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


Recently in e-flux;

In October of last year, Brian Holmes dug into “a condition of relational awareness” aka “Anthropocene public space“. Concluding with this challenge

For artists and activists seeking to transform the conclusions of climate science into the convictions of embodied experience, the golden spike is each local place and singular moment in time when a group of people is able to come to grips with their own implication in earth-system processes. Because abstract knowledge is always intertwined with embodied experience, such places and moments in time are never purely local or singular. To take form and consistency as a widely sharable practice of perception/expression, Anthropocene public space must seek the correlation of situated knowledges and experiences.

Then in November, Nicholas Korody penned Mere Decorating. As he explains

While the work of the architect ends with construction, the inhabitant-cum-decorator must continuously maintain the home, adjusting it to suit new tastes. Decorating is the under-recognized labor that constitutes the interior as such through the placement and upkeep of objects and things, such as bibelots, carpets, and houseplants, within pre-existing built space.

He goes on to review the history of 19th century pteridomania, and the contemporary Millennial interest in houseplants (aka phytomania or “fern-fever“).

Finally later that same month, Peggy Dreamer offered some criticism of “Typical American Institute of Architects (AIA) ‘design-bid-build’ contracts“, National AIA and “relational contract theory” as it might apply to ideas of class, labor and architectural praxis.

the original ten founding principles, for GDS’ Digital Service aka GOV.UK

1. Start with needs
2. Do less
3. Design with data
4. Do the hard work to make it simple.
5. Iterate. Then iterate again.
6. Build for inclusion.
7. Understand context.
8. Build digital services, not websites.
9. Be consistent, not uniform.
10. Make things open: it makes things better.

Via Design Observer

re: Stock Orchard House

In 2015 Hattie Hartman memorialized “Sarah Wigglesworth and Jeremy Till’s straw bale house and associated office at 9-10 Stock Orchard Street in Islington, London“.

To wit,

The surfeit of its architectural moves borders on the overwhelming, but mostly this is a house to engage with and live with. Windows and vents can be easily adjusted with the seasons. Views are carefully framed on a highly constricted site. Light falls mostly in the right places, though sometimes there’s too much of it. As Till observes: ‘What we knew then about green design was primitive compared with what we know now.’

Via Architects Journal

re: #climateurbanism aka “a soggy, saturated” book and future

“It’s worth remembering that two-thirds of the world’s cities sit on coastlines. In a high-emissions scenario, average high tides in New York could be higher than the levels seen during Sandy. A rise in global sea levels of 11 feet would fully submerge cities like Mumbai and a large part of Bangladesh. The question is no longer if – but how high, and how fast.

From a review of, The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and the Remaking of the Civilised World by Jeff Goodell in London Review of Books, by Meehan Crist.

Recently in Places;

From November 2017, Shannon Mattern on the material archives of climate science.

As she explains “In the geosciences, there’s a long tradition of regarding the Earth itself, the terrestrial field, as an archive. Talk about big data…Over the next century, this metaphor multiplied across layers of abstraction. First there was the Earth as archive; then fossil records and specimen collections, visual representations of those collections, textual catalogs, and, eventually, databases…In classifying and indexing samples of ice, rock, soil, and sediment, we acknowledge the Earth as a vast geo-informatic construct. It is both geology and data, ontology and epistemology.

From December 2017, Amelia Taylor-Hochberg on Frank Pick, the London Tube and how as “chief administrator of the London Passenger Transport Board” he leveraged art and architecture to advance the “progressive ideal that public transport ought to be more than a means of getting around and that the ever expanding network was an unparalleled opportunity to enhance the lives of London’s citizens.

Also from December 2017, John David Rose on The house in American cinema, from the plantation to Chavez Ravine. Therein he reflects on Gone with the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird

When we see a house onscreen, the property relations implicit in the seemingly simple activity of moviegoing proliferate into confusion. And yet there is a kind of clarity in what is at stake here. In purchasing a movie ticket we pay for the right to occupy a space in order to gaze up at a space we can never occupy.

This is the story cinema has been mutely telling all along — a story about the house, the security and ease it promises, and the horrible anxieties produced when we try to force the house to deliver on those promises.

From Jan 2018, Douglas Murphy on The Modern Urbanism of Cook’s Camden.

re: Algorithmic Violence

“In my view, algorithmic violence sums up all of the things that we have experienced (particularly in the last five to ten years) as we’ve seen the availability of huge datasets, advances in computational power, leaps in fields like artificial intelligence and machine learning, and the subsequent incorporation and leveraging of all these things into a hierarchical and unequal society…Like other forms of violence, algorithmic violence stretches to encompass everything from micro occurrences to life-altering realities. …Finally, algorithmic violence does not operate in isolation. Its predecessors are in the opaque black boxes of credit scoring systems and the schematization of bureaucratic knowledge.7 It’s tied to the decades of imperialism—unfolding digitally as well as politically and militarily—that have undergirded our global economic systems. Its emergence is linked to a moment in time where corporate business models and state defense tactics meet at the routine extraction of data from consumers.