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.

the reference wall

our first day in cairo sachin and I wandered onto an aqueduct. this particular portion begins at the nile, with a pump to draw water from a well next to the river, and ends at the metro line, where the arched structure was simply demolished.

the tall open structure (we only had to remove a small wire from the barricade to open it and get in) gave us a spectacular view over Cairo, and a chance to see what was happening on top of the buildings, many of which are unfinished. I am told that this is because there is a different tax structure in cairo for finished vs. unfinished buildings, the latter being the cheaper alternative. therefore building owners might leave the structural brick exposed, extend concrete columns in preparation for the next floor, or leave out the final enclosure elements.

an active element on many roofs is the water tank, which is often surrounded by a lightweight shade structure of dried grasses, likely papyrus or cane, or wood slats. one of few rural references in cairo’s sea of red brick, the structures take an edge off the harsh sun and offer a quick solution for shade on the roof or at the street, as well as temporary shelter or an initial cover for space grabbing.

finally, the aqueduct itself acts as a wall for the city. to the north, the nile runs up to downtown, and a major east west thoroughfare runs along the aqueduct. to the south, dense settlements press up against it.

despite the density, there is still space for birds.

heliopolis: dual structure

I have spent the last few weeks in Cairo, and now I am about to head off to another adventure in Addis Ababa and surrounds. before I go I will try to get a few things posted from my time in Egypt…and more is on the way sometime mid-May…

Heliopolis is a little on the early side of my subject: it was designed and built just before the twentieth century began. But the design of the commercial arcade was certainly something worth investigating.

On Baghdad Street, four story arcades line one side of the street, while the other contains shops and on the ground floor and holds upper stories with various bay window structures, more typical of the rest of the urban fabric of the district.

What is remarkable about the four story arcade buildings is the dual structural systems that govern the division of (in this case) shops in the building. The structure of the façade, outside the arcade, is symmetrical, and emphasizes the building as a block of the street. Classical motifs punctuate the columns and center + end are dealt with as anchors. But the structure of the building behind is not hierarchic: it is a simple post and beam system in which all beams are spaced equidistantly.

The dual system allows the commercial space behind the arcade to be divided and subdivided, or expanded, without overtaking the public zone of the street. What is more, the variation in the scale of the arcade spaces as they move up through the section of the building allows different types of activity and different materials to be inserted as the occupants shift.

The symmetric  style may be a bit heavy handed, but it offers an interesting possibility for the creative use of competing structural systems in the design of a building that must withstand commercial and residential change while keeping a foot in the public and the private.