Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
In Libya's capital, one dictator's ideas followed the next.
Like other cities under colonial rule, Tripoli saw significant investment from the Italian government that resulted in new architectural and planning forms. Rule over Libya exchanged hands multiple times since the Italians' departure in 1943, but plenty remains despite Muammar Qaddafi's efforts to "De-Italianize" the country during his rule over the country.
Much of Italy's occupation coincided with the rule of dictator Benito Mussolini. Being a dictator himself, Qaddafi presumably would have, at least subconsciously, appreciated the stately boulevards and extensive highway systems that showcase the power of state authority. We can see that with more recent developments in Tripoli that suggest power as much as isolation.
Below are aerial images of Tripoli to better understand the different eras of its history and what each type of urban form represents:
The old city, established in 7th century BC, long before Italian conquest, is easy to identify. It contains clusters of smaller structures along streets that appear to have formed organically over time, failing to connect in a predictable manner, if at all, to nearby streets. Its layout is similar to many other ancient North African and Middle Eastern cities.
The Tripoli that emerged under colonial rule takes on a radically different form. Grand boulevards and circles demonstrate logistical hierarchy and serve as the central hub for surrounding neighborhoods (something frequently seen in Italy). Opposing sides of a boulevard are very likely to contain separate social and economic classes but the main corridor typically serves as a community anchor through public spaces and buildings that accommodate commercial use. David Rifkind, Associate Professor at Florida International University's College of Art and Architecture, notes how "the Italians saw the importance of also building mosques in the cities they colonized. It was an important gesture of benevolence on their end to establish good will within the colony." All of these neighborhood features are established within a grid that establishes order, creating predictable and well-connected paths.
The streets were too important and too efficient to destroy, but less critical remains from Italy's rule over Libya were removed. The arch seen above along Mussolini's Via Balbia (now named the "Libyan Coastal Highway") was lost during Libya's "de-Italianization," a striking example of Italian, fascistic modernism. The highway it anchored stayed, connecting Benghazi to Tripoli. Rifkind notes that this critical road "served an important role in the rebel's overthrow of Qaddafi" in the 2011 civil war as they made their way to capturing the capital city.
History has left little doubt about the social and political follies of Mussolini and much of Italy's colonial policies. The physical layout of the city alone though, as Rifkind suggests, demonstrates an at least faint attempt at benevolence.
Post-Colonial (Ally occupied 1943-1951, Constitutional Monarchy 1951-1969, Qaddafi Government 1969-2011 )
Post-colonial infrastructure is most easy to spot in projects geared toward wealthy residents and visitors. Housing developments and hotels appear planned and explicitly isolated from neighboring developments. Signs of design influence from the orderly layout of the old colonial city are seen in the arrangement of developments as well as the focus on centralized green space and boulevards. These developments fail, however, to foster social interaction with many streets including little to no commercial presence. Newer projects like this are not unique to Libya and fit the mold of most suburban-style sprawl seen all over the world in the last 50 years.
The boulevards and highways that Mussolini brought to Libya seem to have influenced Qaddafi’s vision for his city (although he would have hardly admitted such a thing). Like the large-scale private developments they connect, these roads are anchored by sizable nodes. But instead of serving equally as public space like the colonial-era circles, Qaddafi's end up as massive islands, impenetrably separating one neighborhood from another. Anti-social spaces end up defining Qaddafi's urban planning tastes.
Mussolini's planning legacy in Libya is more ambiguous. He created infrastructure that demonstrated authority but was significantly influenced by the inherently democratic layout of the Italy he would eventually rule over. It's difficult to extract the political and social faults of colonialism through what remains of his urban vision for Tripoli. That understanding is further diluted with the legacy of Qaddafi's vision. That being said, the perceived importance of grandiose urban forms to demonstrate power is a legacy that unquestionably carried on from one dictator to the other.