Along the western bank of the Nile in Cairo lies Embaba (also: Imbāba), an informal area with three times the population of Manhattan. The neighborhood, a self-built community that sprung up around compounds built for factory workers in the 1940s and 1950s on what was previously agricultural land, has presented itself as remarkably pliant over the years.

For centuries, Embaba has been an integral part of Cairo, evolving from a village into a self-built urban community and later, into a formal district of the city. Originally developed as an informal, unplanned urban community, Embaba still has scarce health and educational services for the area’s one million residents, and years of neglect have left its residents to fend for themselves, with most initiatives hampered by a lack of space to grow.

Informal settlements – sometimes called slums – are “unplanned settlements and areas where housing is not in compliance with current planning and building regulations,” according to the OECD Glossary.

A joint effort between Dutch architecture firm MAATworks and, aims to provide an inspiring and integrated model to increase access to resources and offer space for economic development for the residents of Embaba, by optimizing use of scarce remaining land and limited financial resources. The intervention, which integrates modular design, co-design, and structuralism, aims to create a multi-functional structure that responds to the different needs of the community over time.

Modular / Structuralist design is premised on constructing buildings with the intention of reconfiguring function in the future. For informal urban areas like Embaba, this approach can become a means to revitalize the neighborhood by optimizing its existing resources, without compromising its historical and social characteristics.

We explore how a self-built community like Embaba can benefit from modular / Structuralist design interventions.

Structuralist Structures…say it five times fast

hope for embaba

Barcelona from above. (CC: Shawn Leishmann)

The Structuralist Movement first emerged in the early Twentieth Century as a response to Modernist Architecture. Found in art, anthropology, linguistics, and architecture, Structuralism is considered a theoretical paradigm wherein anything must be understood within the context of a larger, overarching structure of power. In simpler terms, social and physical relations are not isolated, but actually interconnected.

In architectural terms, Structuralism revolves around the idea that a building’s form and function should not be predetermined. Instead, both form and function are designed in a way to allow its users to determine what form it will take and which function it will serve.

In 1980, Herman Hertzberger, who is often credited as one of the founders of Dutch Structuralism, said that: “Form can be filled-in with significance [or deprived,] depending on the use that’s made of it.” He added that “Through the values we attach to, or add to it, or which we even deprive it of […] [it] will be suitable for more purposes.”

In the case of Embaba, the challenge is to deliver inherent quality, inviting meaningful use of a space over time, and finding ways to allow the design to remain open and non-constrained, allowing it to stay valid for future generations.

Unlike other architectural schools, like Art Deco or Gothic or Neoclassical architecture, Structuralist buildings, which privilege function over form, do not abide by a single building style and often lack any distinguishing physical features. Because they privilege function, with buildings purposefully designed to be versatile and un-constraining, Structuralist buildings can adopt a variety of external forms.

It is this versatility, and the tailoring for openness to opportunity and possibility, that give Structuralism the potential to provide solutions to the overwhelming and varied needs of ever-evolving informal communities like Embaba.

Modular Design And Informality

hope for embaba

(CC: Kersten)

The project, which pairs Structuralism with modular design to create socially-minded interventions, aims to leverage on existing modularity within the community. By using modular design, which optimizes limited space and resources to maximize functional opportunities, the project is in many ways inspired the community’s own optimization of space.

One example of how modular design can be employed for multiple functions is the Olympic Village in London, which was constructed in preparation for the city’s hosting of the 2012 Games. The space was transformed from a formerly contaminated industrial waste site into East Village to provide affordable private housing.

By employing modular design, the City of London was able to account for the transformation of the sites into functional spaces for city-dwellers rather than have them become white elephants. The modular design of the Village itself allowed for city leadership to change its function, by re-using its form, while taking the liberty to change functions and outer appearance.

This kind of malleability is a staple of modular design in architecture.

Modular design is increasingly being used to redesign informal areas in cities around the world. A study by Sheffield Hallam University identified nine key attributes of informal learning spaces. Three of these attributes – identity, resources, and community – are also attributes of modularly designed informal areas.

In the case of Cairo, informal, self-built neighborhoods often have little to no planning, inadvertently adopting modular structures that can be used in multiple ways. Because of this, alleyways are used as play areas for children or venues for wedding parties or, during the month of Ramadan, a dining space for neighbors to gather.

In that sense, using the lens of modularity, and observing multiple use of archetypal form in informally constructed neighborhoods may help planners better understand how to design effectively for multiple needs in informal communities.

Hope for Embaba?

Like many other informal areas in Cairo, Embaba is a self-built, informal community that has developed with little input from urban planners.

Today, Embaba, which has 12 times the density of Amsterdam, lacks access to services such as schools and health centers and is in dire need of space to develop. This, coupled with dwindling economic opportunities and few safe spaces, has resulted in a need for interventions that can better serve the community’s needs.

The current intervention is based on previous work that was carried out by the French Agency for Development (AFD) in 2006 to redevelop the area. What the reboot project is hoping to achieve is a financially stable, sustainable, and meaningful model of intervention that can provide the community with the space to grow.

Due to the lack of space, architects and planners are looking to maximize the use of remaining land by giving expression to the neighborhood’s dynamic identity.

Sonja Spruit, an architect with MAAT works, elaborates on the plans for the intervention in an interview with progrss. Spruit believes that the redevelopment plan for Embaba should be a kind of “spacemaking project.” For her, the redevelopment of Embaba needs to take into account the enormity of the needs and lack of space in the area, and how multi-functional buildings can bridge the gap.

“We have to be smart. For instance, when defining a column grid, even if yet we will be unsure if ever cars will need to be parked somewhere in the bottom of the building, the dimensions will better suit future classrooms plus car maneuvering (incidentally, it is easy to suit both). And of course, a smartly dimensioned column grid as a carrying structure would leave optimal flexibility with regard to positioning, and changing, vertical walls. In the same way, ceiling heights could be defined to offer m2 extension opportunities (mezzanines), at least in stretches of the overall structure where this would seem to offer clear added user value and potential, ” says Spruit.

The flexibility that Spruit speaks of allows inhabitants or users of a modularly designed building to determine both form and function. Elevations of functions (such as individual shop windows and the front of a bank, for example) can be defined by these individual users. And mezzanines can be added according to need.

She explains that, the goal is to help bring to fruition the positive social, cultural, and economic ambitions, and dynamics that already exist in neighborhoods like Embaba. For Spruit and the rest of the team, a people-based, function-facilitating design approach that maximizes land use and can accommodate changing needs and uses over time, seems the most promising way to bring this about.


This content is generously supported by Creative Industries Fund NL