The urban tragedies of Arab cities

Sunday 14/05/2017
Tremendous pressure. The Big Ben Aden clock tower in the southern city of Aden. (Reuters)

An architect has a greater impact on our lives than does an artist. Through his or her capacity to project life inside a building, the architect structures lives. He or she must take into consideration a myriad of details, least of which are details of beauty and elegance. Specifics such as spatial orientation, functionality, privacy, flow of movement and corners are just as important as the traditional elements of architectural beauty.
The true art of the architect is to be able to fit in all of life’s necessi­ties within the confines of the available space. A painter or a sculptor is not so constrained. What’s important to them is the degree to which a spectator can interact with their work.
Perhaps even more impactful on people’s lives than architects are urban planners and designers. Designing neighbourhoods and successfully meshing architec­tural elegance with the function­ality requirements of life in a city is a daunting task.
Furthermore, giving licences for new buildings is by no means an easy decision. A building architect can draw a plan for a building that is elegant in and by itself but place it in an urban context and it can turn into a sore sight. An urban engineer must pay attention to these details and more because urban beauty and practicality are not the result of arbitrary deci­sions.
The appeal of a city lies to a great extent in the sensations of calm and harmony it exudes. Such sensations come from coordinat­ing buildings and avoiding sharp contrasts. A skyscraper is out of place and hurts the eye in a neighbourhood of two-storey villas even if that skyscraper is highly stylised and impressive.
Above the urban planner in importance, we find the town council. When it comes to build­ings and neighbourhoods, the town council is the guardian and custodian of the city’s urban history. The council must guard the city’s urban soul from the whims and interests that are likely to pop up at certain points in a city’s life. It must stand up to attempts by the rich to deface the urban landscape under the guise of beautifying it just as strongly as it would refuse to turn the city into a shantytown under the guise of poverty. The city council must not allow corruption to find its way to the city’s overall urban plan at any cost.
To ensure the best outcome, the architect, urban planner and city council must work in harmony but also share high standards of taste. When one of them shows signs of poor taste, he or she must be replaced. People with little or no artistic taste do not belong to the domain of architecture and urban planning. Most cities in the Arab world are living in never-ending urban nightmares. Lack of technical expertise, absence of aesthetical sense and ignorance about the importance of urban life are behind these disasters.
Today, Arab cities are not just crumbling under the tremendous pressure of urban migration and population explosion, they are also being raped architecturally. Their souls and characters have been corrupted. To realise the extent of the urban tragedies in Arab cities, take a look at pictures of Aden during the 1960s and Aden now. Aden’s Big Ben Square of yore is a far cry from the miserable place it has become.
Look at reels of Cairo during the 1950s and of Cairo now and you will be shocked. Cairo’s cemeter­ies look more harmonious than the city’s current mishmash of haphazard buildings and bridges.
Alexandria’s ex-mayor could not think of a better location for the city’s expressway than its famous corniche. Compare the smooth flow of the end of the Corniche at Qaitbey Fort with the eyesore of the expressway. A ruthless urban jungle has eaten up one of the city’s oldest urban features. Everywhere else in the world, people build corniches to be pleasant parks; in Alexandria, they are buried under tons of concrete.
In Baghdad, whatever is left of the wide sidewalks is being mercilessly covered by ridiculous kiosks. The once opulent gardens surrounding private homes are being turned into an ugly collec­tion of ghastly small houses or apartments. In Tripoli, the once elegant Italian buildings were first turned into labs for experiments with mob rule under Muammar Qaddafi, then into bloody arenas between fighting militias. And so on and so forth.
Arab cities today are like abstract paintings. You have to stare very hard and everywhere to even begin to make sense of them.