The New York Times has a fascinating and lyrical article about the opening of the Azhar Park in Cairo. At 74 acres, it is the largest green space created in Cairo in over a century. It is also an example of the use of urban design concepts and principles to revive centuries-old architecture -- a revival that meets with ambiguous success, even as it has re-energized the community.
The site, at the city's eastern edge in one of its poorest areas, reflects the planners' social ambitions. For several hundred years, the city's most destitute carted garbage here and then sifted through it for anything of value. The dump gradually grew into a range of hills that extended nearly a mile, burying the old historic wall underneath it. The decaying medieval fabric of the Darb al-Ahmar district is just beyond. To the west of the park is the City of the Dead, a sprawling quarter of ancient tombs and mausoleums that for centuries have been inhabited by the city's poor.
The park, which opened to the public recently, rises out of this context like a virtual Eden.
Update: Reader Deborah Middleton, who is researching the Al Azhar park for her Ph.D. at Georgia Tech, has some serious concerns about the New York Times article. Read her critique in the comments.
Fascinating and lyrical is not how I would describe the article written by NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF, who omitts and distorts a number of key issues relating to this development and conservation project. Further this article raises the question of why global projects such as the Al Azhar park and its ambitious program of conserving a historic urban district must be viewed as anti western or discriminating against modernist development. This is a project about the conservation of a historic city that goes back over a thousand years. It should be noted that historic Islamic Cairo is the city identified by UNESCO as having the highest concentration of Islamic Monuments in the world and the one today which is facing the greatest transformation. The community of Darb Al Ahmar is a poor but strongly integrated community that has low crime. The community survey conducted by the Aga Khan Cultural Services Field Office suprizingly revealed a community whose occupants desire to remain in the Darb Al Ahmar rather than relocate within the city of modern Cairo, mainly due to the strong social networks/ties that go back generations. The decay of this part of the city is due in great part to earthquake damage in the 1980's and the impact of the local goverments regulations prohibiting the repair of buildings in Darb Al Ahmar, which ultimately escalates the problem of urban decay. (The Al Azhar park is hardly visible from the communities streets and housing. Which should remind us that this park is primarily for visiting tourist rather than the adjacent community who must also pay a reduced fee for entrance. The weakest aspect of the promotional efforts of the Historic Cities Programme is its rational for the economic revitalization of the community based on a proximity model of development.
Issues such as preserving and extending the rich knowledge base of craft workers in this area, the conservation of a unique urban and social fabric, and the ambitious programs such as extension of micro financing for residents to repair and restore their homes has been overlooked as un news worthy, rather Ouroussoff's focus is on contraception.
This project is ambitious. The Aga Khan Historic Cities Program has undertaken the reimaging of Cairo by developing a monumental urban park that constructs linkages with other monuments such as the Citadel and reminds us of the romantic 19th Century Paintings of Cairo by David Roberts. These same 19th century views can be captured today from the Al Azhar park, inspiring a linkage of memories.
Deborah is undertaking her PhD in Architecture at Georgia Institute of Technology and is currently conducting research on the Al Azhar Park and Historic Islamic Cairo