“When urbanity decays, civilization suffers and decays with it.” – James Normal Hall
On the 16th of May, 2017, we started the following conversation with our followers on our Social Media Pages page (Facebook page link here): we would like to hear from you about the areas within your hometown, city, or neighborhood that you feel are overlooked and underused, and we could start the discussion on how it can be changed, intervened in, altered, re-purposed, re-imagined, restructured or redesigned.
This is my personal reflection on this conversation.
Have you ever played Sim City? I think this game truly is a masterpiece and has evolved really nicely over the past 25 years or so when it first came out on Super Nintendo. This game truly teaches us the basic masterplanning and cityplanning guidelines, shows us the amount of layers that goes into making any city, and really opens up our mind when it comes to how we strategize planning for city extensions. What I love most about the newer versions of this game is that it has the ability to zoom into the city and shows us all the plots that are flourishing, and at the same time it shows us all the plots that are in decay. As a game player, you need to replace these blocks that in decay, which often happen because they are unreachable by utilities, and sometimes, because they offer an opportunity to become special plot sites which can be of better use as some sort of park / landmark area.
As I became more proficient at this game, I would notice the decaying sites and abandoned plots around my neighborhood and start to imagine myself interjecting as if I was back in the Sim City game. I realize that in real life, most abandoned plots happen because the plot owner is simply doing a bad job in maintenance, but I still find these to be golden opportunities for inner city design surgery, as opposed to always looking to extend the city outward. I feel that we as residents, owners, entrepreneurs, city officials and designers will sooner or later be forced to look at these decaying plots and thinking about ways to either adaptively re-using these areas or buildings (if an existing building exists) or finding opportunities to replace whatever is existing with a land-use that is heavily needed in the area (be it residential, commercial, or industrial…etc) or place an amenity item that would benefit the surrounding community and help elevate the property value.
This discussion takes me back to the days I was in graduate school preparing for my thesis project and dissertation. I had decided that I wanted my dissertation to be on the relationship between music and architecture, and had resolved to chose Cairo as my case study site. I felt that most literature on the relationship between both fields used western music as a foundation, so wanted to study how the findings would change if we used Arabic music instead. As I was diving deep into Arabic music theory, I started to also do a lot of research on Cairo and present ideas of soft-sites to my thesis committee. For those unaware of architectural jargon, soft-sites refers to areas within the neighborhood that are either not working effectively or undeveloped, and are ripe for an architectural intervention. I wanted my design to be based on historic Arabic music principals and wanted to situate my final design within the historical quarters of Cairo, for comparative analysis reasons, so I chose to narrow down my soft site selection to El Moez Street in Cairo. This street was the main thoroughfare of the historical Fatamid city (circa the tenth century) and remained to be the main artery of the city until a new nucleus was created in Khedive Ismail in the nineteenth century (which is now referred to as Downtown Cairo).
As I walked and explored the street (it is about 22 minutes walk from the northern gate of Bab el Fetooh to the southern gate of Bab Zuwaila) I fell in love with its charm and unique character. I learned a lot about how to design a street and to create opportunities for nodes and larger open spaces just by strolling through it. Sure, most of the streets is pretty much run down and in decay, but you can truly see the beauty underneath the layer of dirt, dust and soot on the facades of the architecture. My mission was the find possible soft-sites, meaning sites that were either completely open (non existent in this part of Cairo) or not working effectively and needed to be replaced. While most of the buildings needed significant preservation, it was out of the scope of what I was looking for (the dissertation was to be an architectural project designed from scratch), and I definitely did not want to recommend removing any of the historical buildings, no matter how run down and partially destroyed they were. However, I was surprised to see that there were a few opportunities for an architectural intervention in the street, mostly in the plots of the newer buildings that were erected in the Post Nasser Period circa the 1960s and 1970s which did not serve the area in artistic style nor did it help the neighborhood as a whole on a functional level.
During one of my thesis presentations to my committee, I subdivided the streets to be nine different zones, each having a unique character and spirit of place. Within each zone I proposed an architectural intervention, whether it be a recommendation to remove an existing building (be it a group of shishas cafes facing an important mosque or abandoned school building which does not fit within the urban fabric of the place), restore a historical building and introduce a contemporary item to reinvigorate it, or place a series of urban furniture items like a series of benches and landscaped items or a bridge/canopy idea to cross the modern avenue that cuts the pedestrian thoroughfare in half. The diagram below shows all these zones demarcated on a drawing of El Moez Street.
My committee felt that working on these 9 zones simultaneously would be overly ambitious on my part and instructed me to choose one zone only. They felt this would allow me to spend all my energy working to develop this soft site more thoroughly, and after having gone through the experience, I am very happy they talked me into it. They saw that working on all the nine zones would be something that I would develop and work on through my lifetime/career … I am not sure whether they were serious about that or were being sarcastic, but I took their advice to heart and promised myself that I would tackle each and every one of these zones at some point during my career. For my thesis dissertation, I picked the very first site, which was a group of shisha cafes that were built at the start of the El Moez Street in front of the historic Al Hakim Mosque which was built in the 11th century. As you enter Bab el Fetooh, you are greeted with a blank wall which is the side blank facade of one of these shisha cafes. I felt that this was rather inappropriate; as you enter one of the oldest surviving remnants of a historic city, you are greeted with an ugly red brick facade of some rundown cafe! This entire block needed to go, especially that it did not have any historical value (was probably built as a slum within the past two or three decades or so). My proposal was to design and build a cultural center that celebrates the act and art of “listening” (recalling Egypt and other Arab cultures to be more aural societies rather than visual). The design takes the opportunity to create more of an elegant and appropriate entrance to the city, while still adhering to the cultural aspects of privacy (a play of wall adjustments that does not give you a visual cue of what is in the next space until you actually pass through it for privacy reasons), and at the same time create and define a grand triangular space in front of the Al Hakim Mosque. In regards to the function of the cultural center, it was designed to house a number of activities that are all related to the act of listening: performances, discussion sessions, lectures, sermons, assemblies, community schooling, symposiums, public hang out spaces…etc. This project has been awarded the Dean’s thesis prize at the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at the University of Maryland in Spring of 2009, has won AIA Maryland’s Graduate Design award for the year of 2009, and has since been published as a book under the name “Al Masmaa’ – The Place For Listening” by Lambert Academic Publishing, which you can purchase on Amazon.com when you click this link.
Needless to say, my thesis research stayed with me for a while. I am actively seeking opportunities to go back and revisit the other 8 zones I had left in my “lifework” masterplan. I found another chance to do so at a competition that Building Trust International set up in the summer of 2013 aptly called “Playscapes”. They asked participants to pinpoint sites within their community which are in decay and have been abandoned and to come up with an architectural intervention which encourages the notion of “play” (introduce a basketball court, dance hall, parkour obstacles…etc). I had entered this competition with our architectural practice, RiadArchitecture and gave the other members of our team a quick recap of the research I had done previously. We picked one of the remaining zones in my grand masterplan: Zone 5 – the Madrasas of Al Salh Najm el Din Ayoub. The site is a historical complex of two schools with a small path separating them and the beautiful minaret of Najm el Din Ayoub connecting them. While the minaret is in good shape (possibly because it is facing the main El Moez Street) the madrasas are completely run down. One of them is almost completely destroyed save for one surviving vault , and is now filled with shisha cafes and bathrooms; while the other is literally a garbage dump with access to the public being denied.
Our proposal sought to rebuild and restore both madrasas and within the heart of their open space place a series of contemporary designed large scale musical harps. These harps would be placed to encourage the visitors to come and play with one another, perhaps setting up an improvisation jam session. A Madrasa can be loosely translated to a “school”, but we need to understand the etymology of the word to get a better grasp of the Arab idea of schools. “Madrasa” is derived from the word “Dars”, which is the verb “to Study”, and literally means “the place to study”- which we understand as the place to “explore” and to “learn”. Studies have shown that improvisation sparks brain activity that help boost creativity, so we felt that this was an important addition to the Madrasa and help re-shape such places as areas for exploration and discovery. The idea of an oversized harp is something that we had previously experimented with as a temporary installation at the LifeCycle Building Center in Atlanta in partnership with AIA Atlanta (For more information on the Dancing Harp project, click here). In this particular project, we allowed the forms to be derived from Arabic Calligraphy Scrolls (for more information about this project, click here).
This idea of urban interventions has thus become a common threat within the RiadArchitecture repertoire, especially with the third generation. Since we started work in Later 2012, we have proposed a number of projects that tackles this idea of urban renewal through architectural intervention; projects that take the opportunity to reinvigorate the urban fabric of the place, whether it be through engaging with the surrounding context by extending our design outwards, injection of architectural elements to revitalize otherwise decaying or abandoned areas, or introducing cultural elements to invite and encourage the local population to engage and participate. Some of these projects include our Casablanca Market, our Adelaide Cultural Center (not published online yet), our 69|70 Spaces Between proposal, our Aurificia Porto Urban Regeneration masterplan, our Casa De Bolero cultural center, our UNESCO Bamiyan Cultural Center, and our famous Cairo Municipality Adaptive Reuse Proposal (click the links of each of the projects for more information). We feel that the future is dependent on these type of projects which seek to redevelop underused or overlooked areas within the community rather than expand outwards from the city, and we as RiadArchitecture will promise to raise more awareness and encourage our clients to engage in such endeavors.
See you next week 🙂
Mahmoud M M Riad
Director of RiadArchitecture