“Reinventing the wheel” is a common catch phrase, indicating someone who is insistent on solving a problem that has already been solved. However, can we equate that with the task of redesigning the wheel?The wheel is probably the most important human invention after fire; it has not only affected human mobility but also all aspects of human productivity. It is that simple notion of an endless number of points connecting at an equidistance from a central fixed point, otherwise known as a circle, that lies at the heart of so many critical human inventions.
The wheel is only one manifestation that has undergone many designs and redesigns, and our dissatisfaction with what we have drives us to seek that which is better. Hence, we designed the wheel in wood to facilitate the carriage and expand our outreach. After figuring out how to make it out of steel, the lines connecting human settlements became tangible, they became steel railway lines.
Combinations of rubber and steel gave birth to the automobile, and with it those lines of connectivity turned into endless networks of asphalt and concrete, transforming our environment dramatically.On the other hand, some of us –for some strange reason- continue to re-invent the wheel every time a problem is encountered, as opposed to designing a better solution. We encounter ample exemplifications of this in the streets of Cairo, and the new communities we pretend to plan around the resilient city.
A case that comes to mind is that of the old Cairo Opera, which used to be an important focal point within the city’s 19th century Downtown area. In the 20th century, we replaced the burned down structure with a multi-story parking garage. In the 21st century, designers are being asked to solve the problem we created and bring back the elegance of the 19th century to that part of the city. The same happened in Ramsis Square, where the symbolic Cairo Railway Station is located.
Again, we tried to hide it with a flyover then a multi-story parking structure in the last quarter of the 20th century. Then in the 21st century, we tore down the garage and asked designers to provide solutions that bring back the glories of the past! (The selected solution from the international competition proposes to tear down the flyover as well!)Historic Fatimid Cairo also had its share of the 20th century flyover madness. First, there was a flyover that cut through its dense fabric and destroyed any vistas that existed in this seductive part of the old city.
Then, a tunnel was built as the solution to the flyover-vista problem. Sadly, the flyover remains, along with the tunnel. In our own Under the Flyover, we complain about the disadvantages the 15th of May flyover brought to Zamalek’s once elegant 26th of July street. Is there room for redesign, we ask?
In High Line NYC, we encounter a case of redesign, where the community chose not to tear down the elevated railway once it outlived its original purpose. Instead, railway was transformed into an elevated public space. The wheel did not only bring locomotives and cars into our lives, it also brought the bicycle, which for the last two centuries played varying roles of importance in our lives.
Today, it is enjoying a form of revival as we struggle with the harm we have done to our environment from the excess use of automobiles and other detrimental modes of transport. This resurgence inspired the Danes to celebrate bicycles in their pavilion at the EXPO in Shanghai this year. Let us celebrate creativity. Let us redesign and stop reinventing the wheel!