ABSTRACT

As mentioned in the introductory chapter on “crossing the boundaries between the utopian and the real,” urban design has often played the role of a mediator between idealized pasts and idealizing futures, and a channel for importing and domesticating modernity. The making of boulevards and squares in the eighteenthand nineteenth-century European context was a celebration of the strongly emerging bourgeois city in its entrepreneurial spirit, its belief in modern transport technology, and the creation of a stage set for the display of bourgeois status and wealth. Underlying this society of spectacle was the military agenda of controlling public space as a potential setting for demonstrations and political contestations. Transferred to the colonial context, either through the superimposition by mandatory powers or self-imposed modernization by local rulers, formal squares retained their agenda of military control (mainly of the indigenous population), however they redefined the conventional understanding and practice of open space in the European provincial territories extending from North Africa to the Levant. The notion of public space in the traditional Arab-Islamic cities existed only as institutional space. The political and the religious were integrated, and the mosque was the setting within which the social and political discourse took place. With the mounting dialectical interface between the religious and the secular, and the authoritarian and the democratic, public space in the region has evolved from an aesthetic and functional infrastructural entity toward fulfilling its vital potential as a center for democratic exchange, political contestation and military confrontation. This transformation occurred in stages for the past 100 years as a reflection of the changing political regimes and the maturation of people’s radical consciousness. Tahrir Square, as the embodiment of the Arab Spring in the collective imagery, is the archetype of public space that illustrates the formation and dynamic transformation of political and civic spatial practices in the region. Tahrir Square has already been imprinted/designed through people’s own appropriations, heroic actions and dreams. Shall urban designers be entrusted with the shaping of a strategic node that in turn, is shaping a nation’s future? Do designers have the political and professional legitimacy to propose/impose their own interpretations and visions on such an iconic public space? Do they have the professional and disciplinary tools to regulate and constrain its occupation by contesters and demonstrators?