Sunday, June 15, 2008



Birdcages on top of houses


Rooftop Living

Garbage Storage

Quite simply put, I was incredibly fascinated with the rooftops in Cairo. Because I was staying in a hotel that overlooked downtown Cairo, I had a great vantage point. This is where the image of the bomb comes into play. While we in the West seem to be more recently discovering the benefits that rooftops can provide, Cairenes have actively using their rooftops in everyway imaginable, except of course, as lush lawns of vegetation. They raise poultry on them. They store garbage. Goats graze. People live.

After a while I began to notice that many of the rooftops were littered with debris. Finally, someone told me that during the avian bird flu, the military destroyed almost all the birdcages on top of buildings. Consequently, this destruction is clearly evident from above. The state can be extremely adept at controlling certain things, and while leaving many other things completely out of control.

Cairo. City of the Dead

Azhar Park, City of the Dead and Manshiet Nasser

Backyard with the Tomb

Typical Street.

Because of the intense need of space, between 500,000 – 1,000,000 people have moved into Cairo’s cemeteries, living in what were once tombs or in structures built originally for tomb caretakers. This is an extraordinary community, and many people now are paid by the owners of the tombs in which they are living to watch over them. While walking around one day, a young boy invited us into their home. There were three siblings and two parents living there. Water and electricity had been run to their home, which is not necessarily standard. The main living area was along the road, and in the back was where the tombs were located, most were now underground. Surreal.

Cairo. Quest for Space

Above the Ground

Based on the ingenuity and criticalness by which Cairenes have taken to finding space in which to live, one would imagine that there just is not enough space for everyone. The unfortunate thing is that there is enough housing in this city. But, it is just not affordable. So, I guess there is really not much of a difference. David Sims, an urban planner and economist I met with, differentiates between speculative demand and utility demand. The crazy thing is that in new planned communities on the outside of Cairo, 75% of the housing units are EMPTY. People have bought units in the hopes that their son will get married and move into it, or that they will sell once the prices increase. This was reinforced as we drove through the planned community of Beverly Hills, and it seemed like a ghostland.

New Vacant Housing

The intense quest for space supports many amazing sights. To me, the first noticeable one was the balconies of apartments. Each one is totally different. The buildings become collages of layer and layers of individuality. Some produce a rich formal language, breaking up the monotony of the fa├žade, while others, combined with the scattered and omnipresent satellite dishes and air conditioners produce a more chaotic building expression.

Buildings as Collage

But, beyond the appeal of the formal language, people use their balconies to allow their home to be dynamic and responsive. But, a range of classes have enclosed their balconies, not just the poorest ones. One architect we met with described the balcony enclosure issue as giving poor people no choice. The balcony should be used as an outdoor space for pleasure. But, as the size of an apartment and ability to receive people in a separate room is often a sign of status, people have added on. And unlike in America, people don’t move. They can’t, as they won’t be able to find housing. So, they make do with where they are.

Balcony Additions

Cairo. Participatory Urbanism

Ezbet El Hagganon: Life under the voltage

Informal Additions

Cairo has been so difficult to get my head around. It’s got a little bit of everything. Much of the people have taken the city into their own hands, finding whatever room they can maneuver in to live. They are creating order out of chaos. Or chaos out of order. This is the real Cairo. And it extends out in all directions, as explosive growth (70-80% of it informal in last 15 years) has transformed lush agricultural land into vertical highrises of concrete and brick, never quite finished. But, to the east and west of Cairo, on the peripheries (both physically, socially, and economically), the new world of control, exclusion, and consumption is slowly taking shape. The need to escape the chaos of the city and find the order that has typically defined such places as suburban America is driving the upper class to communities by the names of Allegria, Beverly Hills, and Dreamland.

Beverly Hills in the Desert

In the heart of the city is a completely different story. People are engaged in the urbanism in extraordinary ways. I think this is what gives Cairo so much of its energy, but you may not notice it if you are taking the typical tourist path. It was in the neighborhoods of Boulak, Manshiet Nasser, Ein El Sira, and Ezbet Al Hagganan where I could not help but to almost cry, but at the same time, be utterly amazed at the active ways in which they stake some level control over their environment and the necessity by which it is accomplished.

Cairo Constructed and Deconstructed

In many ways, it looks as if a bomb has hit much of Cairo. Some people also describe it is a tomb. But , underneath all of it, Cairo is a little bit of everything. And in this city, it is not just he poorest of the poor who are struggling to find their space in the city. It is most of the population. Yet, unlike in most other cities, collectively, it feels as if they own and have staked claim to much of the entire city. In his article entitled “Cairo’s Poor: Dilemmas of Survival and Solidarity”, Asef Bayat describes it as ‘quiet encroachment.’ He continues that this challenges “many fundamental aspects of the state’s prerogatives—including the meaning of order, control of public space, the importance of modernity, and finally, the state’s encroachment on private property.”

Fields Turning into Buildings

Yet, while this encroachment may be described as quiet, when put together on a scale such as Cairo, it becomes very loud visually, and that has certainly been part of the draw. One of the drastic and massive challenges is the land on which much of the growth is taking place. Much of the informal development is taking place directly in the Nile River Valley where private owners are converting their agricultural plots into homes, then adding more floors, eventually turning building into highrises. Generally speaking, building land will fetch between 8-12 times the price of agricultural land (Sims and Sejourne). And slowly they morph together turning once fertile land into oppressive (but very necessary) vertical communities of brick and concrete, providing images I could only imagine in movies. I cannot help but wonder about the connection between this conversion of agricultural land to urban land in the midst of the global food crisis.

Cairo. Crazy

Downtown Cairo

Buildings Continue to Grow

Futbal in Boulak

Giza. En Route to the Pyramids


Al Dharb Al Ahmad

Never Finished

Twenty million people. The densest metropolitan area in the world. The crushing urbanity of Cairo and intense demand for space has created a city unlike any I have ever seen. The explosive growth of the city, with its deep historical roots, fertile land, corrupt beauracracies, and creativity of people has produced a city of constant, incredible, and powerful transformations. Grids of agricultural plots are replaced by the grids of concrete columns, beams and bricks. Tombs of the dead are replaced by homes of the alive. Rooftops are transformed into homes, birdcages, garbage storage, and a sea of satellite dishes. Sidewalks are turned into parking lots, streets are turned into sidewalks. Alleys are turned into soccer pitches. The desert is transformed into golf courses, private villas and shopping centers. A one bedroom apartment is transformed into a two bedroom apartment, a fish market, and a computer repair shop. Cairo is being transformed into….?????

It feels like an absolute disaster, I can’t figure out how it functions, the smog is oppressive, the traffic hurts, the buildings are crumbling. Yet, I am so drawn to it….