Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Cairo: Public Housing-- Extended

In the 50’ and 60’s, the Egyptian government built a lot of public housing to help provide basic housing for much of the growing urban population. These were basic flats, much as you would see in many parts of the world, including the US during this time. Efficiency was the key, and there wasn’t much flexibility in how people were able to use the spaces. Each building typically had one, two, and three bedroom units. Many of the residents were newly arrived migrants from rural areas. As such, they often found the fixed notions of space and the relationships between them incapable of serving the roles their homes were accustomed to. Relationships between neighbors decreased. Workplaces were no longer close to the residences (or one in the same), and the public and private spaces were much more clearly delineated. But, instead of the architecture determining the lives people were going to live, people rejected such changes and have created quite amazing environments in such areas.

I visited a number of different public housing projects and found the environments quite fascinating. The range of responses varied tremendously from place to place, but all exercised creativity, ownership and determination to better their living condition. The first place was suggested by an Egyptian architect I met with, Ahmad Hamid. Although I don’t have much info on the place, it is located in the new city 6th of October. The public spaces were quite interesting as they offered a vibrant area of green growth. Much of the open and public space had been taken over as urban agriculture. People were growing many different kinds of fruits and vegetables, mainly for their own consumption. There did seem to be strong ownership of the public spaces. I was not able to find out exactly how they determined who had access to such land.

Utilized Public Space

When we were trying to find the place, I had called Ahmad and described the place to him, thinking that we were not in the right place. After I told him about the lush gardens and green spaces, he assured me I was in the right place, saying,” You need to think about this from an Egyptian perspective, not an American perspective. I know you are in the right place because of the all the trees, grass, and green space.” I understood what he was saying, but didn’t REALLY understand it until I went to Zagazyg.

El Zeraa Housing

Zagazyg is a city about an hour by train outside of Cairo. I went there on invitation from a professor’s colleague. A PhD student of his was studying informal additions to formal housing. It was a great visit and allowed me to meet numerous families and see their homes first hand. Upon arrival at the first project, I clearly understood what Ahmad was talking about. The public space was oppressive, with one live tree, and the rest dirt. The exterior of the buildings were in pretty bad shape. But, inside a number of the apartments, people had developed very respectable spaces.

In the first home that we went to, there had been a number of additions. Since they were on the ground floor, they were able to take advantage of a number of different income producing opportunities. The front door was originally off the stairway. The mother was trying to sell fish, so one of the first changes was to move the front door to face the street instead of the stairwell. Later on they enclosed the balcony, and then eventually built an addition to the balcony to support a computer repair business. And then, they added a swing out in front to bring in even a little more money.

Extended bedroom for business

It seemed that almost everyone here had made some alteration or addition to their space, but the most significant ones were on the ground floor. One had turned his bedroom into an internet café. And inside, most people had invested in new tile, new furniture, refrigerators, etc. The insides were quite respectable, and it was clear people took great care and pride in their spaces, and all were very proud to show me their homes.

Gracious Hosts

1 comment:

lindsay baker said...

i love this money-making swing venture that you mentioned. the idea of bringing people into the semi-private space through a swing is pretty creative. i wonder what kind of community dynamic is set up by (if i understand the situation correctly) having people pay to sit on your swing... or is it just a way of encouraging people to patronize the computer repair business? either way, it's neat.