Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1318, (3 - 9 November 2016)
Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Issue 1318, (3 - 9 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Observe a city into being

Soha Elsirgany spends a day peering through Cairo’s urban landscape with Mohamed Elshahed

Al-Ahram Weekly

“An invitation to observe,” reads a Cairobserver editorial note by Mohamed Elshahed from five years ago. The publication has turned into a collectible item, but the architect, curator, writer and scholar with a PhD from from the Middle East Studies Department at New York University’s words ring truer than ever.

Elshahed started Cairobserver as a personal blog in 2011, with the aim to observe, document and reflect on Cairo’s urban landscape, its history, present and potential, looking through its multiple layers and complexities. But the blog quickly grew to host a steady flow of contributions and became a welcoming platform for voices interested in that conversation.

Elshahed’s purpose is not to lament what Cairo was in the past or complain about what it is in the present but rather to extend “an invitation to be an active looker, an observer… [to] notice the city around you and  make it a topic of discussion among your community,” as he wrote.

Recently he was selected as curator of two main projects that have further opened his invitation to observe: the “Cairo Now: City Incomplete!” exhibition at Dubai Design Week (DDW), which ran on 24-29 October and showcased 65 different designers from Cairo; and the long-term British Museum Modern Egypt Project, which aims to present a history of Egypt over the last 100 years through objects of everyday use.

Having ignited the conversation within Cairo through Cairobserver, with these two projects Elshahed is taking it to a wider audience, inviting both the local and the international scene to observe and develop the discourse around them.

Politics and history are the two common lenses through which much of the world views Egypt. The display at DDW is a refreshing presentation on Cairo’s young and dynamic contemporary design scene, which gets very little air-time or documentation whether locally or globally. “Cairo Now” was well received, its attractive display room constantly bustling with camera phone-equipped viewers.

The exhibition is this year’s city in focus of the Design Week’s Iconic Cities series, which selects a new city from the Middle East every year and presents its design scene. Last year was the first edition, and Beirut was the Iconic Cities starlet. Titled “Brilliant Beirut”, the display took a retrospective approach as a chronicle of Lebanon’s design scene between 1950 and 2015.

“Cairo Now” is self-explanatory in terms of what it promises to encapsulate. Ignoring preconceptions about the city, this is about Cairo’s creative pulse now, as Elshahed chose to highlight contemporary designers and shed light on the current design landscape.

Some history is still visible, in terms of how it influences the designers’ work, and how traditional crafts are revisited with a modern edge. This approach is one of the exhibition’s trends, as seen in the work of several furniture and product designers, such as the Neo-Egypt Chair by Eman Sherif (NOSS Designs): a modern chair inspired by ancient Egyptian murals, Kiliim’s revival of traditional woollen rugs for modern homes, or a modern filing cabinet by Abdallah Ragab (Ain Design Studio) that re-interprets the Islamic architectural motif of the Muqarnas.

Elshahed looks to the bigger context of the exhibition, which in itself also contrasts old and new.

“It’s a bit strange that the new cities in the Middle East are now the centres. The best and most important events, in terms of presentation, are not in Cairo for example. The first Iconic City was Beirut, which has a very rich cultural history, and now Cairo, so there is a very direct contrast between old and new. Yet this makes perfect sense when you think of the geopolitics of the Middle East in the past 20 years,” Elshahed told me.

A total of 18 product designers are featured in “Cairo Now”, though it is a field Elshahed was concerned about when he began scouting for projects.

“Product design,” he says, “is not a very developed field in Egypt, we import all our products and don’t produce or design. In countries that have a healthy history of product design like Germany, China, USA, England, it’s a complex thing that’s related to the industrial revolution in the bigger context, and at the same time it’s also embedded in economic and cultural ideas.”

He adds that for the Egyptian design scene to really mature, it needs the support of an entire economic system that looks to designers for creating products that can build the economy. “This is something the Ministry of Industry should be concerned with,” he says.

Another hindrance is that Egypt lacks a proper design education degree. In Egypt, the only place offering a Product Design programme is the German University in Cairo. With the first class graduating in 2010, just six years ago, it is still fairly unripe albeit gaining momentum; it had to start nearly from scratch, being detached from a continuous development of the field over history.

In parallel, a DDW press conference announced the opening of the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation (DIDI), the region’s first undergraduate academy dedicated solely to design. The institute emerged in collaboration with two leading international universities, MIT and the Parson School of Design, and is based on a vision that recognises the power of design in a rapidly changing world. It hopes to be a springboard for youth into the professional design world.

The exhibition statement of “Cairo Now: City Incomplete!” explains how the state of designers is a reflection of the city at large. Looking at Cairo as a city with many incomplete aspects, the exhibition highlights how the selected designers manage the city’s flaws and incompleteness, how they find ways to innovate in a city that lacks a solid infrastructure for them to operate and grow and how the projects themselves are in different stages of completion.

Though the Modern Egypt Project is an entirely different endeavour, it shares with “Cairo Now” an interest in understanding context, and analysing the urban landscape through what the city produces. The Modern Egypt Project specifically seeks to understand society through objects its people have been using for the past 100 years.

At the project’s launch event in Cairo, held on 14 October at the Kodak Passageway in Downtown, Elshahed introduced the project in a casual talk, which was held next door to an exhibition of objects he collected for the project that demonstrated his initial curatorial direction.

“We are opening a new subject, exploring ways to look at modern objects and the modern world in the context of a museum,” he says.

“People think of the British Museum as solely concerned with the past, but we’re also interested in the present. So many people came to see the section about Egypt, so we started to think of how to represent 20th-century Egypt,” Neal Spencer, keeper of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum, said at the event.

Two other projects of relevance were also introduced that night: the Women’s Museum by the Women Memory Forum, and the Downtown Museum by Ismailia for Real Estate.

Elshahed notes that specialised museums, like the signage museum in Berlin, are absent from Egypt. “Museums here are quite rigid in their representations, in terms of material culture. We have four main museums all concerned with ancient artefacts, and art museums which are a different category,” he says. The Modern Egypt Project is an invitation to look at modern objects and see what they can tell us.

“A mass-produced radio for example can tell us about the industry and the methods the state was using at that time to voice itself. The colour and design speaks of a particular time. We’re still learning about the objects, but eventually we can start noticing trends and seeing links that help us understand society more.”

What’s unique about the project is how it deals with material, tangible things while also looking at the political and social context. The project is not about finding what is “truly Egyptian” but seeing these objects in a larger framework.

“There’s been a wave of nostalgia in the last decade, but it’s often limited to photos. I think we need to avoid nostalgia in which people add their own fantasies of what the past must have been like, and I believe the way to do that is by adding information, as nostalgia stems from ignorance.”

Another thing he is trying to avoid is not to fall into the trap of looking at a particular social class and marginalising others; only being concerned with the elite in the metropolis, or on the contrary only focusing on traditional, simpler lives in the villages and ignoring people who wear jeans there.

Elshahed grew up between Kuwait and Egypt, and it was this combination of two very different urban and architectural experiences that fed his early interest in urbanism. “I saw this contrast between Kuwait, the very contemporary, clean designs, and Egypt, the very complex and old” historic city. Kuwait’s modern architecture dating from the 1960s to the 1980s was a result of many young people going to work there, where an economy was thriving during difficult times in other Middle Eastern countries.

“Egypt had many different elements, including the original modernism that influenced what I saw in Kuwait. With these cities in mind, I then went to the United States [for my bachelor degree] and saw how different it was over there. It made me appreciate the elements that made Kuwait and Egypt unique,” he says.

These visual influences fuelled his interest to study the history of modern architecture in Egypt, and he realised there was a gap in American academic books.

“The history of modern architecture in Egypt was not written down or studied in any syllabus [in American universities]. They would have the ancient history of Egypt, but then the modern part would look at architecture in Europe. The Middle East and areas outside that scope were excluded. That drove me to look more into it and try to fill that space.”

Though in the end he chose not to be a practicing architect and fill abstract rather than physical spaces, his work is deeply rooted in reality. He delves into topics that may seem too large to grasp, in which pinning down causes and effects is risky business: understanding how public taste declines over time, for example; or why there is a 50 year gap in documenting modern architecture, and why he thinks a new interest in doing so has emerged.

“Sometimes changes just happen – maybe as a coincidence, or an accumulation of things over time, but I don’t believe that there has to be a turning point for change. One of the points I argue against in my dissertation is the notion that 1952 was a turning point in architecture. It’s easy to say something like that after so many years, but it’s not usually true. People could say the same of the 2011 revolution; it was a turning point in other aspects, but not in terms of architecture. So I try not to repeat these mistakes.”

Elshahed is interested in architecture, its history, and the development of the current urban scene, seeing that the importance of learning history is to better understand the present. Architecture, history, research, documentation of the urban changes as it happens all converge on Cairobserver.

Behind the scenes, Cairobserver is a one man show that fluctuates in terms of content frequency. Though the virtual traffic of readers and writers has grown on the blog and its Facebook page, it’s still as fresh and informal as it was when it began.

“It never turned into a systematic journal or website. But this informality is good because it’s not intimidating for anyone to write. There are university professors who contribute, and people who might be writing for the first time, or someone who just has a thought about their neighbourhood,” Elshahed says.

“When I wanted information on a certain time I didn’t find any documentation, although I’m sure there were conversations and debates happening at the time. What’s interesting is that now when I document the urban scene - through Cairobserver for instance - I am fully aware that someone years from now will be reading this to see what was happening in 2016. Today’s content will have historical relevance. It’s a great thing to be doing but it also has its dangers.”

Back in 2011, Elshahed was the only voice on the blog. But he was careful not to remain so, and remains wary of being the highest voice.

“That’s why I encourage a diversity of contributors, so we can avoid having one-sided accounts. We have this problem in Egypt, when someone who has power and influence is the only angle writing down history.”

A highlight for Elshahed is when articles on the blog start responding to each other.

“The announcement of Cairo’s new capital had its supporters and its sceptics. When these two sides were writing on the same platform, it created a conversation. For me that’s a golden moment.”

The importance of presenting these multiple views and sharing as much knowledge as possible is that having a well informed public is essential to shaping a city that caters to their needs. They would know what to ask for, and become more involved in policy making.

Last year Elshahed participated in the “Creative Cities: Reframing Downtown” symposium, a two-day event held on AUC’s Tahrir premises. The event brought together representatives of all the stakeholders in Cairo’s Downtown neighbourhood; real estate companies, independent cultural institutions, state institutions, researchers, and also invited experts from different countries. It was open to the public, who had much to say, following every presentation with questions and thoughts that built up into a dynamic and often frustrated discussion.

Though the focus was a single neighbourhood that had its particulars, the symposium was a taste of something much needed on the urban scene, like a test run of what should be regularly happening in the larger context of the whole city. Because this was a rare event, it ended up opening a Pandora’s box without the prospect of closure.

“During the event the conversation is great, but then what happens when it ends? There’s no sustained place for having these discussions or conversations. We lack a space and context for the dialogue so that when someone has something to say, they can communicate it. There’s no connection between those who have something to say, and those who have the power to implement,” Elshahed says.

He points to how these issues restrict the impact of an event like Creative Cities. The effort to bring the government to the table was commendable and essential, yet a palpable gap was too wide to bridge during a two-day event.

Cairobserver’s logo, which was updated earlier this year, could be interpreted as a symbolic effort to bring the thinkers together with the policy makers. The sun beaming through the letters of “Cairobserver” was inspired by the Cairo Governorate’s recently updated logo. Sharing a sun seems to say, “We are one.”

Elshahed himself was inspired by Mexico City, which he thinks could be a point of reference for Cairo. “It’s a city that went through big changes in a short time. What happened in Mexico City is the opposite of what we often hear in Egypt about the lack of resources. They were able to achieve things that changed and improved their city substantially with very few resources,” he says.

One of the main differences he points out between Cairo and Mexico City is the government; its supportive position in backing up projects, and the power structure itself.

“In Mexico City the mayor is elected and given leeway comparable to that of the president. We don’t have functioning municipalities or a city hall or local councils.”

According to Elshahed, such decentralisation is a key that could unlock so much of Cairo’s potential. Yet he feels that sometimes you don’t need a point of comparison, and in Cairo logical solutions seem to be hiding in plain sight.

“Comparison is good for seeing other places as examples and learning from them, but sometimes you really don’t need it to realise that a sidewalk doesn’t have to be fancy and expensive, it just needs to be functional, and there are so many ways and solutions to achieve that,” he says.

Beyond this example of day to day functionality, an informed public should have a means of connection with policy makers, so that all involved parties can monitor the city as it forms, adapt it to everyone’s needs, and reach workable solutions that see the light.

But it all begins with actively observing.

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