Walks is a series of posts which will address certain urban and/or architectural themes which can be investigated by following a short walking route with suggested sites and clues.
Theme: Public Space (parks and squares)
Time to complete walk: 2-3 hours depending on how long you spend at each stop.
Lookout for: fences, security, thresholds, pedestrian areas, landscaping (particularly shade trees).
Start this walk at Saad Zaghloul Square in front of the memorial gate for the opera complex in Zamalek. The Square is adorned by a statue of Saad Zaghloul by Mahmoud Mukhtar. The statue stands on top of a tall pedestal in the form of four adjoined closed lotus bud columns. Turn your back to the square and enter into the opera complex. Note the multi-layered threshold which marks a clear separation between the sidewalk (a public space) and the campus of the cultural buildings surrounding the opera house (another public space). First the Moorish style monumental gate architecturally marks the point of entry from the square into the complex, however there are other security-oriented, yet dysfunctional, layers: a metal fence with a small opening the size of a regular door (not fit for the scale of the space, nor inviting/welcoming for passers by to enter this public space), once through the metal fence there is a dysfunctional metal detector that is only there for appearances in addition to a policeman also there for an appearance of security but with little utility at this location.
Once inside, the complex (1) is fairly pleasant with a collection of buildings, many of which are from the 1930s when this was Cairo fair ground, that house various cultural institutions, such as the terribly organized and managed Museum of Modern Art and the music library. Walk through and exit from the back gate near al-Galaa Bridge.
[On Tahrir Street between fences separating various public spaces. The building seen here is the former Museum of Egyptian Civilization which has been under “renovation” for a decade, a clear case of corruption in plain sight.]
Turn left onto Tahrir Street. This is a rather strange pedestrian experience walking between Galaa Square back to Saad Zaghloul Square where the walk began. To the right (South) is a park (public space) and to the left (North) is the opera complex (public space) and you are walking on the street which is clear public space yet there are fences all around. Both the park and the opera grounds are fenced making the street a long caged space. A telling moment of the security paradigm that governs the way public space and sidewalks are currently designed is in the middle of Tahrir Street at the Opera Metro Station exit which blocks nearly the entire sidewalk forcing pedestrians to walk sideways between the exit and the park fence.
At the end of the street walk into Tahrir Park (must pay 2LE) and explore its landscaping and statues (2). Note the section which had been taken away from the park and occupied by a military post (predating 2011). Also note the behavior and interactions between park staff and patrons.
Next, exit Horeyya/Tahrir Park and cross the street north to Andalus Park (3), another landscaped public space with a little bit of history and a lot to observe regarding its contemporary condition and design. Note the entrance right on Saad Zaghloul Square which is permanently closed (typically public spaces should be accessible from the most high visibility and high pedestrian traffic points if their purpose is to invite as much of the public as possible. The entrance however is to the side on the street facing the Novotel Hotel. There is an entry fee as well: you have two choices, a 2LE ticket for the lower part of the park or a 5LE (10LE for foreigners) to enter the lower and the upper part of the park which was designed in 1935 by Mohamed Bek DhulFaqqar with Moorish inspiration. This part of the park is worth a visit.
[Views of al-Andalus Garden where the ticket is 5-10LE.]
Before exiting this green public space note the relationship between this park and the Nile. This is a park along the river, yet you can hardly see it nor feel that connection. The park is divided from the Nile, where there is yet another and a different kind of public space along the waterfront, yet all those public spaces are subdivided and separated.
Exit the park and return back to the starting point at Saad Zaghloul Square, take note of the Qasr el Nil lions and proceed to cross the bridge. The bridge (4) is one of Cairo’s prime public spaces for promenading, mostly because of the lack of publicly accessible Nile-side spaces. The bridge is also bi-polar, during the day it is a city bridge dominated by vehicular traffic, while at night it transforms into a social space where the sidewalks throng with couples, friends and families and traffic is squeezed into one lane per direction as the pedestrians park their cars to enjoy the view.
Once across the bridge, you are now entering the vast ambiguously defined urban space that is Tahrir Square (5). From an urban planning perspective this isn’t a typical square in the sense that the relationship between the open space and the architectural edge (how the buildings define and contain the space) is fragmented and lacks form. Much can be said about this part of central Cairo but give yourself time to stand at several points and observe the space, how it is used, how cars and pedestrians flow through it, how security regimes fragment the pedestrian space and have put up obstacles but also how people have taken matters into their own hands to deal with those hurdles to make it work. A particularly clear example of the above mentioned observations is the space directly in front of the Mogamaa building.
[Gomhoreya (Abdeen) Square during Al Fann Midan when the public is invited to make use of the space. On most days however the square isn’t well-used because of lack of basic amenities such as benches, proper lighting, shade trees, restrooms, etc.]
After Tahrir get back on Tahrir Street and stay on it in the direction of Abdeen Palace. Halfway between Tahrir Square and Abdeen Palace there is an interesting urban space, Bab el Louq Square (6). This long elliptical space is surrounded by a collection of buildings from the first decade of the 20th century to the 1960s. A notable building is the central market on the south side of the square. The square was once a major hub for several tram lines but now it has been transformed into a parking lot. It is easy to stand here and imagine a different kind of square where the center is a pedestrian space with benches and shade trees rather than parked cars.
Continue on Tahrir Street towards Al Gomhoreya Square (Republic Square) facing Abdeen Palace (7). This is an important space in modern Cairo’s urban history because it is facing the modern seat of power which moved to this location from the Citadel in the 1860s and it was also the site where after the military coup of 1952 the power of the new regime was put on display in the form of military parades. Today the square is where Al Fann Midan street festival takes place on the first Saturday of every month, a new chapter it the square’s life which reflects the political events of last year.
This is another city square with history and potential for increased public life. With some simple design interventions the square could be far more pedestrian friendly. To the north are the buildings of the municipality (governorate) and to the south is a fragmented fabric of residential buildings. This square is significant urbanistically because it is one of three major spaces in Cairo which link the pre-19th century city with the 19th century expansion. The other two spaces are Azbakeya Garden and Ramses Square.
Conclude your walk by exploring Mohamed Farid Square (8), at the beginning of Emad Eddin Street, one of modern Cairo’s most beautiful and important streets. The square is one of 9 circular square scattered around downtown Cairo. Note the contrast between this space and Talaat Harb Square (9) when it comes to the way the architecture defines the urban space. The architectural container of Mohamed Farid is a collage of shapes, sizes and architectural styles that reflect a greater economic diversity than its counterpart at Talaat Harb. Also note in all of these circular squares how pedestrians, shops and vehicular traffic interact. Most of these circular squares are adorned by statues of figures from Egypt’s modern history.
Further reading related to this walk is Cairo’s Street Stories:Exploring the City’s Statues, Squares, Bridges, Gardens, and Sidewalk Cafés by Lesley Lababidi, published by AUC Press.