By Renard Teipelke
In my last article of this series on cultural flagship projects, I will present my conclusions of the research I conducted during a field trip in February in Cairo and Alexandria*. I will specifically focus on the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Both, my first article with a conceptualization of the topic as well as my second article with a focus on the Middle Eastern North African (MENA) region, can be understood as the foundation of the following explanations.
The Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA) is an exemplary cultural flagship project (not only because of the project costs of 220 million US-dollars): it is silhouetted against the skyline of Alexandria’s ocean promenade, the Corniche. With its striking modern architecture and the glass-paneled roof construction, it sticks out as a true landmark building (and is used as such in the city’s and even country’s branding). The BA offers plenty of facilities: It is one of the biggest libraries in the Arab and African world. Besides a conference center (with more than 500 events per year), it includes a map library and other specialized sections, a library for teenagers and one for children, four art galleries, and a planetarium. Together with several academic research centers and permanent exhibitions, one can say that the architectural and design features are definitely met with equally excellent programs. Even though I have visited various high-class libraries in Germany, France, and the United States, I was speechless when standing inside the main reading hall of the BA with its seven floors.
It was one of the project managers’ major objectives to make this library a space where the old and the new intertwine: For example, on one of the walls outside the library, one can identify various ancient characters and inside the library, one can use all the cutting-edge technologies of a digitalized age. Even though you cannot really see it, the most impressive feature of the BA might be its internet archive, in which a complete snapshot of every single website from 1996 to 2001 can be found. This makes up 100 terabytes of data (=102 400 gigabytes). With approximately 1.5 million visitors per year, the BA as a lighthouse of culture seems to have become a success story since its opening in 2002.
Besides these aspects, the BA happens to be a highly interesting object of investigation in the light of the political changes of last year. In the early days of the BA, the fathers of the project (a group of (often internationally educated) Egyptian academics, expats, and government officials) wanted the BA to become a place where people of any background could seek knowledge and openly exchange ideas and opinions, a library as a catalyst for reform and democracy. I am assuming that they did not anticipate the political change to come so quickly and to make their mission being realized in such a way.
For sure, one has to recognize that this change also resulted in a situation where the Islamist party of the Salafists made big gains in the parliamentary elections in the (once?) cosmopolitan Alexandria (read more here), and where certain groups have called for the dismissal of the liberal head of the library, Ismail Serageldin (a Harvard University alumnus with 29 honorary doctoral degrees, but also accused of corruption) (read more here).
Nevertheless, the BA was given an architectural feature that might not seem to be so significant from a Euro-centric perspective, but which became highly relevant in the turn of events: a public open plaza between the main library and the conference center. I am putting so much emphasis on this feature, because in my last article I pointed out how European cities have often been designed with/around public spaces, while this feature is not very common in the MENA region. When I walked around in Cairo, I saw many ‘public’ places (the opera, museums, parks, art centers) that always had a fence around them (certainly also for security reasons) and often an entrance fee, thus inhibiting their potential role as open spaces of encountering and exchanging different ideas and opinions.
Therefore, it caught my eye instantly when I saw various people (students, employees, professors, workers, tourists etc.) standing and sitting in the open plaza of the BA and discussing with each other, working on projects, chattering about the latest news, and even protesting against something. The BA has become a cultural flagship project as we would normally find it in Europe, because design (open public space) and society (political change) concurred.
Reconsidering the success factors I indicated in my first article, I can conclude that the BA has succeeded in becoming a center of a new urban development in Alexandria, especially its Corniche (Albert Speer & Partner is currently working on a masterplan Alexandria 2032). The BA attracts more tourists to the city and, at the same time, also offers many benefits to locals. It has been a job creator (particularly for women), though the recent changes have already forced the library’s administration to cut its overhead costs – especially, since the BA was directly affiliated to the President’s administration and is now in a state of limbo. This also aggravates the library’s financial endowment; however, it can count on a strong International Friends of the BA Association.
I do not know to what extent the BA programs are developed and implemented in a participatory way. But what I can say as a final conclusion on my comparison of cultural flagship projects in Europe and the MENA region is that the openness to unplanned evolutions or unintended uses of the open plaza in the case of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina gives hope to the idea that cultural flagship projects in the MENA region can increasingly become relevant places/spaces of (ex)change.
Please read the following extract of Dina Youssef’s article on the role of libraries and other cultural institutions during the political changes in 2011. It is an invaluable piece of witness reporting.
This is our Library, it belongs to our children
[…] The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is not just a public library; it is the heartbeat of ancient and modern Egyptian cultures. […] But, the Biblioteca Alexandrina belongs to the world as much as it belongs to Egypt. The Egyptians knew this. They understood the value of this modern treasure the same way citizens in Cairo knew to protect the Egyptian Museum. This library is an institution that transcends politics. Because of the BA staff that left their homes and families to stand as a protective barrier to the onslaught of protestors thirsting for revenge the library was saved.
[…] At prayer time the staff and volunteers knelt to pray and the protestors joined in. It was in this mutual act that the people remembered what the library was. Just as the voice whispered in the mind of the brave young man that same message spread through the angry crowd and like a wave, people considered the immense value of this place, these people, and the resources that open the world to them.
Because this valuable resource was spared a violent end, it can now be a cornerstone for rebuilding the new Egypt. The library will lead the movement to collect, organize, and make public the artifacts and evidences of this revolution. Those standing arm in arm around this building have come to represent the new Egypt, where the diverse population appreciates that libraries are not just buildings with books. Libraries are the gateways to knowledge and knowledge is the foundation of empowerment.
* The corresponding research has been conducted by the following members of a study group: Pieterjan Dom, Pia Haus, Lea-Sophie Natter, Renard Teipelke.