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Cairo’s informed/informal ‘Brick Cities’

by Jason Hilgefort, of Land+Civilization Compositions

INFORMAL CANNOT BE FORMALLY DEFINED

Informal communities are quite a fashionable topic these days. Most people use the term ‘informal communities’ as a more polite/academic way to say slums, favelas, etc. These words conjure up images of shanty towns in places like India and Brazil. The reality is that there is a huge gradient of community types that fall under the title of ‘informal’. Informal communities basically are defined as those that are not recognized by the government. And if one had to come up with general classifications for them, across many countries, regions, and government structures; they could be thought of as those that are inhabiting existing buildings [squatting], self built, and collectively built. However, there is another type that needs to be added to this classification – ‘developer driven’ informal housing. These so called ‘brick cities’ are pervasive on the edge of Cairo. They represent a different way of creating affordable housing as well as the mode of thinking and dealing with issues of informality.

LOOKING BACKWARD, WHILE MOVING FORWARD

But how did these communities come into existence? Obviously it is via a long, layered and complex series of events and actors; but for this piece we will only give an abridged version of the causes. In an effort to limit the development of Egypt’s rare and precious fertile lands, the government put forth a policy of building satellite cities, so as to dissuade the expansion of existing cities beyond their borders and into their hinterlands. Much of the planning/regulatory community around the world thought this way – 50 years ago. But the National government, City of Cairo, and most of the dominant planning community it seems has not advanced past this ideology.

BRICK CITIES

The planned satellite cities, for numerous reasons, have not been appealing to the masses. In light of governmental and professional disinterest, the people of Cairo have taken action. Accompanying the planned new towns, there are regulations preventing development of the rich farmlands on the outskirts of Cairo. However, the enforcement is lax – to say the least. The owners of these lands are often not wealthy. And the demand for cheap housing near a city filled with opportunity, like Cairo, is very high. A common practice is for these land owners to sell the right to ‘developers’. These developers rapidly build housing on these plots [hence the ‘brick city’ title, as the most common form of construction is concrete structure with brick infill], without permits from the city [the buildings can be up to 15 stories in height]. They then sell the housing units to a series of families; and those families move in and take over ‘ownership’ of the building; with the developers then disappearing, untraceable to governmental agencies.

Now, in terms of the loss of fertile soil, obviously the consequences of this development pattern are terrible. However, in terms of cost efficiency of providing low income housing, it is fantastically efficient. A good example of how the government getting out of the way of the people is perhaps for the better. But the difficult reality for the citizens and for the government is that part of the reason the development is so cheap is that no infrastructure is provided. And once the citizens move in, they naturally begin to desire/demand infrastructure. This puts the government in the awkward position of having to provide infrastructure where it was neither considered nor designed for. Not to mention the fact that it forces the government to ‘reward’ these informal developments. This is terribly inefficient, difficult, and expensive.

WHAT THE GOVERNMENT CAN DO, FOR THE PEOPLE

For one, the government and planning community at large need to acknowledge the reality on the ground. If they were to embrace these conditions, they could see that there is great potential in this model of development, with a need for only a few modifications.Two, they should consider light regulations to these current realities, to ensure higher standards for the residents. By looking the other way, at times the quality of light, air, evacuation, etc can be substandard. They could also contemplate ‘preemptive infrastructure’. Laying the infrastructure before the development – it could give initiative on where building can/should happen and avoid the costly realities of fitting it in later. But the bigger challenge lies not in preemptive acts, but in how to retrofit the existing communities. And this is where the planning and architecture professionals have potential to make a huge impact.

WHAT URBANISTS AND ARCHITECTS CAN DO FOR THE PEOPLE

In general, in a country with so much happening on the ground, Egyptian architects and urbanists, generally, seem to be more interested in looking backward. Many initiatives/talents are focused on the past. Obviously, Egypt has a rich history and a rich urban fabric to prove it. And much of it is being lost and needs attention. However, much can be learned from what is happening on the ground, now, by the people. These qualities also must be appreciated, embraced and protected. After all, by many accounts, the informal settlements of Cairo house nearly two thirds of the residents of Cairo.

Given the poor vision of the government and the initiative of the people of Cairo, it is incumbent upon the planning/architecture community to accept the challenge of developing strategies for retrofitting these cities. It is an opportunity for innovation within the profession and for community development models worldwide. The way forward is not clear, but there are a series of possibilities to consider:
-Public space as a kit of parts. Instead of trying to insert standard public space elements into these communities or custom designing each space, perhaps a series of public space amenities could be developed as prototype elements and citizens could apply to receive/use them in their community. They, themselves, could insert them, with each community customizing their own public space, mixing and matching them as they see fit.

-New forms of hard infrastructure. Inserting sewage, water and power infrastructural will be daunting in these spaces. However, this is a chance for designers to create small scale, local, cost effective modes of delivering these services. Standard infrastructure is not necessary and can and should be reconsidered.

-New street types. Again, the standard street typologies are not appropriate for these communities. There is an opportunity to develop new street types. One example would be from the ‘shared surface’ models developing elsewhere. Which, in reality, these are the way the historical streets of cities like Cairo used to function.

-New forms of Transit. Inserting metro or even buses will be very difficult within these communities. However, one can think of micro transit systems that link to larger systems. This layering of economically efficient transit modes and ensuring their interconnection will be key for these communities’ long-term evolution.

-Recapturing lost soil. This is perhaps the most difficult problem to solve and there will never be a full recovery. However, the communities are ideal for contemplating urban agriculture. How could the urbanism community assist/guide the local citizens to harness the potential of locally grown food?

-Ownership of public space. Given the ownership issues of these communities, there is a chance to reconsider the traditional assumptions of landownership and stewardship in cities. Could a new model of the public realm be considered? Could citizens ‘own’ the public space and thus take more personal responsibility for it? Could this lead to greater care for the public space? This could lead to a greater interest in the self enhancement of the public space for the greater good of the community.

 

WHAT WE CAN LEARN

The development and reality of these communities provides many lessons, both locally and internationally. For one, utopian or idealistic models should be questioned, if not cast aside, as a mode of thinking and planning. After all, besides in films, people don’t live in utopias. There is a power in seeing each city as an organism to attempt to understand and to learn from. Instead of solely replicating models from outside of Cairo, perhaps the best thing urban and architectural professionals can do first is to learn from the urban realities and citizens of Cairo. Urban planning does not need to be so planned and dogmatic. It can be more nimble, adaptable and innovative. At times, perhaps the best strategy is to allow the people make their own city. However, this in no way frees them from their obligations to the people. There is much that the professional/governmental realm can do to help the people. And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, this model of developer driven, collective, locally solved attitude towards low income housing is an example that many other cities, both inside and outside of Egypt, can and should learn from. These brick cities and their citizens, despite being derided and ignored by their government and urban professionals, have created a new model that wields the power of citizens and informality in new and quite successful ways.

 

This article would not have been possible without the brilliance of the work of David Sims. Particularly: “Understanding Cairo: The logic of a city out of control.” And many thanks to May Al-Ibrashy, May El Tabbakh, Mohamed Elshahed, Omneya Abdel Barr for sharing their thoughts and insights.

Lessons from elsewhere: Milan Design Week, When Districts Compete

Around the world this spring and summer several international events take place at several cities, the Cannes Film festival, the Sharjah Biennial, the Venice Biennial and others are events that bring flocks of visitors interested in particular cultural productions such as film and art to those cities. The events serve various functions from energizing the economies of cities to revitalizing otherwise neglected spaces to creating dynamic reputations (branding) for those cities. In all cases such events put their host cities on the world culture map and bring visitors year round beyond the limited time frames of those events. In Egypt, events such as the Cairo Film Festival have failed to make a similar impact on the city. Aly Muhammad Ahmad visited Milan Design Week and reflected on the power of international events in revitalizing cities and keeping them going.

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The main exhibition at Milan Rho

By Aly Muhammad Ahmad

Architecture has always been as much about the event that takes place in a space as about the space itself. Bernard Tshumi, Event Cities


Every year during April and for a week, Milan, the well known city as the capital of design and fashion, is well dressed to welcome one of the most important design events in the world: the Milan Design Week. The event takes place in Rho exhibition area (the main exhibition), and also at different districts and neighborhoods which are considered for young designers.

The upcoming lines are not a report about the event and the competition that takes place between designers from all over the world or their amazing works, but it is an attempt to consider an urban perspective on another competition that takes place between different city districts, neighborhoods and public spaces.


Different spaces in each district, whatever their original functions are, switch into exhibition areas. A university, a kindergarten, a warehouse or a workshop, it does not matter, they are all switched to serve the design exhibition.


The two examples below are for two districts that are quiet and calm neighborhoods during typical everyday life but during the Design Week, they are the most well known and active spaces in the city.

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The Egyptian booth at salone satellite 2013

Ventura Lambrate

Ventura Lambrate area is a remote area and the main street where the exhibition takes place is full of warehouses, abandoned factories and workshops for small crafts where people are exhibiting their works side by side with their crafts tools.


There are some light fixtures, benches on the outside and bars to sell water and snacks are all what you need to bring life and people into a warehouse and display the different products in open partitions. The warehouse or the abandoned building becomes vibrant and occupied by people and designers and their products.


A kindergarten is changed and switched into another exhibition space for fashion design; many other buildings are easily switched into new temporary functions.

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The exhibition at different Warehouses

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The exhibition at Workshops

Via Tortona


Located behind “Porta Genova” train station, “Zona Tortona” is a very calm street with a lot of small houses with courtyards inside and some small shops outside. The courtyards and garages on the ground floor are ready to receive the new function during design week, for example, an entrance garden for a firm head office is switched to an open exhibition. The calm street becomes a crowded pedestrian path; entrances on both sides are opened to welcome people, the small shops display their products outside. Booths are everywhere, people are watching, taking photos, contemplating the products, drinking and crossing from one space to another. It’s totally a vibrant and lively space.

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Courtyards at Tortona

Every space is well used; the corridor of an old palace is temporarily used as an open area for display. Many other places are hosting events and exhibitions, the courtyards and rooms of universities, the city centre public spaces, and many more.


Milan is fully booked every year during April because of Design Week; people from all over the world head to the city. In addition to the event, touristic sites across the city become activated and well-visited. The event is an important source of income to the city and its hostels, hotels, museums, transportation, and commercial spaces. Good infrastructure and services are very important to host an event like this.


It is all about a vision and a will to convert a specific place or a city to an attraction point. Why don’t you stop, visit, buy, eat, be entertained and enjoy an atmosphere full of art, design and beauty. It’s a will to bring life to a certain space.


It’s very strange how in Egypt we don’t appreciate the value of historical buildings and how we are neglecting them until we wake up everyday on news about the destruction or the collapse of all or a part of them. It is also strange how we feel shame from old crafts workshops and how we want to get rid of them, instead of discovering the potential inherent in them, while other people have crossed over this by giving value to non valuable buildings through contemporary and elegant functions, design, new concepts and creativity. This requires another look at the city and its contents.

Aly Muhammad Ahmad is a graduate student at the School of Architecture and Society at the Politecnico Di Milano.

Critical notes on Egyptian public buildings

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بقلم: د. علي عبد الرءوف

أستاذ العمارة والعمران

مآزق الهوية

بداية نعتقد أن التناول النقدي لموضوع الهوية الجماعية لأمة أو شعب ما لا يقلل من الوطنية بل هو حرص عليها ورغبة في إحياء الانتماء الحقيقي وليس المرتبط بأمجاد ماضي سحيق ليس من الفطنة أن نتغنى به ونسقط الحاضر والمستقبل من أنشودتنا. ومن ناحية أخرى ننبه ان الأمة العربية والإسلامية استهلكت جزء كبير من طاقاتها في طرح تساؤلات عن ماهية الهوية ولمن ننتمي ومن نحن وكيف نحدث حاضرنا دون أن نخسر أمجاد الماضي وحاصرتنا مصطلحات الأصالة والمعاصرة والثابت والمتحول والمحلي والعالمي والمرتبط والمنفصل حصارا خانقا اعتقد ان أهم تداعياته يتجلى في حالة الفقر الإبداعي العام . تبدو الإشكالية واضحة في معظم البلاد العربية فنحن مسلمون ولذا فالسائد ان الهوية الإسلامية هي النموذج الأكثر قبولا ومعقولية في مشروع البحث عن الذات في العالم العربي ومن الناحية المعمارية والعمرانية فلم نندهش حين أثرت تلك المرجعية تأثيرا كاسحا على التوجهات المعمارية والعمرانية في الثمانينيات وأوائل التسعينيات. وتطور الأمر بصورة أكثر درامية في العقد الأخير وخاصة مع أطروحات العولمة وتفسيراتها في السياق العربي والإسلامي والرضا بتصور العولمة بكل أبعادها كوحش يتربص بثقافتنا وعاداتنا وتقاليدنا

التاريخ والمعمار

تتعقد الإشكالية حين نتحول إلى بلد ذو حضارة متراكمة ومركبة ومتعددة الإبعاد والأعماق مثل مصر وعاصمتها العريقة القاهرة التي تشكل تبعا لأراء أهم مؤرخين العمران مع اسطنبول وروما أكثر المدن تعقيدا في طبقاتها التاريخية. وليس هناك ضرر في الرغبة في المحافظة على عنصر التاريخ ولكن كل الضرر في سطحية المحافظة وتجاهل عامل الزمن وضرورة الاستمرارية ، وكما يطرح المفكر د.مأمون فندي فان العمارة او المعمار وسيط ينحاز عبر العصور للزمان مرة وللمكان مرة ولكن في كلا الحالتين هو أسلوب لفهمنا لأنفسنا وللعالم من حولنا

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القاهرة وروما واسطنبول:عبقرية التعقيد التاريخي للمدينة

استهلاك الرمز والتقاليد

يمثل الطرح الفرعوني ملجأ أمنا في زمن تعاني فيه الدول العربية والإسلامية ومصر بينهم من هزائم متتالية فكرية وسياسية واقتصادية واجتماعية. فالحقبة الفرعونية تذكر بل وتخدر المصريين خدرا لطيفا يدخلهم في عوالم المجد والانتصار والسيطرة على العالم التي مضى عليها سبعة ألاف عام ولكن ما الضرر في الاستدعاء المستمر لهذا الماضي السعيد وخاصة ان ظروف الحاضر لا تقترح قرب عودته في المستقبل المنظور!!. دعنا نتأمل كيف استهلكت الفنون ورموز الحضارة الفرعونية في مشاركتنا المصرية في المهرجانات والمعارض العالمية والمنتديات الدولية فجناحنا في بورصة برلين للسياحة فرعوني التصميم وكذلك في القرية العالمية بدينة دبي وحتى في معرض السجاد العالمي في هانوفر. حاول ان تتصفح أي موقع الكتروني رسمي مصري للوزارات او المؤسسات ولا تندهش من زهرة اللوتس وأوراق البردي التي تزين المواقع . لماذا لا نستمع إلى المفكر ادوارد سعيد قائلا الحضارة الفرعونية مثل موسيقى بيتهوفن أصبحت ملك العالم كله. أنا بالقطع لا أدعو إلى التنصل منها ولكني أحث الجميع على تجاوزها تجاوزا بناء يحفظ قيمتها ولا يحولها إلى مسخ تجاري وفي الوقت ذاته فان التجاوز قد يحفزنا إلى تقديم مساهمة معاصرة في العالم المتعولم الذي نعيش خلاله اليوم

عمارة المبنى العام في مصر: العقد الأخير

الفاحص المدقق للتغيرات الحادثة في العمارة المصرية في العقد الأخير يلحظ عودة غير مفسرة إلى خيار الهوية الفرعونية كمرجعية تشكيلية وبصرية لبعض أهم المشروعات المعمارية والعمرانية وخاصة المباني العامة والمؤسسية والحكومية. وهو ما يثير جدلا حتميا ، فمرجعية المبنى الخاص مزاجية شخصية آما مرجعية المبني العام وخاصة الرسمي فهي تعبير عن توجه دولة او مؤسسة او سياسة عامة

والراصد لتحولات العمارة المصرية المعاصرة منذ بداياتها في أوائل القرن الماضي حين تولي مسئولية تدريس وممارسة العمارة الجيل الأول من المعماريين الوطنيين حتى العقد الأخير يتضح له تقلب المرجعية التشكيلية في النتاج المعماري من الحداثة إلى الإسلامية إلى مابعد الحداثة كان منطقيا وارتبط بمتغيرات محلية او إقليمية او بتوجهات فردية شخصية نابعة من تأثر المعماريين بتعليمهم وإعدادهم الغربي. ولكننا أيضا نرصد مباني مثل ضريح الزعيم الوطني سعد زغلول بطرازه الفرعوني ومحطة القطار الرئيسية بمدينة الجيزة وغيرهم تعكس رغبة قومية في استخدام المبني العام كمجال لتأكيد الهوية المصرية والوطنية التي لا تقبل المنافسة وهي الهوية الفرعونية ، وخاصة في إطار زمني كانت مصر تحاول خلاله وخاصة على المستوى السياسي تأكيد زعامتها العربية والإقليمية.
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المشهد الحالي للعودة للعمارة الفرعونية بدأ مع واحدة من اهم المسابقات المعمارية المحلية التي كان موضوعها الوصول إلى أفضل تصميم للمقر الجديد للمحكمة الدستورية العليا في موقع متميز بإطلالة رائعة على نهر النيل جنوب القاهرة

القضية الهامة لهذا المشروع والمتعلقة بموضوع هذا المقال ان المتسابق الفائز قام بتغيير جذري للطرح التصميمي الأصلي الذي اختارته لجنة التحكيم ليتحول من تركيبة معمارية تفكيكية إلى توليفة فرعونية مسرحية وسبب هذا التحول كان رغبة معلنة من رئيس المحكمة في هذا الحين (وهو رجل قانون) في ان يكون للمحكمة طراز كلاسيكي مثل المحاكم الانجليزية وحيث ان طراز الأخيرة هو غالبا كلاسيكي أوربي فمن المنطقي ان يكون طراز المصرية كلاسيكي فرعوني !! وبديهيا ان يطيع المعماري خشية ان يخسر فرصة لا تتكرر لربط اسمه بمشروع هام ومؤثر معماريا وعمرانيا في تشكيل مدينة هامة كالقاهرة. وبصرف النظر عن خلفيات المشروع وتدخل الغير مختص وتنازل المعماري عن فكره التصميمي إلا أن المشروع بعد بنائه وظهوره كتركيبة بصرية خارجة عن المعتاد والمكرر والممل ولد موجة جديدة من الحنين الى العمارة الفرعونية والرضا عنها كأكثر الإجابات منطقية وملائمة للتساؤلات عما يعبر عن الهوية المصرية.

Watch the full episode. See more Need To Know.

Lessons from elsewhere: India. From solar powered rickshaws to a canopy made of recycled oil cans, learn about Jugaad Urbanism — an exhibit featuring the work of urban designers inspired by the resourcefullness of ordinary citizens in India.