Slums, gated communities and public space
On global cultural policies and the architectural stalemate in Egypt
Takween's "Paint Cairo" campaign in Ezbet Khairallah, 2011. - Courtesy: Tadamun


The recent flux of discourse on architecture and urbanism in Egypt seems to have taken the discipline off-guard. The Arab architectural scene, long believed to be politically neutral (if not apolitical), technical, post-critical and restricted to pure aesthetic practices of beautification and iconography, suddenly hit a watershed of on and offline activism calling for a more engaged discourse.

To ward off anguish by understanding and absorbing its causes would seem to be one of the principal ethical exigencies of bourgeois art. It matters little if the conflicts, contradictions, and lacerations that generate this anguish are temporarily reconciled by means of a complex mechanism, or if, through contemplative sublimation, catharsis is achieved.[1]

 — Manfredo Tafuri

Over a relatively short period of time, the local scene has been stretched out to encompass blogs, forums, research programs, publications, events and public initiatives, accompanied by lecture rooms filled with mixed professional and non-professional audiences, bilingual presentations, photographs, charts, diagrams and one-line architectural wisdoms pouring down from beamers probably bought with fund-raised money, all attempting to analyze and understand the contemporary urban condition in this part of the world. For the last two decades not only has a — perhaps much-needed — fever of documenting, researching and archiving swept in, reintroducing us to our own reality, but a new breed of architectural academics and professionals has set out to redefine architectural practice according to the premise of this newfound reality. The call to study the “real” and the “local,” in contrast to previous architectural practices, thought to be less grounded in reality and less engaged with local contexts, seems an indispensable part of this new academic ecology, which is formed and sustained by a rapidly decaying urban reality that lends itself to study. The symptoms of this call vary in their intensities and combinations from one context to another, but the underlying sense of urgency is ubiquitous.

There is a growing belief, particularly among up-and-coming practitioners in Egypt, that architecture contains at its core an explicitly realist element that often assumes the shape of political engagement or a social mission — that is, the architect has the agency to act politically.

In a 2011 study conducted by British researchers Nishat Awan and Jeremy Till, we encounter over 150 case studies of architects from all over the world practicing architecture with explicitly political overtones. These vary from direct political engagement by architects who simultaneously hold political office to less pronounced practices with an implicit political content. The study aims at shifting critical attention from architecture as matter to architecture as a matter of political concern. The study echoes a general interest among young local practitioners to discuss specific themes of informality (slums), social justice (often with regard to gated communities), and public space, against a backdrop of anthropology, politics and law. It also shows a tendency to employ discursive terminology from NGO culture, giving way to a social practice that transcends architecture itself.

Architecture is extrapolated as the spatial dimension of the political, too complex to be left to architects

Following from this, architecture is extrapolated as the spatial dimension of the political, too profoundly complex to be left to architects, often entrenched in contingencies over which architects have limited power, and thus whether it should remain less technical. This loss of disciplinary specificity is argued by Awan and Till to be “not a threat to professional credibility, but an inevitable condition that must be worked with in a positive light.”[2] It aims to undermine the hegemony of market aesthetics by stripping architectural practices of technicalities related to form production — in other words, deskilling architecture. In other cases, architecture is believed to be a complimentary, outsource-able component serving a bigger framework of NGO solutionism geared toward spatial interventions pre-composed outside of architecture, perhaps by non-architect experts — much the same way commercial real-estate developers work. These two modes of architectural production are often applauded by local and foreign cultural institutions for being critical, site-specific and thus more local and grounded in reality.

On one side of this discourse, architecture seems to be everything. On the other, it seems to be nothing. In both cases, whether programmatically rich or not, the very little built architecture embodying this discourse is by and large technically humble and sometimes invokes aesthetic similarity to commercial, mission-less architecture produced elsewhere. It turns out that the burgeoning obsession with the “real” and the “local” tends to fall flat when it comes to producing real and local architecture, thus limiting the effective scope of these practices to the sole mission of knowledge production.

This zeal for knowledge production gained momentum on the backdrop of an academic interest to counter stereotypical narratives in Middle Eastern studies during the early 2000s, following which a number of architectural practitioners, scholars and activists came to collectively form the phenomenon later dubbed the “Cairo School.” The newborn academic circle theorized for the city based on fieldwork that went beyond established architectural practices and intellectual products to allow researchers to “hear and consider, with a critical, experienced ear, the perspectives of subaltern people whose voices and practices might not be recorded in official or public records.” To build a new “practical wisdom” about the city, a wisdom that is “contextual, grounded in experience, and inextricably linked to the world,”[3] it vindicated and corroborated alternative critical practices at the expense of others.

This shift entailed another shift in the local architectural scene away from design and construction to research and activism. While design and physical execution of architecture tends to require technical proficiency to endure professional competition, alternative practices can live off academic salaries and cultural funding, and require skills in non-architecture fields, where there is little advantage in gaining and competing with architectural skills. The reduction of the architect’s role to that of observing subject or political commentator encouraged young architects to devalue not just the craft’s traditional skills, but also the acquisition of nearly any skill demanding a disciplined period of training.

Yet architectural skills are not merely forms of artistic dexterity, but also forms of knowledge that are grounded in reality. The dismissal of disciplinary critique implied by the devaluation of architectural skills has hindered, rather than helped, the development of local critical practices.

While this devaluation partakes of a common tendency in academic circles around the world to deny the political agency of architectural forms, tools, techniques and materials, what is unique here is that a considerable part of the Arab architectural intelligentsia now finds itself more comfortable addressing questions in fields as diverse as politics or anthropology — only a short while ago thought to be exclusive to their disciplines — rather than discussing problems within the discipline of architecture. This disinterest has even become the stuff of architectural legibility: to many, nothing sounds more retrograde than architects talking about actual architecture. The recent exodus of architects toward adjacent disciplines such as art, humanities and cultural management emphasizes an increasing loss of faith in the profession’s polemical capabilities, if not a defeatism in the face of its waning relevance. In his book The Nightmare of Participation (2010), German architect and academic Markus Miessen shows that several architects who situate themselves in the realm of alternative practices turned toward a more inclusive and process-oriented praxis model simply because they could no longer get real commissions. They adopt alternative practices as an alternative economy.[4]

This is not an attack on the valuable works that many socially-responsible and research-based architectural practices are doing in various places in the world where urban conditions require immediate and unconventional interventions. It rather points at the harmful effect of adopting a certain mode of critique as a default with little, if any, scrutiny. Local architects are involved in alternative practices with motivations varying between innocent zeal and opportunism, but rarely question the overarching cultural policies they are subscribing to.

The problem lies not in the specifics of what this or that architect/researcher did or did not do. It is rather with an attitude of off-the-shelf criticality where architects transmit a mode of spontaneous progressiveness depending on how near or far are they from alternative practices. The fundamental problem is that exponents of this discourse do not question how the agenda for what is “critical” was set in the first place, or question the source of monopoly over legitimacy; the source of power to say with authority who can decide what is relevant — “the monopoly of the power to consecrate [cultural] producers or products,” to put it in Pierre Bourdieu’s words.[5]

How does the vibrancy of research-based architectural practice qualify as a distinctively home-grown critical disciplinary project?

Contrary to many Global South countries where this discourse of the “real” and “local” has flourished, its problematic nature in the Arab region should prompt a radical questioning of what is actually critical about it. How does the new vibrancy of research-based architectural practice, which in some cases seems to verge on auto-orientalism, qualify as a distinctively home-grown critical disciplinary project? To what extent is the emancipation implied in this kind of knowledge production different from, or similar to, the bourgeois art that Italian architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri wrote about in the 1970s: a side-effect of a global cultural project, not aimed at dissecting the essential capitalist contradictions incurred in city making, but sublimating them into an object of aesthetic and theoretical contemplation, and in turn defining the “legitimate” mode of cultural production? What happens when talking about architecture becomes more real, contextual and critical than engaging in architectural work, particularly when the autonomy of architectural discourse is economically compromised by foreign cultural funds, grants and scholarships?

With greater financial support and better treatment from academic institutions around the Global North, many local young architects nowadays are lured into becoming urban researchers, whether this falls in line with their genuine interests or not. Although much of the work they produce is repetitive and furthers nothing but the careers of foreign academic authorities, this bias has been so internalized as a normal function of academia that criticizing it has become almost impossible without challenging the whole framework and tradition of cultural production.

The specific character of research produced under the auspices of these funds, grants and scholarships has often resulted in a narrowing down of the range of possible options available for young academics, and a dismissal of a diverse range of local technical and formal research trajectories. Moreover, the steady proliferation of knowledge-production endeavors, thanks to the increasing number of architect-turned-researchers, has not corresponded with an equivalent growth of good architecture. The number of recently built works by alternative practices in Egypt compared to similar practices elsewhere is miniscule. Urban reality is being researched to produce knowledge, but very few have asked why and for whom. This loss of purpose is acknowledged by some alternative practitioners, as evidenced by the title of an article by architect Manar Moursi, What happens to the knowledge produced? If architectural knowledge production does not contribute to the improvement of the built environment, or at least help the architectural profession work better, what does it contribute to?

In an atmosphere of revolutionary melancholy, knowledge production seems the only alternative that doesn’t require acknowledging the historic failure of 2011’s alternative aesthetic project

In an atmosphere of revolutionary melancholy, knowledge production seems the only alternative that does not require acknowledging the historic failure of the 2011 alternative aesthetic project, which might entail the loss of a valuable foreign funding supply line. Attempts to elude such a capitulation set architects on a path of academic asceticism. Pushed by the events that followed from 2011 and the collapse of hope for a better architecture that was supposed to result from the devaluation of architectural craftsmanship, some architects have even resorted to abstinence.

It is no secret that Arab architecture and art scenes currently thrive, directly or indirectly, on new and historical modes of colonial patronage that prioritize research about a selective set of themes. Such conditions make it easier for us to praise vernacular and informal models within the framework of preconceived notions of cultural specificity, celebrate historical examples of local modernity as symbols of lost progressiveness, and support the agency of the architect/artist in the face of political tyranny. But this has led to our becoming accomplices in a quick repackaging of libertarian rhetoric on voluntary organization, individual initiative and public space appropriation, often smuggled in as left-wing activism. We are involved — perhaps more intentionally than unwittingly — in a heavily pre-engineered field of cultural production, myopic critique and philistine nostalgia for a specific self-image. And as such, we restrict the potential for any truly revolutionary architecture.

[1] Tafuri, M. (1976). Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. p.1.

[2] Awan, N., Schneider, T., & Till, J. (2011). Spatial agency: Other ways of doing architecture. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. p. 28

[3] Singerman, D., & Amar, P. (2006). Cairo cosmopolitan: Politics, culture, and urban space in the new globalized Middle East. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press. p.26

[4] Miessen, M. (2010). The Nightmare Of Participation: Crossbench Practice As A Mode of Criticality. New York: Sternberg Press. p. 46.

[5] Bourdieu, P. (1993). The field of cultural production: Essays on art and literature (R. Johnson, Ed.). New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 40-42

Adham Selim