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

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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

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