Midan Tahrir: The square, site of public, site of performance?


So the events in Egypt have been inspiring. How could they not be. Moreover, I have read a few things within the last 48 hours or so, that have me thinking. Specifically, about 1) urban interventions 2) citizen as actors/designers 3) the politics of Public 4) and some things from my history graduate seminars regarding: politics as culture.

To begin check out these two images of Tahrir Square before and during the current political upheavals.


Next one can read Fin-de-siècle Vienna: politics and culture, by Carl E. Schorske (which I read during an old history course on the Hapsburg Empire and Central European 19th Century Revolutions and still own), in which Carl draws on Camillo Sitte‘s view of the public square. In such a formulation a square can be the ideal performance site and representation of community. A “theater of common life“. The square and coffee-shop, newsprint and broadsheets, or the Ringstrasse and early urban Modernism of Otto Wagner, for Carl all were indicative of a new public, anti-monarchical, Liberalism. A new Public discourse.

So, there is that. Meaning, the idea of the square, urbanism, politics and civic ideals. The historical and moderns ways of viewing the square. From, Greece (agora) through Rome, then the Venetian piazza to Nazi Germany’s the Reichsparteitagsgelände, Red Communist’s Red Square or even Capitalist Times Square. The square as site of public spectacle or commons.

Along similar lines via Javier I came across this article in which Rob Wipond challenges the notion of “What is a sidewalk for?”. The tension is between simple traffic (read pedestrian) flow and the notion of public space for humanity. Civil engineering vs social engineering. With a similar insurgent spirit, Mimi Zieger announced an at least occasionally reoccurring series at Places journal, entitled The Interventionist’s Toolkit. With which she promises to focus on the sort of DIY, citizen/artist based hacking, cheap and performative, urban praxis which has, in light of the continuing recession, taking on an even bigger role within design circles. Whether, paper architecture, unsolicited architecture, Design Fiction, or jam-hack, for instance. At least in my own interest and reading.

Then, over at the UrbanSpaceInitiative they say about the public square; “The true value of an urban public square is that it is free from large obstructions. The square allows people to make use of its openness for a range of activities. This openness is a valuable asset within a wider urban environment that can often be crammed and cramped with traffic. William H. Whyte notes how a city can devour space unthinkingly and rapidly

Finally, back to the events in Egypt. The main site of events at least in Cairo has been Tahrir Square. The citizens have flowed there from all over the city. Some commentators have even noted the fact that rather than demonstrating in front of the palace of Hosni Mubarak, they have focused their energies in the square. This is partly due to the history of the site being tied to previous riots and revolts. A site of demonstration, ritualized political chanting and behavior. A revolution, the ultimate in public acts/displays of Liberalism. The power of people. A happening, liminal zone or apolitical place/space. I think it is instructive that in such a context a range of communal, public and urban interventions of a sort have been reported.

Tahrir Square has basically become occupied or domesticated. The citizens have grasped control from and extended (at least symbolically) their own control over the square. It has become a multi-day home for these volunteers. So, they are helping to clean up trash after recent protests. Hosing down the streets. Some are providing free medical service and food. They are even in some cases providing their own form of security for national institutions like the Alexandria library or Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. Protecting the patrimony and assuming the role of the state. Sleeping in groups, huddled around fires. As the protests move into their third week the protesters have even formed a tent city of sorts.

Or even this report of protesters building a trebuchet to use against security forces/thugs..

Some of these sound right out of the CCA catalog for the Actions: What You Can Do With the City exhibition, don’t they? Where does one draw the line between political act, human ingenuity or hyper-aware media ploy? Or perhaps a more medieval, tactical urbanism?

Are these sorts of acts an extension of the revolutionary events? A reflection of politics as representational culture? A way of emphasizing the protesters pro-Egyptian sensibilties? Are they discursive? What lessons can we learn about civic based urbanism? Is the answer a new regime? Pedagogical, economical or political. The need to create a public through the physical urban development of a public realm. Where do such thoughts tie in with concerns over the Right to the City?

The square was given its initial modern makeover in the 19th century. Commissioned as part of the new downtown district’s design by Khedive Ismail. How did those design decisions impact the current layout and usage of the park? Imagine if the square had been designed to accommodate only vehicular traffic or no vehicular traffic. How could recent events have been affected by the addition or removal of the adjoining public garden or the giant traffic circle?

More information on Cairo and Egyptian revolution (?) see this BIP by Orhan Ayyüce over at Archinect Or for more on history and urban development of Tahrir Square see this very informative post over at the blog Cairo: Multi-Schizophrenic. City


re: cochineal

The geographer José Antonio Alzate’s “Plane With Scale and Orientation Mexico City,” a map using cochineal, 1762-1772 | Credit: Franz Mayer Museum, Mexico City

Elisabeth Malkin reviews the exhibition ,that runs through Feb. 4 at this Mexico City’s Palace of Fine Arts, “Mexican Red, the Cochineal in Art,”. Which ttraces the journey of the color from the highlands of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica to Europe.


My first Denver library system reads

Back in October, after two years of living in Denver, I finally visited my local library branch. I happened to be at the library, attending a local neighborhood walking event and so I used the opportunity to also get my Denver library card.

The historic Park Hill Library branch is lovely, and although it has since been expanded and renovated, the original building was one of 8 branch libraries Carnegie donated $160,000 to build and furnish, in Denver between 1913 and 1920.

I picked up four graphic novels while there;

  • March: Book One by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

I saw Congressman Lewis do the talkshow rounds (including I believe The Daily Show) when this first came out. Been meaning to read it since.

Although I knew the broad outlines of the story, it was of course inspiring to read the specifics. The fact that it was a graphic novel, definitely made it easier/lighter. Likely wouldn’t have read it otherwise.

  • Krishna: Defender of Dharma by Shweta Taneja

It was interesting to read these stories, in a different context/format, so many years after hearing/reading them last. Surprised myself at how much I still remembered.

The drawing/writing style, wasn’t my favorite. Prefer my graphic novels a bit more gritty and adult. However, probably appropriate for the content. A sort of modern update to the classic’s of Amar Chitra Katha.

  • Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi

For whatever reason, I didn’t “enjoy” (was a bit more of a slog to get through) this one as much as the first volume.

That being said, this volume still has the excellent black/white graphic style. Also, her personal story is still so unique – from her time as a young student in Vienna, to her return to and life in Iran (post Iran-Iraq war) – at least to this American reader.

  • Denver Square: We Need a Bigger House! by Ed Stein 

Although not a native to Denver, nor a resident at the time these strips were originally written, the local character resonated with me. Especially with it’s celebration of all things Denver sports, particularly the Broncos. Still such a fact of life, in this town.

It felt (as it should) so of it’s place and time. Yet, reading it I was struck by how many themes; from traffic on I-25, the housing market in Denver and wildfires, are still relevant today.

Other topics; such as Columbine, the 2000 Bush vs. Gore election and 9-11, transported me temporally and led me to reflect on my own experience of these events, as well as the passage of time.

re: #climateurbanism #PortlandME #MadisonWI et al.

From the NYT we read Where can you escape the harshest effects of climate change?

The Northeast and Midwest are going to have plenty of water, and they’re not going to be subject to coastal flood issues…from a climate perspective, Boise outranked Denver and other Southwestern cities