Can Resistance Be Designed?

الأربعاء 02 آذار 2011

After realizing that Tahrir Square in Cairo was becoming more than just a demonstration space, citizens of the city redefined what public space means to them, and by that changed their country’s history.

By Sandra Hiari/Tareeq

The design of the square has become a subject of scrutiny since the upheaval.

According to Wikipedia:

Tahrir Square (…English: Liberation Square) is a major public town square in Downtown Cairo, Egypt…After the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 the square became widely known as Tahrir (Liberation) Square, but the square was not officially renamed until the Egyptian Revolution of 1952.

At the centre of Tahrir Square is a large and busy traffic circle. On the north-east side is a plaza with a statue of Ottoman Egypt-era Cairene Omar Makram, and beyond is the Omar Makram Mosque.

Dwell Magazine explained why its design was a success

In an interview with professor of architecture & planning, Nezar Al Sayyad, the success of the Tahrir as a protest space was due to

Twenty-three streets lead to different parts of it, which is why it was so successful with the demonstrators. There isn’t one big boulevard that you can block off, and there are two bridges that lead to it as well

It’s also the case that all of downtown Cairo, which isn’t that big, has a street that leads to side or another of Tahrir Square.

The full interview can be found in the article, Design & History of Tahrir Square, on Dwell magazine’s website.

The New Yorker narrates how the spatial dynamics changed the square:

It is a vast teardrop of open space adjacent to dusty, crowded streets and the tight mass of alleys of downtown Cairo—a once grand central district that has since been left to rot as most of the élite moved out to the suburbs.

In the days after the battle for the square, the Army deployed more soldiers, and secured several entrances to the square with concertina wire. It felt as if Cairo had been divided into two realities: inside the square and outside.

Inside was the Republic of Tahrir, where the protesters had established a kind of revolutionary utopia. As you came through the barricades by the Qasr al Nil Bridge

There was no hierarchy or formal organization on the square, and yet lines of protesters guarded the barricades while others swept the garbage into neat piles and manned the checkpoints to search people for weapons.

The full take can be found in the article, On the Square, on the New Yorker’s website.

The Huffington Post talks about how traditional urban plazas have become crucibles of change:

What is clear is that one central requirement of this change was and always will be the central gathering place itself — the geographic locus as the ultimate destination

for social media’s crowd-building impulse. Social media as a formal means of communication works in isolation and can only congeal with forward momentum when there’s a place to go. The individual text messages achieve collective expression only in the crowd and those photographing or reporting on the crowd as a potent force united by a compelling cause. The events of the last three weeks simply could not have unfolded without the traditional plaza of Tahrir itself. Designers and public policy makers take note. The fact that the adjacent real estate of such a prominent plaza de facto attracts more globalized enterprise such as tourism and the media add to its worldwide place-making capacity.

The full interview can be found in the article, Tahrir Square– Where Social Media Found a Footing: Traditional Urban Plazas as Crucible of Change on The Huffington Post website.

On the Commons connects Tahrir to American public space joking that:

I imagine Hosni Mubarak wishes he had built a shopping mall in Tahrir Square (according to Jay Walljasper).

In Libya’s capital city of Tripoli, people express their aspirations and face bloody reprisals in Green Square and Martyr’s Square. In Bahrain, they boldly march in Pearl Square in the capital city of Manama. In Yemen, protests have taken place in public spaces near the university in Sanaa, which students renamed Tahrir Square. Kept out of the central Revolution Square in Tehran by the repressive government, Iranian dissident gather in Valiasr Square and Vanak Sqaure.

This is not just an Old World thing. The Boston Common has been a sight of protests, and public gatherings for three centuries. In 1713, two hundred Bostonians protested food shortages in the city and in 1969 100,000 protested the Vietnam War. The state capitol in Madison, where thousands of workers now protest the Wisconsin governor’s fierce attacks on collective bargaining rights, represent another case of a public commons becoming a staging ground for political resistance. The capitol, which sits right in the heart of downtown Madison, was named by Project for Public Spaces as one of the great public spaces of the world.

The full comparison can be found in the article, From Middle East to Madison, Justice Depends on Public Spaces on the website of On the Commons.

The New York Times illustrates how the square and its vicinity were used:

The map and diagram can be found under The Battle for Tahrir Square, on the website of the New York Times.

And last but not least, BBC ran a stunning interactive map of the square:

The interactive map can be found on The camp that toppled a president on BBC’s website.

On a final note, bear in mind that Tahrir isn’t exactly a square in the Italian sense.

  • Public squares have always been places of gathering for citizens to discuss, debate, and even behead people that were thought to be against the king. Ironically, Tahrir Square permeated exactly what it’s name denoted. Freedom, surely does not come at a cheap price, but in the 18 days that lingered through the inevitable fall of Mubarak, tells us that public spaces need to be re-constructed to be a place of the people, and not that of “private” property, as is often attempted by corporate restrictions of places. Tahrir, now probably, the most Arabic adopted word for Liberation, will no longer have the same representation to the people (citizens, tourists, etc.) as a meager roundabout. This square, as many other public places, have been redefined, deconstructed and essentially politically, culturally, and socially reconstructed.

    • RedesignArabia

      Public space has been a manifest of freedom by mere fact of it being public- that is owned and shared by all. Plato, having constructed one form of social interaction in public space, must be turning in his grave seeing how high the price of reclaiming the “public” back has cost the people of Egypt.

  • Public squares have always been places of gathering for citizens to discuss, debate, and even behead people that were thought to be against the king. Ironically, Tahrir Square permeated exactly what it’s name denoted. Freedom, surely does not come at a cheap price, but in the 18 days that lingered through the inevitable fall of Mubarak, tell us that public spaces need to be re-constructed to be a place of the people, and not that of “private” property, as is often attempted by corporate restrictions of places. Tahrir, now probably, the most Arabic adopted word for Liberation, will no longer have the same meanings as a simple roundabout!

    • Public space has been a manifest of freedom by mere fact of it being public- that is owned and shared by all. Plato, having constructed one form of social interaction in public space, must be turning in his grave seeing how high the price of reclaiming the “public” back has cost the people of Egypt.

  • Tarawnah

    I agree with noora888 regarding how these spaces need to be redefined and i think many of them are being redefined by the people – or – in other words, they need to be redefined by the people. Government’s have proven themselves unreliable in that regard. Given the chance, they will exercise their natural instincts to co-opt, “preserve” and create barriers to access.

    Unfortunately, while we may be fascinated by how design was a likely fuel to this uprising (as it is with many if not most), I am sure the security apparatus in many-a-nation is thinking about how to “redesign” these spaces to be more manageable in turbulent political times.

    • RedesignArabia

      Exactly, that’s why one of the writers was joking about Mubarak would have wished to build a mall there. I have once heard an idea which may or may not be true that Amman lacks public spaces since citizen congregation is not desired. The security and space nexus is pronounced in a city like Amman no doubt (think hotel entrances) but how much public space – or lack of it is a function of that is something we need to explore, and whose formation we should be actively be part of.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with noora888 regarding how these spaces need to be redefined and i think many of them are being redefined by the people – or – in other words, they need to be redefined by the people. Government’s have proven themselves unreliable in that regard. Given the chance, they will exercise their natural instincts to co-opt, “preserve” and create barriers to access.

    Unfortunately, while we may be fascinated by how design was a likely fuel to this uprising (as it is with many if not most), I am sure the security apparatus in many-a-nation is thinking about how to “redesign” these spaces to be more manageable in turbulent political times.

    • Exactly, that’s why one of the writers was joking about Mubarak would have wished to build a mall there. I have once heard an idea which may or may not be true that Amman lacks public spaces since citizen congregation is not desired. The security and space nexus is pronounced in a city like Amman no doubt (think hotel entrances) but how much public space – or lack of it is a function of that is something we need to explore, and whose formation we should be actively be part of.

  • Hala

    It is very important to have public spaces, a place that is owned by the people for the people, this is not only for demonstrations, buts its very important to creat a sense of community, and shared interest. On the other hand, we do need to learn to respect public places better, be it in keeping them clean and for all to share

  • Hala

    It is very important to have public spaces, a place that is owned by the people for the people, this is not only for demonstrations, buts its very important to creat a sense of community, and shared interest. On the other hand, we do need to learn to respect public places better, be it in keeping them clean and for all to share

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