What happens to the Knowledge Produced?
In other words: On Egypt’s pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale

Manar Moursi - Published in the Catalogue for the Egyptian Pavilion (link here) and Mada Masr (link here)

This is an edited version of a text about the Egyptian pavilion at the 15th Venice Architectural Biennale, which is ongoing from May 28 to November 27. It was published in Mada Masr on June 9th, 2016. The work presented at this year’s Egyptian pavilion was commissioned by young Egyptian architect Ahmad Hilal with an Egyptian-Italian curatorial team including Eslam Salem, Gabriele Secchi, Luca Borlenghi and Mostafa Salem. This text was written by Manar Moursi of Studio Meem, whose own works were included in the exhibition and it was originally published in the exhibition catalogue.

In response to changing socio-economic patterns, the bursting of economic bubbles, and a confrontation with the limits and vulnerability of our environmental resources, in recent years, a noticeable trend in global architectural practice has been a shift towards research and knowledge production outside of traditional built and commissioned projects. More space is also being given to those who explore architecture’s role in the construction of socially and environmentally sustainable built environments.

In Egypt this mode of production, while marginal, has gained currency as elsewhere. More and more architects and academics are identifying and asking questions, introducing new concepts and working with unusual tools. But Egypt’s is an urgent case for architectural and urban researchers, partly because, amongst other factors, its unmatched rate of population growth which necessitates immediate solutions.

In 2016, more than half of the Egyptian population is estimated to be between 25 and 45 years old. The balance is therefore tipping towards the affirmation of youthful desires. The 2011 uprising was just one stop made by a moving train with multiple stops and demands.

Sprawl and informal urbanism have been the two parallel dynamics of growth in Egyptian cities for the past half a century. Where the government has failed to provide, a robust informal economy had been providing low-mid income families with housing, prompting an unprecedented rate of urbanization, development and incursion on scarce agricultural land.

While the under-privileged have resorted to DIY architecture and urbanism, the elite have been hiding out and expanding to the safety of new state-sponsored, gated desert suburbs. Instead of confronting the problems of the city at their core, their solution has been escapism. But no matter how many DIY units are produced, in the context of a projectile population growth, thousands of families still lack adequate housing and access to infrastructure.

Social justice — including more equal access to housing, health care and labor opportunities — were amongst the key demands of revolutionary forces in 2011. Fueled by the energy of the post-revolutionary context, some architects, urbanists and researchers found themselves intensely questioning the two trajectories of growth in Egypt, aiming for a potential force to change and reform. It is the fruits of their work presented in the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale

In ancient times, Egypt was commonly referred to as “Kemet,” believed to be a reference to the black Nile Delta earth, as opposed to “Deshret,” the red barren desert land. Like these two contrasting ground conditions on which the country stands, Egypt’s governance has long had a strong duality. Egypt has arguably been ruled by authoritarian regimes since Pharoanic times, and a familiar, continuous thread runs through the course of its development: An elite class aligned with the ruling regime invests in its self-interest, and as long as these interests are protected, the rest of the population are left to self-organize.

Informality in this context is not an unintentional consequence of a lack of recourses, but a clear strategy to avoid accountability and reduce social investment. On the one hand it produces difficult circumstances – lack of access to infrastructure for example. It also generates confrontations in cities’ public spaces. One manifestation of these confrontations are the games of cat and mouse between informal market vendors and the city governance.

But on the other hand, informality gives more agency and street-level access for citizens to come up with creative entrepreneurial solutions to circumvent authority, implement rapidly avoiding bureaucracy, red-tape and liability that often hinder development in other contexts. This sense of agency also allows immediate, effective and flexible responses that are arguably more capable of grappling with transformations and problems on the ground than urban planners and policy-makers.

Paradoxes and dualities, therefore, construct the particular observational scaffolding in which the Egyptian pavilion is set. As economic opportunities seem to be shrinking and with new record unemployment rates, in tandem, there’s a huge growth of skilled youthful labor including architects and urbanists with no opportunities to practice in the classical sense. In parallel, there is also a creative unskilled labor that has a strong DIY tradition. To add to the complexity, are the historical layers and multiplicity of stakeholders on every inch of the land. Further, Egypt’s unique geopolitical position, make it a sponge that absorbs agendas and an orange which inadvertently secretes a strong odor to those surrounding it without even being bitten into.

The Egyptian pavilion at this year’s biennale is in no way a comprehensive survey of all initiatives and works produced recently in Egypt. It is, however, an attempt to introduce to a large audience the work of individuals and collectives, who have been searching for new operating models in Egypt and engaging in architecture as a field of critical intellectual inquiry over the past decade. The work presented demonstrates the interest of a wide range of actors – government, universities, research centers, independent professionals and students – in the Egyptian urban condition.
The pavilion brings all these perspectives and approaches into one space and reflects on the nature of the knowledge produced in the past decade. It is also an opportunity to evaluate its potential for action and transformation.

The work presented can be broken down into two large categories – mapping projects and experimental proposals what the curators call “Frames”.

The mapping projects, like Architecture and Stories of Downtown by Baladilab, Mapping Cairo by Studio Meem, Frozen Historic Cairo produced in collaboration with UNESCO attempt to survey existing conditions through applied analytical lenses, evident in their representational outputs. As with recent mapping efforts in other contexts, representation is viewed as a tool to think and present new information. While as elsewhere there is the risk for poorly researched data to advance a skewed perspective or completely misinform, the importance of the concerted effort to map and document in the Egyptian context cannot be underestimated. After years of academic and research neglect there is a pressing need to excavate and present layers of information to raise awareness on core issues in the built environment. These mapping efforts can be considered as political provocations, calls to action and foundations on which other proposals can be built. They can generate positive social action but on the flip side, depending on the political interests of those supporting those actions, eventually translate to interventions in the public sphere that could exacerbate tensions between preservation, exclusion, gentrification and future plans for the Disney-fication of the historical centers of Egyptian cities for example.

The experimental projects tentatively propose and sometimes concretely make a mark in the urban context through surgical interventions. These included projects such as CLUSTER’s UN Safe Cities, Downtown Passageways, and the Childern Cultural Park by Adelhalim Ibrahim, and the Ard El Liwa Proposals by students at the MAS Urban Design Program in Zurich. They are academic endeavors or the work of small agencies attempting to write their own agendas based on research, engagement with communities and a desire to use local materials and know-how. They are sometimes successful and sometimes unsuccessful in their architectural harvests.

In some instances designers set out with benevolent social agendas but their design processes and solutions do not do justice to them. In other situations, good intentions can lose their original meaning when integrated into wider schemes of redevelopment. This is the case in downtown Cairo, for example, which has been radically transforming since 2011. A balance between stakeholders is essential for any architect wishing to operate in this space, but unfortunately is not always achieved, no matter the intention. These problems are not unique to the Egyptian context but are symptomatic of some of the limitations, among them a reduced sense of agency, and delicately intertwined relationships to politics confronting global architectural and urban practices today.

Both scales of production presented at the pavilion, the mapping and experimental projects, collectively address informal urbanism, sprawl, inequality, lack of agency and conservation that are the core themes of Egyptian urbanization. Though the outputs have been vast, poor communication and collaboration between initiatives is felt across the board. The pavilion is a fertile ground to posit all these voices together in one space and open the floor to a conversation among peers that will continue in Egypt beyond the Biennale.

Left out of the exhibition is the work of the non-architects who have contributed more to the built environment than trained architects and urbanists in the past 30 years. Like the architects, non-architect design-builders also face resistance while shaping the city due to the informality and precarity of their practices. A wider and more inclusive dialogue amongst architects and urbanists, but also more broadly in civil society, about the built environment in Egypt should acknowledge their work and find better channels to collaborate with them professionally or professionalize them with better standards.

As architecture increasingly becomes a tool and a way of thinking, the relevance of the Egyptian pavilion this year is that it demonstrates through a plethora of projects and voices the new de facto condition of constant change and the ongoing guerilla response to it born out of a willfulness and resilience by architects and non-architects alike. It brings to the fore critical questions about architectural practices that go beyond the typical and broad dictums of social and environmental sustainability. It questions the relevance of our way of practicing and its outputs.

Having highlighted the need for deeper and more intense dialogue, we should also take this opportunity to raise certain pressing questions:

What are their different structural models of the newly formed institutions in the urban field? What do they represent and whose voices do they put forward?

How are they surviving in the market? What are their support structures? Is it important that they survive?

What do international and local collaborations in academia entail? What are their political ramifications?

And finally and more importantly: what practical impact do all these academic, individual or institutional efforts have? What happens to the knowledge produced?