Andy Field. Cairo Diaries. Part 3: What does a functioning city look like?

To the ordinary man.

To a common hero, an ubiquitous character, walking in countless thousands on the streets.

Michel De Certeau

What does a functioning city look like?

When I ask this question of myself instinctively I reach for ideas of smoothness and calm and perhaps a certain kind of efficiency. I think of clean, green spaces and networks of cycle lanes.  Utopian dreams of smart cities made manifest in the sprawling tech campuses of Silicon Valley. Pastel-coloured digital renderings of uncluttered public squares plastered on the temporary walls surrounding some unfinished tower of fashionably curving steel and glass.

Yet here in Cairo, amongst the dusty, noisy clutter, the car horns and the palpable disquiet, another kind of functioning is, for me, vividly beginning to emerge.

Omar Nagati is an architect and an urbanist, a founder of CLUSTER – an urban lab for the study of Cairo. This morning Omar introduced us to his version of Cairo, and then led us through its streets.

In Omar’s presence the city becomes a process rather than an object, a site of contestation and negotiation. He talks about the relationship between the planned city and the informal city. There is the Cairo that is legitimate and managed, built from power and prestige, fuelled by wealth and the desire to limit and control – a Cairo of hotels, museums, historic civic buildings, multi-lane ring-roads and desirable residential neighbourhoods. And then there is the city existing inside and around this city. A city of resourceful tactics and negotiated spaces. A city in which sidewalk stalls become bricks and mortar extensions, in which whole, improvised neighbourhoods are slowly built out of unauthorised, unfinishable buildings. These two versions of the city are in a state of constant negotiation, bleeding into one another, fusing together in unexpected ways. Omar tells us a story about a group of inhabitants of one of Cairo’s vast unauthorised areas who managed to connect themselves to the city’s legitimate infrastructure by building their own highway off-ramp and then asking the local government to come down and give it their blessing. This is a vernacular city, a lived city. A place in constant flux.

In Omar’s brilliant, nuanced descriptions I can begin to see the city as a social discourse – a site of necessary antagonism. A place in which a society’s internal tensions are negotiated through the relationship between power and its opposite. I’m reminded of Henri Lefebvre’s description of conflict as an essential part of the city – ‘a site of desire and a site of revolutions’. This mess, this disorder, this is a vital part of the city – it provides the space in which a process of self-organisation can happen, can leave its mark upon the legitimate, planned city. In which ordinary people can slowly manifest their own desires through acts of mutuality, resourcefulness and architectural anarchy. And as I think this I am wondering about my own city of London and where the space, literal and figurative, for such acts of self-organisation is still possible?

Omar’s understands his job as an architect to be the mapping and facilitating of these acts of informal self-organisation. His practice is not so much concerned with buildings as the spaces between and around buildings. He is an architect for an era in which the built fabric of the city has largely already been constructed. In his careful negotiations with numerous stakeholders – shopkeepers, bar owners, government departments, ordinary walkers in the city – and his imaginative interventions in the ambiguous non-spaces of the urban environment, he provides a compelling demonstration of the potential we have as artists to facilitate a re-imagining of our cities from the pavement up.