Themes & Working Groups II: In Between Spaces

Mohamad Abotera, Sally Ashour, Katalin Gennburg, Ebraheem Imam, Adrian Judt

How do people discover places? How do they create privacy when living in such a densely populated area?
When we entered backyards – or in-between situations as we would come to call them – we talked to the people who lived there. They were concerned about losing their housing. We were informed that owners of houses in Al Darb Al Ahmar burned down their properties in order to build new buildings with higher rents on the same plot, regardless about the future of former, i.e. current inhabitants. We were confronted with this fear nearly everywhere; people were afraid to become homeless and losing their places of work at the same time. This information changed our perception of Al Darb Al Ahmar and similarly made us realise that the neighbourhood is changing quite dramatically. People in Al Darb Al Ahmar told us that they would not know where to go if they were losing their homes. We decided to make this dilemma our case study: people having to leave their place and appropriating another one, with the carpenter we met at the schoolyard being one of them. Our research interest became more focused on the question about how people appropriate space, how they negotiate public space and how they move around in relation to these understandings. We were curious what kind of places we would find behind walls and facades that seemed to be private properties. Similar to the situation in the first backyard, we discovered overlapping usages in nearly all of them: so called in-between spaces are sometimes used just like public squares, serving as crossings and pathways or meeting spaces, but they are also private areas at the same time. Building on to this recognition, we tried to find out how people discover such routes and places and for whom they are accessible and when.

  • Impressions from the case study sites.

  • Impressions from the case study sites.

  • Impressions from the case study sites.

Our questions addressed these concerns: Who owns the place or to whom does it belong? What is accessible to whom and by whom? Does the community negotiate public and private areas? How does this negotiation of space take place?
These questions are of course crucial in Lefebvre’s ‘The Production of Space’ (1992), where he argues that it is people who produce the space they live in and that no space is simply given, like a container in which we then live. The idea of relational space (Lefebvre; Bourdieu; Löw) as opposed to the idea of container space also includes raising the question of who plans the city? We observed in Al Darb Al Ahmar and in Wilhelmsburg alike that people are involved in ‘planning’ through using the spaces they have access to or are able to use. Recognising the intricate working of individual appropriations and negotiations helped us understand what we had known before from reading theory (Lefebvre, Bourdieu, Massey etc.) in a much more direct sense.
In the course of our research we found ourselves again simply walking, waiting and observing, looking for instances we identified as performative action – where actors and actants (non-human actors) were transforming, using, signifying, etc. urban spaces, always framing and de-framing what we saw in relation to Latour’s Actor-Network Theory.
Methodologically, we observed places, people and situations of manufacturing or living first and then spoke to the people about our observations. Our interviews were all about the history of the places we had observed, the relations between the places and their relation to the outside, for example the family networks or distribution networks around the corner. We mapped places and people, sketched situations and objects and took photos along while walking around.
A main finding was that objects were used to create privacy. Where space is limited and different demands over the same space overlap, certain behaviours are brought forward and stimulated that again are articulated through employing objects and creating specific interior designs. Our observation showed that curtains or other material (carpets, blankets on clothing lines, old reused banners) were used to block views from certain directions and undesired glances. We equally found ‘actants’ in the service of privacy, such as dogs or shouting people who made us feel unwelcome or even chased us away.
By drifting through Al Darb Al Ahmar we identified three different in-between spaces with the overall attribute that they were all spaces between buildings. Following the general question of different typologies of such ‘inter-building spaces’ we concentrated our fieldwork on three specific case studies. The analysis of each ‘place’ consists of three different layers: the physical structure defined by the buildings, the history of the relation between surrounding buildings and their (former) inhabitants and the daily practices of the appropriation of the spaces. Due to the short research phase of four days, most of the collected data are qualitative and served to understand the people we interviewed. Our own subjective perspectives and interests are of course equally part of the case studies as we drew on our own mental mapping and observations.

  • El Zeriba

  • El Sheikh Salah School

  • Madkor House

El Zeriba (the barn)

We discovered this place accidentally when walking through Darb el Azazeen. We walked down a street when an old man tried to get our attention. He told us that we would find something really interesting if we would walk through some kind of entrance he pointed at on the other side of the road. We decided to follow his advice and walked through an entrance that seemed to be the remnant of a former building. Passing through it we found ourselves in a backyard mainly used as a motorbike workshop. We crossed the yard and took the only possible path (the only other one was a dead end), which led us around several corners into a narrow corridor ending on the Bab el Wazir street. We thus found out that many locals use this connection as a shortcut. On our second research day we returned to this backyard and tried to find more information about this space and its entrances. One of the men from the motorbike workshop told us that a small courtyard had already been here for more than a hundred years until one of the houses, No. 1, collapsed and made it possible to extend the yard. The building’s façade remained until this day and in fact formed the pathway through which we had first entered the backyard. The two entrances used to have wooden doors about 70 years ago, which were opened during the day and closed over night for security reasons. Furthermore, the worker told us that the buildings around this yard house workshops on the ground level and flats in the upper stories. The pathway’s official name is ‘Zokak El Amir Omar Khir Beh’. ‘Zokak’ indicates it is a public way, which is confirmed by looking at the touristic maps for Al Darb Al Ahmar. The yard, in contrast, is called ‘El Zeriba’, denoting ‘barn’ and referring to the former usage of this place as a barn for cows by its former inhabitants. Because the neighbours living off the path and yard all know each other and/or are even related, they claim this space as their own. They ‘allow’ everybody to walk through the passage (especially old people), but they are able to close the two entrances with metal fences within two hours.

The El Zeriba courtyard. Plan and perspective drawing with its physical borders.

Madkor House

"CONCORD for construction and decoration" is a company’s title featured on an arch above an entrance in the middle of the remaining ruins of a building. We got interested in exploring the contrast between our own interpretations of representation and the sign’s factual location on a run down building, as ‘Concord’ could equally refer to the five star hotel chain. We decided to enter the accompanying courtyard. Having crossed the threshold we realised the building is reduced to ruins with the roof lacking. The back part of the entrance way at least had a roof and walls with a small window where a dog was barking. The courtyard is surrounded by a building looking like an old villa and several smaller bungalows. Each of these buildings had at least one door facing the courtyards, now covered by curtains. Between the old building and the newer houses we discover a small path that gives way to a very run down staircase. The carpenter in his fifties whom we interviewed in the courtyard explains that the old building is a more than 300 years old villa owned by a family called Madkor.
The owner’s father used to be a famous politician who lived in this building. Some fifty or so years ago, however, the owner and his family decided to move into a better off area and subsequently divided the house into flats and built the bungalows in the formerly large garden. The family rented out these flats to the people who used to work in the house (the cook, driver, servants) and other people. Apart from the new buildings, the new tenants also transformed some of the ground floor spaces into workshops where shoes, tents, chairs and the like are manufactured, as well as storage units. The building was seen as an example of unique architectural heritage and put under protection by the preservation order. Yet in 1982, the responsible authorities decided that the building was in danger of collapsing and presented great danger to its inhabitants. The house was set for demolition and the inhabitants to move to 6th October City, where they had been offered new flats. One of the families who live there seemed to be quite happy with the prospect to live in a modern house, while the neighbouring family didn’t want to leave the area due to the imminent loss of the nearby workplace as well as family and friends nearby.

The courtyard of the “Madkor House”

El Sheikh Salah School

Over the entrance of another building, hidden by a curtain, we read ‘El Sheikh Salah School’. Inside and behind the curtain, however, two men work in a small workshop, making wooden chairs. Opposite the curtained entrance, there is another door that gives way to a small courtyard from where a narrow corridor leads to a second courtyard surrounded by old but well-preserved buildings. From this second courtyard another, more open courtyard branches off to the right, a dead end path to the left. It is mainly characterised by collapsed buildings around it. Only one single storey bungalow is still inhabitable and inhabited by a carpenter whose workshop uses most of the courtyard. On our last research day the lady who seemed to be in charge of the whole building ensemble explained the long story of this sequence of courtyards. The old house is about 130 years old and used to be owned by the head of the Egyptian Senate. He had two daughters who married and left with their husbands to live elsewhere, thus abandoning the house. The property was passed on to an endowment trust and used as a school teaching children the Quran. Later on, Sheikh Salah rented the house for his family and built a primary school in the adjacent yard.
As Sheikh Salah died, his son took over the house and built several new flats in the other yard that consequently turned into a dead end. At some point in the past the school was closed and the building started to deteriorate and later to collapse. After its closure, the building was occupied or rented out to other people who converted it into flats and workshops. In 2001, one of the buildings in the yard was set on fire and collapsed. The inhabitants think that the landlord was in charge of the fire as he planned to worsen the building’s condition in order to get permission for demolition. At that point in time, the local authorities still saw the other buildings suitable for inhabiting them. Yet by the 28th January 2008, the inhabitants received an order from the police to evacuate the house due to safety issues. The inhabitants went to court to stop the owner from taking the buildings down and managed to produce a document that declaring the house unique architectural heritage. Having handed over this document to the court on 20th September 2012, they are waiting for a decision to be made on 7th March 2013.

The courtyard of the “El Sheikh Salah School”
is charactarised by two collapsed building
The perspective drawing shows the spatial
borders and the hierachy of privacy.