The architecture graduates behind Cairo Urban Sketchers on their visual journeys across the city and how the skyline of tomorrow’s capital needs to be imagined.
by Nehal El Meligy
sketches courtesy Cairo Urban Sketchers
“This sketch has several significances to me: historical, architectural, my graduation projection, the Nile, Egypt,” says Abdel Rahman Abu Bakr, choosing his words very carefully and luring me into the world behind his dearest sketch. One of the four partners behind Cairo Urban Sketchers, Abu Bakr says the project was created to explore Cairo’s historical and modern aspects.
I watch Abdel Rahman as he closes his eyes, inhales slowly with every word and moves both hands along his sketch as he tells me, “This palace means a lot to me because it is the oldest Islamic monument, and my graduation project was to replace the water station behind it. It also has an ancient but genius water measuring tool, a rock that is still in place. However, what is also special about the place is its view. In this sketch, my back is to the Manasterly Palace, and I’m facing the Nile, the Bahr El Azam Street, Gazirat Al-Dahab or the Gold Island and the Ring Road. El Moneeb is on my right, and Old Cairo is on my left. We all love the Nile, and Egypt wouldn’t be Egypt without the Nile. In my project, which I named ‘Rebirth of Cairo,’ I talked about how the Nile is the artery without which the small cell that is Cairo wouldn’t have been built. So the relationship between me, as an Egyptian and me as an architect and the Nile is very important.”
With my head tilting to the right in enjoyment, I smile at Abu Bakr and realize that nothing can be as moving as watching someone speak about their passion. “When your eyes move from right to left of this view, and back you are purified. You come from Moneeb, its crowd and high rises, then you see you the water, then the island, the water again and finally Old Cairo. This visual journey in itself is something I enjoy.”
We sat down with Abu Bakr and Karim Qotb to talk about the visual and physical journeys of Cairo Urban Sketchers and its success in luring followers to join them.
How did Cairo Urban Sketchers come about?
ABU BAKR: It was originally Amir Abdel Rahman’s idea, who is a graduate of the faculty of engineering (architecture major) at Cairo University, class of 2004. I was class of 2007. When at university, he thought that, alone, it was not enough for us to learn about architecture. So he started a group called Tasmeem (Design). Together, we mediated between professionals and students, we organized sketching and watercoloring courses.
Years after graduation, the economic situation of the country was the main reason we all got in touch again. We brought Tasmeem back to life, but this time it was outside the walls of the university and called it Tasmeem Community. We tried to organize different workshops about creative thinking, creative design sketching. After that came about the idea of Cairo Urban Sketchers. We really wanted to focus on urban architecture and yet still sketch.
Who are the main founders of Cairo Urban Sketchers?
ABU BAKR: I was the head of Tasmeem and Hazem Ahmed Fouad was the head of QSD Qahira School of Design, Samar Adam is also one of the founders. Together we founded Cairo Urban Sketchers. We wanted to explore Cairo; not just the historical buildings but also focus on modern architecture. For example, our first walk was on Road 9 in Maadi in March 2015. It’s full of things we know nothing about. We then went to Zamalek, walked around the Faculty of Fine Arts; the third time was Manial all the way to Manasterly Palace. We also went to the Citadel and looked at Cairo from above, and to Al Azhar. We’ve had around 10 walks so far.
What was the first walk like?
It was on a Friday. We were about 20-30 people, mostly friends, architects, and professors, very few people at the time came via Facebook.
What happens on the walk?
ABU BAKR: We meet three hours after the Friday prayer. We decide a route beforehand on Facebook. Before we decide on a place, we go check it ourselves, and we choose the place with the most data or elements.
QOTB: We don’t choose a place based on the type of its architecture rather its value. When we’re on the walk, we leave people to sketch what they want, in order to see what the professionals and amateurs are going to draw; what scene they feel is worth drawing. We usually take photos of the scenes that are sketched, and tally how many times each scene was drawn and discuss it and try to find out why. Sometimes we ask people to write comments on their sketches. We are trying to work on and develop the idea of how to capture the values beyond the building.
Cairo Urban Sketchers has just turned one. What’s the plan for its second year?
QOTB: The 2015 vision was mainly about exploring and sketching. We gave sketching tips to those who were still learning and we made quick tip videos. Our original aim is to explore the special areas in the city, how to scan and read them through the sketches.
In 2016, we started thinking of our next step, of what is beyond sketching. Over the 10 walks, we’ve met about 200 sketchers; so we don’t want our time and efforts with them to go to waste. We want to expand this vision and see what elements people look at, whether specialists or amateurs. We want to focus on the elements that were sketched by several people and explore the uniqueness in the shot. We also started discussing what makes certain places and elements special, and then giving recommendations to architects and telling them what seems to visually attract people.
We have actually started working on an article called ‘The opportunities and possibilities for the community of free drawing in Cairo.’ It’s about the potential of Cairo and all the hurdles the drawing community faces in their pursuits. We have also started working on a research paper to answer the question how laymen view architecture. We are gathering our information through visual questionnaires; the last one was of the Moez Street sketches.
We posted about 10 pictures on our Facebook group and ask the audience to order them according to their preference. We named the pictures amusing names like ‘Baba Ghanoug’ and ‘Koshary’ in order to make it a lighter task. We have also sat down with professionals who drew sketches in El Moez and recorded what caught their eye. Having both points of view is very important because sometimes architects consider themselves gods because they are the ones who design and create where people live. In urban designing, the architect doesn’t get to sit with the client like someone designing a villa would, and so people could end up not liking the design of the plan.
ABU BAKR: So we’d like to know where people feel comfortable, their likes and dislikes, also what would be beneficial to them or help them to become better people.
What do you mean by help them to become better people?
ABU BAKR: If you design a piazza, for example, with no function, it will turn into a dump — that’s the way it is in Egypt. But if you drew graffiti on the wall, this place could end up being a gallery or if you turn a piazza into a sports field, this place could become a sports club. A small function that you install in a place can attract people and will make them develop it and build on it.
Where do you plan on publishing the papers?
ABU BAKR: We haven’t thought about that yet. But as far as the paper is considered, we are going to look for a conference discussing visual perception or how residents see their cities. We’ve already gotten an invitation from the Swedish Institute in Alexandria; they invited all NGOs and initiatives related to urban design and planning and heritage in Egypt. We are hoping this will be a starting point through which we can share our research and findings.
Have you thought about displaying your sketches in a gallery?
ABU BAKR: So far our gallery is Facebook! Our engineering and architectural tendencies are making us think more practically and scientifically than artistically.
Speaking of galleries and reaching out, we have been thinking about opening an office for Cairo Urban Sketchers, but the idea is still under construction. We organize a lot of workshops, and we have a lot of sketches that we’d like to display.
Do you think this could turn into a job in the future?
QOTB: I’m already teaching sketching at university and I ask my students to do sketches.
ABU BAKR: I personally would like to keep Cairo Urban Sketchers as a hobby because I consider it my stress outlet; the oasis I escape to.
Is there anything else you are currently working on?
QOTB: We are currently working on a workshop called Mostakbal Cairo or The Future of Cairo. Its main aim is to visualize the future, document the dreams through sketches and photographs, especially areas with architectural heritage. It’s important for us to predict the future of buildings and heritage.
ABU BAKR: People usually consider what is 100 years older to be part of the heritage, but what about what’s 50 years old? Why do we have to wait until it gets destroyed and we have to start renovating? We are thinking of what we can do to preserve these buildings.
Are you considering partners for this workshop?
QOTB: We met up with Megawara (an architectural hub space for young students and architects alike) and we’re still working on a complete proposal. We are also thinking of partnering up with David Sims, the author of Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control, visionaries of historical areas, poets and those in theater interested in the future.
Prediction is very closely linked to imagination, so we want to make a ‘whirlpool’ of imagination, document it and try to present it in an artistic way. It’s very important to ask the people how they see the future as well. We also want to engage children and ask them how they’d like their neighborhoods to be when they grow up. We’re expecting that a book will be written to document all these dreams.
Have you worked with Megawara before?
QOTB: Yes, in January of this year, there was a workshop called ‘El Khalifa hekaya’ or ‘El Khalifa Is A Story.’ The aim was to show that the neighborhood is not mere buildings and valuable architecture, but the value also comes from its people and their stories; there are also many ‘metaphysical’ aspects to the buildings. The humane side of the neighborhood deserves to be mentioned and immortalized just like the buildings.
ABU BAKR: There were three people narrating stories about the neighborhood, attendees were children and adults alike. One story was about a man who loved a woman and then he went to a genie to help him make the princess fall in love with them. The genie told the man that he’ll give him something to give to the princess that will make her fall in love with him. The man told him to give her konafa because she likes it.
The workshop was for two days, in the morning of the first day Cairo Urban Sketchers brought four specialists, and I was one of them. I taught people how to draw black and white sketches, someone else worked on fonts, another on watercoloring. In the evening, there was the storytelling. After having listened to the stories, we toured the area on the second day, we were walking around with just pen and paper, and others were taking photos.
Our role was to document the architecture in the area and to blend it with the stories that we heard. The product of the workshop was a collage of photographs of different scenes of the neighborhood.