ECG sketch for the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology building in the Smart Village, main entrance on the far left, photographed by Karem Said.

Karem and I were graduate students in anthropology at the American University in Cairo. When we started this interview in late December 2010, the idea was to focus on Karem’s interest in office parks, urban transformation and knowledge economy models. Given the events in Egypt and the rest of the region, it seemed absurd not to extend our previous conversation to the revolution’s influence on Cairo’s urban spaces. What follows is divided into two halves: before and after January 25. In turn what began as a discussion about an IT office park became an exchange about the occupation of public space, revolutionary images and revolutionary spirits.

Michael: You are an anthropologist working in Cairo. The major thematic refrains of your work – architecture, aesthetics, offices parks, urban experiences, knowledge-based economy, the desert and concrete – offer a novel glimpse into spatial experiences not usually taken up by researchers in the region. Can you give a brief overview of the questions you have come to focus on and how you came to them?

Karem: I am interested in a discourse called “knowledge-based economy” and its dependence upon architectural spaces touted as “innovative environments.” Knowledge-based economy bears a geographic component in the sense that it relies on places: notably science-IT office parks, universities and research centers. My primary questions have to do with the politics of design, i.e. what values, interests and aspirations are reflected in the design, as well as how a place affects the values and performances of the people who spend time there.

Pavilion building, The Smart Village, 6th of October, photographed by Karem Said.

The project first began when I took notice of the Smart Village IT office park, while looking outside a car window on the road to Alexandria. The Smart Village is both easy and difficult to miss. On the one hand, it sits on the urban periphery of Cairo proper, up against a desert terrain that leaves passersby without reference to tradition. The aesthetic incongruity you find in Cairene architecture – incongruity between radically different architectural styles that reflects the layering of history – this is largely absent. Everything in the desert is being built at the same time. Thus, in spite of a variety of branded styles and some less classifiable structures, each place belongs to the same sedimentary layer and over such broad swathes of territory. The patchwork of construction projects along the city’s peripheral frontier zones have not coalesced into an urban fabric. The onlooker’s eye must stretch out across the desert to relate one patch to another. And even upon completion, structures appear isolated from one another. On the other hand, the Smart Village itself is particularly striking for the cohesive homogeneity of its architectural aesthetics, which operate as a kind of skin that unites its buildings even as it disarticulates the park with any kind of built environment that would surround it. Blue reflective glass, white walls, and lots of green grass in between. Companies that join the office park are free to hire an outside architect to design their buildings, but they must make use of the same materials.

IT office parks like the Smart Village have been constructed around the world; the discourse of “knowledge-based economy” reiterates the aesthetic and infrastructural formulas used in Silicon Valley, among other successful science/IT office parks, with the hope of recreating economic success. These spaces may reference college campuses in the United States, yet the Smart Village in comparison is dominated by a hyperreal aesthetic in which the space is apparently better primed for the photography of its buildings than for actual experience of outdoor spaces. There are so few trees. This absence of trees ensures optimum visibility; even the palms towards the entrance to the park are placed in rows. Whether intentionally or not, design and function constitute one another, ensuring that each body is controlled and watched within this space.

The great irony of the landscaping in the Smart Village is that architects imagined they were designing for not laborers but creative employees, making a very conventional distinction but also trying to cater to a new kind of worker in Egypt. It was as if the space would call forth this worker. They hoped employees would be inspired by the greenery and take walks along the paths of the office park. In fact, people almost never leave their office buildings, unless to eat at the Dandy Mall next door.

Desert construction, New Cairo, photograph by Karem Said.

Michael: What is important about materials in thinking about the politics of these new spaces versus Cairo proper?

Karem: Materials become very interesting in thinking about built environments, from at least two perspectives: that of history and political economy and that of embodied perception or phenomenological experience. Following the post-WWII regional manufacture of concrete in the Middle East, concrete became a building material of choice, distinguishing “formal” buildings from the “informal” use of exposed red brick. Thinking about how the production of a material might be tied to its experienced in everyday life is very interesting to me. Is the recent proliferation in Cairo of reflective glass on new apartment buildings – sometimes paired with Italian baroque and Grecian columns – due to a consumer demand and changes in taste, or to the abundant supply of this glass? When it is the latter, political economy nullifies a discursive interpretation.

That being said, a discursive interpretation does not imply anything very specific about phenomenological experience. Social taste is very dependent on vision, whereas memory can be better triggered by smell and touch. A transforming city is the backdrop of memories. Over time, a building is put to new use, traffic is redirected, surfaces repainted, new floors added, signage appears, schools open, businesses shut down. And very personal memories are caught up in all of these changes. The materiality of an urban setting gives these memories a texture, and I think this is more the case in dense spaces with many layers and pedestrian traffic. There isn’t much pedestrian traffic in the exclusive, peripheral neighborhoods I’ve visited, because the high-end periphery has been designed for drivers, not walkers.

Planned palms, aligned in rows, Smart Village, 6th of October, photograph by Karem Said.

Michael: I want to return to the idea of materials and newness. To get there, I’m curious about the relationship between storytelling and “the city”, which, to my mind, stand at opposite poles from the kind of inquiry we expect from the social sciences. When I hear storytelling, I think Walter Benjamin. In The Storyteller he puts storytelling forward as a type of dialogue lost to modernity and its need to offer events and places shot through with information and facts that are then not stories at all, but a kind of reporting. Is it fair to say this is your approach?

Karem: The interviews I’ve done with architects have tended to be very focused on specific questions, as opposed to collecting stories. For example, I’ve been very interested in the architectural branding of an Egyptian identity. In the Smart Village, this is most overt in the government-affiliated buildings near the entrance. Though it’s not obvious, these buildings bear a Pharaonic aesthetic conceived in highly abstract terms in order to reference a technically brilliant, ancient past. This impacted decision-making at the level of materials. The design firm ECG realized that plates of reflective glass marked as stacked rectangles could signify the large stones of the pyramids without designers doing anything as explicit as incorporating actual stonework. The point was to allude to a Pharaonic past in an almost subliminal manner. This mode of distraction that Benjamin identifies as the way we experience architecture – designers knowingly played to that distraction. For instance, the entrance to the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology building is based on Nefertiti’s crown. I had no idea this architectural feature was based on such a specific artifact until I saw an ECG draft for the building. I merely felt it was Pharaonic somehow.

I view the Smart Village as more amenable to reports and updates of facts and events than as a site where stories are conceived. It’s a place of work, but also the space of the park itself resists storytelling. Thousands of people stare deeply, lovingly into their computer screens, sitting in buildings that – spread over hundreds of acres – all look remarkably the same. If it’s not the death of architecture, it’s at least another matrix. Try and imagine what an oral history project of the Smart Village would sound like. Standing outside of any given building, this is a place of utter silence designed to deny the passing of time and the events of history. This is a place in which everything is visible – the basis of its security. Surveillance is maintained by the layout itself; the sun acts as a spotlight that illuminates every nook and cranny. Can collective experience be recalled in a place of such hyper-visibility, where interiors are filled with cubicles and offices? Could anyone tell stories that take place in the Smart Village in which its spaces and places play a role?

Cairo proper may tell stories of its own, but that is because no situation can be guessed at a glance. Apartments, shops, cavernous vestibules, ornate arcades, incidental corridors –these spaces aren’t always easy to categorize in terms of a social code, so strollers are invited to perform and to imagine stories. The buildings may also speak louder downtown because they have been inhabited for so long. Old buildings bear imprints of stories, since decay is made by hands, feet and human weight – not just wind and dust. Stories also flock and cluster around the bases of downtown buildings, since that is where people move. Ultimately, the telling of stories requires a listening audience, not architecture and not only a storyteller.

Published August 20, 2011. Part II will be published on August 27, 2011.