Towards an Inside-out Urbanism, Cairo: The Whirling Hub

Towards an Inside-out Urbanism, Cairo: The Whirling Hub
Marcos Cruz, Marjan Colletti (marcosandmarjan) (2009) [1]
Published in:
Magaz Magazine, Cairo Egypt, Oct-Nov 2009.

Intro: Water Flows, Urban Streams, and Cultural Torrents
In a time where the world is increasingly global, yet also ever more fragmented, marcosandmarjan and their design/research unit DS10 at the University of Westminster in London ( investigate cities at the crossroads of Western/Christian and Middle Eastern/Islamic culture. After Venice (2006) and Istanbul (2007), the unit explored a third city – Cairo, known in old times as the city of a thousand minarets and hundred domes, of countless Ottoman mosques, madrasas, mausolea, Sufi institutions, Jewish synagogues and Coptic churches.

The theme of the year revolved around the notion of fluid conditions, which in a city like Cairo can be interpreted in a variety of manners. The Nile, one of the biggest rivers in the world, represents an extraordinary water reservoir with a hydrological flow that has attracted to its margins different cultures from antiquity to our days, some of which have created the most important civilizations of our human history. Cairo is nowadays a 17 million whirling hub with urban streams that are of unparalleled richness, density and complexity. Yet its infrastructure is prepared for 4 millions only. But Cairo is also one of those cities in which the cultural torrents of civilization have often been exposed in the most dramatic manner. In a time of complex religious divergences between the Western and Middle-Eastern world, it has again a decisive importance in the future of world politics. Hence, the ambition was to look at these critical issues, whilst interpreting flows in environmental, urban and cultural terms.

Context: Sustainable Development and Revitalization of Transit Hubs
Questions about local and global policies, traditions and cultural specificities were discussed within the context of the 7th IAHH International Student Design Competition 2009 under the theme ‘Sustainable Development and Revitalization of Transit Hubs’.[2] The competition brief asked for innovative design solutions for an evolving humane habitat, involving new strategies for a sustainable development, the use of advanced technology, and a multidisciplinary approach to restructure policies, programming, planning and design for conservation, development and redevelopment.

Cairo is a city in rapid transformation and expansion, being characterized by a sprawl of shopping malls and other large-scale infrastructures, along with an infinite array of new mono-programmatic, self-sufficient, yet also deeply unsustainable and segregated suburbs. However, old parts of town and areas around transit hubs are being neglected. And as stated in the competition brief, old city centres, suburban and district centres around transit hubs are calling for immediate attention.

Method: Holistic approach in urban design
The crucial motivation of projects developed in DS10 was a new and holistic approach in urban design that seeks going beyond past models defined, for example, in Lynch’s The Image of the City (1960), Venturi and Scott Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas (1972), and Rowe and Koetter’s Collage City (1984), or even Deleuze and Guattari’s Rhizome theory applied to urban design (A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 1987). This method involved a rather new ecology-driven understanding of urbanism in which the concept of sustainability (as mentioned in the title of the competition) was understood as far more than an exclusively low-tech or hi-tech issue. Instead, a variety of social, cultural and political factors were taken into account. The influence of local traditions, the development of socio-economic conditions, and, above all, the decisive role of design in the spatial/formal re-qualification of contemporary cities allowed for a coherent employment of innovative technologies in the field of renewable energies and materials.

In this context, a range of digital techniques, such as intense 3D modelling in addition to CNC, CAD/CAM and rapid prototyping were implemented. This process focused on new experimental design solutions that were not only based on the usual planimetric and predictive thinking. As has already been argued in the early 90s, ‘very few processes and operations that take place today can take place in the form of a plan, the classical product of urbanists’[3]; and that is precisely what determined all present work to be explored with a high level of formal, material and spatial three-dimensional complexity, overcoming the exclusive and thus reductive utilisation of plans, diagrams and maps. The city and its endless interfaces were materialised as a dynamic convolution of multiple three-dimensional cartographies, constructs and operations, as an urban manifold, or, in other words, understood as an ever-mutating Urban Flesh.

Sites and Projects: From surgical incisions to visionary statements
Areas of 10 to 20 hectares were chosen in a range of places in Cairo, varying quite substantially in terms of context and concept. This included surgical incisions in extremely vulnerable and degraded areas of the city (Redevelopment of Ezbet Bekhit by Clare Phillips and Hannah Darby); an operative and formally significant strategy applied to the very heart of modern Cairo (Revitalization of Ramses Station and surroundings by Eoin O’Dwyer, Charles Page and Eisuke Hiyama, project featured); a rather more contextual attitude in Old Cairo (Regeneration of Bulaq Bus Station by Sana Hasan and Alia Khonji); as well as a visionary understanding of the city both in large empty urban plots and desert (New Urban Extension at the former Imbaba Airport by Joel Rocky Marchant and Dean Dyson, and Agro-City by Kapil Amarnani Chawla with Nisha Patel, both projects featured).[4]

As specified in the competition brief, all projects aimed at the development of areas around transit hubs, providing new commercial activity. They also meant to enhance these hubs as city centres or district centres with a number of different shopping facilities, formal and informal markets, and a whole range of services and supporting small-scale workshops. The areas around the chosen hubs were thought to attract educational and cultural activity, along with entertainment facilities and important open spaces in the form of gardens and parks. All projects focused on a sustainable development model, providing affordable public transportation facilities and mixed use development, including the design of 500 to 2000 dwelling units and approximately 250 to1000 or more jobs in different establishments and work communities suited to location and urban context.

Conclusion: Inside-Out Urbanism
In order not to fall into the common trap of a linear 'zooming-in' design process, of a two-dimensional zoning strategy, and of a traditional top-down design approach, which still determines so many urban projects to be generated from ‘outside’ and therefore from an unavoidable ‘distance’, DS10 opted for a bottom-up approach. This was initiated by a more architectural and ‘intimate’ scale and was capable of involving experiential qualities, inhabitation and use. Altogether, such approach was understood as a new type of Inside-Out Urbanism, suggesting that particular small-scale operations were essential in determining the outcome of the larger scale. Urban design was worked out from within rather than from without.

1) Revitalization of Ramses Station and surroundings (honorable mention at the 7th IAHH International Student Design Competition 2009) (DS10 students Eoin O'Dwyer, Charles Page, Eisuke Hiyama).
The proposal looks at the city’s most important transit hub: Ramses Station with its adjoining bus station to the north and Ramses Square to the south. The revitalisation of this part of this problematic transit hub is thought to yield major benefits for the city as a whole, placing greater emphasis on public transport in an attempt to reduce the current reliance on the car. The main strategy is to increase levels of operativity, connectivity and performance, yet also the visual presence of such critical site.

In fact, all of Cairo’s growth in the past 50 years has been outwards, creating an ever-growing urban expansion, detracting from the city centre and further detaching parts of the city through insufficient infrastructure. Together with responding to the pollution threat, the proposed densification of the site (in mass and height) gives up as much open space as possible for an urban lung: a shadow park to fight the high levels of pollution and to provide a new pedestrian focal point to the city.

As Cairo currently lacks a contemporary cultural focus, the new Ramses Station area is proposed to host besides housing, educational and sporting opportunities for the young, which in turn help integrating the proposal with the existing city rather than creating a new isolated hub, and, most significantly, to accommodate the new temporary Egyptian parliament on the north-eastern end of the site.


2) New urban extension at the former Imbaba Airport (DS10 students Tocky Marchant, Dean Dyson).
Surrounded by harsh mazes of dense social housing, a large motorway and agricultural bands, the old Imbaba Airport site is a dramatic and unexplored urban void within the city with great commercial and industrial potential, and with ample residency waiting to respond. The organisational strategy of the project is based on an armature of public space running from east to west. A new residential corner is strategically located to allow the existing streets of social housing dissipate and open up to this newly proposed urban setting. Nested in behind the primary boulevards are more secluded streets acting as more intimate zones for those living directly in the communities.

The swirling diagram for the residential plan is purposely responding against the sweeping dessert winds protecting from the tunnelling effect experienced along existing, overtly narrow street-corridors. Throughout the scheme there is a continuous typology designed to accommodate future growth. The construction of dwellings relies on manual techniques, local materials, and traditional building systems that represent centuries of experience managing the environment. The residential walls are built out of Kershef - indigenous rock like salt that maintains moderate indoor temperatures. Furthermore, a technically sustainable envelope for all residential buildings is created through the manipulation of parametric modelling, providing an array of variable components that allow regulating natural ventilation and sunlight at a specified time of the day, and month of the year.


3) Agro-City (DS10 students Kapil Amarnani, Nisha Patel).
The overloaded infrastructure of Cairo has led the city to create a multiplicity of satellite cities with their own new infrastructure. These satellites are now merging and spreading into the desert, while over the years the green delta that resided beside the capital is being consumed by the city’s growing urbanisation. A 20 hectare site is chosen to test new and innovative sustainable development strategies that deal with the major challenges faced by the Egyptian government: a high pace of demographic growth, a limited annual quota of freshwater from the Nile, and the unsustainable rise in food imports.

The urban development of Agro-City occurs in the interstices of several existing irrigation circles organised in a grid. As a start, the system provides an expansion strategy involving all farmed land and also a university campus that makes use of, as well as controls the agricultural surrounding. Both farming plots and academic infrastructure attract a large and varied number of people to this new settlement. In order to allow for such an expansion, a series of urban morphologies are studied and optimised around the circular fields. In addition, agricultural activity is also incorporated in the urban zones as small-scale farming plots in order to supply domestic needs.

The design prospers from a development, which has urban masses overlaying each other both in horizontal and vertical angles. The three-dimensionality of the scheme is initially developed as a block set-up and then moulded into a large artificial dune landscape. The geometric permutations and fluctuations of the roof shape are then adapted to dominant winds, optimising ventilation and shading, at the same time offering a vast surface to embed diverse energy-gaining mechanisms. 


[1] Dr Marcos Cruz and Dr Marjan Colletti are both founders and partners of marcosandmarjan, a studio that combines the practice and teaching of architecture, along with experimental design research. They are also Senior Lecturers and Unit Masters of DS10 at the University of Westminster and Lecturers and Unit Masters of Unit 20 at the Bartlett School of Architecture – University College London, UK.

[2] All projects relied on the kind support of several lecturers, critics and consultants, including Dr Ahmed Sherif – American University of Cairo; Dr. Amr Abdel Kawi – Magaz magazine, Egypt; Andrei Martin – KPF / UFO London / University of Westminster; James Haig-Streeter – EDAW London; Jean Sillet – University of Westminster; Dr. Magda Mustafa – American University of Cairo; Prof. Murray Fraser – University of Westminster; Ricardo de Ostos – Architectural Association / Naja de Ostos; Richard Difford – University of Westminster; Dr. Sonia Arbaci – Bartlett School of Planning, UCL; Omar Nagati – American University of Cairo.

[3] Statement by Rem Koolhaas in an interview by Alejandro Zaera in El Croquis - Oma/Rem Koolhaas 1987 1993, n.53, Madrid 1994, p. 22.

[4] Other projects included a new hub for the southern City of the Dead (by Tim Fry and Desmond Hung); a new southern entrance for the Giza Pyramids (by Catriona Caldwell and Heba Layas); and a new Ramses Station by (Paul Richardson), among others.