Thursday, February 16, 2012

Decoding Elements of Transformations: Investigating social, political and economical transformations, through decoding visual elements done by low-income communities in public housing buildings.

*This Paper was written in 2010.

We humans are incapable of accepting reality as it is, and so create places to transform reality according to the ideas and images of what we think reality ought to be.” (Sack, 2003)  The continuous transformations done by humans to change the spaces they live in is a process that will never end. The form of living spaces has changed drastically along the years due to this fact. (Gaber, B. 2009)

The government’s policies in housing didn’t develop since Nasser’s era, even building’s prototypes are remaining the same for the low-income housing, which rang a bell for researchers, scholars and experts to identify and examine Its shortcomings in an attempt to investigate the possibilities of growth and adaptability in future projects. Yet, for many years and through their own initiative, public housing dwellers have been engaged in alteration and extension activities aimed at adapting their dwellings to better suit their needs.

These transformations were shown in extensions and additions of structures (Vertically and horizontally) to the building, where these structures act as codes that can be decoded to identify social, political and economical changes occurring in Egypt, where this study is trying to decode these additions.


One of the central characteristics of architectural form is the way it acts as a symbol or signifier of function, human culture, political power, or any kind of meaning that can be inferred by the person that experiences form.”  That’s how Kent Jay Stein in 1999 began introducing Geoffrey Broadbent theory about forms and meanings, where a slight change in the signifier can present a whole different meaning; not only in architecture, but also in all elements our eyes can see.

All elements surrounding us are codes to ease communication: arrangement of letters forming a certain word is a code, street signs and what differs one another are codes, traffic lights, architectural form…etc.

In the 16th century, Leonardo Da Vinci drew the MonaLisa, and he took in consideration presenting it in very precise and calculated proportions and relationships between elements to state a notion of aesthetics, but about 400 years later, an artist influenced by Van Gogh drew the same Monalisa, but by stressing on brush strokes, he gave a whole different notion of impressionism. In 1919, Marcel Duchamp drew an exact replica to the Monalisa and just added two lines on her face to form a moustache, where these two simple black lines added to the piece, gave a different notion of Dadaism. Then in 1934, Frida Kahlo drew the Monalisa once again and placed the Monalisa’s face by Frida’s face herself, where that again gave a whole different meaning, as Frida has an accident that affected her spiral chord causing her a kind of paralyze and by placing her face on the Monalisa, she showed a symbolism approach. Dali also placed his face on the Monalisa again in 1954, which was so surrealistic to have a male face on a female body. Several contemporary artists imposed their own lines on the Monalisa to give different statements, Roy Lichtenstein turning her to a comic art, Andy Warhol by repetition and giving different colors, Fernando Botero by making her look fat, Claudia Williams by turning her into a totally ugly woman, till in 2001, Banksy, a Graffiti artist, drew the Monalisa on a wall in London and he added a weapon and headphones, to state a notion of contemporary culture of war and globalization.

The example of the Monalisa shows how the codes - added to the painting by different artists through different time spans - empowered the theory of transformation, where each element added to the painting gives a whole different meaning and can reflect a political or social state of the time. This study is using both theories (Change and transformation, and semiotics) to investigate reasons and reflection of additive structures extensions on low-income public housing buildings.

Brief History on Housing in Cairo

Since 1970, researchers and professionals had special interest to investigate the pattern of change in the structure of Cairo. The changes, which took place during this period, were faster and more important than those, which took place since the beginning of the nineteenth century, where the Egyptian social order, political approaches and economic aspects has changed drastically causing transformation of urban patterns in Egyptian cities stems from different reasons. These reasons were: a rapid increase in population not matched by additional new housing units, internal migration from rural to urban centers, deterioration of old parts of the cities without upgrading or equivalent replacement, accumulation of housing shortage over the years, and finally, the increasing gap between the cost of housing and income levels.

With an average density of 35,000 inhabitants per km², Cairo today has one of the highest population densities in the world, with certain areas reaching over 100,000 inhabitants per km² (David Sims, 2004).

Cairo’s expansion has become necessary because of the major housing crisis the city is currently experiencing, which hits the poorest the hardest. In spite of the saturation of the downtown area, disadvantaged families still want to live there to be able to take advantage of its benefits. The housing shortage is forcing these families to settle in precarious and sometimes unusual dwellings: unstable floors are added to old buildings, temporary homes are built directly on building roofs and even in the tombs. In fact, although there are few actual slums in Cairo, this verticalization of the city’s living space represents a variation on the same theme and is equally unsound.

Another example of housing on the city boarders are the informal settlements The phenomenon has its roots in the 1960s, when small agricultural areas on the fringes of "formal" Cairo began to be subdivided by farmers and middlemen and sold to individual owner-builders. It accelerated dramatically after the 1974 open door policy was proclaimed, fuelled by ever increasing flows of remittances from the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians working mostly as laborers in the Gulf and in other oil economies. It was at first totally ignored by the authorities, even though the very act of subdividing land for building purposes without a permit was illegal, as was building without a permit. The process was completely informal in the sense that land was bought and transferred and buildings were erected with no legal paper work and a total reliance on personal trust, mediated when necessary by the existing community.

Attempts to increase the development of low-income housing by government were held, to accommodate zounds of immigrants, instead of dwelling informal units inside Cairo in addition to the natural demographic growth. The government has attempted to deal with the housing shortages by construction of public housing projects. Most of these are blocks of apartments in five-storey walk-ups. Since 1960, when the program was greatly expanded, annual production has fluctuated between 10,000 and 20,000 units, dropping to less than 6,000 in years when national priorities led to budget reductions. In order to make this housing affordable to low-income people, rents were lowered to nominal levels. The government's inability to properly maintain the buildings eventually prompted their conversion to ownership. The heavy subsidies, which this approach entailed, have placed an enormous financial burden on the government, preventing it from even coming close to meeting the demand for housing through new construction. Therefore, in the late 1970s the government adopted a policy of up-grading existing areas to capitalize on the standing housing stock (AKPIA, 1984. Sited in Ali, Emad el Deen, 2003).

 Change and Transformation Structure

Change and Transformation, is a structure where time is a very essential aspect to crystallize the system. “Time and change appear to be increasingly important dimensions in the study of any artifact domain”. (Hillier & Leaman, 1973), but a great difference between Change and Transformation must be studied well, where change is making over a radical difference and time here is immediate and not through sequence and process, as Transformation, where the conversion is not drastic as in Change, but it is development of a system through time. “Process can be well perceived in increasing the complexity of the content by adding a new element to the system through time, which leads to an improvement and development for the benefit of the system itself in situation, of not loosing its structure.” (El Feki, 2009)

“The concept of transformation, which is the heart of the theory evolution… in evolution theory, transformation is the mean by which time and variety are bought into an inextricable relationship. Similarly, in structuralism it is through transformation that variety is to be explained and the dimension of time recovered.” (Hillier & Leaman, 1973)

Transformation in Public housing Policies

The systematic involvement of the Egyptian government in the terms of public housing started with the 1952 revolution and the rise to power of Gamal Abdel Nasser. The new government’s interest in housing manifested itself in two main ways.

The first was a series of laws passed at five-year intervals to reduce and control the rents of housing units constructed after 1944. The second was the state’s involvement in the construction of low-cost public housing built on the outskirts of Cairo and in cleared informal areas in the centre of the city. From 1965 to 1975, there was a sharp drop in the production of public housing due in part to the priority given to military expenses as a result of a quasi-permanent state of war. As the population continued to increase and urbanization followed, the gap between demand and supply, both private and public, greatly widened. (El-Batran & Arandel, 1998).

“After 1975, President Sadat engaged the country in a new direction, namely the Open Door Economic Policy (Infitah), marked by a greater political and economic opening to the west and a move away from a state controlled economy towards a market economy.” (Waterbury, 1983) With regard to housing, the government announced that it would only be responsible for the construction of low-income housing, and the private sector would have the primary responsibility for providing housing units to the middle and upper-classes. In addition, the state disengaged from the production of rental  housing and  maintained  the  policy of  rent control with only minor modifications.

The increasing demand for affordable housing in Egypt has urged governments, during the last decades, to commit themselves to provide completely finished housing units for medium and low-income families. In an exaggerated concern over physical features and standards, government officials have forwarded their systematic approach, underestimating its socioeconomic and cultural shortcomings and excluding the low-income group from participating in the formal housing production. The decision makers assumed it in the 1970s that households were evolving towards a “modern way of life” which would be appropriately catered for in prefabricated mass housing dwellings. It was also assumed that households would quickly adapt themselves to the dwellings they were provided with. Such a deterministic approach, combined with the urgency to meet the housing needs resulted in the wide spread use of almost the same version of five-storey walk-up dwellings in various geographical areas without any consideration neither to different climatic conditions nor to households’ different social backgrounds and lifestyles. An average household size being estimated at 6 to 7 people (Behloul, 2002).

 Government construction of subsidized housing has proved prohibitively expensive, and has thus been unable to meet the demand, while rent control has discouraged private investment in housing. Private sector construction shifted to condominiums, and transfers of rental units, involved increasingly larger "key money" charges. Attempts to control the key money system only depressed turnover rates, while attempts to limit condominiums in order to promote rental construction further stifled the market. Consequently, informal sector housing has become widespread, accounting for an estimated 70% of all new construction in Cairo (AKPIA, 1984 sited in Ali, Emad el Deen, 2003). Informal and illegal housing continued in the 1980s and 1990s. It is estimated that in 1994 more than 4 million people were living in illegal settlements in the Greater Cairo Region. The efforts of the government to control the growth of the city have not been sufficient and it kept growing in most directions, particularly to the west and north, to reach an estimated population of over 12 million in 1994 (UN.1993).

The Egyptian government has applied several actions and policies in an attempt to resolve the housing problem, including rent control, providing public housing, and subsidizing building materials. Most plans have had limited success because governmental administrators view the problem from a different perspective than that of the public. However, urban areas in most
Egyptian cities are currently confronted with a number of problems that have emerged because of the ever-increasing gap between the rapid urban population growths on the one hand, and the limited supply of land, infrastructure, utilities, services, and government funding on the other (El-Batran & Arandal, 1998).

The housing problem in Egypt has a social dimension, which cannot be underestimated. The impact has been felt in the changing structure of the Egyptian urban family. The traditional extended family has become of the nuclear type. Urban conditions are restoring the traditional form of residence, which is resulting in a trend back to the extended family. Since newly married young couples cannot afford the high cost of a flat, they continue to live with their parents, thus combining more than one nuclear family. They may be of different generations, as in the case of the parents and their offspring living together, each with his own family; or they may constitute only one generation after the parents die and the household is occupied by the siblings, each with his own nuclear family (El-Safty, 1984).

Additive Structures and Extensions

As a result of the inappropriateness of public housing and its failure to respond to users’ needs, many families decided to engage in informal building activities inside the formal sector. For instance, a variety of modifications and extensions were carried out in public houses without formal permissions. Given the scale of “illegal” building activities, local authorities had difficulty in maintaining a firm attitude towards transformers and usually ended by ignoring them. Transformations have resulted not only in an increase of the actual housing stock, but in changing entire housing environments into dynamic, mixed-use developments where daily activities overlap and maximum use of the available space and resources is made. The new environments could be described as a combination of formal and informal housing, since they assimilate characteristics of both types.

The researches stated the development of transformations in public housing projects in Cairo where there have been evidence of informal user transformations. The factors that affect the extent of transformation developing in different public housing projects were classified under two categories: factors related to housing environments and others related to housing units. The case of “Imbaba”, a housing estate of 5000 dwellings built in the late 1950s in Cairo illustrates clearly how the distress brought about by overcrowded conditions has provoked uncontrolled extensions and construction activities by the inhabitants (Salama, 1994).

In a survey of 208 flats in this estate, it was found that almost half the sample had built extensions. The total average area gained depended on the flat location. Larger extensions were observed in the ground floor flats, which gained an average of 67 sq m compared to an average of 30 sq m for flats on other floors. However, there was also evidence that some parts of the estate remained unchanged (Salama, 1994).

The socio-economic homogeneity of the households living in the same block of flats was another factor found to influence the occurrence and type of transformations. This was particularly important in the case of vertical stack extension where households are expected to co-operate and contribute financially to the building of the initial structure.

In Imbaba, extensions and additions were the norm, not the exception. In fact, there were so many additions; it was very often difficult to tell where the original building was. The interesting thing about all these public housing areas is that while the individual units are generally small and not very accommodating, the spaces in between the buildings are quite generous. Consequently, people have figured out many ways to use this space. And while many of the additions certainly serve to support only one family, many of them have to work together when families on the upper floors want to add on as well.

It seemed that almost everyone in Imbaba had made some alteration or addition to their space, but the most significant ones were on the ground floor. One had turned his bedroom into an internet café. And inside, most people had invested in new tile, new furniture, refrigerators, etc.

Activities Transformations appeared in adding curtains to balconies for privacy or adding light structure for a window to convert it into a small terrace. While in the built environment, transformation took a more important place, where those additive structures transformed the cubic pure form of public housing building, into a more complicated form, where smaller cubes were attached to the building in different places, and even in some cases, the building is transformed once more into another pure cube but a larger one.

Decoding Additive Structures to Meanings

“He analyzes this concept by showing how shifts in the architectural language can mask, enhance, or confuse meaning in built form, but fundamental symbols that are read across time and history remain constant.” That’s how Kent started his article in 1997, talking about Broadbent. All previous transformations have certain code, which is the additive structures and extensions. Community unintentionally gave very precise meanings by building these extensions, where each element that has been added could reflect a certain problem in public housing buildings.

Different background for people may result different decoding for the problem, as the same building with its additions may be seen as a great shame to the modern city and an eyesore to governments as a constant reminder of their weakness and inefficiency. Or in another view it may be seen as a true manifestation of the inhabitants' real needs and requirements but in an unorganized and unplanned fashion. Or in a more harsh view it would be seen as a criminal act that deserves punishment.

But in either views, there is a stronger notion these additions are telling, as Proff. Dina Shehayeb stated in the book (Cairo’s Informal Areas Between Urban Challenges and Hidden Potentials): Mass housing projects follow an industrial approach, with standardization as the main objective. For example, the latest target of 85 000 dwelling units annually are all 63m2 two bedroom apartments. Filling entire neighborhoods and districts with thousands of apartments, all of which have the same design, is not realistic. Even if it suits some, it will not suit all, especially given that the largest portion of the demand (56%) is for three enclosed rooms.” (Shehayeb, 2009). Needs are not fulfilled… this is the exact meaning these codes are saying, from the simplest action, which is the curtain in the balcony to the most complicated ones as a whole rooms added to the building.


The key issue here is that communities perceive forms by looking to elements in a surface and deep structure, denotative and connotative approaches to reach a meaning, because “Meanings are in people, not in objects and forms” (Amos Rapaport), and Umberto Eco gave a guideline for architects and designers in 1932 by saying: “All the ingenuity of an architect or designer cannot make a new form functional (and cannot give a form to a new function) without the support of existing processes of codification”.

Da Vinci’s Monalisa is the original, and then several artists added elements on it to give new intentional meanings. The connection here to what happened in the public housing buildings in adding structures was again to give a new meaning, but unintentionally, and a reason and reflection to the political, social and economical transformations in Egypt


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