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Radical Cairo:From agrarian land to new urban forms in Cairo-MAS Urban Design(ETH Zurich)

2015.11.18

20 Million inhabitants and growing, Greater Cairo is mirroring the global phenomenon of unplanned urban growth. Approximately 60% of the inhabitants of the biggest city on the African continent and seventh largest metropolitan area in the world are living in so-called informal housing. The five- to ten-story concrete and brick-infill con­structions standing amid fields along Cairo’s Ring Road are considered infor­mal because they were built without permits on former agrarian land. The pace of illegal constructions on fer­tile areas at the capital’s fringes has accelerated since the 2011 revolution, and illegal urban sprawl has taken a dramatic turn as it expands on limited agrarian land. Yet, the phenomenon is not new to the Greater Cairo Region. In Understanding Cairo, David Sims claims that “in 1950 there were virtually no informal settlements around Cairo,” and that the first developments on agricultural land appeared in the early 1960’s following Gamal Abdel Nasser’s industrialization poli­cies. Marked by incremental construction, settlements predominantly follow property lines and subdivisions of feddans – the base unit of agricultural fields in Egypt comprising roughly 4,200 square meters of narrow strips of land, 100-300 meters long and 6-17 meters wide, and framed by irrigation canals. After the January 2011 events, illegal developments accelerated – a possible conse­quence of the power vacuum left following the collapse of the ruling regime. There are no impediments to the mechanisms of present-day urbanization, which destroys thousands of hectares of arable land. Incremental and self-built construction has evolved into a semi-formal scheme offering various housing typologies: from self-built, low-rise structures to semi-professionally built, fifteen-story towers. Persistent urban growth shows that, while lacking services and public infrastructure, informal settlements are nonetheless successful in generating dense and affordable housing for the popular classes. However, a constructive governmental policy to legalize these settlements is yet to materialize. In Cairo, this mode of urbanization appears indeed radical because it alters conventional ownership structures and because it fundamentally questions the validity of formal planning. Informal construction at this stage of development calls for a reassessment of the manner in which the discipline of architecture reacts to forces of urbanization operating beyond the usual legal framework. 

The ETH Zurich Master of Advanced Studies Program in Urban Design at the Chair of Marc Angélil and directed by Charlotte Malterre-Barthes initiated an investigation on informal settlements in Cairo, looking into designs for affordable housing units in the neighborhood of Ard-el-Liwa. Selected projects show how rearranging existing building components can lead to new urban forms.  The exhibition consists of a 1:20 model of the studied urban area developed over agrarian land including 3 design proposals. The model displays remains of agrarian land, property lines and irrigation channels as the base for later urbanization, as well as the existing streetscape with established housing types of concrete frames and brick infill. Alternatives projects developed by the MAS Urban Design for an innovative architecture are positioned on site, in the urban fabric. 

Team: Prof. Dr. Marc Angélil, Charlotte Malterre-Barthes, and Something Fantastic (Julian Schubert, Elena Schütz, and Leonard Streich) in collaboration with local partners Cluster (Omar Nagati, Beth Stryker). Students from MAS Urban Design 2015-2016: Patrick Abou Khalil, Zoi Alexandropoulou, Bernardo Baillif de Sousa Falcao, Grigorios Dimitriadis, Christine Fisher, Marilena Fotopoulou, Ameya Joshi, Hee Chul Jung, Denise Kouniaki, Maria Kouvari, Tina Lamprou, Alice Merche, Daniel Ostrowski, Elisavet Papadopoulou, Shinji Terada, Francesco Tonnarelli, Faye Vitou, Dimitra Zarri, Kathy Zerlauth.