Architecture & the City

My City: What I Love About Cairo

“I miss aspects of being in the Arab world – the language – and there is a tranquility in these cities with great rivers. Whether it’s Cairo or Baghdad, you sit there and you think, ‘This river has flown here for thousands of years.’ There are magical moments in these places.” – My former boss Dame Zaha Hadid, may she rest in peace.

On the 2nd of May, 2017, we asked a question to our followers on our Social Media Pages page (Facebook page link here): What do you LOVE about it? And also, what would like to see improve in your city?

My brother Khaled and I have lived in a number of different cities throughout our lives: Cairo, Istanbul, Washington DC, Atlanta, Savannah, London, New York, and Rome to name a few. Between us, we have also visited a number of cities that we have fallen in love with: San Francisco, Cusco, Salt Lake City, Park City, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Bodrum, Paris, Edinburgh, Brighton, Vicenza, Florence, Como, and Alexandria (in the interest of keeping this post positive, we decided against naming the cities which we have issues with, which is quite a large list). Each and every one of these cities has imprinted its soul onto our hearts, and we carry the experience with us everywhere we go and every design we make. We could write essays about the cities we love, and poetically (at least trying to be poetic) describe the moments that touched our hearts, but that would too long (perhaps we could do so over a longer period of time and group these essays together in a short publication sometime in the future). In order to answer the question we posted above and give our insights about the city we love, we decided to each pick a city and dive deep into this: My brother will be writing about his love affair with New York (where he is currently residing), and I will talk about Cairo.

Before starting to talk about what I love about Cairo I would like to tell you a little anecdote that helped shape my view about my city. I, like many others of my generation growing up in 80s and 90s Cairo, loathed the city. I had a very bad series of experience and unfortunate events during my undergraduate years and couldn’t wait to leave the entire country upon my graduation. My mother has been living in Washington DC since 1996, and I would count the days till summer vacation so I could leave what I considered to be a dump and spend my summers with her. Upon graduation, I quickly traveled to DC as I had been accepted in the Masters program of the School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation at the University of Maryland. I remember  on my plan ride over there I thought to myself that I was never going back to Egypt and I had to find a way to make this next destination of mine my new home.

A week later was my first class in my masters program, and it was an Urban Design theory class taught by the awesomely energetic Professor Karl Du Puy. At the beginning of the class he asked us to write a one page essay about the city, town or suburb that we grew up in, and what do we think we learned from urban design – be it positive or negative – from our experience of our hometown. As you can imagine, I took this as an opportunity to rage against Cairo. I emotionally began outpouring everything I hate and loathe about the city: the traffic, the pollution, the architecture, the education, the governmental bodies responsible for issuing building permits (and those responsible for the education), the newly adopted suburban sprawl …etc. I don’t remember if we took the time to write this essay in class or if it was an assignment we had to hand in, but I remember that I waited for the entire class to submit theirs so I can be the last one to face Professor Du Puy – yes I was annoying like that. Karl (I’m just going call him Karl from now on in this post, I am certain he won’t mind – at least I hope he wouldn’t) looked at the essay and saw that I grew up in Cairo, and he roared out in his famous ‘Urban Train’ (MAPP+D reference) shout out voice “OH CAIRO! “. He smiled, looked at me and said, “you know, Cairo is not all that bad – I mean, it has its problems, but as a city, it’s quite wonderful” …. huh?! Was he kidding me? What the hell was he talking about? Not all that bad??!! Please … He doesn’t know what he is talking about … how can he? Why am I paying a fortunate to study in this school when professors claim that Cairo is actually “quite wonderful”?! How am I supposed to trust, respect and expect to learn anything from someone who claims that shit hole called Cairo is “not all that bad”. Well it turns out, I learned a lot from this man, and I owe him a great deal of gratitude.

As I went on with the program, I noticed something rather peculiar about myself; whenever I was given a task or assignment that required me to use a city or place as a precedent, I would use one of my favorite spots in Cairo (which made me realize that I actually had favorite spots in Cairo). I would always try to apply whatever new concepts that I have learned to my hometown, and I rediscovered a lot of facets to it that I may have previously turned a blind eye towards. Sooner or later, I realized that I miss home … and this wasn’t the run of the mill homesickness that people talk about as they become expats – I  felt that I was learning a great deal of information and gaining immense insight and knowledge that I couldn’t wait to share in Cairo. Sooner or later, Cairo became my focus of study: I helped arrange a winter abroad class with Professor Lindley Vann to Egypt, I used Cairo as my precedent study for my Urban Design studio, I wrote countless papers about the city, and I based my entire thesis project on Cairo. Professor Du Puy was right, if you look passed a lot of its Cosmetic issues, Cairo can be quite beautiful.

774px-View_from_Cairo_Tower_31march2007
View from Cairo Tower by Raduasandei

In terms of what I love about the city, there are two major elements that come to mind. First of which is the Nile (sorry this is kind of cheesy, I promise you the second element could be more profound hehe). I live right in front of the Nile, in fact, the image attached with this post is taken out of my balcony. I never really truly appreciated it until later in life; I believe I was taking a felucca boat ride like ten years ago or so and I marveled at the Cairo Skyline from within the Nile. It was fascinating how all the towers and residential buildings that I had previously thought were ugly on their own seemed to sparkle along the river. When I was on the felluca, I did not see these pieces of architecture as rudimentary forms or badly design facades (which, yes, many of them are badly designed) but as a collective whole merging with one another and shimmering through their reflection on the water. When looking at them abstractly, they seem like oversized trees or monuments along the water. Many have discussed removing these towers as they were said to be eye sores preventing viewership of the Nile from the older and shorter buildings behind them, after this felucca boat ride, I had to disagree with this point of view. Let me be specific, the area which I am talking about runs between Abbas bridge by El Manial and Giza on the other side all the way up to the tip of Zamalek (I am not sure I can defend the towers along the Maadi Corniche – sorry to whomever was responsible for those). The heights of the towers are proportionate to the width of the Nile, and they somehow seem to enclose the river as a large urban space. This is probably why I never really made that connection until after my visit to Rome in 2007 and understanding what it means to enclose a space and feel like it is a large room, and sitting on the boat that day truly did make me feel secure and embraced. Yes, the architecture can be prettier and the architects who worked on these buildings probably did not think of all this during the design process, but the fact remains. I am attached a number of stock images from the Wiki commons in this post to further elaborate my point: the best images taken of Cairo always show its relationship to the Nile.

Nile-Cairo
The Nile Corniche by Faris Knight

I went Kayaking with someone special to me for the first time in my life last week, and it was the first time I was actually this close to the water; it felt like I was hovering above it. Yes, I could have chosen to complain about how dirty the river was (to be fair, I believe I did that a few times), but I chose not to dwell on that. There was a brief moment where I just stopped kayaking and sat there in the middle of the body of water and looked around me, taking it all in and truly feeling that this river is the most beautiful part of the city. You could watch people sitting in their balconies, families gathering along the river boat cafes and restaurants, and you could notice the little remaining bit of wildlife in their ecosystem … a beautiful blend between concrete jungle and natural habitat. To this special someone who is probably reading this and thinking: “what the hell, you were frowning the entire time!!!” I would like to remind her that the sun was in my eye, and I always look like I want to beat someone up when the sun is in my eye (I am cursed with ugly resting bitch face, and for that I apologize hehe).

Panocairo1
A panorama taken from the Judge’s Club in Cairo, showing the Nile as well as Geziera. The Sofitel and Grand Hyatt Hotels can be seen in the far right of the photograph. By Jasmine Elias

The second aspect that I love about Cairo is the historical city – and by that, I do not mean the 19th and early 20th century downtown, I mean the largely neglected Mamluk Cairo. I am not going to go into a history lesson and go on about how Cairo grew over time, there are many other architects, scholars and historians that could do that a million times better than I ever can (will be happy to recommend books to anyone who asks), but I will take the time to describe why I love this part of the city so much. I have talked about this at length in my book (Al Masmaa’: The Place for Listening), but the main reason why I find places like El Moez Street and el Darb el Ahmar so fascinating is the element of surprise at literally every corner. The promenade through the street is rather majestic and episodic, as the street widens, narrows and curves to create a series of spaces and unique nodes along the path. During my research, I noticed that while walking along El Moez Street with each minaret you pass another one appears in the distance. Try this next time you are visiting the area: walk through Bab el Fetooh onto the triangular space infront of Al Hakim Mosque. The minaret of Al Hakim blocks the vista towards the rest of El Moez Street, which makes the space in front of the Mosque all more important as it feels embracing and less porous; it feels like a large room. As you continue walking and approach the minaret, the street opens up and reveals the rest of the city, and in the distance appearing out of nowhere is the Ottoman minaret of Sulayman Agha el Silahdar. As you approach that minaret and it leaves your cone of vision, the smaller minaret of Al Aqmar Mosque appears, which then leads to the minarets of the beyn asreen complex of the beautiful Barquq and Qalawun mosques (my favorite space in Cairo), and so on and so forth until going out of Bab Zuweila and into the Khaymeya district. Not since my exploration of Florence (the procession from the Ponte Vecchio, the street along the Arno to the Uffizi overlooking Piaza della Signoria and Il Duomo is breathtaking) have I not seen a city filled with surprising games played with the pedestrian visitor.

This idea of closing off and opening up vistas allows for different episodes, characters and zones within the same 20 minute walking distance street. I believe I have brought it down to nine different zones within the El Moez thoroughfare – each with its own multisensory aspects: different smells, sounds, visual enclosures, and activities. It started to remind me of a piece of traditional Arabic Music piece, where there isn’t a main theme with its variations, but a number of themes that are linked together at small connection points, allowing the same piece to have a number of different episodes under the same umbrella. This is an aspect of design, that may have occurred by happenstance historically, that I believe we should have held onto and built upon rather than discard.

There are many aspects of Cairo I would like to see improve or change: the traffic / pollution / garbage is a major concern of mine, the attitude towards public space is another, and so is the maintenance of our architectural resources. But one of my major concerns is the suburban sprawling expansion of the city and the new satellite towns of the outskirts of Cairo … but this is something that I would like to discuss in more detail and depth at another time.

 

See you next week 😀

Mahmoud M M Riad

Director of RiadArchitecture

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