Architecture & Spirituality

The Path Less Traveled: My Spiritual Connection to Machu Picchu

“Walking purposefully from A to B is felt as leaving so many steps behind and as having much more ground ahead to cover. Change the environment by introducing band music and, objectively, one still marches from A to B with seeming deliberation. Subjectively, however, space and time have lost their directional thrust under the influence of rhythmic sound. Each step is no longer just another move along the narrow path to a destination; rather it is striding into open an undifferentiated space. The idea of a precisely located goal loses relevance.”- Yi-Fu Tuan

On the 30th of May, 2017, we asked our friends on our social media platforms to share their stories regarding their spiritual connections to places on Earth (Facebook post here) – this is our story.

I am just going to tell a story this week; a small anecdote that perhaps would relate to the question at hand. I was an eager Graduate student at the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at the University of Maryland during the beginning of 2008. I was hungry to learn and jumped in any opportunity to expand my horizons (which often lead me to bite off much more than I can chew at times). The summer earlier, I had traveled and spent a semester in Italy with the architecture program, and this winter break, the school had put out a study abroad course in Peru to study Incan architecture and civilization. I was extremely excited at the prospect of traveling to Peru, since I had never set foot in South America before, and I believe I was among the first to sign up. The professor who lead the course was Professor Lindsay Vann who I had previously taken Ancient Greek Architecture with to satisfy one of my History core electives.

Side story: My very first midterm during my Masters program was for said Ancient Greek Architecture and I studied my ass off! For the first time ever, I wrote everything on cue cards and would kept studying as much as I can, even bringing in these cue cards to the shower (I don’t remember how I stopped them from getting wet). The course was rather difficult for me, as a lot of the information was quite new (I found out later that most other students had a brief introduction to Ancient Greek Architecture during one of the intro to architecture courses they had to take to enter the program), and I struggled to memorize all the names of the Greek Temples. I got a 50% score on the test, which was a relief to hear in the first ten seconds upon receiving my test score (50% was passing grade back in Cairo), until I realized that this translated into a big fat “F”. Needless to say I was rather de-motivated and terrified; I tried to reach professor Vann to try to negotiate some kind of makeup, and he brushed me aside saying that I should have studied harder (ouch). A week later, I get an email from him asking me to meet him at his office; I apparently scored the lowest test score but the highest paper grade in class, so he wanted to know what gives. I made up some BS about still trying to understand the ropes and how the education system was not what I was used to (when I think about that now, my previous education system would have made me ace the test and flunk the paper, not vice versa). He said he will be watching my progress, and if I continue to deliver work to him like I did in the paper, he would allow me to make up for the midterm grade. I got an A- as my final grade – and a beautiful student / professor relationship emerged (I took his Peru study abroad trip, we organized a study abroad trip to Egypt together – where I took over logistics in Egypt – and he was an integral member of my thesis committee) … but I digress.

My first steps off the plane in Lima was a bit of a disappointment: the immigration officers had trouble remember that Egypt was a country and proceeded to try and peel off my visa from off my passport to prove that it was fake; the ride from the airport to downtown MiraFlores was creepily similar to the drive from Salah Salem street to Downtown Cairo; and the hotel was stayed in overlooked a main square in Lima that looked too much like Tahrir Square. I thought I was hoping for something a little more magical to usher me into the new continent that I had never been before, but what I got looked too much like Cairo. It wasn’t until a few days later when we arrived at Cusco that I began to really appreciate the country and get to experience my first South American experience. All the architecture and place we had visited prior to Cusco were all from the colonial periods, which I found to be boring, I’ve experienced enough imperial colonial imposition in all the cities and towns that I have visited (and had very little patience to observe the subtle nuances that differentiates Peruvian colonial architecture that adapts Incan character in all its motifs). It is actually quite interesting what my mind chooses to remember and forget, as the first few days seemed to be completely erased from my memory, while the Cusco days seemed etched in, and I remember those moments rather vividly as if it was just last winter!

When we arrived to pedestrian friendly Cusco, we traveled about to the nearest Incan complexes like Ollantaytambo and Saksaywaman and hiked up to reach the sanctuaries. Our hikes ranged from between 30 to 45 minutes, often walking on slightly dangerous cliff-side conditions. The uphill trails were often very narrow, and included steps that seem to be flying in the air with no guardrail; one misstep and you could find yourself falling off the edge of the cliff. At the end of our journey, we were often greeted by a spectacular view as we looked over the entire sanctuary, and the fruits of our physical labor seemed to be reward by a strong sense of accomplishment. It wasn’t the destination that mattered much, but the journey towards it that made the terminus to feel all the much more important and beautiful than it perhaps actually was.

But it wasn’t until our ventures in Machu Picchu that we were truly tested, which has had been voted one of the new seven wonders of the world a year earlier. For the readers who haven’t actually been to the historical site, I ask you to recall the poster image in your head; the ruins of the estate on the cliff is where most tourists enter. While it is indeed on an elevated cliff, most tours arrive on site via buses which are parked in front of a visitors center which overlooks the estate. It is both peaks that flank the state that require more of a hike to get to: on one side there is the temple of the sun, which is relatively easy to hike up to, and on the other is Wayna Picchu (Huayna Picchu), which is not. The class was spending a few days at Machu Picchu, so a brave few of us decided to wake up early the next day and hike up to Wayna Picchu.

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Trail of the Temple of the Sun – Photo Taken by MMM Riad

We woke up at 4 am, about an hour before sunrise (I always feel kind of depressed and in sleep deprivation pain whenever the I get out of bed before the sun). We had a quick breakfast and I remember that we were at the gates of the Wayna Picchu Trail at 5:30 am. One of the students suggested that we get there as early as possible, because he anticipated a long line, and wanted to make sure we were able to enter the trail before they closed it off (they only admitted 300 individuals per day to make sure they are able to manage the number of people on the trail).  We were the first ones to arrive. At 6 am, the gates opened, and we commenced on our journey – before they made us sign a waiver that if anything happens to us or if we happen to fall off the cliff or die on the trail, then the Machu Picchu organization/authority would not be held responsible.

The trail started off easy, and the group banded together rather well. I remember that we were about 9 individuals on the trail: Beret, Andrea, Jason, Jessica, Sarah, Shawn #1, Shawn #2, Nick and I. We were told that going up the trail would be short, but a rather steep uphill, but climbing down would be much easier (yet longer). Five minutes in, the trail turned into a series of zigzagging steps carved into the mountain – each step being about 45 cm high (three normal stair steps high) if not higher, with a rather flipsy rope to act as a guard rail to hold onto to keep you from falling. This is when the group ceased to band together, and the more fitness ready of us raced up these stairs of hell. I was not among those who were entirely fit at the time, and stairs were considered to be a bit of an enemy for me. I was fortunate enough that one member of the group was in worse shape than I was, and I used that as an excuse to lag behind and say that I did not want this member to hold back alone. In reality, I was extremely exhausted ten minutes into these steps, and there was no end in sight. I was happy that I packed my bottle of water with me, but was careful not to drink too much so I could ration my water effectively towards the entire journey. At times, I would take a moment to look towards my side and see that I was in the same elevation as the clouds … I had no experience to me walking in the clouds up to that moment in time, and the experience was – other than exhausting – rather exhilarating. I would stare at them and think about reaching out my hand and actually touch or grab the clouds, but I would be too scared to fall off the stone stepped path.

After about half an hour of climbing the stone path, we found ourselves on a platform circulating the mount. The rest of the group had sped up before us, and the only ones left were Nick, Shawn #1 and I. We could not figure out where are we to go from there – I mean, we did find a bunch of steps at a 70 or 80 degree incline that looked a lot like a tall ladder, but that definitely could not be it. We kept searching for a way to get up, but the more we looked the more we figured that the scary ladder was our only choice. We had no access to those who have gone up before us, so we couldn’t really ask … so ladder it is. Little that we knew that there was another path that we completely ignored that was much less dangerous than the ladder we just took. We also started somewhat of a chain reaction behind us, as other people from other groups started to catch up with us. There was a French lady that went up this ladder before me, but would randomly stop every 4 steps or so, look back and met and scream “MARIIEEEEEE, MARRIIEEEEEE!” at the top of her lungs. That enraged me, and I had rather violent thoughts of wanted to pull her off the ladder. The stepped ladder was about 80 cm in width and you could climb up with your hands and feet, no guardrails on either side and you would look back and see nothing but clouds and sky. I was terrified! Ten minutes later, Ms Marie Screamer and I had reached the top of the ladder and onto the platform before it, and it was smooth sailing from that point onwards. I believe that there were easier steps to climb up a series of 4 or 5 platforms after that, and then we were at the peak…. FINALLY, the peak!

I got on the peak and I literally could not stand. The peak of Waynu Picchu was not flat, but had a rather irregular terrain, and I was too terrified to get on my feet and be whisked away by a strong gust of wind, so I instinctively started crawling on my back like some sort of insect, trying to hug the terrain with dear life. Shawn #1 was on both his feet looking out, and I do not know how I had the courage to snap a picture of him at that point. I looked out at the rest of the Machu Picchu Valley and mountains, and was at awe with nature. I had climbed Saint Catherine 3 years before that, but did not feel this level of exhilaration before. I felt that I was among the clouds, I actually thought I was sitting on one of them. I thought to myself that this is what life would look like if heaven existed on the clouds, as cartoons depicted before. My previous imagination of heaven from my childhood years had merged with my actual experience at the top of Waynu Picchu, and save from the thoughts of fear I had that prevented me from standing up, these images had flooded my thought process. Looking at the lush green mountains and how the colors of green had inexplicably turned to blue as the colors blended in the horizon.

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Shawn at the Top of the Waynu Picchu Peak

It was time to go down, the worst is over, I thought. Time to take the scenic route down to the Machu Picchu estate. But before we can head off the cliff after a total of ten minutes basking  in the peak’s sun, we heard a bit of commotion on the penultimate platform. I heard lots of wailing and crying, and then saw Sarah and Shawn #2 carry a crying girl onto the platform, where she hugged them and started to thank them, tears of fear streaming down her face. Ms Marie Screamer than popped up from nowhere and started to console her crying friend, who turned out to be “Marie”. They apparently got separated – it actually looks like her friend abandoned her. So apparently our group start a chain reaction that detoured all the groups coming up after us, and we took the more dangerous path. Marie was terrified and thought she would fall, crying and praying she would make it out of there alive. As soon as she reached the first platform after the stepped ladder, she sat in a corner and said she was not leaving. My friends heard her crying from above and decided to head down to help her, consoling her by letting her know that the worst is over. When she regained her composure, we cautioned her against heading up to the peak and told her that the way down was much longer yet much easier, and the worst is over. I gave her my bottle of water, thinking I wouldn’t need it anymore, and we wished her all the best, and left.

The difficult part was over, now we could take our time heading down Wayna Picchu, and enjoy the beautiful green trail … or so we thought.

Two minutes on the trail downwards we found ourselves on a very narrow ledge, that then breaks off into a cliff, and another trail underneath it about one storey below. The way off the first trail and onto the second is a via a non secured ladder – not a stepped or ladder built into the cliff as before, but an actual ladder. We had no idea how sturdy the damn thing was, and could not find another way around it. After thinking about Marie for a split second, we helped each other get off this rather scary ladder (which I remember was surprisingly more sturdy that it appeared to be) and we soldiered on, braving the trail. The next two hours seemed to be much smoother, as we kept climbing down the mountain – with an occasional ladder here and there that we had to climb down. I started to get thirsty, and regret my previous chivalrous moment with Marie, but it was a lot easier going back for the most part. Our group banded much tighter together at first, and we all walked down at a similar pace …. until one of us asked the question: “Hey guys, do you think that we have gone down, more than we have gone up?”

Side story: Remember when I talked about the Poster image of the Machu Picchu Estate? I had previously mentioned that the visitors center entrance was at the same level of the estate (more or less). However, to reach the visitors center (which was elevated from the rest of the town), we had to take a rather dizzying bus ride that took a zigzagged path up towards the entrance. I get car sick, so I HATED this bus path. One our way down (spoiler alert? well, I am typing up this story so in the end it is safe to assume that I survived this Waynu Picchu adventure), there was a little Peruvian native that would get on the bus and scream “byeeeee!!!!” and then while the bus takes the zigzag route one level down, the same boy runs down a series of steps to meet us at the next intersection point, climb back on the bus and scream “byeeee!!!”. He did this a total of eleven times! But again, I digress – the important question here is “did we go down more than we went up?”

The question that was asked seemed to break up the group’s spirit a little bit, and the closely banded group was divided into three. My subgroup was the middle group, not trailing too far behind (the subgroup behind us really took its time). We started to get rather worried that we seemed to be doing nothing but go down a never ending trail, until we reached a platform that was a cliff looking onto the rest of the mountains. In the middle of the cliff was two sets of arrows, each pointing at different directions: one towards a trail to go up, and the other down. The question was revisited once more: “did we go down more than we go up?” We were fortunate enough to meet a group of people coming out of the trail that seemed to head down, and we asked them were they came from. They told us that the trail that they just took would take us directly back to the estate, and the trail going up will take us back up. We were happy to hear that, until they said that this a trail that would turn into a one hour uphill hike … dread on all our faces. Ok … so three hours in this mess, and we have an hour uphill left. No water on us … nothing but our sheer will to survive that is energizing us… we took a few deep breaths and we soldiered on.

It was EXHAUSTING! To this day, I do not know how I made it through at that pace. Our subgroup was made up of four people, the Shawns, Sarah and I. I think one of the reasons of our survival was Sarah. She didn’t do much in terms of motivating us, it was just that none of the guys wanted to look bad in front of her (she was that kind of gorgeous). Half an hour in though, we both took a moment to catch our breaths. I remember the look we gave each other at the time, one filled with fear and anxiety …. were we ever going to make it off this path? What on earth gave us this crazy idea to do this Waynu Picchu trail in the first place?! Shawn #2 looked at this watch and said, “well, if we are going to take this one hour time estimate those guys gave us seriously, then we are half way there”. I believe that sentence saved our lives. Out of nowhere, we all burst out singing the chorus of Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer”:

“oooooh, we’re half way thereeeee -OOOO OOOOHHH LIIIIVINGGG ON A PRAAAAYERRRR”

Yelling it out at the top of our lungs, taking this brief moment of laughter relief to energize us and get us back on the hike. We shouted the lyrics out for about five minutes, and started to head back. Sure, we ran into a few fun obstacles, like having to crawl under a boulder and a number of those weird stepped ladder thinigies here and there, but half an hour later, we were out of there and back at the Estate. We looked at each other, lots of handshakes all around, and headed down to the restaurant.

This experience really stayed with me all those years later, and I do believe that it was somewhat of a spiritual one. I won’t exaggerate and say that it was a near death experience, because even though I had overcome a number of dangerous and risky obstacles, I was not in a position where I almost failed one and actually feared for my life. This experience stayed with me because it taught me a lot about the necessity of pilgrimage and procession, understanding the true meaning of journey. I feel that this trail is in essence a metaphor of life … and it made me appreciate aspects of my own life that I had previously taken from granted. It started somewhat of an awakening process that has been unraveling up to today, and gave me a new sense of appreciate towards the destination (my idea of “destination” underwent something of a paradigm shift). It is then when I realized that the path less traveled is often the one that brings about the most significant change in our lives.

 

See you next week 😀

Mahmoud M M Riad

Director of RiadArchitecture

Architecture & the City

Our Vision for the Future: The Agronomic Metropolis

“The more boundless your vision, the more real you are.”
Deepak Chopra

On the 23rd of May, 2017, we asked our friends to tell us what their vision of the future is (link to our Facebook post here) … this article discuses ours.

Before I get into any specifics regarding our ideas, I wanted to discuss what I meant by “vision”. Many have perceived our question to be that of trying to predict the future – which can often be grim with the alarming reports of climate change. However, we have taken this opportunity to actually suggest ideas for the built environment in the future. Granted, these ideas may not be too detailed and there may be a lot of logistics that need to be figured out before implementation, but our vision for the future here is something that we hope provides food for thought for our readers, and for us as designers as well. We like to create such visions and statements in order to keep ourselves in check with every design project we do – it allows us to compare what we hope to design and what we actually design.

Back in early 2013, we entered a competition to design “a skyscraper for the future”. This competition was organized by “Evolo” magazine, and it is an ideas based competition that seeks to discuss the future of the architectural practice in terms of design rather than produce anything that is necessarily feasible in early 21st century terms. The entrants are free to bend the laws of physics and structural design as we know it to image what life could be like centuries from now (obviously trying to push for a more optimistic view of the future). Past entries have suggested flying skyscrapers, towers in space, buildings floating on the water like ships…etc. The third generation of RiadArchitecture had just started at that point, so I thought it would be a good competition to sink our teeth in and hoped to produce a controversial project to get the practice some international publicity within the design circles.

I did not want to just come up with a cool looking form and create awesome visuals, I wanted whatever we designed to stem from an important issue the world is facing today. One of the issues that Egypt faces today is that most of its urban fabric is built upon fertile soil. The country is mostly made up of desert terrain, save for a small sliver surrounding both banks of the Nile, which has become extremely fertile as it has been drinking water for thousands of years, making it ideal for farming. The City’s earliest urban fragment, El Fustat, was established by the Arabs in the 7th century, and was erected on the Eastern bank of the Nile, on fertilized soil. However, El Fustat and the subsequent neighborhoods that were established after it (until they were all grouped by Salah el Din in the 12th century to form greater Cairo) covered a small percentage of the fertile land that it seemed to be inconsequential at the time. As time progressed, the speed of urbanization and city expansion accelerated, especially in the 20th century. In the last 50 years, Cairo, and other major cities that all were established to have a connection with the Nile (their reason for being), extended along the river to connect to the neighboring cities in the other governorates, as well as exploding outwards with its suburbs. These suburbs were planned as gated pockets with the hope that would exist around fields of green, but reality allowed for the space between all these pockets to be filled with slums, which connect the city proper to its suburbs. All this urbanization occurred on fertile soil, which has been rapidly decreasing in both quality and size. Egypt, which had previously been known as a farming economy, is now looking to turn the desert terrain into fertile terrain to combat this problem, and we can debate how successful it has been in that endeavor.

But what could have been done instead? Mass urbanization to cater to our ever expanding population growth is something that we as designers and urbanists must accept as reality … but we could perhaps approach it with a better overall plan in mind and strive to build cities that retains the fertile nature of the soil. This would be the platform on which we would base the design of our utopia or vision for the future – which we aptly named “The Agronomic Metropolis”.

Throughout the history of the built environment, architects and philosophers alike have pondered on ideas of the Ideal City or Architectural Utopia. The renaissance ideal “centralized” city was planned to encompass the spiritual and juridical notion of space and social hierarchy; the church square is located in the nucleus of the urban configuration, which often replicates a geometric pattern. The nineteenth century Garden City Movement, initiated by Sir Ebenezer Howard, was planned as a reaction to the polluted industrial cities of the century before, as these cities were intended to be small-scale satellite towns that are self-contained communities surrounded by a green belt, and connected to a larger industrious parent city. LeCorbusier’s urban planning endeavors reflected a social commentary in which the architect aspired to create cities that promote equality among humanity; allowing the ground plane to be utilized by the public, while the residential units are erected in towers that act as objects in a field of greenery.

The Agronomic Metropolis borrows ideas from Le Corubiser’s theories, pushing it forward to the 21st century and contextualizing it with some of the problems the planet may face in centuries to come. The concept of The Agronomic Metropolis is to minimize construction on fertile land that could be used to farming or vegetation. On a 10,000m2 square plot of land, the building footprint would become 10%(or less) instead of the usual 50%, allowing over 90% of the plot land to be open green space that would encourage biodiversity and allow different species to be involved in this new typology of urban ecology. Parks and green spaces will cease to become objects in a field of concrete blocks anymore – where city dwellers would go to escape the city – but would be integrated seamlessly into metropolitan life, in an attempt to blur the urban and linguistic boundaries of the terms “city” and “rural”.

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The residential and office towers are laid out so that two 6 x 100m core towers are placed on each end of the block. This core tower would house all vertical transportation, circulation, egress, structural components and public facilities. The tower stands upright on the edge of one side of the block, while curves downwards to meet the ground on the other end, allowing the core tower to appear as if it is peeling off the ground. This type of form allows one side of the tower to have an elongated façade towards the sky, creating more surface area to place solar panels. With the taller core tower in the city, the tower bows down towards the street, to allow even more exposure to the southern sun (or northern for southern hemisphere cities).

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The residential and office units are laid out on a 10×10 module, and are placed on either side of the core tower. The number of the module units depends and correspond to the Floor to Area Ratio of the plot site, and each façade has a 50% porosity rate. This porosity rate allows for light and air circulation, as many of the units have exposure on two (or sometimes three) sides – while it also allows for terrace spaces for roof gardens and social spaces. The result becomes a rhythmically dynamic tower that blends into the landscape and embraces the law of randomness much akin to nature, as opposed to LeCorbusier’s pure and repetitive concrete objects that were criticized to be viewed in distortion with the natural surroundings. Take a look at the images we have posted below for what we envision our vision to be; two of the images show the towers in a low density area (hence the cows), while the other two are populated in a heavily dense area – which shows that even in areas with large population, these towers would provide for vast spaces that could foster agricultural activities.

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Towers in a Rural Community
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Towers in a Rural Community
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Towers in an Urban Community
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Towers in an Urban Community

 

See you next week 😀

Mahmoud M M Riad

Director of RiadArchitecture

Architecture & the City

(Re)Developing Abandoned Sites

“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.

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Analysis of El Moez Street – taken from “Al Masmaa – The Place for Listening”

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.

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Plan of Al Masmaa’
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Exploded Axon of the Al Masmaa’ Project

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.

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Photo of Abandoned Madrasa of Najm el Din Ayoub

 

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Photo of Abandoned Madrasa of Najm el Din Ayoub

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).

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RiadArchitecture Playscapes Proposal

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

Architecture & the City

Cities & Suburbs: Density & Boundaries

“The brutal reality is that newer, more sprawling suburbs – and especially the cheap boom-years exburbs – aren’t just a bit unsustainable, they’re ruinously unsustainable in almost every way, and nothing we know of will likely stop their decline, much less fix them easily.” – Alex Steffen

On the 9th of May, 2017, we asked a question to our followers on our Social Media Pages page (Facebook page link here): Would you rather living within the city or the suburbs? and most importantly, why?

This is an interesting question which I must admit I have changed my view of after reading some of our friends’ insights. It is first important to define the term “suburb” and not confuse it with the “gated community” phenomenon. While these gated communities often are found in suburbs, it does not mean that all suburban areas fall under the gated community or sprawling definition. A suburb is essentially an area that exists along the outskirts of the city proper – whether it is well designed or not is a completely different story. Many of the comments that we have gotten over the past week understood suburbs as sprawling units that are often devoid of character – and I have personally made that assumption as well – but a select few opened my eyes to see that there are many examples of lesser density populated areas that are successfully integrated within the city proper.

In the architectural community, there has been an outcry against suburban developments over the past few decades. Many (including us at RiadArchitecture) see these kinds of developments as unsustainable as they do not utilize land space-effectively. Creating seemingly picturesque meandering streets with Mc-Mansions laid out on cul de sacs is not the most effective design layout when it comes to the utilization of space, and pretty soon we are going to run out of land because of all the spaghetti roads and paths we keep on construction in the hopes to create a more “scenic” route. At the end of the day, these curvilinear paths we create to our cookie cutter houses does not end up as we have imaged, as the houses we build end up looking like boxed eye sores popping up like pimples on the surface of the land as opposed to the intricate landscape features which the picturesque path was designed to emphasize.

We see these type of developments as unsustainable because of its heavy dependency on automobile transport – where each house must have at least one car per household and cannot move anywhere without them. A trip to the grocers would be a few kilometers or miles away, and would force homeowners in such developers to waste a large amount of fuel on a daily basis on doing a small number of choirs that could have been done elsewhere on foot or bike – not to mention the amount of pollutants released into the environment. Inhabitants of such developments would then park their cars in the mega parking space placed in front of the mega shopping market / mall, creating vast numbers of inefficient areas of space in order to create a space where we could temporarily park out car. These developments are typically un-walkable and not pedestrian friendly.

We also see an issue with gated communities in the fact they are “Gated”. This idea of building walls that surround you comes from the historic tradition of building walls around the city to protect its inhabitant from their enemies and predators. Separating and enclosing walls are an important factor in the feeling of security of any individual; we feel safe in our homes because of the walls that enclose and shelter us from what is outside. Traditionally, we would normally two sets of walls that separate us from the outside walls: Those of our immediate home, and those of our city/community. The walls of our home would create an intimate zone between us and our family, while the walls of our city would create a social zone between us and our neighbors. These walls sets up an instinctual boundary between us and the outside world, and sets us to create an “us vs them” feeling upon two levels: those outside of our family, and then those outside our community. We perceived anyone outside these walls as a threat, and often reacted violently against them.

While our cities grew, our boundaries grew and our community expanded. Cities are now porous, and the walls that separate us have been removed in the hope to establish a more harmonious society. But this has made many rather uncomfortable and wanted to separate their clan from the rest – so they built walls around them to turn their back against the rest of society and form their own click. If this is someone’s conscious choice to do so then we should respect their wishes and intentions, but the problem arises when someone chooses to live in a gated community while not being fully aware of what these boundaries can imply to their family and children in the long run. The boundaries for these gated communities have become tighter and more closed off than the traditional city, all under the pretense of “security”. We often also tend to build walls around walls around walls (a wall-ception if you will – please excuse the painfully horrible pun), where our room (boundary one) is situated in a house (boundary two) which includes a beautiful garden surrounding be a fence (boundary three) in a gated urban development  also known as a residential compound (boundary four), located in the outskirts of a city surrounded by a natural boundary of woods or desert (boundary five). This creates two more boundaries than the city (even the historical walled city, as I would argue that the natural boundary would cease to exist as the city dweller would seldom leave the confines of their walls, as opposed to the modern suburban dweller). What kind of psychological impact would such boundaries have on us in the long run, and on our children in the future who grew up only knowing life in boundaries? Should we not design our urban spaces to become more inclusive and less exclusive – especially that the past grass roots populist movement of the last decade has been demanding more inclusive social liberty and equal opportunities? How are we expected to practice empathy or compassion from the other, when we keep on placing or bodies, minds, hearts and souls through several degrees of separation? How many of these boundaries will it take to set up before it starts to feel like we are imprisoning ourselves?

Nevertheless, the current trend finds such developments to be quite attractive and these concerns seldom resonate with the masses. To my surprise, most of those who seek to live in such communities are those that are champions of social equality causes – which I found to be quite ironic. Are these individuals full of shit, or are they simply unaware of these boundaries that they are setting themselves up in.

After a series of conversations, I started wanted to understand their point of view and hear them out, and what surprised me is that all their concerns are rather valid. First, there is the concern of density, where the city proper proves to be too dense for them and the collective energy seems to be rather suffocating. It is true that the way our cities are built nowadays may provide the complete opposite problem; while in suburban areas we tend to wear many layers of boundaries, in modern cities it seems that our boundaries are often being encroached upon. The overcrowding in most cities brings about an unfortunate side effect in terms of physical boundaries, which is the invasion of our perceptional boundaries. What do I mean by that – think of our human bodies having a number of invisible bubbles around us: the intimate bubble, personal bubble, & social bubble (these ideas of bubbles are borrowed from Edward T Hall’s proxemics of space idea in his amazing book “The Hidden Dimension”). Our intimate bubble is often confined within our bedroom walls, personal bubble within our homes, and social bubble within the confines of our city/community.

Imagine that you are sitting in your own room – perhaps laying on your bed, enjoying your own privacy – and suddenly you hear the neighbors screaming and yelling at one another, or someone in the floor above you suddenly decides to move around furniture at 2 am, or the walls of your neighbors start to do this soft rhythmical banging sound because someone is doing the hanky panky, or perhaps worse, you are able to smell what your neighbors had for lunch this afternoon. This is an invasion of your intimate and personal space. No one is physically within you in your boundary, but you do not feel safe anymore. You feel that your right for privacy has been violated – and the more paranoid of you may feel that you are being watched (or spied on). You may be separated from your neighbor by a physical boundary like the walls of your apartment, but you often notice that you share the same acoustic or olfactory space.

Now let’s say that you have been able to shield yourself from the outside world, and have installed triple glazing, double foam insulation, and turned on white noise equipment (ACs, ventilators, or other mechanical equipment that produces that slight hum you don’t notice unless it is switched off) to completely isolate yourself from your neighbors – are you able to shield yourself from the invasion of your personal space that occurs outside your lonely island? Let’s say that you brushed against someone on the street and they ticked you off the wrong way and a yelling match ensued … as you come home to your city apartment, this level of anger and annoyance that stems from this type of unwanted social interaction stays will arguably stay longer with you in a dense city apartment than a suburban dwelling, probably for the mere fact that you still feel physically close to your civil opponent. This is also an invasion of your personal space … such are enough reasons to make many flee the city and live in their own private bubble, and I totally understand that.

I believe the solution lies within a deeper understanding of spatial social decorum and the socio-cultural ramifications of space and its boundaries. Going to one extreme or the other is not an answer, as each would have its drawbacks. It is almost like a spectrum, where at suburban end one becomes more and more isolated from society while at the higher density city one gets too much unwanted social interaction that makes them want to flee the city – a vicious cycle. The solution may be trying to incorporate more medium density neighborhoods that can act as autonomous entities that both the higher density city and lower density suburb could feed on. The medium density cities must be pedestrian friendly and incorporate mixed use functions that allows the inhabitants to be able to do all their choirs within walking distance. It must be able to travel into the city and to other medium density neighborhoods through a good network of public transportation and bike friendly paths. It must have the ability to incorporate a good building to greenery ratio with a number of public parks, and it must provide many cultural nodes (movie theaters, concerts, vast mix of restaurants…etc) to keep the neighborhood alive and excited while ensuring its longevity. These developments need to occur on a neighborhood level, not be gated but porous to other neighborhoods (a blur between neighborhood boundaries would be beneficiary in this case). These developments need to be divided by a good plot layout design and sold to developers by plot or blocks and NOT entire neighborhoods to ensure diversity in typology options, design styles, and amenity offerings.  You may think that what I am describing is already being implemented in many neighborhoods, and you are correct, but the trend in development is either to serve rather high densities or lower with the middle often neglected; all the middle density neighborhoods that you know and love are probably those that already existed over the past hundred years and have recently gone through regeneration, but the new middle density communities seem to be lagging.

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If I am to make an urban Diagram of density as the utopian diagrams of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City or the famous Nucleus City – I would make a rather simplistic one called the “Gradient City”. As shown in the figure above, the heart of the city would be the high density photogenic skyline (shown in orange) and as one radiates outwards the density would decrease. Missing from this diagram would be the general distances to eliminate opportunity for sprawling, which I hope to study in the next coming months and come back to you with.

See you next week 🙂

Mahmoud M M Riad

Director of RiadArchitecture

Architecture & the City

My City: What I Love About New York

“The traveler roams all around and has nothing but doubts; he is unable to distinguish the features of the city, the features he keeps distinct in his mind also mingle. He infers this: of existence in all its moments is all of itself, Zoe is the place of indivisible existence. Buy why, then, does the city exist?” – from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities

 

 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?

New York City – hard to believe that at one point I hated this city. 

 

But let’s say I was a kid and did not know any better. I preferred Washington DC because it was cleaner and less crowded. Not sure why as a child I found that to be an important asset for a city to have. Or, perhaps I was accustomed to a different lifestyle to New York. Instead of walking pleasantly along the street for a few minutes I would have to walk much more, switch to a bunch of subway trains, and battle through crowds to get to my destination. I hated walking a lot when I was younger. Maybe, I found similarities to Cairo and was not prepared to endure that. Why would I want to go to a place like that when I spent years trying to escape? 

 

I have recently realized that my enjoyment of the city largely depends on who I am, my current situation and my past experiences.

 

To save some face, let me start to say that I no longer see Cairo as a place to escape. When you live away from your home city you begin to realize how inaccurate and biased your description of it can be. I was born and raised in Cairo but always thought that other places were much better (cleaner, more exciting, more livable..etc). I felt stronger about this when I started visiting Washington DC every summer. It was an escape then because DC had some sense of order, ease of maneuvering, a glimpse of independence, exposure to new things, and most importantly – had the pleasantries of people. On those levels, DC was superior at the time to the nth degree that I would get insanely sad returning to Cairo after the summer. The 14 hour plane ride and jet-lag did not help.

 

On an emotional level I was attached to DC because of these new-found attributes. So much so that any other city did not come even close for my love of DC. This could be due to cultural and environmental implications, but the city had a big role to play. You begin to realize that is serves as a current projection of yourself. Today I don’t feel that same emotional attachment to DC nor do I feel the intense escapist attitude to Cairo. What remains of the city is a nostalgic essence of what it once was whilst it being physically the same.

 

I started to enjoy New York towards finishing my undergraduate degree when I saw so many people heading there to make something of themselves. The story of starting from scratch within the midst of like-minded people intrigued me. From then on, more and deeper constructs of the city started to become appealing, even with all its complexities. So, with a suitcase in hand and a few couches to surf on, I attempted to give it a try. It is safe to say that I love this city at this moment in time. There is an element of spontaneity existing in certain neighborhoods that spark a sense of creative urgency in me. The kind that keeps me going despite partaking in a mundane weekday routine that screams of capitalism at its worst. The city has a strange dichotomy of boring infrastructure to a combustion of creative elements. And there is no blend between the two at times. 

 

You can argue that this is a description of my current situation and I am portraying that description into the city. But the beauty of New York is that it allows me to do so. How is that possible? For someone to look at an object in different ways and understandings, the object itself needs to be ambiguous of definitions. An object that has a flat top surface with legs extruded from the bottom gives the shape of a table and thus we exhaust its functions as a table. A structure with a long hall with bays flanking on both sides and barrel vaults encompassing you from above evokes of cathedral types and brings forth worshiping. Land divided up into certain zones with similar looking boxes with triangular elements on top tell you that I come here to fulfill my duties of living and solely that – the function of playing, learning, being seen, consuming, and exploiting can be predominately done in other areas.

 

Yet New York is difficult to grasp. It has elements with clear distinct functions and some with uncertain qualities. Take for example the time my cousin came to visit. We walked and stumbled on to a sign that had an image of a chicken. Looking further we see steps leading down to a restaurant in a basement serving fried chicken and champagne. Not something I would expect to see, but naturally we ate there despite my intentions to take him to another place as part of my pre-determined plan. We got out and found ourselves in some kind of Goth looking retail shop. I had no interest but he did for some reason. We end up taking tequila shots with the owner and get into a heated discussion on how owning cashmere sweat pants are so “in”. My cousin was worried that the items the owner was suggesting  seemed to be coming from his grandfather’s wardrobe. Of course the owner was having none of it, said he looked good, and suggested to go to a certain club he recommends. We contemplated going with our new friends, but a memorial to David Bowie caught our eye and we spent the next few minutes reflecting. 

 

I had a particular plan to follow during my cousin’s visit. In another city where everything is expressed exactly to its function, this plan can work wonderfully. But that doesn’t happen in New York. The city is best experienced by expressing yourself. You have certain likes and dislikes, walk around and attenuate yourself to the surrounding. The city will take you on a journey – express what you enjoy, and question what you do not. Include the company of another and combine each of your qualities and the events of the day transpire differently. The journey becomes a conversation and the city enhances it along the way. Maybe somebody can show me reasons to enjoy certain neighborhoods I dislike.

 

On a design end, architects and urban planners serve an answer to programmatic, contextual, and life cycle attributes that are predicted to occur. However, this does not allow for flexibility when the complexities and transformation of the self or the surrounding happen. There are many examples of a city deterministically envisioned to functional zones for residential, recreation, work, and transportation. But I argue that this is too rigid of a system because what is ideal today may not be the case tomorrow as environmental, cultural, political, and economical constructs are ever changing. On a personal level, I am ever changing too and I have been lucky enough to live in cities where I can project onto that are flexible enough to respond.

 

The variety and diversity makes this city special to me. It provides me a backdrop to express an imaginative world of it even if that is not its intention. One day time square can be exhausting, another, it can be calming yet all the elements from the previous day are still there. I would have to delve deeper and unpack reasons for this peculiarity. But for now I’ll stop here and unpack another time. 

I come to you today with my certain qualities and project them on to my city. I hope to meet you one day projecting your own, complementing or clashing with mine. It is because of us that we radiate our city’s vibrancy.

Cheers,

Khaled Riad

Managing Partner of RiadArchitecture