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Creating a learning center for the trash collectors of Cairo

How one firm hopes to replace shipping containers

Paige Vickers

Welcome back to The Architect's City, a monthly series inviting an emerging architect to reimagine an existing structure in his or her city, submitting a speculative proposal for Curbed readers. This month, a not-yet-implemented proposal for a learning center for the zabaleen, the trash collectors of Cairo, Egypt.

In a 2013 TED talk, “Ingenious homes in unexpected places,” architectural photographer Iwan Baan talks about visiting the zabaleen, the trash collectors of Cairo, in apartment blocks they’ve built under the Moquattam quarries on the eastern edge of the city. Constructed atop open first floors where they sort the garbage they collect, the families that occupy the apartments specialize in different forms of recycling, he explains. “Sometimes these apartments are used in very unexpected ways, like this home which caught my attention when all the mud and grass was literally seeping out from under the front door,” he says, showing a slide in which smears of mud swipe across floor tile where a welcome mat might otherwise be.

When Baan’s hosts opened the door, he saw a scene of six cows grazing in what might have otherwise been a living room. And this across the hall from a newly married couple in what everyone agreed was one of the nicest apartments in the area, its silver-wallpapered dining room stuffed with baroque-style furniture. “The attention to this detail astonished me,” he explained. “From floor to ceiling, every part was decorated. If it weren’t for the strangely familiar stomach churning odor that passes through the apartment it would be easy to forget that you’re next to a cow shed and on top of a landfill.”

This month’s Architect’s City proposal is a bit of a departure: not entirely speculative, but not yet implemented. Finnish firm Hollmen Reuter Sandman, known for humanitarian architecture around the world, designed a community learning center to replace the cobbled-together shipping containers that currently serve as learning centers for the zabaleen. Though the design was completed in early 2011, stalled permits and political uncertainty have delayed the project—indefinitely. This new solution, which would change the academic resources if not the odors of the neighborhood, is direly needed.

The zabaleen—literally, ‘garbage collector’ in Arabic—are primarily Coptic Christians who came to Cairo in the 1940s. Many settled in Moquattam in the 1980s, one of four settlements of the zabaleen around Cairo; 50,000-60,000 people now call Moquattam home. Altogether, the zabaleen collect about half of the city’s waste. After going door to door, collecting the garbage, they sell salvaged materials to factories and feed organic waste to livestock they keep in their self-built, multi-story houses. They recycle 85 percent of the waste they collect. (For comparison, in 2013, according to the EPA, the U.S. recycled and composted 34 percent of its waste.)

“It’s how we all should consider waste—as a resource. It’s extraordinary,” said Jenni Reuter of Hollmen Reuter Sandman, whose design for the learning center was exhibited most recently at this past summer’s Venice Biennial. And yet the zabaleen are viewed as unclean, are largely illiterate, and, over the last decade, their already-meager livelihood has been in jeopardy.

In the early aughts, the government of Hosni Mubarak contracted private companies to take out the trash; though many citizens continued to pay the zabaleen to take their trash directly from their homes, some zabal estimated that their earnings plummeted by 75 percent. And then, in 2009, citing swine flu, the government slaughtered some 300,000 pigs, many of them the zabaleen’s. With no animals to consume organic waste and Western-style systems of waste disposal foundering—a pungent example of the challenges of importing practices across cultures—Cairo’s streets festered with uncollected waste.

The government has recently changed course. A new program, which began rollout in December 2014, replaces Mubarak-employed sanitation multinationals with smaller, zabaleen-run local companies. As Baan’s visit demonstrated, the zabaleen are entrepreneurs with a keen sense for the possible, and a number of NGOs have attempted to improve the quality of education in the neighborhood, to ensure that any gains made with the possible improvements in political standing are no longer as vulnerable to erosion as they once were.

Currently, one small learning center, run by the Association for the Protection of the Environment, an NGO that has worked with the zabaleen for upwards of twenty years, serves a dizzying rotation of children and adults. Built from shipping containers, the space sees 250 children between three months and six years of age for morning sessions, 300 older children in the afternoons for academic support and a light meal, 60 children and teens on the weekends for help with schoolwork, and 120 women attending adult literacy classes.

For the new learning center, Hollmen Reuter Sandman works within the footprint of the current container center, with a series of three compact buildings around a central green courtyard—itself an essential feature, a park-like oasis of green, which Moquattam lacks. Various design elements serve as reminders of the community’s livelihood.

“Since this area is unique, they want the building to show it,” explained Reuter. “The zabaleen are unique. Their way of thinking of waste as a raw material that you can use is still quite unique in the world. The way that we have reused some of the raw materials that they are collecting makes it more local.”

While the building itself will be made of stone—“local stone, the same that the pyramids are made out of,” Reuter said—interior elements are made of recycled materials. Carpets will be made out of recycled cloth, windows and wall mosaics designed by the children out of recycled glass, and wooden lattice atop the windows out of either of poundwood or recycled plastic. Outside, outdoor pavement made of melted plastic and glass, which the zabaleen make and produce, will coat floors. It’s this attention to detail, as Baan said—the implementation of well-known materials and processes—that ensure the learning center’s success, once it’s built.

“Even though we are not from there [we’ve been told that] it feels very local,” Reuter said. “As an outsider you can ask the stupid questions and can see things perhaps more clearly than you could if you were too close. When we come from the outside we can say, ‘the thing you have already is so valuable so you should use it and keep it.’”