On the urban character of the Arab Spring

Tahrir_Square,_Cairo,_in_the_early_morningIt may have started with noble intentions; to halt the idea that social media somehow brought about the Arab Spring and to remind us that real protest – people in the street – actually delivered the end of regimes. However, architectural theorists, critics and writers interested in urbanism have used the events – particularly in Egypt – to make some dubious claims about the instrumental effects of urban planning. Reading them, especially in the light of the “liberal” embrace of the Egyptian army and the attacks on supporters of the democratically elected government, one is forced in turn to state that architecture and urban planning have a limited role in social upheaval, much as these writers originally wanted to point out that the major agency of the Arab Spring was not Twitter. Conversely one has to state clearly that nor was it brought about by the pedestrianisation of roundabouts.


In an article in Time magazine with the very obvious title Public Spaces Like Tahrir Square Aided Arab Spring Protests one begins to find this worrying if understandable need for architecture and urbanism professionals to assert the importance of their skills even if it means making unfounded claims for it as an agency for actively creating the circumstances in which protest is either prevented or aided. Josh Sanburn suggests, running against the evidence once has to say, that older cities such as Alexandria, are better for revolutions because of their older street pattern. The article is fraught with contradiction.
It is perhaps a sign of the rush to insist on an architectural agency to revolution that Sanburn suggests that Baron Haussmann reorganizer of Paris actively designed Tahrir Square, which is untrue. Haussmann’s plan was a great influence on Khedive Ismael, who visited Paris, but it was not designed by Haussmann.

sewerhaussmann

And indeed why is Haussmann now seen as a byword for social control through architecture and urbanism? Isn’t his legacy more ambiguous than that? Certainly there was an attempt to rationalise the medieval street plan to aid the movement of traffic as a modern city required. This inevitably meant that streets would be harder to throw barricades across. But it doesn’t follow that the the latter was the sole motivator to the rationalization of the French capital.

What some appeal appear to have forgotten is the fact that Haussmann’s plan was also an act of social amelioration, an above and below ground rationalization of a medieval city. His project created a denser city and a cleaner city. One of its main achievements was to create a sewer system in which clean and dirty water was separated for the first time and was accessible by everyone rather than just those in the old medieval centre. Here, surely, we are facing the choices offered by Le Corbusier: “architecture or revolution”.

What Haussmann has become today is the Haussmann that one glimpses through  an unnuanced reading of Foucault and present the planner as an empty vessel for state agency rather than part of a complex programme for improving a city of which he, and the issue of militarism, is only a part. Indeed by reading Haussmann this way critics fall into a trap that the planner himself set up (and which planners of subsequent ages have used as well.) Haussmann famously suggested that if his full plans had been introduced earlier he would have been able to prevent the rising of the Paris Commune in the rubble of the Franco Prussian war. This canny bit of PR by a planner is the kind of thing that gets a particularly gullible architectural historian excited.

However raising Haussmann in relation to Tahrir Square; a place that was apparently modelled on Haussman but which was the crucible of revolution very recently it leaves people in a quandary. If Haussmannism is an agency by which the physical manifestation of opposition to state control is prevented by means of planning – wide roads, centripetal street plan, commanding squares with architecture that expresses the might of the state; if Haussmannism is indeed this easy expression of state control and Tahrir Square an example of it then – well – how come it was the focal point for a successful revolution?

Frederique Paraskevas’ paper Tahrir Square and Haussmann’s Paris: Physical Manifestations of Political Doctrine attempts to iron out this inconsistency by suggesting that because Tahrir Square has 23 streets leading into it, and therefore it was not Haussmann-esque enough to prevent revolution. Rather than entertaining the very real possibility that architectural or urban form is at best of marginal importance to the progress of the revolution in Egypt, he is forced to suggest that the social control of Mubarak was not as developed as it might have been. From which follows, the unsettling idea if Mubarak had been more of a dictator he would have survived. Not really the best testimony to the power of revolution.

800px-Tahrir_Square_in_1941

Tahrir Square in 1941

This is not to say that there is no point in addressing the architectural or urbanistic nature of events in Egypt. Indeed, there is a key moment in the article Tahrir Square: Social Media, Public Space which bears repeating. The writer Mohamed Elshahed, describes the square in the 1960s “as a grassy plaza with crisscrossing paths and a ground fountain” which was then boarded off. “In the 1970s, the government fenced off the area — and more, it never offered any clear explanation of what was to be the fate of this favorite meeting spot. Cairenes speculated that perhaps it was closed to allow for construction of the Cairo Metro or other infrastructure projects. Sometime in the past decade a sign appeared, announcing that a multi-level underground parking garage was being built. During the protests in Tahrir Square, activists took down the fence and used it to build barricades to protect themselves from the attacks of pro-Mubarak thugs.”

What is significant for us here is not so much the attacks, as dreadful as they were, but Elsahed’s description of the discovery that was made at this moment; by stripping away the barricades the full extent of the deception undertaken by the Mubarak regime was revealed. There was nothing behind the fence. Nothing had been done at all. The promise of improving the city that the hoardings represented was in fact a cynical means of removing public space by the regime. But, this moment, should give us caution. The intensive reanimation and reappropriation that goes on in Tahrir is suddenly seen as a formulation for a new state. One can see the blindness to a whole sector of the population which was represented by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Tahrir square had a very real purpose during the protests against Mubarak; of providing a platform for dissent; bringing protest to the very heart of the government infrastructure. I t may have been planned to mimic the colonial capital Paris. It was a conceived of a civic space which represents national identity, as Egypt emerged from the effects of colonialism. It may have been coercive in its symbolism, part of an attempt to will the modern state of Egypt into being, and yet as that state has come into being, the square has become a platform to contest that meaning. Yet even the symbolic act of occupying this site, as later events have shown, has proved to be a problem. It was a blindness amongst some secularists to assume that Tahrir was Egypt itself. Tellingly ,when the Muslim Brotherhood protested the coup against Morsi, they were kept away from Tahrir and encamped in Nasr City.

1280px-Tahrir_Square_-_February_9,_2011So whilst the occupation of Tahir had a very symbolic value in bringing down Mubarak, it is as if the symbolism of Tahrir expanded to a ridiculous degree in the minds of secular Egyptians. To take this experience in Egypt and make a more general point, I would say that it is one thing to historically discern a point at which the state began to express itself through urban planning as a controlling impulse as Foucault does. It is quite another to assume that because the state expressed and goes on expressing itself in such a fashion that it is successful in doing so. More important is Foucault’s argument that freedom is a process rather than something to be enshrined in architecture – again an activity which the removal of those fences in Tahrir represents.

This is an argument that chimes with an issue of the Dutch architectural publication OASE called Into The Open which quite fortuitously and mercifully I happened to be reading at the same time as reading some highly dubious claims being made for the instrumental role of urban design in creating the conditions of revolution. René Boomkens in her essay gives an overview of some of the most astute thinkers on the issue of freedom and public space. She says: “I want to stress that many architects, city politicians and urban designers to treat the public sphere as a spatial issue, the public sphere is a specific value-loaded series of practices, institutions, media and localities that define the quality of modern urban life and culture.” It is she says, “the practice we normally call freedom.”

Certainly there is a very specific coming together of the symbolic occupation of a public space and the political project of making a massive gesture in order to depose Mubarak at Tahrir represents; a double act of occupation and clearly identifiable political programme (which obviously differentiates it from western Occupy movements). Far more important than its design is its proximity to major buildings of the Mubarak regime. Of course, it has a symbolism as a national square, created in a moment in which the nation state evolves but that symbolism is inert without the urgent reality of the political programme that protesters brought into it. It is only then that the national square becomes an international one through the agency of TV, radio, internet and social medias.

JG Ballard’s book High Rise in the 1970s shows that the egalitarian form of the tower block could be subverted to become home to a hierarchical, warring society. His book Kingdom Come published 30 years later shows that far from being controlled environments, shopping centres are potential centres for violence. The idea mooted in the Time article that there was not a revolution in Saudi Arabia because the only public spaces it has are shopping malls does little to appreciate the political reality of the country. Nor the evolution of social space through time. Would the writer have countenanced a revolution beginning in Tahrir when it was first built, one wonders. Will he live to see social upheaval emerge in a shopping mall? I would say that he may.

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About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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One Response to On the urban character of the Arab Spring

  1. MM Jones says:

    It’s interesting that the more dramatic claims of the planners and architects may be ignoring simple practicalities: there are only a limited number of open spaces for large crowds to gather in, so that’s where large crowds gather, whether or not they were ever envisioned for large public gatherings or just big intersections.

    This was the case in Cairo as well as Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout, which had little historical or popular importance, and was demolished by the state as part of their crackdown (I wrote about it here: http://bauzeitgeist.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/business-in-bahrain.html). Inversely, the more recent public protests in Istanbul were sparked, in part, by lack of input into development of public spaces, namely Gezi Park in Istanbul. Brazilians took to the streets to express frustration at corruption related to new football stadiums (which I wrote about here: http://bauzeitgeist.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/stadte-sind-raume-und-menschen.html)

    So architects and planners do have the agency to spark protests, but more in the negative sense, when they are the handmaidens of autocracies and therefore part of the power that the protesters are struggling against.

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