The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Mapping Cairo's future

Just before I left Cairo, last weekend, I attended this symposium on "Urban Trajectories in Cairo." It was organized by new entity called Pericenter Projects, and included videos and talks by artists, designers, architects, sociologists. It was very interesting. I particularly enjoyed a new video by Aglaia Konrad, entitled "Desert Cities," which consists of 58 minutes of footage of (rather forlorn-looking) developments all around the edges of city. And a talk entitled "Legalizing an Urban Tumour" by designer Marwan Fayed, who presented a number of "case studies" of the creative adjustments of Cairo residents to their urban surroundings, as well as  a number of suggested design interventions based on the observed needs of city residents--these included an "expandable" koshk and a bus stop whose roof projected into the street to shade bus passengers waiting scattered in the street. (I'm trying to get the whole presentation online).

There was also a talk by SODIC architect Marcus ElKatscha on the design principles of the new EastTown and WestTown developments (these are up-scale suburban downtowns meant to cater to the residents of 6th of October and Kattameya). ElKatscha's presentation didn't go over that well with the mostly young, artsy, lefty crowd (he got a lot of questions like "Don't you only want to attract a certain kind of people?"). For me, the fact that the planned developments are upscale isn't necessarily a problem--every city in the world has "fancy" neighborhoods, and our beloved Downtown Cairo used to be one. And the idea of providing the already existing Eastern and Western suburbs of Cairo with some sort of downtown is actually quite intelligent--it's clearly what's missing. But the architectural style was quite bland, and what troubles me more is the deployment of the terms "mixed-use." The new developments will mix commercial and residential space, and ElKatscha seemed to suggest that in of of itself this lent diversity to the proposed neighborhood, whereas I think it's quite clear that it will be socioeconomically homogenous. ElKatscha also described Downtown, Garden City, Maadi and Helipolis as "mixed use," something I found very confusing. I live in Garden City and it's overwhelmingly residential--whereas all of central Cairo (including lower-class, unplanned neighborhoods) strikes me as the essence of "mixed use." Finally, SODIC's planners claim their mixed-use downtowns will cut down commuting time and be environmentally responsible--but while the wealthy house-wife who lives there may be able to walk to the mall, I wonder how far all the servers, shop assistants, cleaners and domestic workers will have to commute (I didn't see that the plan included any low income housing). In any case, it was fascinating to get this glimpse into the future of Cairo's development, although I hear that in the current economic climate all these developments have slowed if not come to a complete halt.