Designs for Tahrir Square

It’s really not an easy task to come up with a design for Tahrir Square, the symbol of the Egyptian revolution, which has not ended yet. Florentine Visser and Katja Schäfer cast a critical eye on the results of a competition that International Competitions in Architecture (ICARCH) held in early 2011 for ‘A New Tahrir Square’.

‘Midan Tahrir cannot sit still. Whether reflecting the city’s moods or the leadership’s political agenda, the nation’s most important plaza has gone from faux Champs de Mars to Stalinesque esplanade. Whenever a new regime feels the nation’s capital needs a new look, the Midan has been the place to start.’ The ICARCH opens the competition with this quote from the Egyptian writer Samir Raafat from Cairo Times. The way in which politics and public space relate to each other in a city where public space is scarce, largely inaccessible and unpleasant because of the high temperatures, air pollution and traffic noise, is therefore an interesting assignment.

Midan Tahrir (Arabic for Liberation Square) in Cairo acquired this name in 1954, after the fall of the monarchy and the establishment of the Republic of Egypt. Since the start of 2011 Tahrir is once again a symbol of freedom, not only in Cairo, but also in other cities where the Arab Spring has manifested itself.

‘Tahrir is the only place left in Egypt for freedom of expression today.’ That’s according to a demonstrator in the early days of the new Egyptian Revolution. After the government closed down the internet and mobile telephone communications, Tahrir was one of the few public spaces in Cairo that was not only a forum where opinions could be exchanged and people became visible, but also a market square where souvenirs of the revolution such as flags, T-shirts and badges were on offer, alongside stalls selling coffee, tea and lemonade. The new economic activities on Tahrir Square cater for all that is necessary or useful, even during a revolution.

That the jury — made up of Anna Barbara, Luca Molinari, Alessandro Scandurra and Marco Navarra — selected the myth of the ‘Internet Revolution’ of all things as the winning theme from the 25 submissions is a missed opportunity. The potential that Tahrir offers, as a place for social and economic activities, with traffic running through and around it, is ignored as a result. The people of Cairo are not waiting anxiously for the monumental schemes of the first and third prizewinners, which amount to the landing of extra-terrestrial creatures. Ideas that are not their own is precisely what the people were demonstrating against.

The first prize-winning design, by Scala Architekten from Germany, proposed a monumental, digital obelisk. The colossal volume regulator visualises with LED stripes the virtual activities on the square and houses an exhibition that documents the Internet Revolution. Except that it’s not quite in the right place, since it was precisely the lack of modern communication tools that attracted people to Tahrir Square in the first place on 28 January 2011 to see what was happening. That is what mobilised the critical masses and ultimately led to the fall of the Mubarak regime.

‘Light Mirror’ by Atelier Rang, also from Germany, which took third prize, is even further removed from everyday reality. The concept of this ‘light cloud’, which renders air pollution visible, is described by the jury as ‘an enlightening utopia that combines air, sun, light and shade’. Unfortunately, it only works after sundown and therefore ignores the 24/7 functionality of the square. From the perspective of a resident of Cairo, it is incredible that European experts could be so wide of the mark and display such a lack of insight into the real needs of such a dynamic public space as Tahrir. The people who use it need a pleasant and flexible public place where they can exchange ideas. After all, social contact is what the Egyptians are good at.

Luckily, Francesco Garofalo of Open Fabric in Rotterdam, winner of the second prize, understood that better. With the title ‘Planting Democracy’ he proposed a landscape design appropriate to Cairo: a public space of quality that can grow flexibly according to use and that the public can appropriate. Just like after the fall of Mubrarak when the centre of Midan was spontaneously planted as a symbol of liberation and participation. ‘The project seizes a vital feature of the site: a connection which goes beyond symbolical geometries and designed boundaries’, the jury writes. ‘The tree is the unit, while democracy is a garden to look after.’ In botanical terms, Open Fabric has carefully elaborated Tahrir and its immediate surroundings as a public park. The area acquires the identity it deserves: a lively symbol for a growing and blossoming democracy. That can serve as an example for other public spaces in the new Egypt after the Arab Spring. The design provides space for the social and economic aspects of the square and caters for a range of activities.

That layered quality is what makes public space attractive, as Jane Jacobs wrote over half a century ago. Human contact is what counts. Facebook and Twitter are not ends in themselves, but simply tools to support it. And in the hot climate of Cairo the trees provide shade and cooling, and that in turn encourages people to spend time there and creates the possibility to gather in a pleasant ambience, share ideas, and engage in a political discussion about the future of Egypt. That is an added value for Tahrir Square that the Egyptians need. For discussion will continue, certainly now that the government has been ousted and no new constitution is in place. And for the first time in any years, the people have been able to elect a new president.

Whether ‘Planting Democracy’ will ever become a reality depends not just on the implementation of the design. ICARCH is following up with an exhibition in Madrid. And for Egypt, time will tell whether a democratic tree really has been planted on Tahrir Square.