Princeton School of Architecture
Research, Exhibition

Urban space acts as a stage for unfolding events. Protests, in particular, engage with the built environment in such a direct manner that they make cities visible in new ways. Events such as protests demonstrate that space is actively constructed, not immediately given, in ways that are material and symbolic. The “scene,” or site, is inscribed and continually re-inscribed through practices of marking, looking, calculating, interpreting and rendering.

The presumed success of the Egyptian revolution is often attributed to social media as it allowed for new means of disseminating information and the ability to strategically navigate cities, allowing citizens to find meeting points and locate routes on major streets that could accommodate large groups. Protests produce different networks and densities, both material and immaterial, that coexist in these new hybrid public spaces. We can witness an accelerated process of change in ways that are not just political but social and technological.

During times of dissent, architecture and urban space become lucid. Architecture acts as both a witness and victim during protests. Architecture and urban space  are not only sites of dissent but also the material through which protest acts.  In the case of Tahrir square, programs were changed and inverted and infrastructure was adapted and re-appropriated. Residential vantage points and international hotels provided the majority of mainstream coverage of the Egyptian Revolution. The overwhelming amount of protesters in Tahrir Square restricted many views and on-the-ground accounts. The large crowds that were funneled through narrow streets produced a powerful image of a dissatisfied society. It also allowed the media to debate over how many people were actually present.

The most reliable coverage came from activist videos and real time tweets but both systems of data alone are incomplete. When organized and realigned according to the days on which the events took place, we can see a more continuous synthetic episodic narrative unfold. Whereas the videos and photographs tell the story of the protests through literal visualization, the tweets provide us with spatial coordinates of the events. Yet in addition to social media and digital images, other immaterial relationships need to be taken into account. Likewise, it is important to consider the apparatus through which the network is established, sustained and distributed. Moving from the mobile phone to tweets, internet traffic and your home computer, this continuous network constitutes the changing scale of public space today.

The proliferation of social media and the ubiquity of digital imaging devices have given us unprecedented access to events. No longer are we bound to the singular perspective offered by news media; quite literally, the multitude of images represents a multitude of viewpoints. We have hundreds of videos providing coverage of the event organized by day. This data resides in a rapidly growing but dispersed digital archive. But how much is all this information really telling us?

Digital documentation performs an important role when it is accumulated, sorted, and distributed. More than a record of our past, digital images are producing an incessant mapping of the present. Rather than solely question the past, digital images should also make us suspicious of our present moment. We are all collectively participating in a preservation project in which the places most photographed become most visible. By converting images into digital information their power as communication is amplified and extended. Its condition of being single and multiple, everywhere and nowhere, constitutes the power of the digital image.

Preservation understands the necessity to remember but struggles to recall events that a present or future generation has not experienced. The hope is that when a site is “preserved” or “restored” it reveals the layers of history and past memory, but often it merely covers them up.  The digital archive challenges the idea of monumentality and its implied permanence as it is constantly made and remade--never fixed but always changing.

When data is projected from this digital archive-- be it images and words-- onto the site, certain places which receive the most attention become the most visible. A model was generated based precisely on the notion of “attraction points” wherein locations and buildings that received the most attention were rendered in a higher resolution that was proportional to the use and significance of that space. In this way, loss and recovery are equally made visible.

The historical and philosophical debate over what memory to preserve, how to preserve, in what name, and to what end is a constant debate. Heritage is memory: it is cultural and variable and therefore always political. It can be used to erase memory or change its image. This project could be read as a tactic for recovery, perhaps a strategy for coping with loss - or something inbetween.