Egypt’s chaotic urban sprawl is a complex discussion, but one stark fact drives the agenda: an estimated 40-67% of Egyptians live in informal housing. Informal housing—often, rather inaccurately, referred to as 'slums' or ashwai'yat—is simply housing that has been constructed outside of the state's own legal frameworks and plans; it doesn't automatically spell poverty as much as exclusion. The policy of recent governments has placed these areas outside of the reach of safety standards, and can mean living without being plugged in to state services such as sewage, clean water and electricity. On the other hand, many have argued that these 'slums' often function better than the word implies, as building standards are high and these self-organised areas often thrive on their own initiative. But combined with existing poverty levels, nobody is denying that there is much to be improved.
In Egypt, the issue has become a peg for new governments to hang their hat on. Over the years numerous flagship initiatives have been launched attempting to present the grand solution that will wipe 'slums' from the map: from Mubarak's "Cairo 2050" plan to to El-Sisi’s $300 billion "New Cairo" project and the recently-developed plan to totally rebuild the Maspero Triangle in Cairo. The most frequent criticism is that plans thrive on grand showmanship, pulling architectural rabbits out of hats rather than addressing the core issues that lead people to construct ashwai’yat.
The complaint that surfaces again and again and again, is the lack of meaningful consultation with the realities that actual residents face. Tireless urbanist research has made this exact point.
Sometimes it takes a fresh view to face an issue. Here we present three contemporary art projects that abandoned the ivory tower of fine art to dive into Egypt's red brick towns.
El Borg el-Amal (The Tower Of Hope), 2009 - Lara Baladi at the Cairo Biennale
If you had visited the Palace of Arts in 2009, you would have been surprised to find that the ashwai’yat had paid a visit. Right in the centre of the Palace grounds, artist Lara Baladi built a nine-meter tower in the same red brick style and construction method as the informal areas that circle Cairo and increasingly encroach on the city’s fertile farmland. Every brick was made locally, engraved with an image of a donkey and a worker and the word 'hope.' Built in the lush green grounds and aspirational sandstone architecture of the Palace, the tower was a reminder of the city's forgotten.
Even rarer than red brick houses in central Cairo is the sound of donkeys braying. Sitting inside the unroofed structure, you could hear the 'Donkey Symphony,' a haunting piece of contemporary music commissioned by Baladi that used classical instruments mixed with the donkeys' voices, a sound that the artist calls "the cry of the Red City." To her, the donkey is connected to personal grief and the working poor: patient, hard-working and disregarded.
Baladi took a low-class architectural style and used it poetically - and to remind the centre of the city of the worlds encircling just outside. Baladi said in an interview: "… what was being built was a tribute to these informal housing areas and their population, and [these residents] even began to have a new outlook on their own lives." Not everybody appreciated the reminder—when Suzanne Mubarak came to visit during the tower's construction, the Palace of Arts administration promptly asked to cover it up.
White Paper: (The Land), 2014 - by Adelita Husni-Bey at Beirut
With every big construction project comes a gorgeous architect’s model presented for us to gape in wonder at the gleaming future. These models are presented as though the projected buildings are already a done deal, even before a single brick is laid. In fact, often before a single existing resident is spoken to.
Enter Adelita Husni-Bey and the residents of informal neighborhoods Gezirat al-Qursaya and Ramlet Boulaq. Both areas are slated for demolition and replacement with a new pair of high rise towers. For the piece White Paper: The Land, the artist made her own model of the planned constructions, and used it as a trigger for discussions with local residents. Unlike the typical architectural model, this time it was charmingly handmade, as though it was a nursery school project made from toilet rolls and cardboard boxes.
In collaboration with filmmaker Salma el Tarzy and activist Nazly Hussein, Husni-Bey made a workshop with the residents, sitting with them round the model and discussing their view on the plan and of the planning processes that are often made without consulting them.
The artwork was displayed in an exhibition at the confusingly-named art gallery Beirut, in Agouza. The model was shown on a ramshackle wooden stand, with a film of the workshop playing underneath—when you visit it, you first hear the voices of the residents discussing the project, as though their voices are coming from the model itself. Watching the short film, you learn about the realities of living in a home scheduled for demolition. Inevitably, the residents get creative—and the end of the film shows them taking the model into their own hands and reshaping it.
El Matam el Mish-Masry (The Non-Egyptian Restaurant), 2013 - Asuncion Molinos Gordo at Artellewa
Ard El Lewa is a thriving informal neighborhood built illegally on former farmland in Cairo. Its existence bears witness to the fact that the demand for housing now outstrips any profit from the farming that has traditionally fed Cairo from the outskirts. Artist Asuncion Molinos Gordo decided to highlight the issue by opening a temporary street restaurant—with a twist.
Molinos Gordo worked with Artellewa, a tiny, street-level art space that since 2007 has been part of the neighborhood. In the first week of her open-fronted restaurant, Molinos Gordo, working with a five star chef as well as local women, cooked her dishes using Egyptian produce grown for international export—expensive food that regular Egyptians rarely get access to. Week two, however, offered a distinct contrast: the menu was now based on the average Ard El Lewa housekeeping budget, serving dishes made from the vegetables sold to locals.
Week three took another track: Molinos Gordo went on a hunt in the neighborhood for any remaining small farms or kitchen gardens in the area, to see if she could find anything to cook with. The resulting dish: inedible. They served up plastic bags, chewing gum, and cigarette butts (unsurprisingly, there were no takers!).
The last week of the restaurant served up one more 'dish': simply, the lush, fertile soil itself upon which Ard El Lewa stands. It was a reminder that, if you dig deep enough, you’ll find the rich dark soil that has nourished one of the oldest civilizations in the world.
Whatever's being served, we all know what mealtimes are really for: talking and sharing. Between the women working in the kitchen with the artist, and the restaurant customers, it became clear that the restaurant's real job was to serve the opportunity for a month-long street-level discussion on how the land is used, and exactly who gets to use Egypt's rich resources, right in the heart of the ashwa’iyat.
Image: Lara Baladi, Borg El Amal (tower of hope), ephemeral architectural construction and sound installation. Bricks, cement and a specially composed sound component, ‘The Donkey Symphony’. 500 inches height X 140 square inches. Image courtesy of Lara Baladi.