Cross-cultural Eqyptian partnership transforms historic landscape
Clemson undergraduate students Will Ayers and Ryan Hunt came to understand how culture truly affects the built environment during a trip to Egypt in spring 2010. Studying abroad as part of a landscape architecture design studio, Ayers and Hunt spent 10 days in Cairo working on Al-Fustat, a culturally rich landscape and the first capital of Egypt. Being involved with a historic landscape in a different culture was eye-opening for both students.
“It was truly an amazing experience to design over urban fabric that has been there for literally thousands of years,” said Ayers, a senior landscape architecture student from Easley. “You only get a chance to work on projects like this once in a lifetime. Traveling and working in the Al-Fustat area was almost like traveling through time.”
Travel to Egypt was made possible because of a partnership between Clemson University and Ain Shams University in Egypt. Clemson landscape architecture professors Hala Nassar and Robert Hewitt have been working with professors from Ain Shams since 2006. Clemson students travel to Egypt each spring to analyze a historic landscape, suggesting design changes to revitalize the region. Work on past projects has received international acclaim, including meetings with the Egyptian governor, a National Geographic presentation and numerous awards by national and international organizations.
The Al-Fustat project continues the multi-year relationship between the two universities. With its long history, Al-Fustat offers a rich and varied landscape, including Islamic mosques, remnants of a Roman colony, Christian churches, Jewish synagogues and more. Unfortunately, the area has fallen victim to overcrowding and poor planning.
“Al-Fustat’s significance lies in the fact that it is a place where shrines for Islam, Christianity and Judaism are next to each other,” according to Nassar. “It is not only the first Islamic capital of Egypt, but the first Islamic city to be built in Egypt and Africa. It has the first mosque built in Egypt in 696 A.D. still standing today. The historic Coptic churches — pre-dating that Islamic period — have their historic significance as well.”
“The slums are starting to threaten many of the historical areas,” Ayers said. “Our plan was to redesign the areas within Al-Fustat that have been condemned by the government for relocation and turn them into areas of interest such as waterfront parks, plazas, archeological parks and open space areas, which in turn would upgrade the area’s urban fabric.”
This redesign will enhance and improve Egypt’s tourist offerings, while also providing economic benefit to the region.
Working with Ain Shams students, Ayers and Hunt, along with their Clemson colleagues, began by analyzing the area.
“We gathered analytical information such as building conditions and heights, residential survey information, circulation patterns and existing amenities — information that could influence and guide us to creating a successful design concept that provides for the residents’ needs,” said Hunt, a senior landscape architecture student from Greenville.
By analyzing with the residents in mind, Ayers and Hunt both believe their work made a substantial difference in the lives of the Al-Fustat residents. For Ayers, this work provided more than a hypothetical situation studied in class; he realized that his work affected real people. “The people of Egypt were so welcoming to us,” which in turn made long hours in the studio all the more meaningful, Ayers said.
Airfare to Egypt is expensive, but funding from donors to the Clemson Advancement Foundation for Design and Building made the trip possible for Clemson’s students.
“Traveling out of the country is so important for students because it allows them to experience different cultures,” Hunt said. “It teaches them that other places are different than America. It also humbles them, in a way, by showing them how big our world really is. Traveling abroad simply changes you, and it’s good. I am so thankful for the opportunity.”
Work in Al-Fustat has already seen much success. Students presented their design analysis to the Egyptian government in the region, which has also brought the students’ work to the attention of the Egyptian prime minister. An Egyptian television station has also highlighted their work; interviews from students have been aired nationally, highlighting the collaboration with Clemson and Ain Shams.
For Nassar, the benefit of this collaborative work is far reaching. “Students can really understand the transformation of a landscape,” Nassar said. “They see a location and can analyze how it was, where it is and how it can shape the future. Students, like Ayers and Hunt, learn that the stereotypes they once thought true about the region are actually not true. The cultural and personal connections are profound.”
Professors Nassar and Hewitt are hard at work on the 2011 Egyptian studio, which will look specifically at the city of Esna, near Luxor, Egypt.
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