The purpose of this paper is to explore the “event” of the construction of Naguib Mahfouz Square. Drawing on the memory of Gamaet-Aldowel-AlArabyia Street, it attempts to uncover the socio-cultural structures inherited in the Egyptian urban street.
This study adopts Foucauldian discourse on institutions of “knowledge and authority” to approach the power relations between the actors involved. This discourse was constructed through in-depth, unstructured interviews with architects and involved government personnel as well as other archival resources that included national newspapers and magazines.
This discourse reflected an institutional controversy between these actors over the perception and design of the Egyptian street, highlighting the alienation of the designer, and the user/lay-people, from the urban institution. Naguib Mahfouz Square presented a considerable deviation from the established norms of street design in Egypt at that time through its commemoration of a contemporary figure in literature, the architect’s involvement in the design process and the unfencing of urban space. This event thus questions the perception of the urban street beyond our socio-cultural inheritance, and towards street design as a performative urban act that embraces the everyday activities of lay-people in the street.
The paper utilises Foucauldian discourse on power to approach a case study of an urban event and space in Egypt, which has not previously been investigated thoroughly. It thus holds potential towards the resolution of inherited conflict between the urban street and the urban institution.
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The story of Egyptian urban space tells us about fenced spaces that keep and categorise lay-people outside (see Plate 1). These fenced spaces extend from gated communities to small green islands in the streets. It also emphasises how the lay-people look at the street sidewalks, islands, and squares among others to reclaim as their own through performative acts of praying, playing, sitting, eating, celebrating and so on. This is a story of inherited urban tension between the social and the physical, between lay-people and their urban street. However, the recent political turbulence in the Egyptian street exposed and displaced this reading. A social and institutional conflict thus emerged on the authority and ownership of the urban street, reflecting the changes in the “existing relations and patterns of power”. “Cairo [in particular] is a difficult city for walking; its many congested public spaces, are faced with many challenges concerning control between pedestrians and vehicle traffics” (Maarouf and El-Alfy, 2012, p. 144). “The overcrowded city of Cairo, with more than 20 million inhabitans, is deprived of public open spaces: gardens, parks, squares among others. Accordingly, her people take over street medians […] and sidewalks, among others […] in search of green-spaces and a breath of fresh air – [intrinsically] polluted by car emissions, […] and they are not at fault to claim their own public-open-space” (El-Magdoub, 2018 (translated by author – emphasis added)). However, the urban space is planned and designed to give priority to vehicles rather than lay-people. The pedestrian sidewalks are poorly maintained, and “landscaping” is preserved for the medians, between traffic lanes, fenced against pedestrian movement in many areas (Maarouf and El-Alfy, 2012).
At the same time, most of the squares – “midan” – in Cairo, and in Egypt generally, lie at a crossroad between the everyday life of lay-people in the street – “[…] we drive, we ride, or we walk, horns blare and traffic weaves in furious motion” – and the commemoration of important figures in the country – “[…] suddenly surprised, we notice a statue or piece of public art and swear it must be new, when in fact it has been there for years […]” (Lababidi, 2008, p. 42).
This act of commemoration is associated with three different notions: the memorial, urban design and lay-people. The first considers the memorial as a presence of “memory” in space and time. Many scholars perceive this as a past memory that relates people and place to their history through a significant figure or event. A few discussions, however, consider the construction of a future “memory”, how the memorial helps to reshape the identity of the public space (Stevens and Sumartojo, 2015; Gurler and Ozer, 2013). These perceptions focus on the aspect of “time” that was identified as a past event in traditional commemorative acts, and a future event in the contemporary commemoration spaces.
The traditional commemorative act thus embodies a “heroic” figure, which is designed to educate the lay-people about their culture, while overlooking the urban space. It considers the role of the artist/sculptor as the main actor of this urban space rather than architects and urban designers, which limits the conception of commemoration to consider the memorial as a piece of art rather than the urban space (Gurler and Ozer, 2013). In this way, the commemoration act is intrinsically a reflection, or celebration, of the Egyptian culture. Lababidi (2008, p. 42) discusses the representation of Egyptian modern culture through “nineteen of Cairo’s statues […] of [many] men and one woman”; these statues represent Cairo’s socio-cultural development throughout its modern history. The introduction of modernisation by Mohamed Ali’s family between 1805 and 1882 is represented by the commemoration of “Ibrahim Pasha, Soliman Pasha, and Simone Bolivar” in military feature and costume. The Western image of the city resulting from the British presence (1882–1952) until the declaration of independence is represented by the figures of “Saad Zaghloul, Mustafa Kamil and Ahmed Maher” in Western costume as well as head cover – tarboosh. The 1952 revolutionary city is represented by the “Cairo University statue of rioting students and ‘unveiled women’”. A new turn was established in early 2000 through a national project to commemorate three literary figures (El-Magdoub, 2009, personal interview): the statue of the “Dean of Arabic Literature Taha Hussein” (1898–1973) by sculptor Hussein kamel (Refaat, 2002); the duplicate of Gamal El-Sigini’s 1960 statue of Ahmed Shawky (1868-1932) in front of the Orman Botanic Garden, the original being “in the garden of immortals in Borgese Park, Rome, Italy”; and Naguib Mahfouz (1911–2006), the Nobel Prize winner in literature 1988, by sculptor Sayed Abdu Selim in Sphinx Square at the northern entrance to Gameat-Aldowel-AlArabyia (Lababidi, 2008). It is worth noting that the “Sphinx Square” took its name after the great sphinx statue next to the Pyramids, dating from the Pharaonic era. The significance of this project is the commemoration of non-military figures for the first time, as well as figures from music and literature, a project that was followed by similar figures, for example, the Statue of Um Kulthum and Mohamed Abdelwahab. These statues are depicted in modern Western clothes without any head covers, and in a formal posture.
Contemporary commemoration acts are set within the daily activities of the urban space, designed to engage memorials and lay-people within this urban space. Accordingly, the commemoration act expands to the “meaning and use” of the urban space. It emphasises the role of the urban designer who intrinsically considers the “space” of commemoration: perception, composition and everyday use(s). The urban designer thus works to integrate the arts, for example, the memorial and lay-people’s daily activities into the spatial design (Stevens and Sumartojo, 2015). Consequently, this commemoration space comprises an interactive space between lay-people and the arts at “human scale”. This interactive space lies at a crossroad between the commemoration act as a memorial, and the generation of new meaning through daily activities and use (Gurler and Ozer, 2013). However, the urban designer’s involvement is limited in the Egyptian urban context and institution. The urban designer’s role is taken over by other government administrators; for example, the work of the Administration of Cairo Transportation leads urban square design in Egypt (Abdelwahab, 2013, 2018).
Last and not least, this commemoration “act and space” embraces the public space and questions the role of the memorial in terms of lay-people, for example, being “therapeutic”, educational, and so on. The design approach is reversed to involve lay-people as a first step, rather than the memorial, that is “[…] public space design often seeks to be socially inclusive”, whereas the commemoration act often excludes lay-people (Stevens and Sumartojo, 2015, p. 3). Accordingly, the commemoration space extends to the urban context both in political and socio-cultural terms. On the one hand, the commemoration act represents a political statement endorsed by the government perspective. On the other hand, the space engages the “social memory and identity” of lay-people (Gurler and Ozer, 2013, p. 858). Significantly, public space in Egypt is controlled by a rigid top-down hierarchical institution, where the design and maintenance of these spaces is the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of Beautification and Cleaning, together with the city and district councils.
This paper aims to explore this phenomenon at a crossroad, that is, the act of the commemoration of Naguib Mahfouz, represented as walking through the non-walkable streets of Cairo, Gameat-Aldowel-AlArabyia Street in particular. Gameat-Aldowel-Alarabyia Street was planned following the July 1952 revolution, which promoted the belief in “Arabic Nationalism”, and was thus called after the Arab League. Today, it is a 24-h live, non-sleeping and non-resting urban street. It has become famous for its many hotels, restaurants and coffee shops, travel agents and banks. The street also accommodates many performative ceremonies within its space. These range from religious festivals and prayers attached to the Mustafa Mahmoud mosque, to public celebrations of sports events, especially football matches. It also played a major role in the recent turbulences, and the follow-up celebrations.
This exploration used secondary archival information in literature, newspapers, and magazines to explain the various notions and concepts to the public in general, and particularly in this case study in Cairo. This was complemented by the researcher’s personal experience as a resident in the street of the study, as well as personal observation of the public spaces, that is, the street and square, and people’s interaction with these spaces. These observations considered how lay-people reclaimed the fenced public spaces and appropriated them to their use and activities. Furthermore, the researcher approached the actors involved in the case of the construction Naguib Mahfouz Square and statue through their writings and comments in secondary literature, as well as personal interviews with the actors involved: architect Akram El-Magdoub and other government personnel from the Cairo government’s Secretary Office, the Cairo Transportation Administration and the Specialized Gardens Administration Project, whose names and the times of the interviews are not mentioned for privacy reasons. These communications followed an unstructured and in-depth interview process. The questions raised were designed to allow each actor to tell their story un-interrupted and without previous assumptions of their role. Accordingly, the questions were exploratory and open ended, for example: From your perspective, what is the story behind this project? How did the place develop? What was your role? What do you wish you could have done/undone differently? And so on.
Data analysis in this paper thus draws on Foucauldian discourse on “knowledge and authority” to approach the constructed power relations between the actors involved: government, designers, and lay-people. The study is therefore conducted in two parts. The first considers the description of the spatial setting: Gameat-Aldowel-AlArabyia Street and the introduction of the project, that is, the Naguib Mahfouz commemoration and square development. The second part continues to re-approach the constructed narration between the designer, government personnel and lay-people. This study simultaneously realises that this case does not exist in a vacuum but is part of the wider context: social, economic and political, among others. The Naguib Mahfouz commemoration project and square development is a demonstration of the power relations within the urban institution of Egypt. The study of these relations thus considers the presence and division of two urban institutions within the Egyptian context: the first constructed by the government excluding lay-people, and the other constructed by lay-people as an act of resistance to reclaim back their public space. Furthermore, the involvement of the architect and urban designer helped to highlight this division and mediated the presence of lay-people. The paper thus comprises two narrations – that of Gameat-Aldowel-AlArabyia Street and Naguib Mahfouz Square. This is followed by a discussion on the constructed narration drawing on Foucault and concludes with reflections on the urban institution in Egypt.
2. Gameat-Aldowel-AlArabyia Street
Built in the early 1960s, Gameat-Aldowel-AlArabyia Street presents a main artery in the urban-area of “Al-Mohandeseen” that connects various parts of the city together (see Figure 1). The political stream following the July 1952 revolution changed the country from a kingdom into a republic and promoted the belief in “Arabic Nationalism”. In this context, the street was called “Gameat-Aldowel-AlArabyia” translated as the Arab League, after the “Arab League Organization” established in March 1954. The street is also called Cairo’s “Champs Elysées” by both local and Arabic papers, as well as by the district and city council employees. The theme of making the street a “Champs Elysées” was adopted by many planning schemes in 1979, the early 1990s, and through to today (Chief of Al-Agouza district in Al-Kamash, 2008). It was considered, until recently, to be the most expensive street in Egypt, with an inflation rate of over 40 per cent in summer vacations (Al-Kodsi, 2006). The high land value have been relative to so-called Arabic tourism in Egypt, whereby the street is considered the most preferred residential space by Arabic tourists (Al-Kodsi, 2006). According to the chief of Al-Agouza district (personal interview), many planning decisions have been taken in response to the Arab-tourist presence. For instance, following the Gulf War and the increasing consumption of the gardens of the main island, the fences were added around these gardens to prevent the public from accessing them.
Gameat-Aldowel-AlArabyia is a 70-m-wide street with a prime design-consideration of vehicles. The street design comprises two wide sidewalks and a large median that separates and facilitates street-crossing (Keller and Polach, 2010; Maarouf and El-Alfy, 2012). Gameat-Aldowel-AlArabyia is thus “[…] one of the few places in Cairo where people of various ages and classes come together” (Maarouf and El-Alfy, 2012, p. 147). It is located in between different socio-economic areas: upper & middle-income classes in Al-Mohandeseen, Zamalek, and Dokki and lower-income classes in Imbaba, Boulaq al-Dakrour, and Mit-Oqbah. The latter is part of Al-Mohandeseen’s urban space (Shehayeb and Zaazaa, 2009). This interaction between social classes has brought about a persistent conflict about the perception, ownership and representation of the street, which has been manifested in the addition and removal of fences as well as the variation in the street-design approaches.
Gameat-Aldowel-AlArabyia street is a 24-h live, non-sleeping and non-resting urban space. It is famous for its many hotels, fashion designers, travel agents, banks, as well as many popular local and international brand-restaurants and coffee shops. The Zamalek sports club is another important landmark, the periphery of which is used as a big outdoor shopping mall that attracts a variety of people to the street sidewalks. The street median is simultaneously perceived, used and often referred to as a “public garden”. It provides lay-people from adjacent neighbourhoods with a much-desired open green space for sitting, eating and drinking as well as a playground for their children and youth. All these activities are simultaneously “surrounded by cars and buses from both sides” (Shehayeb and Zaazaa, 2009, p. 5; Maarouf and El-Alfy, 2012). However, the street is described as inadequate for pedestrian life as it does not provide the necessary facilities and amenities; it is considered dangerous to cross the street and the sidewalks are kept in poor condition (Maarouf and El-Alfy, 2012). Despite this, the street accommodates many ceremonies and celebrations within its space that range from religious festivals and prayers, mostly attached to the Mustafa Mahmoud mosque, to public celebrations especially of football matches, as well as political riots. Each of these events transforms the street to a performative urban stage that engages vehicles – “honking cars and […] motorcycle shows” – as well as pedestrians – “flag-waving […] and cheering performances” that extend to balconies and windows of people in their homes and continue to “the following morning” (Shehayeb and Zaazaa, 2009, p. 5). Consequently, this is a very busy street that highlights the intrinsic conflict in street-design approaches between pedestrian-oriented and vehicle-oriented.
Furthermore, the street plays an important role in political life on both the regional and national level, particularly the plaza and square attached to the Mustafa Mahmoud mosque. The mosque plaza accommodated the Sudanese asylum seekers’ protest for three months in 2005. However, this presence was not accepted by the local residents, and they were evacuated by force by the end of that year (Shamrookh, 1998). Interestingly, the park and square played another major role in the 11 January revolution. These accommodated the revolution-opposition party, which was displaced by a pro-revolution celebration upon the failure of the old regime and displaced again by protests in support of the Muslim-brotherhood. Afterwards, Gameat-Aldowel-AlArabyia street continued to witness many disturbances for various unidentified reasons. Today, the mosque plaza is fenced against vehicle movement and accessibility, with continuous police presence for security surveillance.
The importance of the street and the vitality of its location as well as other economic considerations have influenced the government’s increasing attention towards the continuous redevelopment and maintenance of the street (Alkadi, 2007). A recently proposed development project in Gameat-Aldowel-AlArabyia Street was introduced as part of the Cairo 2050 vision to the General Organisation of Physical Planning (https://cubeconsultants.org/home/project/gameat-el-dowal/: accessed 4 September 2018). This project emphasised the economic value of the area and focussed on vehicle movement and commercial use. Accordingly, it proposed the removal of the street median and the development of an eight-lane wide street, with the isolation and transfer of pedestrian movement to underground tunnels, as well as car parking. This street-design approach was both high-income and vehicle-oriented. However, the project remained unrealised following the political situation and disturbances after 2011, and more fences and barricades were added to the urban space to control and protect it.
Significantly, Gameat-Aldowel-AlArabyia Street was redeveloped in early 2000 by the City Council in collaboration with the District Office and the Departments of Traffic, and Beautification and Cleaning, with the aim of developing Al-Agouza district. The district was thus nominated and chosen as the best district in Cairo for the year 2008. The assessment criteria covered five themes: environmental sanitation, quality of services, public participation, local development and urban development (Abdelwahab, 2011). The urban development criteria involved the development and enhancement of urban squares and sidewalks, as well as gardens and parks. Interestingly, one evaluation criterion was the construction of fences to limit lay-people’s accessibility to these urban spaces. The project comprised closing two main street intersections and changing the traffic passage, fencing the green areas, the use of art works to beautify the street median and the development of Sphinx Square at the northern entry to the street. Unfortunately, the street turned into a jumbled mix of several bits and pieces that were developed at a random pace (see Plate 2). The development of Sphinx Square brought about a significant deviation from the street narration as shall be discuss in the following section.
3. Naguib Mahfouz Square at a crossroad
[…] I am the son of two civilizations that at a certain age in history have formed a happy marriage. The first of these, seven thousand years old, is the Pharaonic civilization; the second, one thousand four hundred years old, is the Islamic one […]. Then [the Western] culture. From the inspiration of all this – as well as my own anxieties – words bedewed from me.
(Mahfouz (1988) – Nobel prize speech) (emphasis added)
Naguib Mahfouz was the first Egyptian figure to be commemorated alive and was accordingly portrayed as an “[…] everyday man walking through the […] streets of Cairo, […] a man who is an observer and storyteller” of the city urban street (see Plate 3) (Lababidi, 2008, p. 99). Significantly, Sayed Selim, the sculptor, invited architect Akram El-Magdoub to design the base of the statue, and the project developed to involve the re-design of the square urban setting and landscape. The new square of Naguib Mahfouz was thus developed on the site of the Sphinx Square. Significantly, Sphinx Square is not physically separated from Gameat-Aldowel-AlArabyia Street, but an extension of the street median. In this context, the City Council proposed to open the square to the public, to include the statue, its base, a promenade, and a seating area under the bridge. They also proposed a bookshop and cafeteria, but these were unrealised due to unspecified reasons.
Controversially, Akram El-Magdoub was more concerned with the urban identity of Gameat-Aldowel-AlArabyia Street in between the commemoration event of Naguib Mahfouz and the everyday use of the space by the lay-people (El-Magdoub, 2009, personal interview). He did not appreciate that the square was perceived as separated from the surrounding setting: street and lay-people. He thus introduced a comprehensive vision of the street as an urban space that extended beyond the square to involve the two main intersecting streets of Gameat-Aldowel-AlArabyia and Ahmed Orabi. This extended urban space would offer a promenade for the lay-people along the medians of both streets. It would further embrace the commemoration of the Nobel prize winner in literature to envision a space-of-art that circulated around focal points of other contemporary sculptures celebrating literature and the arts, and kiosks for books, magazines and newsletters with an extended seating space for lay-people to read and interact with the celebrated figures and urban space. The design of this promenade would simultaneously require an in-depth cultural-analysis to promote the appropriate sculpture figures and themes, as well as another visual analysis to study the location, size and dimensions of the various statues in relation to both the promenade and the street setting (El-Magdoub, 2009, personal interview). El-Magdoub also reflected on the importance of the various urban furniture and fixtures, for example, the use of light to emphasise the urban space and people’s experience of it. He simultaneously addressed the culture of public space vandalism in the Egyptian context through the use of appropriate material and design for the seating area rather than the addition of fences to exclude lay-people. Lastly, the promenade would continue to act as a green lung to relieve the area of pollution and other environmental stressors. El-Magdoub had to make compromises with the City Council. The bookstore was not built which wasted potential activity and meaning as well as attraction to the square. The district personnel added a fence to the square at the time to shut lay-people out, which was neither part of the design nor recommended/approved by the designer, (see Figure 2).
El-Magdoub’s vision of the Naguib Mahfouz Square was continuously challenged and his scheme for Gameat-Aldowel-AlArabyia Street remained unbuilt. However, this project remains a significant event: not only does it present an opportunity for the urban growth of the street and square but it also helps architects and urban designers to question our understanding of public space and appropriate design approaches. El-Magdoub (2018) believes that the role of architects and urban designers towards public space is to serve the desire of lay-people to meet and have space for their favourite hobbies, such as the arts, sports or others, as well as to enhance the quality of urban life in the struggling, overcrowded city. He recognises lay-people as the owners of public space rather than the district personnel. He thus aims to integrate their everyday life and use of public space with the established street identity through art and sculpture. The urban space is therefore allowed to continue to grow and embrace new layers of meaning.
Accordingly, El-Magdoub challenges the established role and meaning of different public spaces: the street, the square, and particularly the median. Designer and government personnel agree on the formal definition of the median as presented in urban text books. The median, the middle island of the street, is used to regulate the traffic and car movements in wide streets and provides safety for pedestrians as they cross the street. It is also a green space to counter the pollution of vehicle exhaustion. The median is not part of the public space that accommodates public life and activities. However, lay-people struggle with the scarcity of public open space and have therefore taken to the street median and accommodated it as their own public space. On the one hand, government personnel are focussed on preserving the theoretical and formal function of the median. On the other hand, El-Magdoub is interested in re-approaching the median space-definition by embracing the culture of the lay-people and allowing urban space to grow beyond established definitions.
4. Beyond the spatial street and square
This turn from the commemoration of the figure of Naguib Mahfouz towards the re-design of the square and street median has helped to expose the inherited structure and power relations within the Egyptian urban context. The discourse of square and street design is thus explored drawing on Foucauldian discourse on institutions of “knowledge and authority”. According to Foucault (1974), discourse is constructed by actors of “knowledge and authority” and their framework of action within their socio-culture institution (Horrocks and Jevtic, 1997; Mills, 2003). This discourse thus focusses on the relevant actors, their roles and action frameworks, and the power relations between them as reflected in their acts of consensus, particularly in moments of conflict and silence – that is, inclusion and exclusion.
To start with, the actors involved are identified according to their authority and/or profession. The government, district and city council personnel represent formal authority for street and square redevelopment, whereas the architect and sculptor hold professional knowledge on urban design and arts, respectively. As discussed, the role of the architect and urban designer is often taken over by government personnel: “for example the role of the traffic and transportation department precedes that of the urban designer when approaching square design” (Abdelwahab, 2011). Other actors are recognised on the periphery of the discourse and comprise media and other professional institutions who are “not directly involved in the production of urban space” but provide guidelines and assessments for other actors in the urban design process. These guidelines and assessments thus shape and define what a “good” urban design is. Furthermore, the government and City Council are the “awarding committee” in this case, and the national newspapers and media are the government formal spokespersons. In summary, the government personnel in the city and the City Council are the main actors and they simultaneously play multiple roles. The lay-people – residents, pedestrians and users – are excluded from the decision-making process, and the architect/designer are only involved by chance.
This reading is complemented by further urban institutional discourse, that is, Nussbaum’s (2001) definition of the actors involved in literary and music discourse and Vining and Stevens’ (1986) user-based model approach to urban space (Abdelwahab, 2011, 2018). The former identifies the author(s) and reader(s) as the main actors, and others including the narrator/commentator as secondary actors. The latter model simultaneously “highlights” the user/reader as a main actor in the urban institution – through their everyday activities and interactions they become the author(s). This projection therefore highlights two main actors: the author/designer and the reader/user. The projection thereby challenges the construction of the urban institution in the Egyptian context. Not only are lay-people included as the main actor, but the government personnel are pushed to the periphery of the institution as secondary actors.
On reflection, the government personnel, designer and sculptor are recognised as authors in the case of Gamaet Aldowel Al-arabia Street, that is, they are the decision makers. The definition of lay-people as reader(s) acknowledges their lawful ownership of their urban street. However, they are not recognised as “authors” based on their lack of participatory decision making, which simultaneously highlights a lack of communication between the lay-people and government personnel, as well as “[…] a conflict over the authority and ownership of the people versus the government […]” (Abdelwahab, 2013, p. 48). At the same time, the urban designer plays the role of communicator between lay-people and governmental authority; the designer is the reader of urban space and the user’s relation to this urban space (Vining and Stevens, 1986). Figure 3 illustrates the relations between these actors through two main cycles; for example, the author relies on “theory and profession” to interpret place and accordingly develops a concept to represent the place.
It is necessary to draw on Foucault’s approach to power and power relations to understand the role of these actors and their frameworks of action within the “urban” institution. For Foucault (1981), power is not an entity that can be “[…] acquired, seized, or shared, something one holds on to or allows to slip away”, but a relation “exercised” between entities: individuals or institutions (p. 94). Accordingly, questions about whose power are displaced with questions about the process, how power shapes and is shaped between the various entities. “The exercise of power is not simply a relationship between partners, individual or collective; it is a way in which certain actions modify others […]” (Foucault, 2014, p. 219). Furthermore, these constructed relations “[…] are not one and for all subservient to power or raised up against it, any more than silences are […] a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy” (Foucault, 1981, pp. 100-101). These silent points also help to identify the “inconsistencies and variations” as well as the blind spot in the institution (Alvesson and Skoldberg, 2000; Abdelwahab, 2011, 2018). Accordingly, this raises the question about this exclusion: “Why in a specific context of space and time, were certain possible things not said, designed or built?” (Markus, 1987, p. 475).
In reality, “[…] the government is not a ‘political institution’” that owns power. Power is about the processes and practices that shape how the institution perceives and instantaneously shapes the governed (Abdelwahab and Serag, 2016, pp. 163-164; Townley, 1993). This definition empowers “lay-people” as it identifies the role of the government in its relation to “lay-people”, and challenges the institutional construction in our case, namely the domination of the government through playing multiple roles. Furthermore, the inclusion of the architect/urban designer destabilises these perceived power relations, namely the exclusion of “lay-people” and users. Lay-people who are considered the silent aspect of established urban institution are given power; their presence, needs, and requirements in the urban space are acknowledged by the designer. This acknowledgement is another milestone towards empowering lay-people – “things or objects have to be known before being able to practice power through it” (Townley, 1993).
The commemoration of Naguib Mahfouz statue at the northern entry of Gameat-Aldowel-AlArabyia Street helped to expose the existence of two urban institutions constructed by the government and lay-people respectively, as well as the intrinsic conflict between them. Significantly, this echoes the notion of “planned” and “unplanned” urban spaces as introduced by Kostof (1999) in his book The City Reshaped. With reference to Kostof (1999), it could be said that “planned” urban space is designated by institutions of “authority” in the form of a “master-plan”, whereas “unplanned” urban space is developed unsystematically through the accumulative interventions of lay-people over time. Pak (2016) further identifies two institutional aspects relating to lay-people: the top-down approach operated by government that perceives lay-people as an institutional practice, and the bottom-up approach operated by lay-people under a negligent government presence.
At the same time, these two institutions are not exclusive: both approaches are mutually operating in the urban space (Pak, 2016). However, the “authority” institution in Egypt has operated without the presence of lay-people in the urban space. Fencing out and excluding lay-people from the urban space is therefore considered as a “desirable” criterion of success and lay-people are subverted to both “Arab-tourism” and “vehicle movement”. Many scholars have simultaneously reflected on the various planning decisions made with a biased concern towards not only the symbolic meaning of the street in attachment to the Arab League but also to the presence of Arabic tourists in the street as the primary users. These decisions have simultaneously considered vehicle movement as having priority over the pedestrian experience in the street and excluded the presence of lay-people (see Figure 4). The commemoration, therefore, became “an act of resistance” to tell the story of the lay-people and to overcome their “silence” within the “planned” institution. The statue of Naguib Mahfouz, the author of the stories and lives of lay-people, is walking with them through their urban street as the first step towards a deviation from the inherited rigid top-down hierarchical urban institution in Egypt.
Significantly, this commemoration of “act and space” echoes the development of associated concepts in the international literature. As discussed, the notion of commemoration has developed from a concern for the representational “act” of a past memory imposed on and separated from the urban space, towards a concern for the design of “urban space” that comprises an interactive space between the “act” and lay-people’s everyday activities. The notion thus seeks the future “commemoration” of urban space through this interactive space. Not only does Naguib Mahfouz Square commemorate a “contemporary” and significant figure in Egyptian culture, but also the urban designer envisioned an “interactive” space that embraces the user’s needs and adds a new layer of meaning. Accordingly, the redevelopment of Naguib Mahfouz Square and Gameat-Aldowel-AlArabyia Street helps to redefine the notion of urban design in public space and highlight the impact on the establishment of urban identity and memory in the case of Egypt.
Furthermore, this event embraced another silent actor, the architect/urban designer, invited by the sculptor rather than by the government. This “design-by-chance” strode further away from the institution of authority, not only towards the lay-people, but also urban street design. It questioned the role of the “professional” institution in Egypt – the role of architects and urban designers. On the one hand, “contemporary Cairo does not appear to have produced a solid architectural trend or planning direction, but rather a collection of planning and architectural positions” (Selim, 2018, p. 139). On the other hand, urban designers are concerned with making urban space available for lay-people, not only for their activities, but also to encourage feelings of safety, comfort, accessibility and belonging (Elshater, 2018). Simultaneously, El-Magdoub questioned his role in the design of this urban space. He acknowledged the realities and complexities of the Egyptian urban street: the scarcity of public space, as well as the tension between the existing urban space and lay-people, manifested in acts of vandalism of public spaces. He approached lay-people as the lawful owners of that public space and stressed that the role of the urban designer is to serve the needs of the lay-people rather than to exclude or place them within a given frame of knowledge. The setting of the street and lay-people thus became an opportunity for learning and challenging the established role and meaning of the street, square and median. The latter is theoretically defined as a green intermediate-space designed for the benefit of vehicle movement, to help in pollution reduction, and to add aesthetic value. However, lay-people have now reclaimed this “median” as a public open space. This act of reclamation, rejected by the formal institution, was wholeheartedly promoted by the designer, who adapted the median to incorporate the everyday activities of lay-people, thus redefining the notion of the street “median”. The resultant de-commemoration act of Gameat-Aldowel-AlArabyia Street therefore embraced the daily life of lay-people in the street, rather than the inherited memory of the “Arab League”, the Arabic tourist and the complementary “act” of nationalization.
Significantly, the “event” of Akram El-Magdoub’s involvement in the design of Naguib Mahfouz Square and the Gameat-Aldowel-AlArabyia Street median offers the intrinsic potential of resolving the conflict between the “authority” and lay-people within the Egyptian urban institution. The proposed design involved a minimalist-design approach that considered the spatial details of the street and lay-people’s daily activities, and, at the same time, responded to the “government” maximalist-design approach that extends the design concerns to the wider urban context both socio-politically and culturally (Tschumi, 2001). The architect extended his “professional” institution to embrace the culture of lay-people in the urban street. This reflects the alternative design practices that criticise top-down institutional approaches and adopt a bottom-up approach that involves the participation of lay-people in the design process and product (Bowns and da Silva, 2011; Pak, 2016). In this alternative approach, the architect’s professional role is redefined as a “co-designer-enabler”. Although the lay-people were not involved in the decision making in this case, this role enabled the architect to empower the user. Not only did El-Magdoub acknowledge the presence of lay-people in their urban space, his design was also informed by their needs, behavior and use of the urban space.
However, the question on the role of architects and urban designers in the Egyptian context remains unanswered, displaced by a set of questions about the power relations between profession and authority, profession and lay-people, and profession and the urban street. It is evident from this study that the involvement/empowerment of urban design within the urban institution in Egypt would help to bridge the gap between “planned-authority” and “unplanned-people” institutions. However, this would require a change in both the ideology of these institutions as well as practice. To start with, the planned-authority institution in Egypt follows a rational approach to urban space as the “[…] expert who relies on the ‘objectivity’ of professional expertise” to determine what is in the “public’s best interest”, excluding “terms like public interest and the public” (Schonwandt, 2008, p. 5; Abdelwahab, 2017). The “authority” institution in Egypt further displaces “public” with the “foreigner” as well as the “pedestrian” with the “vehicle”. In contrast, as an urban designer, Akram El-Magdoub adopted the role of advocator on behalf of the lay-people, to “[…] help the weak [the unrepresented public/lay-people] defend their own interests against the powerful” (Schonwandt, 2008, p. 8). He was also interested in playing a socio-communicative role, whereby he gave up his role as the “professional” expert on the premise that both the designer and user should communicate and learn from each other. It is necessary, therefore, to complement the “new” urban designer role with a new “active” role in the “authority” institution, which would help to empower both the designer and lay-people. However, this requires a deviation from the dominant “positivist” institutional framework.
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About the author
Mona A. Abdelwahab is Assistant Professor in Architecture, Department of Architecture and Environmental Design at the Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport, Egypt. She received her PhD in Architecture from Newcastle University, UK, where she is Visiting Research Fellow. She followed her post-doc studies at the Department of Spatial Planning, University of Groningen, NL, where she co-founded “YA-AESOP- Booklet Series and acted as first Editor-in-chief for: Conversations In-Planning” and later Senior Advisor. She is also Cofounder and Managing Editor of Arcplan: Arabic Cities Planning e-journal.