How urban planning accidentally created the perfect space for protest in Egypt's Tahrir SquareS

Dwell magazine has a fascinating interview with UC Berkeley architecture professor Nezar AlSayyad, about the peculiar urban design that went into Tahrir Square, the locus of so many protests in Cairo. AlSayyad, who also heads up the university's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, explains that the square - which isn't in fact square at all - is perfectly designed to host a massive anti-government protest. Here's why.

Click images to see larger sizes.

Top photo by Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP

Here are a few fascinating exchanges from the interview:

How urban planning accidentally created the perfect space for protest in Egypt's Tahrir SquareS Photo by Ben Curtis/AP


"Why from a design angle was it so successful as a point of protest?"

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. One of them saw a clash between the regime and the demonstrators. 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.

How urban planning accidentally created the perfect space for protest in Egypt's Tahrir SquareS Photo by Ben Curtis/AP

"Can you give us a bit of history of Tahrir Square in Cairo?"

Tahrir Square came into existence 140 years ago during the time of another ruler who was considered ruthless, Ismail. He had lived in Paris, in Haussmann's Paris and saw the changes that came about in France under Napoleon III and he wanted to remake Cairo in the image of Paris. If George Bush was the decider, Ismail was the modernizer. So he redesigned an area that was all pretty much vegetation adjacent Nile, and from time to time would be flooded by the Nile. It was known as Ismailia Square because of him.

How urban planning accidentally created the perfect space for protest in Egypt's Tahrir SquareS Photo by Amr Nabil/AP

"But it's not really a city square in strict urban planning terms is it?"

No, it's not exactly a square at all. For one, the Nile borders one edge, so that's not straight. And it's not surrounded by buildings on all four sides, it only has buildings on one side. It's an ill-defined space that is constituted by five or six adjacent spaces, and in a sense no one really paid attention to it.


Read the rest of the interview
via Dwell