Hafsia Quarter, Medina of Tunis, Tunisia

Anna Bardos


The Hafsia quarter project is an attempt to rehabilitate a run-down and largely derelict area in the medina (old town) of Tunis. The project's goals include providing housing for the poor, greatly raising the standard of living of the inhabitants, and recapturing the diversity and life of an urban center. By maintaining the traditional urban fabric of the medina, this project recreates the lost physical continuity of the area, thus enabling social and cultural continuity. It promotes the conservation and progression of tradition through new buildings rather than the adaptation of old structures to an altered cultural setting.

The project spans many years; Phase I was in effect from 1973-77 and Phase II from 1982-86, with work continuing until now. Hafsia Phase I won an Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1983, as did Hafsia Phase II in 1995.


The Hafsia quarter covers about 13.5 hectares in the lower medina of Tunis. It is bounded to the east by a boulevard built on the former line of the medieval wall, and to the west by the Rue Archour and Rue Ettoumi. It is divided into three sub-neighborhoods: Sidi Baian in the north, Sidi Younes in the south, and a central triangular area containing developments from the 1930s and 1960s, and the Hafsia I project area. The site is roughly flat, with a gentle slope of 1 in 100, ranging from 7 meters above sea level at Rue Archour, and 4.5 meters above sea level in the east. The soil is a mixture of clay and limestone and the water table is 1 to 1.5 meters below the ground.

The first phase in the rehabilitation of Hafsia covered approximately 3 hectares of a larger, mainly demolished, area in the center and east of the medina and included almost half of what was then an area of vacant land. The second phase addressed the surrounding 10 hectares, 22% of which had buildings in good condition, 38% had structures to be rehabilitated, 12% had structures to be demolished, and 28% was open land.

The Hafsia, or Hara, had been the Jewish quarter of Tunis since the 10th century. As wealthy families began moving to the newer European areas after 1860, the Hafsia was left to be one of the poorest areas of the medina.

In 1928 the French authorities declared the Hafsia quarter a health hazard, and many of the buildings were demolished between 1933 and 1939. Their plan for rebuilding the area used a grid design and was comprised of large housing blocks typical of European cities rather than the traditional urban fabric of the medina. However, World War II interrupted this work and bombing resulted in further destruction of the area.

In 1954 the Hafsia was declared a zone for 'renewal' by public intervention, thereby prohibiting private maintenance and so further degrading the area in the meantime. The area grew in importance in the 1950s because of its proximity to the developing modern quarters of Tunis. After Tunisia's independence from France in 1956, the Municipality of Tunis had plans to upgrade the medina with grandiose projects, and in 1960 the final wave of slum clearance in the Hafsia took place. Two large-scale primary schools, a clothing market, a children's club, and a social services center were built all on an orthogonal axis, again regardless of the traditional street networks. In 1967 the demolition of the Sidi El Bechir quarter of the medina almost resulted in a popular uprising. The grandiose projects were abandoned and the Association de Sauvegarde de la Médina (ASM ­ Association for Safeguarding the Medina) was established to study and rehabilitate the urban fabric of the old city while improving the living conditions of its inhabitants.

In 1973 the Ministry for Public Works proposed that a residential and urban rehabilitation plan for the Hafsia be organized. This became the first phase of the area's rehabilitation, commissioned by the ASM with help from UNESCO, acting for the Municipality of Tunis. The project was completed in 1977 and during 1981-82 a new proposal was conceived by a different ASM team under the auspices of the Third Urban Project created by the Ministry for Housing. Again this was in close coordination with the Municipality of Tunis, this time through the ARRU (Agence de Réhabilitation et Rénovation Urbaine - Agency for Rehabilitation and Urban Renewal).

Social, Economic
Throughout most of its history the Hafsia was inhabited by a mixed population, including foreign Arabs, Italians, Maltese, and Greeks as well as Jews. As the affluent Jews left the rundown and overpopulated Hara only the poorest remained and migrants from rural areas moved in, attracted by rooms for rent and the proximity to employment. Houses were divided into one-room dwellings. After independence population densities rose, making the Hafsia a socially undesirable living area before the reconstruction. Large proportions of the land were owned by the Municipality as a result of expropriations in the 1930s for renewal projects that never materialized.

After the Hafsia I project, the Sidi Younes and Sidi Baian neighborhoods were still impoverished, with 56% and 47% of the labor force unemployed, underemployed, or in menial occupations, and household incomes were well below the SMIG minimum wage level. Only 21% of the households in Sidi Younes and 10% in Sidi Baian were homeowners, and 9% and 14% of the inhabitants were squatters.

The reconstruction of the Hafsia quarter was the first large-scale renovation project of its kind to be undertaken in an Islamic country. Courtyard houses, narrow winding alleys and cul-de-sacs traditionally characterize the Hafsia, although the architecture is not of the aesthetic and historic value of other parts of the medina. The 1930s additions of 5-story apartment blocks and the large-scale buildings from the 1960s break this continuity of dense urban fabric. The Suq-el-Hout, a former pedestrian route running north to south, had been broken by a road from the modern quarters of Tunis, attracting modern high-rise apartment blocks west of the suq. The area east and south of the suq was largely derelict. Three to four story European-style tenement buildings from the late 19th and early 20th century line the east edge of the Hafsia, built on land cleared when the city wall was demolished in 1893.


In phase one the Suq-el-Hout, a covered market street of around 100 shops, was reconstructed and 22 new shops were created on an adjacent pedestrian street, with offices for professionals above. Ninety-five housing units were also built.

The significance of this project is that it was developed using extensive research into the residents' needs. The ASM defined the requirements of the quarter from their findings, despite opposition from politicians and some local and foreign architects and planners, who would have preferred high-rise housing to be built. However, their intention of providing housing for low-income families of the area was sabotaged by the politicians' insistence that the poorest applicants be removed from the operation in order to attach prestige to the project.

The ASM carried out a detailed survey from 1972 to 1975 on income levels and social backgrounds of future inhabitants in order to determine their requirements in the layout of the houses and to compile a commercial report on the shops needed outside the suq. Nine hundred applications were examined, which showed their preferences included a quiet residential area separated from the noisy commercial district and thoroughfares, independent housing units with private entrances, and courtyard housing with internal circulation protected from winter weather with the reception area and living room near the entrance and the kitchen and more private areas near the back. The differing requirements of applicants were met by several different house designs­ each defined by the floor area as well as the applicants income and preferences. A survey determined that the shops outside the suq were to include a restaurant, a café, a laundry, a barbershop, a shoe-repair shop, and a photographer's studio. The offices above were to include lawyers, dentists and other professionals.

The renovated areas of Hafsia I were surrounded to the north and south by still rundown or derelict areas, which caused an acceleration of decline in adjacent unrenovated areas and a lack of continuity. These problems were addressed in the Hafsia II project. As well as building new housing and commercial and office spaces, the project included the installation and improvement of utilities, provision of facilities, maintenance and repair of infrastructure and streets, provision of car parking, reorganization of space for economic activity, restoration and attribution of new functions to historic monuments, and provision of public or semi-public spaces.

As in the Hafsia I project, surveys were used to determine user requirements. The foremost objective was to avoid pushing out the original inhabitants of the area, so the project tried to ensure an urban homogeneity of the neighborhood. The project has shown itself to be of great social significance by creating continuity between the older fabric of the city and the newer areas, reinstating traditional housing forms, and encouraging the original inhabitants to remain in the area.

"Hafsia doesn't merely stabilise the old but transforms the existing texture into a contemporary condition. People who are interested in restoration are seen to be standing in the way of progress the Hafsia model is an attempt to be progressive while holding on to the existing fabric."1

Organization of the Area
The new Suq-el-Hout serves as a covered walkway, connecting two existing suqs, Sidi Mahrez to the north and El Grana in Sidi Younes. The road that had previously severed the existing suq was rebuilt along a zigzag route, with parking lots for the inhabitants at either end, near the Bab Carthagena to the east and beside the existing market. Other pedestrian routes have been extended or introduced throughout the scheme. The covered suq serves another function, that of sheltering the new residential area from the 1960s development to the west.

The Hafsia II project maintains this separation between pedestrian and vehicular traffic and aims to re-establish the link between the two poles of rehabilitated buildings, with an axis crossing through the two projects of new Hafsia housing. This phase utilized the economic potential well by encouraging more prosperous inhabitants to rehabilitate their own housing and by selling off vacant sites to provide loans for the needy.

The project realized that diversifying the activities present in Hafsia would revitalize the area and noticed that there was a real need for social and cultural facilities. To this end they introduced a day care center and kindergarten, public baths, a health center, three hotels, a group of offices and a commercial space including a clothing warehouse.


Spaces and Uses
In phase I eleven house types were defined, ranging from 60 to 163 square meters, including courtyard houses on one level, courtyard houses on two levels, row houses with individual enclosed gardens, and row houses built adjacent to the suq. To capture something of the spatial variety of traditional North African cities the houses were assembled in different configurations, clustered around stone-paved common areas and pedestrian streets, and a few houses were designed to span over the streets. Certain traditional architectural elements were used, such as white walls contrasting with colored openings and a small window set just above the exterior doorway. The maximum height of the houses was three stories.

In the Hafsia II project, several new apartment buildings were constructed as a continuation of the European-built structures on the site of the old wall around the medina. New patio houses were also built, most of which could be divided into two dwellings, one opening onto the patio, and one on the upper level, looking out to the street. Some of the streets are restricted to pedestrian access. The network of streets integrates the old and new areas while respecting the traditional city block sizes and irregularities. The old plot lines were adhered to for the new infill housing, so each house would be different. Five plan types were developed to suit small plots and fulfill the requirements of those with low incomes, these were then adapted to their position in the neighborhood. Housing on the main roads was restricted to a height of three stories, within the blocks the maximum height was two stories.

As much of the old quarter as possible was incorporated into the new scheme and old buildings of suitable condition or architectural value were renovated. Traditional vocabulary and typologies were used for the new buildings - facades are white, with projecting or recessed blocks and deep openings, and arched entrances and arcades are included where appropriate. Other traditional elements such as woodwork cantilevers, angle furnishings, and ceramic framing were simplified to suit new construction methods and the limited budget. Decorative detailing is used to emphasize openings, projecting elements, and as is traditional, in places where the building is touched.

Structures, Materials, Technology, Construction
Most of the on-site labor was unskilled and local, and the construction low-technology. The housing units were built using post and beam construction because of the water table, with hollow concrete or cored terracotta brick walls. The floors were constructed of brick filler blocks covered with concrete and paved with terrazzo tiles. Exterior walls were of painted render. Units were standardized to facilitate design and implementation. The suq was designed with a concrete frame supporting concrete vaults, its structural frame allowing for flexibility in the position and size of the shops. In situ concrete was used for structural members, the exterior walls and internal partitions.

In the Hafsia II project wide bands of glazed ceramic tiling were used to articulate doorways, and decorate facades. The technical assessor for the 1995 Aga Khan Awards drew attention to the way that the Hafsia II project still used low-technology construction methods by local unskilled labor. The restoration of old buildings depended on their original structural system, but most required reinforcement with new concrete members. The historical restoration work was carried out by skilled artisans.

Current State
In the Hafsia I project, the offices envisioned were not a success. The units became dwellings or storage spaces, but the reconstruction did still result in a vigorous commercial life in the quarter.

By 1978, only a year after completion, 80% of the wealthier inhabitants had already modified the plans of their houses, by moving or removing partitions, moving doors, and rearranging storage areas. Sixteen percent of the units had been divided into smaller independent housing units, 25% of the inhabitants had extended their houses by up to 3 additional rooms, and 31% of the units were shared by two or more households.

The architects had anticipated and made some allowance for alterations, but not on this scale. Neighbors argued over sunlight, views, and ventilation. The high level of rebuilding is a problem resulting partly from the fact that actual residents of the area are wealthier than was anticipated by the original surveys and planned for in the scheme.

The houses were not allocated to the original residents of the area or to the most needy, so the wealthiest from neighboring communities moved in. Occupants are mainly shopkeepers, artisans, white-collar workers, executives and professionals.

Electrical and telephone cables have proliferated across the streets and along walls. Inhabitants were impatient for the official connections, some only promised by 1983, which they did not consider a reliable promise.

After the Hafsia II project, the revitalization of the area became more clearly visible, both physically and culturally. The significant improvement in living conditions and subsequent improvement in the areas' image has attracted more business, to the point were traffic congestion is a real problem. Property values have increased and developers have bought housing with the intention of creating commercial sites. Private ownership of property in the Hafsia had reached 80% in 1995.


The aim of the first stage of rehabilitation was to reconstruct a residential and commercial sector of the medina of Tunis that would retain the character of the old city. They wanted to maintain a harmonious relationship with the existing architecture and at the same time provide suitable housing for the poor from neighboring areas, although it completely failed to fulfil this second aim.

The project won an Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1983, "for a noteworthy attempt to deal with the problem of urban public housing in a sensitive and humane fashion. The Hafsia quarter represents a considerable effort in achieving the scale of the old medina, sensitively inserting new 'infill' housing into the urban tissue of the medina.  On the other hand the project is surely flawed: physically in its detailing and execution, socio-economically in its inability to cater for the needs of the lower income residents of the medina."2

A main aim of the Hafsia II project was to learn from the mistakes of the first project, and this is obvious in some of its principles. All architectural, urban, socio-economic, demographic, and employment data were to be simultaneously taken into consideration to produce integrated projects. User participation was to be encouraged by giving financial and institutional incentives for private owners to undertake renovation. Renovation areas were to be surrounded by rehabilitated areas, and not adjoin derelict areas. As few as possible of the urban poor already living in the area were to be displaced, with the incoming, more affluent, residents paying a higher share of the costs. To promote the spread of such rehabilitation projects, appropriate funding and agencies were to be set up, and the cost recovery of expenses maximized. Hafsia II combined the sale of property to private developers with the cross-subsidization of rehabilitation loans for the deteriorated residential structures.

Hafsia II rehabilitated the area surrounding the new interventions of the 1970s, and aimed to minimize their contrast with the existing architecture. A main goal was to retain the resident population, with a reduction in population density to ensure each family at least 40 square meters of living space, including a bathroom, water supply and kitchen. This project also won an Aga Khan Award, in 1995, in the social category for projects that "enrich the international debate about the problems of rapid urbanization, historic cities, and the problems of a growing underclass."3 The Jury praised the scheme for "having revived the socioeconomic basis of the old medina while respecting its unique scale and texture. The Hafsia district is once more a vibrant locus institutional success, community involvement, financial and economic viability, excellent public-private partnership and a programme for the displaced make Hafsia a success worthy of widespread study."4


Hafsia I:

Clients: ASM acting for the municipality of Tunis, with help from
UNESCO, and homebuyers of the quarter.
Architects: Arno Heinz, Wassim Bin Mahmoud, Serge Younsi, Serge
Santelli, Michel Steinbeck
Planner: Jelal Abdelkafi, ASM
Developer: Societé Nationale Immobilière de Tunisie (SNIT)

Hafsia II:

Client: Municipality of Tunis, through ARRU
Architects: ASM, Achraf Bahri-Meddeb, Amor Jaziri, Samia Akrout Yaiche
Coordinator: Denis Lesage
Developer: ARRU


The Government of Tunisia and the World Bank financed both stages of the rehabilitation. Hafsia II utilized realistic and successful schemes for maximizing economic potential. A guiding principle was that the new residents with the highest incomes should subsidize the rehabilitation and the reduction of population densities in the old housing.

Rehabilitated buildings were exempt from real estate tax as an incentive for the original occupants to remain, and 120 of the 400 new housing units were also exempt from real estate tax to accommodate those whose houses were demolished or the number of rentals reduced as part of the project. However the real estate tax for the remaining new units included the overall costs of roads, demolitions, indemnities paid to those evicted, and a surcharge intended to finance rehabilitation of old houses, with shops, offices, and middle-class apartments having the highest surcharges. The rates of return on investment have been high.


1. Peter Eisenman quoted from the 1995 Aga Khan Award Master Jury's debate in Architecture beyond architecture: creativity and social transformations in Islamic cultures: the 1995 Aga Khan Award for Architecture, ed. by The Aga Khan Award for Architecture, (London: Lanham, Md.: Academy Editions, 1995).

2. Master Jury's citation for the 1983 Aga Khan Awards ­ in the unidentified article from Hasan.

3. Quotation from the Master Jury's debate on the 1995 Aga Khan Awards in "Reconstruction of Hafsia 2," Architecture beyond architecture: creativity and social transformations in Islamic cultures: the 1995 Aga Khan Award for Architecture, ed. by The Aga Khan Award for Architecture, (London: Lanham, Md.: Academy Editions, 1995).

4. Quotation from the Master Jury's debate on the 1995 Aga Khan Awards in "Reconstruction of Hafsia 2," Architecture beyond architecture: creativity and social transformations in Islamic cultures: the 1995 Aga Khan Award for Architecture, ed. by The Aga Khan Award for Architecture, (London: Lanham, Md.: Academy Editions, 1995).


Association de sauvegarde de la médina de Tunis. Le Project Hafsia, à Tunis. L'Habitat Urbain Contemporain dans les Cultures Islamiques. AKPIA.

Davey, Peter. "Hafsia Quarter, Medina of Tunis, Tunisia." Architectural Review. v. 174, no. 1040 (October 1983).

Ferretti, Laura Valeria. "Pilot Schemes for Tunis." VIA. v. 6, no. 23 (September 1992).

Huet, Bernard. "The Modernity in a Tradition, the Arab-Muslim Culture of North Africa." Mimar. no. 10 (October-December 1983).

Kafi, Jellal El. "Tunisia: Hopes for the Medina of Tunis." The Conservation of Cities. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1975.

Vigier, François. Housing in Tunis. Cambridge: GSD/Harvard University, 1987.

"Hafsia Quarter, Medina of Tunis, Tunisia, 1977." Mimar. no. 10 (October-December 1983).

"A New Neighbourhood in an Old Pattern." Architectural Record. v. 171, no. 11 (September 1983).

"Aga Khan Awards." Architectural Review. v. 198, no. 1185 (November 1985).

"Reconstruction of Hafsia Quarter 2." Architecture Beyond Architecture. Aga Khan Award for Architecture, Academy Editions, 1995.

"The Aga Khan Award for Architecture." Arts and the Islamic World. v. 1, no. 3 (Summer-Autumn 1983).

"The 'Hafsia,' Tunis." Mimar. n. 17 (July-September 1985).

"The Second Aga Khan Awards: Still an Incomplete Voyage." Progressive Architecture. v. 64, no. 10 (October 1983).

Illustration Credits

1. Aga Khan Award.
2. Photo by Khadija M'Hedhebi, Aga Khan Award, 1995.
3. Photo by Khadija M'Hedhebi, Aga Khan Award, 1995.
4. Aga Khan Award, 1977, ASM.
5. Aga Khan Award, 1977, ASM.
6. Aga Khan Award, 019 tun 28 fr. 5651.
7. Aga Khan Award, 019 tun 206 fr. 5669 k12724.
8. Photo by Ranta Fadel, Aga Khan Award, 1995.
9. Aga Khan Award, 1977, ASM.
10. Aga Khan Award, k12706, Mimar 17, 1985, AFSM.

















1. Plan of the Hafsia quarter showing the two phases of rehabilitation.

2. Street view, phase 2.

3. Street view, phase 2.


4. Interior of souk, phase I.



5. View of souk and new housing beyond, phase I.









6. Street view, phase I.



































7. Interior of a bedroom of a restored house, phase I.

8. Window showing decorative detailing, phase II.
























































9. Roofscape, phase I.

10. Elevation of new housing, phase II.

Back to the Course Main Page.