Artistic Practices as an Approach to Recycle Neglected Architectural Spaces

CONTRIBUTING ESSAY in Swedish Architectural Publication by Sameh El Halawany, ARTIST, GENERAL MANAGER, Gudran for Art and Development, Alexandria

Architecture is one many faces of art whose influence extends through the whole lifetime of the human civilization. Any careful observer would see how “Architecture” as an art, from the very beginning, controls the daily life and future of people by imposing the nature of their use of the urban space in which they live.

We can say that the effect of architecture on the human community is not less than its effect on the individual. We can easily observe the changes of life that occur to a family, as it moves from one urban space to another. Here we admit that “family” is the primary community. The architect cannot predict the results of his interfere as of the range of socio-economic transformations and socio-politics changes that will happen to this family after a while.

I believe it is fruitful to look at architectural sites in a similar way. Whether economic like factories and markets, or places of service like hospitals, slaughterhouses, metro and bus stations, these architectural spaces are planned to be used for the service and development of the society. As the time passes, they often no longer fit for the function they were built for. This can make them undesireable and neglected. Moreover, rumors and myths may be spun about them just to emphasize their dereliction after the absence of society’s capacity to develop or recycle them.

What we at Gudran Association for Art and Development aspire to is participating in making a better life for all members of the society; through creating, activating and running a contemporary cultural reality able to be renewed and to interact with all historical variables. This leads to an exchange of experiences and knowledge between cultures as well as producing contemporary art that will express the state of society here and now in our daily-lived reality.

Having this as our vision and ambition, there are many problems and difficulties we have to face. They vary to include the conflict of cultures between people from different countries, classes of the same society, and up to the kind of architecture society produces, unable to solve and predict its future problems. For example, if we look at different industrial architectural spaces as petroleum refineries and petrochemical plants we realize that they were planned to be located away from the residential zone of the towns. But after not so long, the city creeps towards these spaces. Over time, the importance of their existence increases as new communities grow around them. I expect that these buildings will lose their role, especially with the end of the era of oil and its derivatives, and new buildings, with strange architectural nature will appear within – not out of – most big cities in the world.

I believe the general trend, according to the international investment fever, will stimulate the society to recycle the land of these industrial sites to be converted into residential communities. Nevertheless, I think that any housing exploitation of these districts is completely wrong, as they were not originally planned for this purpose. Here we should note that such problems exist all around the globe. Instead of turning those sites into residential areas, the other faces of art should be used to overcome this problem. The industrial areas should ne recycled to be artistic spaces, where theatre, music, visual arts and other contemporary arts are practiced. The reviving and reconsideration of these neglected architectural spaces would quickly affect the human daily life in the environment surrounding these sites. New focuses of human activities will be created, around them waves of socio-economic movements will be formed giving back these previously neglected spaces their lost vitality. Making them able to coexist with other more vital sites will enrich the whole society life in general. But we should take into account the necessity of studying each neglected space apart and suggesting the right artistic approach of dealing with it.

Our models in El Max, El Dokan, and El Cabina are good examples of this indirect effect of artistic activity on these kinds of spaces and and the different aspects of human activities whether economic, social or even political. In the fishing village of El max the buildings were restored artistically through many collective artistic activities which slowly built a pressure on the executive authorities of Alexandria governorate to stop their plan to abolish the village and, moreover, changed the bad reputation the Alexandrians had about the village in general. I think one of the most important aspects of this concept is how these newly rediscovered sites play an effective role in developing the socio-economic environment around them. This stimulates the community to rediscover its potentials and to voluntarily present these neglected spaces for art and artists after realizing their role and its importance; supporting the general concept of sustainability.

This is also what happened with the case of El Cabina (Cabinet), which is a new art space in Alexandria. The site was a small yard and an abandoned technical room of an old famous cinema, The Rialto. The owners came to us in Gudran Association for Art and Development to recycle the space to be an artistic one. They believed that it could play a role in creating an economic boom for the urban area around it in being a meeting point for exchange of knowledge and experiences among different social categories in all Alexandria. Envisaged as a space for experimentation and rehearsal by young local artists, musicians and writers, the focus is now to work on developing new and young audiences and to provide space and services to emerging artists. By creating a cafe and a reading room with WIFI access as well as an affordable membership scheme the new space will attempt to attract new audiences as well as generate some earned income.

Another project of ours to connect art to community is El Dokan. Is a shop of two stories in the heart of a vital trade-area in Alexandria; Elmansheya – which lacks such spaces that are interested in exhibiting art works of modern Egyptian, Arab and international artists. El Dokan provides the opportunity to exhibit plastic works, hold artistic workshops for different ages and several genres, musical and theatrical performances as well as literary readings in the downstairs part. The upstairs part is devoted to sell artistic handcrafts beside literary and artistic books.

Every rediscovered neglected site has got special characteristics whether architectural or topographical, or through its relations with its surroundings. It is therefore natural that every space has got a different access or approach to artistic work, which can make the adjacent community understand and appreciate its necessity. The society can support its culture without much money or effort. Offering its neglected spaces to engaged artists is an effective way to make the aspired change for each society that suffers from economic and social problems. And the places will get a chance to develop and interact within a contemporary context again.