Cairo 2010

Prof. Jacques Herzog, Prof. Pierre de Meuron, Manuel Herz, Shadi Rahbaran, Ying Zhou
Exercise types: ‘e’ (Entwurf) with 'P' (Planung)
Group work in Basel and fieldwork in Cairo
Start: Tuesday, 21. September, 2010, 10 AM at ETH Studio Basel, Spitalstrasse 8, 4056 Basel


Last year ETH Studio Basel commenced a three year project focusing on processes of urbanization in the Middle East with the cities of Beirut and Damascus. This year the research project will continue with an investigation into the largest city in the region, and one of the largest cities of the world, Cairo. Few cities have captured the imagination of the world over such an extended period of time as the Egyptian capital. Strategically located at the mouth of the Nile Delta, the region around Cairo has been continuously inhabited for the last five millennia. With Memphis, capital of the Old Kingdom approximately 3000 BC located a few kilometers to the south, the pyramids of Giza, constructed approximately 2500 BC to the West and the ancient Heliopolis located in the north east of contemporary Cairo, the area has for the longest period occupied a central place in the history of ancient Egypt. With the establishment of Roman ‘Babylon’ and the city of ‘Fustat’ during the early years of the Muslim Conquest in 641 the foundations of modern Cairo were laid. Henceforth the city has been known as Cairo, the Triumphant City, or the City of the Thousand Minarets (referencing the unsurpassed Mamluk and Fatimid architecture). The importance of the city is underscored by the fact that ‘Misr’, the Egyptian word for Cairo and for the whole country is the same, thus identifying the country by its capital, and even more so, the city being referred to as ‘the Mother of the World.”

City Models
We observe the cities in the Middle East at a crucial moment in time. Rich in architectural and urbanistic heritage and at a turning point of political transformation and undergoing extensive (re-) construction, the cities struggle with questions of identity, globalization and a reconsideration of the notions of the public and the private. In contemporary Cairo we can identify the layers of history in the shape of different city models, or ideas of urbanity, that make up its urban fabric. Elements of a Fatimid and Mamluk city lie next to (or sometimes coincide with) areas shaped by Ottoman city planning, Haussmannian schemes and neighborhoods planned in the style of early modernism like the Garden City movement. More recently this assemblage has been supplemented by late modernist neighborhoods, large new desert cities on the outskirts of Cairo and a vast expanse of informal neighborhoods housing a majority of the rapidly growing urban population as well as rural-urban migrants. The city can thus be read as consisting of different concepts of ‘city making’, never executed in their full extent, always exhibiting processes of transformation and questioning their validity in contemporary economies.

Urban Activities
Can we describe and assess a city by how it is being used, by how its population inhabits a city? Instead of abstract notions of urban theory, such as formal / informal, or methods of master planning, we can analyze a city by looking at how people live and work in it, how they use the city as a place for recreation, for learning or for trade. It is these standard urban activities which give us an insight into the range of urban conditions, and that enable a comparison, or even an evaluation of urban models. It is in Cairo, a country ruled by an authoritarian regime and having been under a State of Exception for the last 40 years, that these urban activities gain a greater urgency. When a state of exception becomes normality, everyday activities gain a crucial role in the relationship between the state and its people: How does a population organize its daily routine, modes of communication and activities of transport, culture and work? Urban activities adopt the function of a litmus test assessing the power struggles within society and how the population adapts to it.

The recent urban developments of Cairo have seen the development of vast new Desert Cities for the affluent on the city’s fringe with populations in the hundred thousands and at the same time an unprecedented growth of informal neighborhoods, often self-built on former agricultural land. While often seen as representing virtually opposite models of urbanity – the former being formally planned for upper income groups while the latter stands for uncontrollable urban chaos and plight – both tendencies have to be seen as being intimately connected, even representing two sides of the same coin. With the ascend of Mubarak to state power in the early 1980s, Egypt has vigorously adopted a neo-liberal economical model. Inviting international investment (often from the gulf countries), Cairo has seen tremendous capital flowing into the real estate market, resulting in the construction of office parks, gated communities and enormous desert cities. It is these very construction projects that have facilitated vast rural-urban migration, with hundreds of thousands of new Cairenes working as construction workers, house maids or taxi drivers, constituting an ever growing lower class and participating in the growth of large informal neighborhoods, now housing 70% of the urban population, mostly without the provision of public services or urban transport.

pdf Semester-Programm-English