Inhabiting Casablanca’s Worker Quarters of COSUMA & SOCICA



The second half of the 19th century was a time of economic growth in Casablanca. This growth was fueled by the development of agriculture in Chaouia plains and by the city’s harbor that was accessible by steam boats. Prosperity attracted the attention of powerful European countries, mostly France and Germany. The city’s fate was eventually sealed after the conference of Algesiras that stipulated that Morocco would be “supervised” by European countries, and then by the bombing and capture of the city by French troops in 1907. In 1912, Morocco officially became a French protectorate.

After the colonial administration got set up in Morocco, decision was taken to turn Casablanca into a modern economic capital so it would be one of the pearls of French colonial empire. Maréchal Lyautey, who was appointed as Morocco’s “resident general” (in other words, Morocco’s governor) and was well connected to people who created S.F.U (French Society of Urbanists) required the services of France’s most famous specialists such as Henri Prost, Jean Claude Nicolas Forestier, Albert Laprade, Donat Alfred Agache, etc. His goal was to create a new city close to the overpopulated medina.

The new city was designed and built with great care, with a garden city, but only European colonizers were allowed to inhabit it. Lyautey explicitly asked urbanists to separate communities in the city plans. Still, Prost’s 1917 city extension plan included the creation of a new district for local people, “the new medina,” which is now called “Habbous.” Because of its size, good building quality and high price, this place mostly attracted Morocco’s trade bourgeoisie that settled in Casablanca. Humble people kept on living in the medina that got even more dense.

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COSUMA’s roofs, with the mosque and the sugar factory in the background. Photograph by Walid Bendra for l’Uzine.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the city became a place for industry, with the creation of factories that would transform agricultural products. People from the whole country migrated to Casablanca where they became Morocco’s earliest working class. No urban policy however assisted this process: people were left to their own devices and therefore started creating the first shanty towns of Casablanca, in the eastern part of the city, nearby the factories. At first, the colonial administration did not pay much attention to the emergence of Morocco’s working class. Most workers were somehow docile and not yet organized, which means that there was not any serious threat to colonization either. Industrialists, in a move to better control their workers and their productivity, then took the decision to create the first workers’ cities in Casablanca. According to Yvonne Mahé, their only goal was to stabilize the workforce and invest capital.

Industrialist commissioned the same architects who created the Habbous, but they required them to work on much tighter budgets so they created smaller houses that didn’t have many ornaments. Edouard Gouin described the workers’ cities in a 1939 report: “Houses will have a big room, kitchen and WC and will have an inner patio with no outside view. […] A number of houses will be built the same way but will have an additional room. These will be the homes for supervisors, qualified and semi-qualified workers who have resources above the average. Houses won’t get running water since plumbing installation would be troublesome.”

In some cases, worker quarters were built in places that were normally legally unfit for housing because of the pollution produced by neighboring factories. According to Jean-Louis Cohen and Monique Eleb, “in the municipal commission, only Sabolot sees a problem in making local people live where European houses are prohibited because of insalubrity. His colleagues do not express any concerns and deem difficult to forbid locals to live close to their workplace.”

In this photographic series, the focus is on COSUMA’s and SOCICA’s workers’ cities. COSUMA is an acronym designating Morocco’s sugar company (COmpagnie SUcrière MArocaine). Its worker quarter in Casablanca was designed by French colonial architect Edmond Brion in 1932. It originally consisted in 330 houses, forming quarters closed on themselves with opaque boundary walls that include only two gates. In addition of housing, it included a mosque, an oven, small shops, and a hammam. SOCICA is also an acronym for the Moroccan Society of Casablanca (SOciété chérifienne de la CIté ouvrière de Casablanca). The worker quarters were also designed by Edmond Brion, who got the commission from twenty different companies. 368 houses were created; most of them with only one room. Only fifteen houses that were destined to supervisors included two rooms.

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Roofs and streets of SOCICA.
Photograph by Brahim Benkirane for l’Uzine

Worker quarters have undergone many changes and transformation throughout time. Today’s inhabitants are not necessarily workers of the founding companies anymore, even though workers and their descendants still account for a significant part of the population. Because the original houses were so narrow, the inhabitants were pushed to find solutions to get enough room for them and their family. The first thing they did to get more space was to close the patios so they would become integral parts of the houses. Nowadays, the houses’ largest rooms are often former patios. Additional floors were also built. Such changes inside the houses also led to the modification of the facades: the original narrow windows often got enlarged and new windows were created. The austere facades were often decorated, as we can see in the case of the doors that systematically got customized, sometimes with great creativity, using new materials and symbols. Inside the houses, the changes are even more spectacular. Residents often meticulously arranged their rooms to their need, especially their living rooms that were turned into comfortable traditional Moroccan ones, using zellige, sculpted plaster and other decorative materials.

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Traditional Moroccan living room arranged with great care in COSUMA. A woman and two of her sons in her living room in COSUMA, during the Jummah prayer broadcast on TV. / Laurent Hou for l’Uzine.

Despite the quality and relevance of many transformations, some modifications appear to be rather anarchic: sometimes additional stories and roofs are made of scrap. Aerial views of the worker quarters might make one confuse it with a slum. This situation is well summed-up by a SOCICA resident: “ground floor is the dream world, upstairs is the real world.” Because of the lack of maintenance and care manifested by the founding companies that still own them, living conditions are rather difficult, especially as people are vulnerable to the way the companies manage the place. Some people live under the threat of eviction. COSUMA’s worker’s city could even disappear as the company wants to extend the nearby factory by reclaiming it. SOCICA’s situation is different: the companies owning the quarters want to get rid of them and avoid paying for maintenance by asking inhabitants to buy the ownership. COSUMA’s company already won the court ruling, but since no solution has been found to provide the inhabitants with new houses, the status quo remains. In the case of SOCICA, most inhabitants already became owners of their house, but some of them still cannot afford such a financial effort.

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A woman and two of her sons in her living room in COSUMA, during the Jummah prayer broadcast on TV. / Laurent Hou for l’Uzine.

This is the context for our workshop project. We invited amateur and professional photographers to observe and capture these worker quarters, over eighty years after their creation. This series of pictures aims at brushing a panorama of the quarters’ current situation and raising questions about today’s living conditions by showing the subtlety and diversity of transformations and understanding how the original codes and rules got transgressed by the inhabitants. We also got confronted with the complex and intricate relationships inhabitants have with their houses and district: people are often eager to tell the story of their worker quarters, with pride and, sometimes, with a form of nostalgia.

Text by Karim Rouissi and Laurent Hou (l’Uzine).

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Woman sitting in one of the streets of COSUMA. In the background, the sugar factory. / Photograph by Mohammed Amine Naim for l’Uzine.
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Outside walls of SOCICA. Fans of the two rival football teams of Casablanca have painted graffiti on the wall./ Youness Battach for l’Uzine.
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Children attending support classes in the basement of a wealthier inhabitant of SOCICA, who tries to contribute to the community by promoting better education. / Photograph by Walid Bendra for l’Uzine.
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Some children and teenagers of SOCICA attending a dance class in the association Initiative Urbaine. / Photograph by Walid Bendra for l’Uzine.
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Children playing in the streets of COSUMA pose for a picture. / Photograph by Mohammed Amine Naim for l’Uzine.