Arab Universities Often Silent in Debates on Public Space
“How is it possible to study and practice architectural criticism in a society in which criticism is almost nonexistent? How is it possible to practice criticism in a society where reliable information is missing, and where many will call into question what data can be found? And how does one criticize architecture in a society in which almost all ‘good’ architecture is disappearing?”
So writes Nabil El Hady, architecture professor at Cairo University, in an essay in the latest print issue of Cairobserver, a website and publication founded in 2011 by Mohamed Elshahed , a young researcher of Egyptian urban and architectural history. With many contributions from amateurs, students and academics from a variety of fields, Cairobserver has become an invaluable source of information and analysis regarding the Egyptian capital, whose haphazard development is the focus of much debate.
Unfortunately that debate is not taking place for the most part at universities. That seems to be the conclusion of the issue, which was launched on October 18 is dedicated to exploring the relationship between universities and the city, between the way architecture, engineering and urban planning are taught and the urgent problems—economic, social and of governance—posed by massive urbanization.
The use of public space is politically charged across the Middle East. In Lebanon, one of the most active civil-society campaigns has been organized to try to safeguard the last bit of Beirut’s undeveloped coastline. The Civil Campaign to Protect the Dalieh of Raouche has solicited alternative development plans for the area, as well as presenting legal and social arguments for the preservation of public space. In August, indignation over Beirut’s dysfunctional garbage collection service sparked protests that morphed into a wider call for an end to government corruption.
In Saudi Arabia, the aggressive development of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina—which has involved destroying many historic structures while surrounding Mecca’s Grand Mosque with enormous hotels—has created controversy, but criticism has been stifled within the kingdom itself, says Iyad Al Alaway, director of the London-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation and a frequent critic, in the foreign press, of the demolitions and expansions. Saudi scholars share information with him, says Mr. Alaway, but are fearful of clashing with the religious police or with municipal authorities if they speak out about the damage to antiquities.
But perhaps nowhere has the issue of public space been more contentious than in Cairo, a millenarian city famous for its drama and dysfunction. It is the Arab world’s largest, densest capital (greater Cairo is home to about 19 million people) and suffers from pollution, congestion and huge informal neighborhoods that lack green spaces and public services. The city’s dense urban core was key to the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, allowing hundreds of thousands to gather quickly in the famous Tahrir Square, and has been fought over and tightly policed in recent years.
Universities themselves—whether the American University in Cairo, Cairo University or the Islamic university of Al Azhar—have been highly contested spaces, and at the public universities in particular, students and police have violently clashed.
Several contributors to Cairoobserver argue that there is a deep disconnect between universities in Cairo and the capital’s development. This divide is exactly what El Shahed, who wrote his dissertation at New York University on architecture and politics in Egypt between the 1930s and 1960s, said he hoped to investigate. “There’s a paradoxical situation in Egypt,” El Shahed said in an interview. “It’s a hyper-urban setting yet the contribution of urban planning and architecture departments is almost zero.”
But for most architecture and urban planning departments in Cairo, “the city has morphed into something curricula doesn’t know how to deal with,” says El Shahed. “Students are still reading things that might have been relevant in the 1970s but have nothing to do with the city today.”
Some of the most interesting projects that offer on-the-ground studies and creative solutions to the city’s problems exist outside universities. But academics and policy makers don’t take their proposals seriously, says El Shahed.
In fact, according to the essays in Cairobserver, many of which are written by architecture students, most professors don’t encourage students to engage with the reality of Egyptian cities. Most of their residents live in the informal neighborhoods that have been built in an unregulated manner to meet the capital’s spiraling number of residents. Architects aspire to work with the authorities, to serve as government advisors and win public construction contracts for their firms. They rarely critique public urban planning policy, which has encouraged the development of private gated residential complexes on the outskirts of the city and focused on grand, often unrealistic projects, such as the plan to build a new £30 billion capital in the desert—yet another attempt to impose a vision from on high rather than engage with citizens’ needs.