Doctoral thesis

Without a plan? : an ethnography of architecture, domestic microclimates, and building practices in contemporary Cairo



Thèse de doctorat: Università della Svizzera italiana, 2020

English This study is located at the intersection of architecture and the social sciences. Its core is an ethnographic investigation of how Cairo experiences and tackles urban heatwaves, which was carried out primarily by looking at people’s building practices. The research is structured along three axes. The first consists of a historical overview of the Egyptian architectural field, based on a critical reading of articles dealing with climate issues since the first local architectural publication in 1939 and semi-structured interviews with architects working in Cairo today. The second section investigates building practices observed in Cairo, with and without an architect’s supervision. The third axis combines a survey of the means used to deal with weather conditions in nine houses and the thermal practices of their inhabitants – with data collected through participant observation. Urban heat and the public health problems it causes require considering potential drivers of action beyond traditional institutional tools, such as master plans and legal guidelines. Understanding the logic behind the creation of domestic microclimates in its material and social context has so far been neglected. Yet looking at how this logic can be incorporated in architects’ practices of climate responsive design is a key prerequisite for any realistic solution to urban heatwaves. Therefore, this doctoral thesis observes how individuals manage the thermal environment in their daily lives, outside of laboratories and architecture and engineering offices. It shows that ethno-architectural enquiry needs to become a standard procedure in climatic design. By shifting the gaze from buildings to those who build and inhabit them, the dissertation challenges the architectural conceptions that structure historiography, knowledge production, and, by extension, architectural design as they are practised today.
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