John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
A photographer captures these monumental dwellings in all their surreal detail.
Egypt is in the throes of a severe housing shortage, with people so desperate for shelter they're building hundreds of thousands of illegal, sometimes rickety buildings that the government promptly dynamites. But one thing the country has an abundance of is lonesome desert, and developers are turning there to construct immense projects that stick out in the emptiness like skyscrapers on Mars.
London-based photographer Manuel Alvarez Diestro has a yen for the monumental—he's documented the mountain-eating cemeteries of Hong Kong and satellite dish-crusted apartment towers of Algiers. So naturally he was interested in the colossal structures rising on the outskirts of Egyptian cities. His recent journey to Cairo, Alexandria, Hurghada, and other 'burgs has resulted in "New Cairo," an eerie, almost surreal look at Egypt's manifest destiny. Great walls of residential projects teeter on the edge of the desert, with nothing apparent on the other side but vast expanses of sand.
Though they look like ghost cities, one day these places will stir with life. "The houses are in the middle of construction, with the exception of some that are almost finished," emails Alvarez Diestro, who's 42. "It is interesting that they build them with no fences around and they're visible to all passing around. All of them will be occupied, especially those ones for the lower classes that happen to be the majority of the population and are experiencing an important growth."
Alvarez Diestro says Egypt's housing shortage is "mainly for the lower class." One of the developments meant to house the less fortunate is shown in the above photo, taken near the southern city of Aswan. But the photographer also spotted some beloved fortresses of the upper crust, gated communities, such as the one in the bottom-most image.
"The gated communities are for the wealthy and meant as an escape from Cairo's congestion and pollution," he says. "This new concept of urban planning potentially fragments Egyptian society by isolating a part of the wealthy in the desert from the rest of the population living the central areas."