Reassessing Heritage and Climate Expertise in the Daily Practices of Residents in the Old Buildings of Islamic Cairo

30 minutes

This poster is a presentation of my doctoral project, a case study of Darb Al-Labbana, in Al-Khalifa district, a popular neighbourhood located in the close vicinity of the Citadel of Cairo, in Egypt. Darb Al-Labbana has a rich diversity of Circassian Mamluk and Ottoman monuments, including mosques, sabil (water dispensary), and gates. Other historic buildings are scattered throughout the neighbourhood, both as ruins or derelict, while others are in good physical condition. These buildings are mostly different types of housing, from palaces to popular dwellings. Contrasting with the relatively dense Cairene urban pattern, Darb Al-Labbana has low population density and a large amount of rubble and vacant land, which are turned into landfills.  

Despite the undeniable heritage value of the site, no specific regulations are applied to prevent its inhabitants from transforming these houses. Thus, observing the interactions and adjustments between this type of habitat and its dwellers is an interesting way to re-evaluate the criteria of thermal comfort. Indeed, Mamluk and Ottoman constructions are celebrated for their excellent bioclimatic aspect. Their spatial structures are made to optimize air circulation; building materials are particularly inert, walls are thick and the openings are scrupulously controlled and limited. Despite the recognized climatic value of these ancient buildings, inhabitants actually make changes to the structure according to their own criteria of comfort, including climate control. Reaching ideal standards is not enough to provide satisfaction. It testifies to the fact that climatic performance needs to be balanced with the idea of thermal comfort, itself depending largely on the elusive notion of “perception.” In that perspective, how can energetic performances, in line with sustainable imperatives, be fulfilled while preserving heritage? This project proposal aims to rethink the application of architectural solutions to make buildings actually thermally efficient in light of heritage preservation through the making of a liveable space, that which resulted partially in the fact that Darb Al-Labbana still exists.  

Modifications applied to the physical environment are not only a manifestation of a particular perception but also hint at the manifold of aspects interfering in the creation of a livelihood. In other words, climate control competes with other demands, which, reciprocally, redefine thermal comfort as well as heritage value. In her study on families relocated from the historic neighbourhood of Bulaq, in downtown Cairo, to public housing on the outskirts of the city (Al-Zawiya Al-Hamra), Farha Ghannam depicts the strategies and tactics employed by the relocated groups to shape their environment. They settle in spaces essentially structured by the central state and its conception of what should be a modern housing lifestyle. In Ghannam’s book, many examples highlight the gap between the standardized space and its practices. “A woman may feel comfortable sitting on the bed near a window on a sunny day during winter to sort rice, to shell peas, or to peel garlic. She may bring the gasoline burner to the living room to fix tea or prepare mint syrup while chatting with others and warming the room at the same time. . .  Women’s daily activities continually cross the boundaries that state officials and planners projected in the new apartments as central to modern housing.”  

Parallels can be drawn between the figure of authority that represents the Egyptian state in Ghannam’s study and the technical appreciation of heritage significance and passive climate control in Darb Al-Labbana. In that sense, this project tackles a similar issue, trying to understand, paraphrasing Michel de Certeau, how people mobilize their arts de faire to invent daily life, to manage to appropriate the space and uses, to divert objects and codes, and eventually to control their (climatic) atmospheres.  

In the framework of this study, the building constitutes an environment for the individual, but is also an object in its own environment. Starting from there, the notion of milieu appears more appropriate. The ambivalence of the milieu lies in this reciprocity. Like Augustin Berque states, each individual interprets his milieu, which in return, changes him. This articulation is particularly relevant to this study as it precisely aims to encompass the relations between objects and how these relations shape a milieu: it involves for instance the airflows, the light, and the alleys of the neighbourhood, but also, on a less palpable level, the living memory of a city for its inhabitants, whose families have perhaps lived there for generations.  

In a later stage, my project aims to develop low-cost solutions making it possible to improve the thermal comfort of the neighbourhood according to criteria responding to the needs and expectations of the inhabitants. Hence, regarding the heritage value of the building, this non-invasive set of interventions would propose an alternative to museumification, which most of the time equates to an exclusion of the concerned areas of the former inhabitants and their lifestyles. Thus, imagining new ideas for the passive house in the context of Darb al-Labbana would reframe the meaning of sustainability, inscribing it in the longue durée of Cairo’s millennial history.

USI, Accademia di architettura Mendrisio, Switzerland