentation of the bidonvilles in Casablanca and in other major cities along the coast in Morocco during the decade between the end of WWI and Morocco’s Independence in 1956.  While much of this material is the product of the distinct perspective of colonial officials and social scientists, it has been exciting to discover a much broader visual archive of relatively ephemeral urban developments than I had anticipated.