The 15th Venice Architectural Biennale runs from May 28 to November 27. The work presented at this year’s Egyptian pavilion was commissioned by Egyptian architect Ahmad Hilal with an Egyptian-Italian curatorial team including Eslam Salem, Gabriele Secchi, Luca Borlenghi and Mostafa Salem. This is an edited version of a text published in the exhibition catalogue, written by Manar Moursi of Studio Meem, whose own works were included in the exhibition.
In response to changing socio-economic patterns, bursting economic bubbles and confrontations with the limits and vulnerability of our environmental resources, a recent trend in architecture globally has been a shift toward research and knowledge production outside of traditional built and commissioned projects.
More space is also being given to those who explore architecture’s role in creating socially and environmentally sustainable built environments.
In Egypt, these modes of production, while marginal, have gained currency as elsewhere. More and more architects and academics are identifying questions, introducing new concepts and working with unusual tools.
But Egypt’s is an urgent case for architectural and urban researchers, partly because its unmatched rate of population growth necessitates immediate solutions. In 2016, more than half the population is estimated to be between 25 and 45 years old. The balance is therefore tipping toward the affirmation of youthful desires, and the 2011 uprising was just one stop made by a moving train with multiple stops and demands.
Sprawl and informal urbanism have been the two parallel dynamics of growth in Egyptian cities for the past half century. Where the government has failed to provide, a robust informal economy has been providing lower-middle-income families with housing, prompting an unprecedented rate of urbanization, development and incursion on scarce agricultural land.
While the under-privileged have resorted to DIY architecture and urbanism, the elite have been hiding out in and expanding to the safety of new state-sponsored, gated desert suburbs. Instead of confronting the problems of the city at their core, their solution has been escapism. But no matter how many DIY units are produced, thousands of families still lack adequate housing and access to infrastructure.
Social justice — including more equal access to housing, health care and labor opportunities — were among the key demands of revolutionaries in 2011. Fueled by the energy of the post-revolutionary context, some architects, urbanists and researchers found themselves intensely questioning the two trajectories of growth, aiming for a potential force to change and reform. The fruits of their work are presented in the biennale.
In ancient times, Egypt was commonly referred to as “Kemet,” believed to mean the black Nile Delta earth as opposed to “Deshret,” the red barren desert. Like these two contrasting ground conditions on which the country stands, its governance has long had a strong duality. Arguably ruled by authoritarian regimes since Pharoanic times, a continuous thread runs through the course of its development: An elite aligned with the ruling regime invests in its self-interest, and as long as these interests are protected the rest of the population is left to self-organize.
Informality in this context is not an unintentional consequence of a lack of recourses, but a clear strategy to avoid accountability and reduce social investment. This produces difficult circumstances, such as lack of access to infrastructure, and confrontations in cities’ public spaces, such as cat-and-mouse games between informal market vendors and the city governance. But informality also gives more agency and street-level access for citizens to come up with creative entrepreneurial solutions to circumvent authorities and work quickly to avoid bureaucracy, red-tape and liability that often hinder development in other contexts. This sense of agency also allows immediate, effective and flexible responses that are arguably more capable of grappling with transformations and problems on the ground than urban planners and policy-makers.
Paradoxes and dualities thus shape the observational scaffolding in which the Egyptian pavilion at the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale is set. As economic opportunities shrink and unemployment soars, there’s huge growth in skilled, youthful labor including architects and urbanists with no opportunities to practice in the classical sense, as well as a creative unskilled labor with a strong DIY tradition. Historical layers and a multiplicity of stakeholders on every inch of the land add to the complexity, and Egypt’s unique geopolitical position make it both a sponge that absorbs agendas and an orange that inadvertently secretes a strong odor to those surrounding even if it hasn’t been bitten into.
The pavilion is not a comprehensive survey of all initiatives and works produced recently in Egypt. It’s an attempt to introduce to a large audience the work of individuals and collectives searching for new operating models and engaging in architecture as a field of critical intellectual inquiry over the past decade. These works demonstrate the interests of a wide range of actors – government bodies, universities, research centers, independent professionals and students.
The pavilion brings these perspectives and approaches into one space and reflects on the nature of the knowledge produced in the past 10 years. It is also an opportunity to evaluate its potential for action and transformation. The work presented can be broken down into two large categories – mapping projects and experimental proposals (the latter dubbed “frames” by the curators).
The mapping projects, like Architecture and Stories of Downtown by Baladilab, Mapping Cairo by my own Studio Meem, and Frozen Historic Cairo produced in collaboration with UNESCO, attempt to survey existing conditions through applied analytical lenses, evident in their representational outputs.
As with recent mapping efforts in other contexts, representation is viewed as a tool to think and present new information. Just as there is anywhere, there is the potential for poorly researched data to advance a skewed perspective or completely misinform, but the importance of concerted efforts to map and document in the Egyptian context cannot be underestimated. After years of academic and research neglect there’s a pressing need to excavate and present layers of information to raise awareness on core issues.
These mapping efforts can be considered as political provocations, calls to action and foundations on which other proposals can be built. They can generate positive social action, but on the flip side, depending on the political interests of their supporters, eventually translate into interventions in the public sphere that could exacerbate tensions between preservation, exclusion, gentrification and plans to Disney-fy the historical centers of Egyptian cities.
The experimental projects tentatively propose and sometimes concretely make a mark in the urban context through surgical interventions. These included projects such as CLUSTER’s UN Safe Cities and Downtown Passageways, the Childern Cultural Park by Adelhalim Ibrahim, and the Ard El Liwa Proposals by students at the MAS Urban Design Program in Zurich. They are academic endeavors or the work of small agencies attempting to write their own agendas based on research, engagement with communities and a desire to use local materials and know-how. They are sometimes successful and sometimes unsuccessful in their architectural harvests.
In some instances designers set out with benevolent social agendas but their design processes and solutions do not do justice to them. In other situations, good intentions can lose their original meaning when integrated into wider redevelopment schemes. This is the case in downtown Cairo, for example, which has radically transformed since 2011. A balance between stakeholders is essential for architects wishing to operate in this space, but unfortunately that is not always achieved, no matter the intention. These problems are not unique to Egypt but are symptomatic of some of the limitations (such as reduced sense of agency) and intertwined relationships to politics characterizing global architectural and urban practices today.
Both scales of production presented at the pavilion, the mapping and experimental projects, collectively address informal urbanism, sprawl, inequality, lack of agency and conservation. Though the outputs have been vast, poor communication and collaboration between initiatives is felt across the board. The pavilion is a fertile ground to put all these voices together in one space and open the floor to a conversation among peers that should continue in Egypt beyond the biennale.
Left out of the exhibition is the work of the non-architects who have contributed more to the built environment than trained architects and urbanists in the past 30 years. Like architects, non-architect designer-builders also face resistance while shaping the city due to the informality and precarity of their practices. A wider and more inclusive dialogue among architects and urbanists, but also more broadly in civil society, about the built environment should acknowledge their work and find better channels to collaborate with them professionally or professionalize through with better standards.
As architecture increasingly becomes a tool and a way of thinking, the relevance of the Egyptian pavilion this year is that it demonstrates through multiple projects and voices the new de facto condition of constant change and the ongoing guerilla response to it born out of a willfulness and resilience by architects and non-architects alike. It brings up critical questions about architectural practices that go beyond the typical broad dictums of social and environmental sustainability. It questions the relevance of our way of practicing and its outputs.
Having highlighted the need for deeper and more intense dialogue, we should also take this opportunity to raise certain pressing questions: