CLUSTER was founded in 2011 by architect and urban planner Omar Nagati and artist and designer Beth Stryker in response to the dramatic changes that Cairo was undergoing and to include people taking to the streets to create change from the ground up. Aware that the moment of flux was temporary, they felt it was up to designers to capitalize on the opportunity to create change from an empowered community. Nagati and Stryker began with observation and documentation. The city was in a political vacuum and security was almost non-existent, so people started self-organizing and informal practices took over the management of urban spaces. These early efforts catalyzed as a multifaceted platform that allowed them to pursue their research interests while also functioning as an architecture office.
The platform has given rise to many forms since then, including The Cairo Urban Research Library (CURL), a free, open access research library with a focus on art, urban studies and architecture, available in English and Arabic. In addition, the platform includes the Street Vendors Initiative where CLUSTER’s research team worked to help street vendors unionize and understand how public space is shared. The team then brought together shop owners, residents, developers, drivers, women’s right groups, traffic and municipal authorities and created a common space for discussion.
Another initiative, Cairo Downtown Passageways, is an urban design and art project that reimagines the city’s historic passageways and promotes more diverse, inclusive and accessible areas. The initiative launched with two projects: the Kodak Passageway and the Philips Passageway. The former is a ‘Green Oasis’ which transforms Kodak into a pedestrian park, while the latter is a ‘Light Oasis’ near the Philips lighting shop, which brings marquee lighting and the possibility of film screenings to a previously dark and decaying space. CLUSTER also created a mapping publication, Cairo Downtown Passageways: Walking Tour, that maps the city’s back alleys, side streets and in-between spaces, creating an alternative way to imagine the development and revitalization of the city.
We had a chance to speak with Beth and Omar about the role that design can play during a moment of instability on our podcast, Social Design Insights. Listen to the episode below.