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

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.

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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

Artchitecture General

On the Question of Beauty in Architecture

“Once you learn to look at architecture not merely as an art more or less well or more or less badly done, but as a social manifestation, the critical eye becomes clairvoyant.” – Louis Sullivan

 

On the 25th of April, 2017, we asked a question to our followers on our Social Media Pages page (Facebook page link here) – here is our response:

I realize that this is a loaded and heavy question and extremely subjective – when one starts talking about “preferences”, all arguments for or against start to become irrelevant, which is why interior design for private dwellings is a rather subjective art. On the other hand, we have always felt that architecture exists in the public domain (regardless of who the client is), so a certain level of objectivity towards the design aesthetics is required … a rather difficult take that many would believe is an oxymoron. For many, the question of art and aesthetics is highly subjective, and any attempt to create an objective rational or analysis over it defeats the purpose of “Art”. We at RiadArchitecture don’t subscribe to that notion, and believe that it is imperative; especially with Architecture – where scholars are still arguing over why, how and if it truly is “art”.

Having spent many years of my life involved in the design arts (starting with painting, moving into musical composition – which I do regards as a “designed” art, and then into architecture), I’ve come to realize that we need to differentiate between what can be considered “good” art and how our preferences and tastes form our biases (I often try to stay away from using simplistic subjective adjectives like “good” or “bad”, but for purposes of this article which attempts to describe my own outlook towards this subject topic I will eliminate my vocabulary inhibitions in order to better get my point across). For example, I am personally not a fan of “blues music”, I find it repetitive and boring … I prefer Jazz because I find that the musical form and structure is much more liberating for the musicians and the possibilities are endless. The 12bar blues form, in my opinion, is too limiting and I feel that I am listening to the same version of the song between each track and the other. That, is my opinion, and it is not fact … and could very much mean that I am an idiot and a musical novice that I could not understand the sonic subtleties between each song and the other and between each artist and the other. For me to denounce the entire genre of Blues just because I don’t prefer it would be rather immature. I have a lot of respect for the genre and the musicians who perform in it, and I realize the musical genius behind the fingers of BB King, Buddy Guy, and Stevie Ray Vaughn, it is just that I don’t listen to it. I cannot claim it to be “bad” music, or “unmusical”.

On the other hand, there are certain songs that I believe that I can discuss in an objective manner as to why it truly is “bad” music. There are those who claim that we should refrain from judgment from all music and art because it is all entirely subjective, I believe that this is not true. In my opinion,  there is a criteria on which we can distinguish between “good” and “bad” art provided that we are mindful enough to understand the difference between this criterion and our own preferences. For example, we need to know that there is a lot of “good” music that we won’t particularly like, and there is a lot of “bad” music that we may actually enjoy. In this definition, “good” music or art is one that either engages, bends or even breaks the rules and guidelines for creating art, as well as adding an intangible quality of pouring into a bit of their soul in the artwork (which may seem unquantifiable and immeasurable, but the mere fact that one is emotionally touched by the music or artwork is evidence enough that such a soul outpouring has occurred) – the artist goes through a process of critical thinking (even if just on a subconscious level) upon inception and creation of said artwork. On the other hand, “bad” music or art is one that recycles old ideas without any type of awareness to the process (the element of critical thinking and soul outpouring is missing from the creative process) … this artwork is processed and manufactured, and not created.

I believe that if we are able to agree to this definition then we can separate our own biases when judging artwork and take into account people’s different tastes and cultural inclinations and inflections. This leaves us with two aspects of the design process: the self awareness and critical thought process that deals with the engagement of the rules, and the intangible quality of soul outpouring. When engaging in design, both aspects of the process are always present, whether the designer is conscious of both, one and not the other, or neither. We could understand it as the Yin & Yang of design, or my preferred analogy would be the “Yung” & “Qi”; the Yung being loosely translated to the “mastery” or the mastery of creating the artwork, and the Qi being loosely translated to “energy flow”. The former is objective and theories of which can be taught at school, the latter would differ from one designer to the other as it is how we choose to put our own personal touch to whatever it is we do. I will discuss how I, and by extension RiadArchitecture, have been engaging and rationalized both aspects so far.

When it comes to mastering the rules of architectural aesthetics, there many guidelines we can go by. Most architecture schools in the states adopt the vocabulary adopted by Francis I Ching in his book “Architecture: Form, Space & Order” – required textbook reading for all young aspiring architects.  He uses phrases and concepts like proportion, rhythm, order, harmony, hierarchy, and datum (including many more) to understand and analyze the built environment, abstracting complex forms and geometries into simple basic ideas which young & designers architects can then delve into and create layers thereof. Ching, and many other architectural scholars like him, have developed an objective approach to how we can discuss, analyze and critique aesthetics.Designers can chose to follow these rules, bend them or break them in a conscious effort to create visually engaging experiences. Whether or not we as the general public “like” what these designers is irrelevant in some respect, as it does nothing but show our own biases and preferences, and are therefore highly subjective. In this regard, we cannot take away from what the designer is attempting to do (but perhaps only critique how successful each designer’s approach is while catering to our collective needs and preferences).  I believe that the problem arises from the MANY designers that do not truly understand these principles are and somehow winging it.  The lucky ones have an implicit eye towards what they feel “looks good”, but can then only argue in a subjective matter. The unlucky ones get to build the many pieces of the built environments that many of us agree are “eye sores”; there is no integration between elements, no attitude towards proportion or harmony, no understanding about creating datum, rhythm and variation … which then results in poor quality architecture.

In RiadArchitecture, we have added another layer of understanding when it comes to these principles, which we have simplified as creating a blend between “constants” and “variables”. We believe that what we as humans connect with in terms of designs are the elements which our brain can figure out a pattern or organizational concept behind. We might not understand what said organizational pattern is, but our brain has recognized that there is one. A creative pattern is that which employs a balance between constants and variables. A constant is an element where the brain can easily distinguish, a variable is a variation of said constant (be it  a variation in size, geometry, color, material…etc). A pattern filled with variables and not enough constants would seem chaotic and cacophonic, as the brain will see and understand it as a pile of garbage or an un-designed mess. A pattern that does not include enough variables will be seen as rather dull (if we follow the definitions set forth in the beginning of this article, it would then be slapped with the “bad art” label). We believe the most engaging pieces of art is that that includes enough variables that would get the observer intrigued, move, and perhaps somewhat uncomfortable. A good mix between both take the observer to the edge and pushes them to their comfort zone limits and perhaps a little bit outside of it. It encourages them to step outside what they feel is the norm but also gives them a guideline to be able to find their bearings with the overarching organizing principle when needed.

To give you a simple example, let’s consider two surfaces: a curvy free flowing surface and a flat surface. Each of these surfaces need to be divided into a series of panels. The curvy surface is free flowing and is a constant blur of variables, so we add a regular grid pattern to it as a constant. This pattern will then morph and evolve as it follows the free flowing surface (expand when the surface is being pulled in tension and contract when the surface is being condensed). There is a way the brain can identify the motion of the surface by following how the grid responds to it, and thus this surface becomes more intelligible to us.

On the other hand, a simple flat surface would need some level of dynamism to animate it. The flat surface is our constant, so we are now free to layout whichever variable grid (different size or shaped patterns) onto it. Whatever pattern we create here may be convoluted if we overlay on the freeform surface, which would make both the pattern and the surface more difficult to comprehend. We at RiadArchitecture believe that art exists in this exploration and constant game playing while bending the rules.

Which comes to the second aspect or quality of the design, the intangible “Qi”. In the 1960s, there were many architectural anthropologist scholars, among them to be one of my favorite authors, Amos Rapoport of “House Form + Culture”. Rapoport has stated that architects need not strive for any conscious aesthetic inclination and that architecture that responds to its surrounds, in terms of responding to the physical, material and climatic constraints of the site and taking the local cultural aspects that influence the design, the finished product will inherently be “beautiful” just by default. He believed that by putting all these conditions first the designer would then tap into “the spirit of place” as opposed to his or her own aesthetic biases. Even though I love this poetic notion that designers can live and breathe the local cultural nuances of any given site, I do understand that this notion of designing with the advent of globalization and digital technology may be outdated. However, I do believe that we as designers need to find different methods in order to personalize what Rapoport has suggested in order to not directly impose our own design language (a little bit of ourselves will be imposed on our creations whether we like it or not, but we need to find a method in order to allow ourselves to be influenced by something much larger and much more important than ourselves). I believe the best description of such can be found in a poem I heard Moshe Safdie recite a few years ago at Grad School which I would like to share with you:

 

“He who seeks truth shall find beauty
He who seeks beauty shall find vanity

He who seeks order shall find gratification
He who seeks gratification shall be disappointed

He who considers himself a servant of his fellow beings shall find the joy of self expression
He who seeks self expression shall fall into the pit of arrogance

Arrogance is incompatible with nature
Through nature the nature of the universe and the nature of man we shall seek truth
If we seek truth we shall find beauty”
Moshe Safdie

 

It is our quest at RiadArchitecture to find and define “truth”. We do this by trying to unravel the non-architectonic layers that make up whichever project we undertake, devoted to understanding the intangible and hidden dimensions that make spaces and places unique. The aim is to create unique environment that don’t originate from the over the top design (designing for the sake of designing) but strive to find a deeper meaning to every line, curve of form that is being built. Our design ideas are usually taken out of the context of cultural traditions, critically analyzed and deconstructed, and then put together again to fit the needs and spirit of the time and place. We apply this by encouraging and interdisciplinary approach to design, where ideas from music, music theory, philosophy, psychology,  emotional well being, education, and ecology are often found to be driving forces behind the ideas. This is our attitude towards what many have called “critical regionalism”, not accepting the status quo of tradition but feeling free to chose what works and build upon it both aesthetically and programmatically.

Whether or not we are successful in our approach is a totally different story and not up to us to decide. However, I do encourage that each designer try to find their own niche in how they define their “Qi” and their “Truth”. What are we trying to uncover, explore and give back to the world? What is the vision we are trying to create and recreate on Earth, and how can we effectively improve until such a vision is achieved? How do we evolve as designers and allow the built environment to evolve on its own with our creations long after we are gone? These are the type of questions that I believe that we, as architects and designers, need to preoccupy ourselves with, and the result, as Moshe Safdie has so eloquently stated, will be inherently beautiful.

 

See you next week 😀

Mahmoud M M Riad

Director of RiadArchitecture