Glass towers, modernist boulevards and elegant roof gardens ... Can Foster + Partners’ vision for Cairo’s Maspero Triangle avoid the controversies of Egypt’s past megaprojects, and encourage a new era of urban design – and democracy?
stone’s throw from the River Nile, nestled deep within a labyrinthine tangle of narrow alleyways, bustling coffee shops and peeling paintwork, Tarek is staring at a phone. The images on the screen depict a sleek, modernist boulevard overlooked by a row of glass skyscrapers. Roof gardens crown each building, and on one balcony, a lone, elderly Egyptian man is playing chess and pouring tea.
Each rendering has been produced by Foster + Partners, Britain’s most prestigious architecture firm which has just won a competition to redesign an iconic district in central Cairo, vowing to “set the benchmark for urban regeneration throughout the country”. As part of its plans, the street on which Tarek is standing will eventually become a lagoon, lined with “cafés, restaurants and shops that will make this a highly desirable leisure destination.”
But Tarek – a middle-aged street vendor who requested that the Guardian not use his real name – is perturbed. He looks down at the glossy graphics, and then up again, before gesturing around at his neighbours. “Where are we in this picture?” he asks.
Tarek’s question cuts to the heart of the debate over urban development in Egypt, a battleground that is intimately entwined with the past half-decade’s revolutionary turmoil and is now assuming intense political relevance again. His neighbourhood is on the frontline of a struggle between two competing models of change, and the outcome promises to reveal much about the intentions of Egypt’s latest authoritarian rulers.
Norman Foster’s practice has chosen to partner with a government widely condemned by international human rights groups for its brutal crackdowns on dissent and widespread use of torture; in return, the company seems to believe it can carve out a place for itself in the vanguard of a progressive new era of urban design – one that could reshape the Arab world’s most populous nation for the better. Is it right?
The district known as the Maspero Triangle is only a few minutes’ walk from most of central Cairo’s five-star hotels, yet few tourists – or indeed middle-class Egyptians – have ever visited it. Lying just north of Tahrir Square, it is hemmed in by giant advertising hoardings to the south and a sprawling clothes market to the north; to the west, on the banks of the river, stands a building housing the government’s mammoth propaganda complex.
Most of the neighbourhood’s 41,000 residents live hidden from view in the shadow of the building’s communication masts, from which dozens of state television and radio channels are broadcast 24 hours a day to every corner of the country. “Everyone knows everyone here,” says Ezzat Abdel-Ain, a local metals merchant. “And everyone has heard a lot about the plans.”
In common with many poorer areas of the city long coveted by investors and property speculators, the Maspero Triangle has been the focus of various redevelopment plans – none of which have actually materialised – for many years. Under the regime of toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak, massive top-down regeneration projects epitomised the worst features of Egypt’s exclusionary state: elite corruption, growing inequality and a planning process under which ordinary citizens were more likely to be forcibly evicted from their homes than consulted on the future of their neighbourhoods.
With such a destructive track record, it is little surprise that some Maspero residents are instinctively distrustful of any new government proposals, and of the Gulf financiers who own much of Maspero’s property portfolio. “They want this land for businessmen,” argues Tarek. “Whatever they do, 90% will be for the rich and not for the real people. They’ll take our homes by force and kick us out to the desert.”
And yet what’s notable about the latest iteration of the Maspero “masterplan” is that, from the outset, the emphasis has been on doing things differently. When work began in 2013, shortly after the rise to power of former military general and current Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, it took the form of a unique experiment – raising hopes that the new regime might be willing to enter a rights-based era of urban planning, geared more towards the needs of citizens than the interests of private capital.
“The first thing we said was ‘no forced evictions’,” explains Laila Iskandar, a social entrepreneur with a strong background in civil society, who was appointed by Sisi to head a new Ministry of Urban Renewal and Informal Settlements (Muris) and charged with overseeing Maspero. “That laid the groundwork for everything else.”
In a move that Iskandar describes as “extraordinary”, the ministry opted to collaborate with a young architects’ collective which was already running an unofficial community project in the area. “We design in people’s imaginations,” says Mohamed AboTera, one of several members of Madd, an independent group of architects and urban researchers who believe in participatory planning and are firmly opposed to what they describe as the neoliberal commodification of public space in Egypt. “Our job … is to help people create an alternative which allows them to demand something or resist something; to know that a different reality is possible from the one the government is presenting.”
Madd’s involvement, and the announcement of an international competition to plan the future of the Maspero neighbourhood based in part on the collective’s work, was a cause for optimism among Egyptian urbanists, and initially the signs were positive. Local representatives were elected to articulate residents’ views during consultations; Egypt’s prime minister came to tour the neighbourhood and listen to local ideas; a Canadian company was hired to film every building and create an ambitious 3D model of the entire area. And then, in September of this year, Muris was suddenly disbanded and Iskandar forced out of her job.
This raised alarm bells among Madd members, not least because it meant the Maspero project was now back under the influence of Egypt’s Ministry of Housing – run by minister Mostafa Madbouly, one of the key figures behind the Mubarak-era Cairo 2050 vision that became notorious for its colossal, business-friendly resettlement plans which often targeted impoverished neighbourhoods. The selection of Foster + Partners to design the future of Maspero, despite not winning the competition outright – rather it was awarded “second prize”, with no first prize handed out, in part because of its lack of attention to participatory planning – has since fuelled further concerns.
“My understanding is that their submission was missing the rigour [the jury] wanted in the community consultation part,” Iskandar says. “And if they did, it was perfunctory – it wasn’t really deep.”
The Foster masterplan has also come under criticism for failing to preserve any of the area’s unique 19th-century architecture, and for attempting to impose a “Haussmann-style” order on the neighbourhood. But perhaps most worrying for the Maspero community – the issue of what will happen to existing residents – remains clouded with uncertainty.
In a statement to the Guardian, Foster + Partners state: “The competition for the Maspero Triangle was run under the auspices of the UIA (Union of International Architects). We understand that the local residents and landowners were involved in the competition process … The Ministry of Housing is currently considering the next steps.”
The firm’s press release insists its design will allow “the existing population of the district to maintain their overlapping spatial live-work relationships”. Iskandar claims that forced evictions will not be an option – not least because the residents will simply not accept them any more. “We did have a revolution, eh?” she observes.
Sherif Algohary, of the Egyptian government’s Informal Settlements Development Facility which is now overseeing the Maspero regeneration, echoes this sentiment: “We are taking care to keep the residents in the area, to not force anyone out, and to see how we can also develop their needs socially and economically after the development,” he insists. But he also acknowledges that the masterplan will alter the “economic situation” in the area, adding that “some of Maspero’s existing activities such as car repair workshops or things like that – they should be transferred outside of the area. Some of the residents should maybe change their jobs according to the new situation.”
Details on what exactly this will mean remain conspicuously absent. “It’s all murky,” says David Sims, an urban planner and author who specialises in Cairo. “My general take is that murkiness serves a serious number of special interests. Any plan would be tough to implement without either some good management and a lot of money behind it, or some very draconian oppression. Egypt just doesn’t have the track record to make you feel at all confident.”
For the young architects who are no longer involved in the project, there is now the fear that the Egyptian government and its international design partner were merely paying lip service to the notion of respecting residents’ rights and rethinking urban planning in the capital.
“There are a lot of contradictions that don’t make sense, and they give the impression that the authorities are just selling an image,” argues Ahmed Borham of Madd. His colleague, AboTera, believes Maspero’s tensions reflect a broader disconnect between the regime’s populist rhetoric and the reality, which is that policies have shifted little since the Mubarak-era.
“You can’t flick a switch,” says AboTera. “It will once again be a state project, from the top-down. There is nothing new with this regime: the government wants quick solutions, and quick revenue.”
The fact that the participatory Maspero Triangle “experiment” is facing an ambiguous future should perhaps come as no surprise given the dynamics of other contemporary development plans in Egypt. Sisi’s rule has been marked by the launch of a series of vast megaprojects, from the diversion of £5bn of public money into a Suez Canal extensionprogramme, to the intended creation of an entirely new administrative capital deep in the Eastern Desert – a scheme that has faced accusations of being little more than a platform for financial speculators.
Under Sisi, the ability of ordinary citizens to have their say over urban development or anything else is certainly not expanding: new laws have been passed to effectively outlaw protest, and press freedom has been sharply curbed. The Foster + Partners press release on Maspero mentions the firm’s intention to enhance the community’s “vibrant public realm”, seemingly unaware of its client’s violent efforts to regulate and minimise all sorts of public realms in recent years.
In the masterplan’s glossy, homogenised renderings of Maspero’s future, the fiercely contested past and present of the area (and the country surrounding it) is nowhere to be found. The Maspero building has been the site of several political flashpoints in recent years, including multiple demonstrations against the state news complex, and a notorious army massacre of 28 largely Coptic Christian protesters in 2011. In contrast, the Foster images depict imaginary, compliant figures nestled within identikit beige blocks and gleaming glass towers – subjects of what Egyptian writer Adham Selim calls Egypt’s “regime of graphics”, which specialises in serving up pixelated dreams of tomorrow in order to better exert control over today.
Not everyone has lost faith in Maspero’s potential, however. Some of Egypt’s most respected urbanists are still cautiously optimistic that, if implemented sensitively, the Foster + Partners vision could result in a real step forward in progressive planning compared with what came before.
Many residents, too, are excited by the prospect of concrete change – though steadfast in their insistence that they will not be moved from the area. “Who doesn’t like the look of this?” remarks Ezzat Abdel-Ain. “But there is a group of us who will never leave here. There is no life outside of it, this place is my soul.”
It is, perhaps, telling that in the Foster renderings, only one recognisable Maspero landmark remains: the state propaganda building, its mast intact and presumably still beaming out digitally-composed images of Egypt’s future to its inhabitants. Whether or not Tarek’s question – “Where are we in this picture?” – will, by that point, be answered, remains to be seen.
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