Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Queen Safia's Mosque; Stair Way To Heaven

©Aga Khan Trust for Culture
One year ago, I felt frustrated about a degree I had and needed to have one of those long walks that sets your mind at ease. So, me and a friend of mine took a walk down Mohamed Ali street. We decided to walk from Attaba square to Al-Sultan Hassan. A lot of people would think of taking a walk down Mohamed Ali street with its interesting history, old houses, stores and large Arches.
I don’t know why but instead of walking down the St., We found ourselves in the Parallel passageways, ones which I didn’t expect to find in this place.
The Passages had the sense of the old Egyptian neighborhood with its narrow alleys and beautiful Cobblestone paving.
As we walked through one of the passages we found a dead end; shaped by the back of a huge mosque. We explored our way around the mosque to find an entrance. Apparently, this marvelous creation has been long time neglected as many before it. We didn’t get the chance to see it from the inside.
Most of the mosques I visited before had their names carved on the main entrance, but this one had no carving whatsoever. In all the places that I’ve been to so far I’ve seen nothing like the semicircular stairs leading to the entrance. I kept thinking of the Stair way to heaven. And Later, a little research had to be done.  

Queen Safiya's Mosque

Unfortunately, the doors were closed, but the top of the stairs about 3m above the ground shaped a beautiful platform that oversees Mohamed Ali’s street, a place you would enjoy with the company of a friend and a good cup of tea that you can easily find in the fronting Coffee shop at the other end of the stairs. The place is surrounded by houses from all sides and parked cars on its frontier. If you’re there by sunset or a little earlier, you might enjoy the pigeons’ groups flying around.

©Aga Khan Trust for Culture

“Along the Street lies the Mosque of Malika Safiya (Queen Safiya) built in 1610, in an alley called Sikkat Al-Malika (the Queen’s Pathway) to the right. 

The mosque resembles those in Istanbul, Turkey more than any other in Cairo. It was originally set in a garden with high steps on the south side, leading to a courtyard surrounded by domed arcades. The central dome rests on six arches supported by red granite Ptolemaic columns. Unfortunately, what was once a garden is now a car park and homes.”

After surfing the internet for more images for the mosque from the inside I found out it is as impressive from the inside as it is from the outside.

©Aga Khan Trust for Culture
When I first realized the name of the mosque, I knew it as “EL-Set Safyia’s mosque” and I wondered if it was related somehow to Queen Sofia’s mosque in Istanbul which is also known their as Hagia Sofia’s Mosque, the famous church that was converted into a mosque. As Fascinating as I hoped it would be, it was not the same person. However, the firstly mentioned Queen Sofia had another mosque Yeni Mosque also in Istanbul, it was being built under her regency. And it appeared that even though she is not Hagia sofia, she is most certainly Sultana Safiye, Sultana of the Uthman Empire.

“The identity of Safiye has often been confused with that of her Venetian mother-in-law, leading some to believe that Safiye was also of Venetian descent. There is dispute about Safiye's origins in contemporary sources. However, according to a contemporary Venetian source, Safiye was of Albanian origin. In 1563, at the age of 13, she was presented as a slave to the future Murad III, son of Suleiman the Magnificent and Hürrem Sultan. Given the name Safiye ("the pure one"), she became a concubine of Murad (then the eldest son of Sultan Selim II). In 26 May 1566, she was the Valid Sultan of the Ottoman Empire after she gave birth to Mohamed III the son of Murad.” 

She lived in a period of the Uthman empire called the Sultanate of women, a nearly 130 years’ phase when the women had extreme political influence by being mothers or wives of the male ottoman sultan.
I am sure there is much more to the story of Sultana Safiya, as she was indeed a woman of great impact in her time. Aside from the fact that it is a very influential historical landmark, I think a mosque with her name holds a great deal of debates If it was paid enough attention to. The place also holds a great potential for many adaptive reuse ideas. Comes in the top of my head, reusing it as a culture center to discuss variable historical events.

Queen Safia’s mosque is only one of the hidden gems in the alleys surrounding Mohamed Ali’s street, their will certainly be more to discover.

Queen Safia's Mosque, Main Entrance. 

Friday, April 7, 2017

Why You Are Not Getting Paid what you think you should be paid

This an issue we all face, especially for the fresh graduates out there, when you go to a company and you’re asked for your expected salary, it’s kind of a struggle because your brain is confused between what you deserve and what the company can offer. however, there is much more to it than what you think, there is pros and cons to any given job and at the end it all come to priorities and the vision you have for your life.
A lot of architects settle for a salary much less than what they deserve because they need the years of experience or this is the only job they can find, but what they don’t know is that they are not even taking below the minimum of salaries.
Cindy Quarter wrote in his article “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010 the lowest paid 10 percent of all architects nationwide received just under $43,000 per year.” Which is almost 3500$ per month and that is to all type of architects starting from drafters, designers and landscapers. In Egypt as a start salary in a regular firm you’re paid 2500 EGP which is almost 200$, you do the math! [1]
So, what can you do to make sure you’re taking the salary you deserve or at least know you're on the right track? Here are few things you might want to have in mind.



You must be aware of your capabilities, technical and personal ones. For example, a company can’t pay a drafter the same it pays a BIM architect or a GIS analyst for many reasons;
-   The number of architects that work in drafting is much more than those working in building information modeling and so the rarer your skill is the more it’s needed and the higher you’re paid.
-   All architecture students graduate with the ability to draft but not so many in other fields so it takes effort and time to learn another skill which is rewarded latter with a higher salary.
According to Payscale, When it comes to the skills needed to find  a proper jobs locally in Egypt, On top of the required skills that affect your paycheck comes Autodesk and 3dsMax. However, on the long term those 2 might not be very rewarding and here's why;

 Future of the profession

Some jobs have future more than another, according to the American institute of architecture. The AIA Guide predict the future needs for the profession and rates different architecture jobs; between the importance of the job in the future and how much that same job qualifies you in the present.
Working on Energy analysis has the highest rate when it comes to the future but leaves you with average qualification to present jobs. While signage standards; also known as drawing standards and drafting comes in the bottom of the list when it comes to the future, but makes you very qualified in the present time.


Firm Size

The size of firm is very vital when it comes to salaries but each has its advantages and disadvantages
-   5 to 10 employees
Smaller firms usually pay the least salaries, have more flexible working hours that enables you to learn other skills outside the firm, it’s most suitable for fresh grads as they can learn a lot from colleagues and are directly under the supervision of the manager who probably have years of experience.
However, I’ve tried this myself and it can be time consuming, so if you can’t control the number of your working hours or just ended up doing everyone’s job, then you might want to reconsider another firm.
-   11 to 50 employees
Slightly higher in payment, abided by a working schedule. It might be useful if you are looking for a certain skill you want to grasp but other than that it’s not very rewarding.
-   More than 50 employees
Startup salaries are certainly higher in such large firms but comes with a lot of prices if so to speak.
§ Large companies usually consume all the time you have, working at least 10 hours/day and have maximum of 2 days’ vacation.
§  The amount of time to develop your skills is narrowed down to very few hours per day, if you think of spending more time on your skills you will start reconsidering your sleeping hours, or family time.
§ The chances of a developing a career in a large company is very small, even annual raises are not fair enough as they range between 1 to 2 %. how you see this can vary from one person to another but from my point of view, on the long term it can’t be very rewarding.

  Gender and Region

Although this shouldn’t be criteria but gender plays a vital role here, many small companies prefer hiring male architects over female ones, not in favor of the gender itself but because male architects have more flexible hours to work at night, stay in late in the office for late delivered projects. This might be only related to the region they work in. For example, according to Payscale the ratio of female architects in Egypt is 25% which is very small compared to male architects 75%. However, on the world-wide scale the ratio is 44% females to 56% males which is more reasonable.
Accordingly, some cities are better than others when it comes to architects’ salaries, male and female.
Different regions inside the city itself have different salaries and it can vary to a very wide range, a job in the city center for example can’t be the same as one in the outskirts because of the different types and prices of accommodation and transportation.

To sum it up, there can be lots of other elements beside the already mentioned ones, your efficiency, the time you spend to deliver a certain task, your personal skills and your willingness to improve your self over time. 
A lot of comparison needs to be done between what qualifies you now and what is more important in the future.
What I know is, that if you haven't found the right job yet, you eventually will. Just make sure you're spending the right amount of time and effort in the right place.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Urban Planning; One Road to Happiness

I read once in one of Radwa Ashour’s novels; the main character’s son wanted to leave architecture school and study law instead because he thought his country then needed more lawyers than it needed houses. You can see Egypt now and realize it might be the same case here.
But then I realized people are so unfortunate now that they do need a good, comfortable and healthy built environment that eventually and by time would affect their rate of happiness. And it is not a matter of welfare but rather a necessity.
Since beginning of time houses just grew up randomly, tribes where formed and different forms of housing and services lined up together to shape some sort of an urban form which was perfectly fine considering a small group of people.
But with an increasing growth rate, a random set of houses became a problem and a dysfunction rather than an environment that satisfy its residents’ needs.

Take for example the case of El-Mohagreen residents in El-Marg District
on one hand there is the one floor houses; People have small corridors between their houses, those which create a strong social bond between its residents, one that can never be achieved in a multi-store housing. They have re-used different materials to build this place; old doors, windows, ceilings of wooden plates and old building materials.
They have stairs that makes the houses slightly elevated from the street level, courts in some cases, windows that are craved in the wall which is one of the methods to decrease direct sun rays and give them more privacy, also windows are set at a higher level for the same purpose of privacy.
For shading they have wooden plates above some corridors, and decorations that serve as both shading and decorating materials. They paint their walls with traditional writings and drawings.
They have natural vegetation and various traditional means of cooling.
After all this effort, the government would call the place an UNSAFE Area and demand its removal.
But if you look at it the right way, beside the need of some infrastructure repairs and a little monitoring, this place has what it needs to be called a well-made sustainable built environment, and people managed to build and plan it just fine without any outside aid or planning strategies of any source.

On the other hand, what the government would consider a safe environment is the tall hideous buildings of 7 or more floors, what I usually call the concrete blocks. Many and many tall buildings aligned in grids.  

Here we have two cases, one in which people planned and built their own environment with no other intention than to live in and enjoy, and would be the perfect living environment with little adjustments.
The other case is where plots are divided and distributed among people, People who decided to change this environment into a source of income; buy a land, build a tower, sell its apartments and there you have a good trade, in this second case the result is what we have now, an unbearable mess that is well organized.

The increasing growth rates required an urban planner intervention – or at least that is what people thought they needed – a one that sees the situation in a larger scale.
Over time the job specifications increased and an urban planner changed from a server to the community to a server of the “greater good” AKA the government. And then appeared the conflict of interests and the ugliness that we see now.
How does this all fit in the happiness context?
A government can simply control the rate of happiness of its citizens with controlling the built environment and since the built environment no longer lies in the hands of the people living in it, but rather in the hands of traders and well, the greater good in this case will always be money, especially in a third world country.
Government seeks money, awful planning. People seeks money, awful buildings. No regulations, messed up built environment.
The question here is, how can a good environment not only make you healthier but also happier?


Have you ever thought that a well-planned pedestrian route can make you happier?
An interesting video called Embracing walkability pointed out that increasing the number of people walking has its effect on reducing CO2 emissions, various health benefits and has its social and recreational value whereas the only elements needed to make a street walkable is to be useful, safe, comfortable and Interesting.
An intriguing experience that combine all of this would be the beautiful High Line “open” Park in Manhattan, New York. The story of the railroad that went abandoned and was recreated to be a park that penetrates through the borough. A simple way to toggle through High Line park is by using google street view using the following link.
Now, to realize how a good pedestrian or walkable street can affect your rate of happiness, try to compare this to your last walking experience using the four elements mentioned above.
What is interesting is, by asking people in Cairo about the places where they saw someone or a group of people laughing from the bottom of their heart, none of them mentioned a street. To think about it, how many people do you see every day laughing or seem alive just by walking down Cairo’s streets?
On the contrary, by asking Egyptians living abroad for example in Canada or Italy, they say that people would seem happy or relaxed just walking down a street, some might be casually dancing or singing in a square.
Features like this shows how a well-planned streets and spaces can make your life happier, or at least less worried about which car is going to hit you next.


According to the future cities laboratory, Two Swiss economists related the life satisfaction question from the World Happiness Report directly to the time people commute to work. They found that a person with a one hour commute must earn 40% more money to be satisfied with his life as someone who walks to office.
As people spent more time on longer commutes, it also changes the shape and quality of their social networks. Researchers found that long commutes created a disperse effect on people's social networks. The longer they commute, the further apart tended their friends to live. In consequence, a long-distance commuter's friends are less likely to know each other, which makes it more difficult to enjoy each others company.

Comparing this to the amount of time needed to commute inside Cairo, where most of the working areas are in downtown and nearly no one lives close to their working place, with a minimum of 1 hour journey from or to work. You’re simply wasting from 3 to 4 hours a day stuck in traffic when you could have been socializing.

With the minimum wages in Egypt, most people can’t be satisfied with the current situation. Ergo one of the main reasons for the decrease in the rate of happiness.

The laboratory added that; There is also a direct relationship between traffic and street life, studies have showed that residents of the street with only light traffic reported having a tight contact network with neighbors on both sides of the street. People socialized on their front steps, and children played on the sidewalks. The streets with more traffic however, saw dramatic drops in both social activity and friendship.

This is probably why you’d feel a little happier walking down one of Cairo’s old neighborhoods where cars rarely move in them with their narrow streets and short buildings, you had probably noticed tight connections, people sitting in front of their houses, men in cafes, children playing in the streets. You will even get noticed as the stranger walking in the neighborhood. 

Public Spaces

I have discussed in my last blog post, what makes a public space enjoyable. And it was summarized in 10 simple points.
Neutral Ground – Accessibility by different levels of a community - A home away from home – Easy entry – Performers – Distractions – Power of food and drink – Regular transactions - Capability of being adapted – Variety of activities.
When I asked people about the places where they saw someone laughing from their heart, most of them referred to an experience that they had with a group of friends or family, or in open spaces in their colleges, parks. As much as I believe that happiness is related to beautiful moments and the people you’re with but a beautifully built environment can create more comfort and happiness than imagined.

Walls and Barriers

While some organizing regulations can make a citizen’s life easier, walls and barriers would make it hell.
Have you ever thought about the number of walls and barriers that you come across in your everyday life? Here are a few that you walk by on a normal day.

The thing is, walls and barriers are created in a way that would make you feel contained or imprisoned. So, the only thing you are probably thinking about in a place with walls is not the experience you’re having but rather the ugly solid concrete wall standing in your way. Or when you’re crossing a road and there is this huge fence that makes you climb stairs or go down a tunnel to pass the road, the only thing you’d be thinking about is the trouble you’re going to get through just to pass by to the other side of the road.
They say walls and fences are for the best interest, for your protection on one side and to organize and keep everything in the right place on the other side.
We’d assumed that people will not follow regulations if they were set on them, that they need walls to be organized, keeping criminals in jails and students in school. But then why are there walls around Universities? Public parks? Public buildings? The green areas between roads? Green areas in squares? Gated Communities? Amusement Parks?
An endless number of barriers that you come across in a normal day activity, walls that are increasing and getting higher and more solid by day.


Outdoor Thermal Comfort

In Egypt, summer covers most of the year with an increasing rate in the temperature over the past few years. so if we assumed that we worked on all the last aspects but still have a high temperature and humidity most of the year, we will not have the amount of comfort we aspire.

According to Estefania Tapias a researcher at ETH Zurich; Over the past few decades, making outdoor spaces attractive to people, and ultimately used by them, has been increasingly recognized as a goal in urban planning and design. Among many factors that determine the quality of outdoor spaces...Pedestrians are directly exposed to their immediate environment in terms of variations of air temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, and solar radiation. 
These elements can be manipulated using the built environment, in many ways in which an urban designer or planner forget to think about in the middle of all the regulations and demands that serve only the cause saving of money.

“As an architect, If I have the power and means to make people comfortable, god will not forgive me if I raised the temperature inside the house to more than 17 degree Celsius on purpose.”
- Hassan Fathy

The same with urban planning or design; an urban planner has taken on his burden the responsibility of giving people the environment that satisfy their needs, ergo any plans that decrease people's rate of happiness should not be forgiven.