european questions

Le Corbusier’s Radiant City proposal for Paris

I spent the first five months of the year visiting cities in places where the absence of enforced regulation in some way or another allowed individual desires to gain momentum in changing the city’s face. Whether it was through ignoring what went on behind the façade, turning a blind eye to back alley encroachments or allowing traditional structure to top of failing roof systems, these cities balanced the challenges of a changing environment by allowing, and sometimes learning from, the gradual makeovers initiated and encouraged by their citizens.

The results are mixed. Ankara’s “loading zone” commercial streets sit alongside Chandigarh’s booth markets and Tel Aviv’s sidewalk cafes, while Cairo’s cars crush all other inhabitants of the zone of the street. Bahir Dar maintains its street grid in the complete absence of infrastructure and Heliopolis holds its commercial shifts within the framework of a separately structured façade.

As I now move through Western Europe, I am faced with an entirely different scenario. Massive housing projects, cities themselves, pepper the fringes of major urban areas, and experiments on the life and actions of the human stand as monuments to the ideas of their creators. Many of the new towns were built for the benefit of the lesser economic classes, who remain the only group significantly housed this way.

These cities do not deal with an extreme population pressure, and many of them lack the range of economic development seen in my previous case studies. Both these factors change a lot about what happens as the place ages. But I think that the most important difference is the role of the institution in the transformation of these places. Rather than allowing private changes at all scales, or catching on to trends and adopting them, the institution (city planners, think tanks, administration) is an active agent in directing the transformation. Institutional interventions happen at a larger scale, while the small scale private stuff is largely suppressed. As I move through Europe (France, Netherlands, Germany, Slovenia, Italy) I have been, and hope to further explore this relationship, to understand how the city can act as its own transformer, and what effect that has on the perception of the place.


monasteries of lake tanaa

The eucalyptus-structured buildings grew out of an older tradition of dung building in ethiopia, some monumental examples of which i got to see in the churches of LakeTanaa, near Bahir Dar. In these massive structures, the walls are constructed of dung and fiber, while the doors inlaid are of solid trunks of wood. The church is built around a square wooden box altar that is covered with brightly colored paintings, whose color has been preserved by the darkness maintained inside. The inner wall, a solid earthen ring buttressed at three points, is offset by a lightweight outer wood frame, covered by a bamboo screen which is attached by leather. It is tied when wet so that it shrinks into place as it dries. A similar detail holds the under-layer of the roof together. Although they were originally built with dried grass roofs, the monks have switched to aluminum sheets because they better protect the paintings inside.

ethiopian adaptation

I had to reroute my Eritrean airplane ticket to Ethiopia at the last minute, when after visiting Eritrean embassies in every country I entered (I am now on a first name basis with the visa issuing officers in both the US and India), I finally came to the realization that they just might not give me a visa in time to visit the country.

So I decided to take a small detour to see what I could find in Ethiopia. Though it was never fully colonized, Italy occupied the country in an attempt to expand their territory between Somaliland and Eritrea.

Italians did not create the same urban presence in Addis Ababa as they did in Asmara, so I did not get to see an example of a modern Italian colony.  However, many cities around the country were planned at least at the infrastructural level in the mid twentieth century. Because time was short and transportation in Ethiopia slow (bus journeys are often measured in days or half days instead of hours) I was only able to go to one of these cities outside Addis Ababa: Bahir Dar.

Bahir Dar was first planned in the 1940s, but its masterplan was created in 1956. Today it is considered to be one of the best developed cities in Ethiopia. While I was there they were preparing for the elections, and the UN had sent numerous delegates to observe and aid the process. It provided extra employment for locals, whose English skills developed for tourism allowed them to act as translators.

The large buildings of Bahir Dar are built with the typical concrete frame and brick infill wall, but in the smaller structures that either cling to these hulks or cluster at the periphery of the town, I observed an extremely interesting, simple construction typology that makes up the majority of the architecture in the country.

Eucalyptus was introduced to Ethiopia in the 1890s, and now has become integral to the construction practices in the country. Because it is a fast growing wood, it can be used as a quickly replenish-able building material. In rural settings, owners will grow eucalyptus hedges around there house for wind protection and shade, while using felled trunks as the main structure for their single story homes.

Typically a 3’ by 3’ gridded frame is first built, which outlines the main structure. Sometimes a front or side porch is also delineated. Then the walls are filled in with eucalyptus trunks that are tied in place. Finally, dung mixed with grass fibers is applied to the eucalyptus, to create a smooth surface. Further layers of dung are added as needed. The roof, originally of grass but now often of galvanized iron sheets, can be constructed as soon as the frame is finished.

The beauty of the system is that at any point in construction, it provides adequate shelter. Layers of dung can be added each year, since families will have a steady supply, if they own a cow or buffalo. The structure is based on the capabilities of the eucalyptus, using many small timbers, rather than relying on the span of a few.  The structure is also simple and flexible, which allows owners to create many variations.

But the introduction of the eucalyptus species has created a major change in the landscape.

medinat nasr: isolated zoning

Medinat Nasr (Victory City) was designed in the 60s to relieve pressure on Cairo. The city was divided into zones by function, with towers placed in open space for residents.

Though it was built as an expression of Egyptian capacity and urban expansion, architect and educator Ahmad Hamid, with whom I spoke in Cairo, sees this place as a European experiment. According to Hamid, the architect who designed it was a disciple of Udo Kulturmann, architectural theorist and critic from Zurich, and it was his ideas that influenced the form of the place.

Source: Janet Abu-Lughod, Cairo: 1001 Years of the City Victorious

Source: Janet Abu-Lughod, Cairo: 1001 Years of the City Victorious

Medinat Nasr today feels very different than the rest of Cairo. From what I saw, changes in the architecture have remained in the architecture, but the population pressure in the city has drawn commercial space up into the buildings. The main attraction in Nasr is the immense mall and theme park, which contains a hotel. Cairenes sometimes stay there to shop over the weekend.

Another force that has created isolation in the city is the presence of embassies, who have cut off the open areas to securitize their space.

the overpopulation of mohandiseen

In many ways, Cairo exhibits the extreme examples of how fast a city can change. Concrete frames filled with slightly crumbled red brick and topped with ragged rebar are sprouting in every pocket possible. Older buildings bulge with the signs of an ever louder commerce, shouting out for the pedestrian’s attention, who often now sits inside one of hundreds of cars that use the paths for parking and reroute other forms of traffic. In its recent history, Cairo has dealt with its bursting population often by adding satellite cities at its edge, to relieve pressure on the center. I managed to look at 4 of these cities while in Cairo, which span the course of the 20th (and a little of the 21st) century: Heliopolis, Mohandiseen, Nasr City and 6th of October City. I have already described Heliopolis and the others should come later.

Mohandiseen is an upmarket area on the west bank of the Nile. Begun as a garden city suburb to support Cairo’s growing population, the area was filled with green lots and bungalows: a smaller version of the town layout in Tel Aviv. But Cairo grew right around Mohandiseen, and property values sky rocketed. Now it sits in the middle of the city, and most of the bungalows (really all except 3 or 4) have been bulldozed to make way for taller, bulkier, more lucrative projects.

This once-planned city is now a district driven by commerce, played out at all scales. On the major commercial streets, even the second generation brick buildings have given way to glass. Oversized ads cover facades and the structure for signage creates a new skin on buildings.

Small shops soak up the street front (and sometimes first story), severing buildings from their bases. Most of these buildings, once residential, now house a mixture of offices and homes, often just across the hall from each other! When the shop is smaller, or the space isn’t enough, structures also grow from the sides of buildings, moving out through side lots, eating the parking areas and jumping into the street.

And to support the people’s patronage of a growing commerce, cars reorganize the street. Streets become parking lots and parking works as a road divider. Pedestrians watch out!

The plan in Mohandiseen hardly remains, aside for the structure of the main streets. But the place does feel different than other areas of Cairo, if only slightly. But who knows…maybe 10 years from now this area will again be entirely remade.

Finally I wanted to point out the perhaps obvious effects of occupation on an apartment building.