The theme of the Egyptian Pavilion at the 16th edition of the Venice Architecture Biennale – “Roba Becciah: The Informal City” – rings a lot of bells for dwellers of the megacity that is Cairo. Informality is rampant in Cairo in the form of tuktuks (autorickshaws) commonly used for transport, housing in the informal settlements that dot the cityscape, and even entrepreneurship – one manifestation of which is informal selling.

Roba Becciah – a word borrowed from the Italian Robba Vecchia, which literally means “old clothes” – for Egyptians, has come to mean a traditional form of recycling that involves a vendor wheeling around the city with a cart collecting unwanted clothes, appliances, or furniture from houses, and fixing or refurbishing them before re-selling them. To the curators, “roba becciah” represents a “metaphor of the anthropological-urban condition of the contemporary world.”

The pavilion, which was curated by architects Islam El Mashtooly and Mouaz Abouzaid, architecture professor Cristiano Luchetti, art director and producer Giuseppe Moscatello, and art director Karim Moussa, opened on May 26 in Venice and is scheduled to run until November 28, 2018.

The team came up with the concept of Roba Becciah in response to the theme of this year’s Architecture Exhibition, “free space.” The curatorial team behind the pavilion, fascinated by how the “free space” of Cairo’s streets has been overtaken by informal commerce, have created an “explosion” of objects that hang suspended from the ceiling of the pavilion; at the center stands a cart traditionally used by roba becciah and other street sellers in Egypt.

From Roba Becciah: The Informal City, the Egypt Pavilion at the Architectural Exhibition at Venice Biennale. Courtesy of Roba Becciah.

From Roba Becciah: The Informal City, the Egypt Pavilion at the Architectural Exhibition at Venice Biennale. Courtesy of Robabecciah/Marina Caneve.

On their website, the curators explain that: “In many urban and suburban areas, the phenomenon of “free,” unstructured, illegal trading reaches such high levels that it is the predominant element to drive the use of public space.” They add that: “In Egyptian cities, the space of commerce extends its tentacles seamlessly along the lines of urban streams without any rule.”

By interrogating the theme of redevelopment and the “requalification of spontaneous commercial spaces,” the team examines how the design of the urban market can help us rethink how free space functions in the social fabric of cities. They also question how redesigning cities to accommodate urban markets can improve quality of life in contemporary metropolises.

The exhibition features 352 pieces selected in Egypt and shipped to Venice, most of which hang by the length of a single wire from the ceiling and are controlled using parametric software. “At the center are the bigger pieces and on the sides, the smaller ones…they explode out of the sky to conquer the city,” architecture professor Cristiano Luchetti says to progrss.

In March of this year, the curators sent out a call for submissions to the theme of the pavilion, to be published in a research book that is being distributed at the exhibition. The walls of the pavilion feature work by architects, urban planners, and designers, including contributions from CLUSTER (The Cairo Laboratory for Urban Studies, Training and Environmental Research), a map of “Transit modes and the reincarnation of urban spaces into markets,” a series of panels conceptualizing informality, and a video of a man who collects unused objects, among other contributions. According to Luchetti, these features contribute a more analytical approach to the theme.

Cairo's sprawling Souk El Gomaa (Friday Market) is one example of the ways in which informal commerce takes precedence in a city like Cairo. Courtesy of Roba Becciah.

Cairo’s sprawling Souk El Gomaa (Friday Market) is one example of the ways in which informal commerce takes precedence in a city like Cairo. Courtesy of Roba Becciah.

Roba Becciah: From Free Space To Claimed Space

The theme for the Venice Architectural Biennale inspired Luchetti, Mashtooly, and Abouzaid, all of whom have an interest in public spaces in urban contexts and issues of the contemporary metropolis, to collaborate on the pavilion. “It was quite natural to adopt an idea of free space in the context of a contemporary metropolis in Egypt. Visiting Egypt, I was very interested in the use of what you can call public space, because it’s a very peculiar use of public space,” says Luchetti.

“Basically, there is no public space, because it is somehow occupied by some sort of functions and the prevalent function that I witnessed during my visit were those of the free market. The free markets…are unregulated, they are obviously illegal, there is no permission, there is no control,” he goes on.

Luchetti adds that it was the unplanned and undesigned aspect of the informal markets that drew his attention. “If you allow chaos to take place without any sort of regulating infrastructure, then the quality is never there. If people will be able to design quality product, then they wouldn’t need architects…So that is the starting point: How can we think of the role of free trade areas, free trade markets in contemporary cities, and how can we design these spaces for the city?” he asks.

A vendor at Souk El Gomaa (The Friday Market) in Cairo, a typical example of informal trading in the city. Courtesy of Roba Becciah.

A vendor at Souk El Gomaa (The Friday Market) in Cairo, a typical example of informal trading in the city. Courtesy of Roba Becciah.

Luchetti elaborates that the challenge of informal trading is hardly limited to cities like Cairo; in fact, “free trade areas,” as he calls them, are a common feature of cities across Africa, South America, and Asia.

“I think that for now this phenomenon is [the same] for the majority of the urban context. The Roba Becciah is just what characterizes the Egyptian way of doing it. We are looking at this urban issue as a fundamental component of city growth and development and expansion with this apparently unstoppable phenomenon of urbanization,” he says.

The team’s thesis, he tells us, is that the only plausible way that architects can address the issue of informal markets is using Metabolism – a Japanese architectural movement that originated in the 1960s. Using Metabolism, he believes that architects and urban planners may begin to conceptualize an approach that provides the infrastructure to allow informality to happen. “You can’t kill it, it’s not going to happen, so you need to provide the system.”

Luchetti adds that: “This is not a spontaneous phenomenon that can be wiped away on a regular basis. It is the biggest component of the city. And if our role as architects is to provide a solution for contemporary urban issues, that is where we should focus our work, because that is the biggest part of these cities.”

The curators of Roba Becciah at the Egypt Pavilion in Venice. Courtesy of Robabecciah/Marina Caneve.

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