Architecture, Egyptian Pavilion, Urban planning, Venice Architecture Biennale 2018

The Egyptian Pavilion for Venice Biennale aims to redevelop unstructured commercial spaces

The Egyptian Pavilion for the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale is set to focus on the redevelopment of spontaneous and unstructured commercial spaces across various cities in Egypt.

Proposed as part of a competition hosted by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, the curators of this year’s pavilion are Dubai-based Egyptian architects Islam Mashtooly and Mouaz Abouzaid, as well as assistant professor at the American University of Sharjah, Cristiano Luchetti. Art director, Giuseppe Moscatello has collaborated with the curators for the pavilion as well as working with the team in an advisory capacity.

The them of the pavilion is titled ‘Roba becciah: The informal city’, and examines the concept of ‘roba becciah’ (disused items that are collected for trading purposes) as a metaphor but also as the driving content behind the creation of  unsupervised commercial”junkspaces”.

designMENA speaks to architecture professor Cristiano Luchetti to learn more about the pavilion: 

Can you explain the idea behind ‘Roba becciah: The informal city’? 

CL: The pavilion proposes the theme of strategic redevelopment of spontaneous commercial spaces across Egypt. In many urban and suburban areas, the phenomenon of “free”, unstructured, illegal trading reaches such high levels that it is the predominant element to drive the use of public space.

The traditional souk confined to the narrow streets and interstitial spaces of historical areas has conquered new territories. In Egyptian cities, the space of commerce extends its tentacles seamlessly along the lines of urban streams without any rule.

In addition, this phenomenon is not temporary. It is not sporadically limited to daylight hours or few days a week. The commercial space is permanent between buildings and roads, invading free lots, girders, and underpasses. In some cases, few spaces intended for public use and leisure must be fenced off and paradoxically closed, in order to not be invaded by the ever-expanding commercial activities. In other cases there are real “city-markets” with specific “administrations” and self-governing tools extending to the point of forming semi-autonomous districts within the metropolitan territory.

Our research focused on the content that specifically activates these strategic urban areas.

Can you give us more details about the idea of ‘roba becciah’ and how it affects these activities? 

CL: The trading of ‘roba becciah’ is a large portion of all market activities. Disused items produced and then inevitably dismissed are first collected, and then stacked in areas creating mono-functional enclaves for future trading purposes. The space that houses the trade of these objects is perhaps the true, ante-litteram, junkspace.

Thinking of designing the space of the “urban market” means rethinking the role of “free space” within the dense morphological and social fabric of the city. It is a proposal that aims at the upgrading and “governance” of large urban areas allowing a “free use” that contributes to a better living of contemporary metropolises.

How are these sites affecting the living conditions of the residents around the areas?

CL: The ‘roba becciah’ represents an important metaphor of the anthropological-urban condition of the contemporary world. It is an ancient form of recycling. It involves, in different ways, all the layers of  society. It is not only interesting because of its social role; indeed, it is capable of gaining geographic value by determining the spatial fruition of substantial areas within urban territory. In addition, it influences travelling through to the city and the development of residential areas, it conquers and reintroduces functions in abandoned areas, and it builds economies on the waste of the society.

How does the Pavilion’s message fit with Biennale’s theme of Free Space?

CL: We think that the challenge for sustainable living in contemporary metropolises is first played through the analysis and then through the design of the “free space” as an “ultra-public” dimension. The free space is a place of individual functions that, when expressed collectively, become public. Free space is, thus, the summation of multiple contributions, which, expressed in the space / time dimension, represent a fundamental part of the urban locus. Thinking of designing the space of the “urban market” means rethinking the role of “free space” within the dense morphological and social fabric of the city, and more specifically, contemporary cities.

What is your solution to creating more regulated urban conditions for these sites?

CL: Our proposal aims at the upgrading and “governance” of large urban areas allowing a “free use” that contributes to better living of contemporary metropolises. In the contemporary city of the thousand prohibitions and private spaces, strenuously defended and impenetrable, “free space” is a rare and precious resource and frequently coincides with the unplanned space.

It is, in fact, potentially, the place of the unexpected and of original creativity. It is the place of unpredictable surprises. At the same time, however, it cannot fully be an anarchic space, thus, lawlessness or “with no governance”. Chaos left to itself is not a carrier of quality. By borrowing metabolic concepts, “free space” must be equipped with infrastructures capable of governing its existence and addressing its implementation and development.

In this sense, the definition and design, of a “free space” would seem contradictory because it would frustrate the celebration of a space without constraints and directives but it is not so. The infrastructure (flexible, adaptive, and changing) enhances the potential of the “free space”, thus allowing its maximum functional and symbolic fruitation.

How will the Pavilion present the information during the event? I know that you will be proposing some case studies, as well as a video and installation. Can you tell us more about each of those mediums?

 CL: The installation is our “spatial catalyser”. We want to show how the ‘robabecciah- the waste created by society -can be used to create a spectacular space. It will be the main feature of the pavilion. However, there is a story to tell about the everyday life of ‘robabecciah’ and the video will do that job.

Furthermore, a more analytical approach to the theme will be displayed on the walls of the pavilion through a series of diagrams and projects. Finally, we opened a call for contributions in order to provide possible architectural and urban solutions within the proposed theme. We received very interesting proposals and they will be published in a research book that will be distributed during the exhibition in Venice.

designMENA has also reported on other country pavilions which will be exhibiting at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, including the UAE Pavilion which will explore human-scale architecture, and Saudi Arabia’s Pavilion which will focus on informal design process.

Curated by Dublin-based Grafton Architects, under the theme ‘Free Space’, the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale will open on 26 May until 25 November.