clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Capturing Cairo's 'Open-Air Chair Museum' in 1,001 Polaroids

Four years, 50 walks, and an estimated 500 miles later, David Puig and Manar Moursi have pieced together a startlingly detailed portrait of Cairo, Egypt, just from photos they took of all the street chairs sprinkled all over the city. These chairs conjure a multitude of styles and eras, from the white Monobloc to a Rococo chair, from a Bauhaus-style steel seat to a stool-like pile of bricks. Some of them stay in the same spot for years. Other move around. Some hold up containers that serve as public water fountains, others serve as makeshift lunch tables. Many look intriguingly Frankenstein. With more than 1,000 chairs now documented in Polaroid snapshots, the pair has named their endeavor "1,001 Street Chairs of Cairo," contending that the desert capital often called "the city of 1,000 minarets" may boast even more chairs in its boundaries.

Street chairs are not a Cairo-specific phenomenon. In the early 2000s, German photographer Michael Wolf captured countless heavily-improvised "bastard chairs" found in urban China. For Puig and Moursi, though, Cairo's street chair culture is distinguished by the sheer number of them (they call this ecosystem "the biggest open-air chair museum of the world") and how strongly they play into the Cairenes' daily lives.

Puig and Moursi compare the movement of these seats to that of tides. Every morning, as shops and vendors open up one by one, chairs would start spilling out onto the streets—and they would continue to amass throughout the day. The sea of chairs creates small temporary public spaces where people can gather and chat. This scenario, they point out, shouldn't be romanticized though, because folks who settle amongst the street chairs typically have low-income jobs that come with long hours of waiting. "People who gather on the sidewalk in front of their houses do so because their apartments are too small and crammed, and other formal public spaces are rare," they write in an email.

The choreography of the chairs is especially pronounced during Ramadan, when rows of chairs would come to enclose long tables topped with free food to break the fast. Puig and Moursi say to picture "a centipede with 100 legs of chairs." After all the food and drinks have been served, the tables and chairs are packed away until the next day, when they come waltzing back out.

As ingrained as this street chair tradition seems, it's not unshakeable. For every chair they photographed, Puig and Moursi also plotted its location on a Google Map (↑). The first thing you'll notice about the map is how dense the pins are at the center of the city. Zooming in more, you'll see that the density of chairs breaks down in the new residential suburbs built on the edges. The project creators explain,

In areas of the city still under construction and expanding, like New Cairo and 6th of October, social life does not take place on the pavement but in malls, restaurants and private clubs. Each house is an isolated entity with hardly any contact with its neighbors. Not only are there fewer chairs in the sidewalks of those areas: the majority of them are the new plastic seats of private security guards hired to watch over wealthy residences or half-finished apartments.

Changes are underway in Cairo, including a recently announced plan to build a $300B new capital city east of the present capital. But in the meantime, Puig and Moursi are taking their documentation of Cairo's street chairs one step further. In their forthcoming book called Sidewalk Salon, fiction and poetry inspired by street chairs will be presented alongside the Polaroid shots. Below, you can find a few promo photos from the project, which is currently crowdfunding for publication on Indiegogo:

· A Concrete and Glass Home Frames Epic Views of San Diego [Sidewalk Salon Cairo via Design Boom]
· All Artistry posts [Curbed National]