EUME Berliner Seminar
Wed 16 Oct 2013 | 17:00–18:30

Towards a Polycentric Narrative: The Case of Egypt’s Architectural Modernism

Mohamed Elshahed (NYU/EUME Fellow 2013-2014)

Forum Transregionale Studien, Wallotstr. 14, 14193 Berlin

Moderation: Ulrike Freitag 
(Zentrum Moderner Orient / Mitglied von EUME)

While for over a decade theorists have challenged the Eurocentricity of histories of modernity, the field of architectural history has lagged behind in responding to such criticism. Recent attempts at producing “global” histories of architecture have focused on architecture as physical form and cultural production in an additive globally oriented fashion while falling short on providing nuance or elaborating sufficiently on political and economic complexities. Still, many figures, productions, experiments and explorations in modern architecture in places such as Egypt continue to be viewed as doubly illegitimate for recognition: seen as unrepresentative of genuine local culture and politics, and as a failed attempt to emulate Western modernism.

Rather than simply add to the existing narrative or fill a lacuna in scholarship, I argue that the spatial developments taking place in Egypt during the middle decades of the twentieth century are significant and peculiar in comparative national and postcolonial history. This historically grounded analysis attempts to challenge the flattening periodization of the history of architectural modernism and urban modernity in the middle decades of the twentieth century with a rereading of that period through the lens of a “peripheral” location such as Egypt.

The goal is to illustrate how debates around modern architecture and urbanism in third world, late-colonial/postcolonial discourses and practices such as those in Egypt were in dialogue with Western discourses and practices but they also critiqued them and were ultimately shaped by responding to national contexts rather than simply borrowing, retrofitting, importing or translating European/Western models. By examining the production, representation and reception of mid-twentieth century architecture in Egypt this dissertation argues for the heterogeneity and polycentricity of modernity.

Mohamed Elshahed has just completed his PhD in Middle East Studies from New York University (NYU). Mohamed has a Bachelor of Architecture from the New Jersey Institute of Technology and a Master in Architecture Studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Mohamed’s research focuses on modern urban and architectural developments in the Middle East, particularly Egypt, from the 19th century to the present. His dissertation, Revolutionary Modernism? Architecture and the Politics of Transition in Egypt, 1936-1967 argues that 1950s urban and architectural development associated with Nasserism refashioned preexisting architectural production in the service of Egypt’s “necessary transitional authoritarianism.” The state’s developmental programs led by Egypt’s society of engineers focused on spaces of everyday life such as middle class housing, public schools and recreational spaces.

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