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Department of Architecture



I am an urban theorist, ethnographer, and architect with interest in improvised city planning, the commons, property theory, and popular notions of value and morality in the built environment. My main specialisation is in cities of the Middle East and North Africa – having conducted extensive field work in Cairo, as well as in Doha and Beirut – where I combine scholarship in anthropology and legal geography to understand how people repurpose cities built from scratch. Of related interest, then, are the urban poor, new global middle classes, migration, and international development. I also research the relationship between digital technology and evictions in Medellin, Colombia, towards developing experimental property rights arrangements. This frames an ongoing effort to articulate methodological principles for an "architectural social science," combining ethnography, building practices, and data modelling to predict the effects of planning policy and speculate on possible city futures. 

I hold a DPhil (PhD) in Geography from the University of Oxford (2016), an AADiploma (RIBA Part II) from the Architectural Association School of Architecture (2010), a MSc in Contemporary Urbanism from the London School of Economics (2008), and BA's in Architecture and in Political Economy from the University of California at Berkeley (2007). Prior to joining Cambridge I was a Post-Doctoral Research Associate at the University of Oxford's Department of Anthropology, where I remain a Research Affiliate. 


Teaching Interests

Urban theory and practice, international development, legal geography, property theory, anthropology of value, culture and politics in Middle Eastern cities, ethnography, and architectural design. 


  • Part IA: History/Theory Trip – Masters and Means: Veneto, from Palladio to Scarpa, and the future of Venice [8 days] 
  • Part IB: Global Urban Studies (1) – The Neighbourhood in Social Theory: Global perspectives and possibilities for local life [8 lectures]
  • Part II: Global Urban Studies (2) – Exurbs and Enclaves: Critical urban studies and comparison [4 lectures + 4 seminars]


For the MPhil in Architecture and Urban Studies [MAUS], MPhil in Architecture and Urban Design [MAUD], and PhD:

  • Convener/Co-Lecturer, core paper "Social Theory, Architecture, and the City" [8 x 1hr lecture + 1hr seminar]
  • Convener/Co-Lecturer, core paper "Research Methods: Building blocks for inquiry" [8 x 1hr lecture + 1hr seminar]
  • Advanced Seminar "What is Property?: Global perspectives on property's past and future" [4 x 1hr lecture + 1hr seminar]

I supervise on average two MAUD students that I follow for the duration of their two years of study – that is two essays and a dissertation. I usually also supervise two MAUS students for their essays and dissertation. Since beginning my lectureship in late-2018, I have supervised fourteen MPhil's to completion.


I currently supervise four PhD students.

  • Ibrahim Abdou
  • Rashid bin Shabib
  • Karam Alkatlabe
  • Artur Sokolowski

I also chair the department's Ethics Sub-Committee, and thus run workshops on research ethics, offering specialised training in qualitative methods, and in ethnography in particular.


I am currently pursuing three main research interests:

  • CLTX: Global land enclosures, urban technology, and experimental property in Medellin - As part of the PEAK Urban project, sustained by the UK Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), I am evaluating how mobile phone applications promising to streamline land titling processes and collective building management for the urban poor in Medellin and Bogota, Colombia are impacting short- and long-term home retention/displacement, construction practices, and neighbourhood-scale association. I aim to develop new institutional, financial, and legal mechanisms for property titling that can prevent forced displacement by compulsory purchase, while strengthening neighbourhood-scale employment networks and generating funds for upgrading initiatives. I am currently testing how laws and financial instruments normally reserved exclusively for the development of luxury condominiums can be applied to "urban villages" in Colombia, learning from land-titling mobile platforms to overcome historic collaboration barriers. To this end, in 2021 and 2022, I will organise three workshops titled "Urban Property Futures: Three Cross-Disciplinary Charrettes" in Cambridge and in Oxford, gathering together social scientists, legal theorists, technologists, and architects to deconstruct existing property experiments, to speculate on their transferability, and to propose new property possibilities. 
  • The Common in a Compound: Morality, ownership, and legality in exurban Cairo - I am currently completing my first book. Amidst Egypt’s 2011–2013 revolutionary period, as former slum-dwellers occupied and retrofitted a private development, marketed as affordable housing but sold to the middle-classes, this ethnography shows how competing discourses on property are systematized to assert ownership and order where the scales of official legitimacy have been tipped. In detailing how socially embedded positions on property shape private urban law, I combine the rich anthropological literature on morality in Cairo with legal geography on suburbs in the Global North. The work therefore interrogates a range of themes central to scholarship on urbanism—gated communities, affordable housing, eviction-resettlement, informality, and local governance—from the perspective of Cairo’s urban poor and new middle class, as both groups appropriate planning terminology to assert their rights. The project lays theoretical foundations for examining a global trend towards private low-income developments, promoted by the UN, World Bank, and developers investing in “emerging markets” following the 2008 financial crisis.
  • I am preparing a translation of Il Ventre di Napoli (‘The Bowels of Naples’) by Matilde Serao (1884, 1906), an ethnographic critique of slum-eradication and real estate speculation in Naples, Italy that precedes and is echoed in the works of Jane Jacobs on New York, with commentary on parallels in contemporary evictions across the urban Mediterranean.


I collaborate or consult with several architecture, urban planning, and design studios, but most regularly with:


Key publications: 

Journal articles

‘Seeing like a City-State: Behavioural Planning and Governance in Egypt’s First Affordable Gated Community.’ International Journal of Urban and Regional Research (2018), vol. 42, no. 3, pp. 461-482.

‘Urbanism as Craft: Practicing Informality and Property in Cairo’s Gated Suburbs, from Theft to Virtue.’ Annals of the Association of American Geographers (2018), vol. 108, no. 3, pp.  620–637.

‘Review of Violence and the City in the Modern Middle East.’ Nelida Fuccaro, ed., Arab Studies Journal (2017), vol. 15, no. 2.

Book chapters

‘Grey Space, Tahrir Laser: Conspiracy, Critique, and the Urban in Julie Mehretu’s Depictions of Revolutionary Planned Violence: Post/Colonial Urban Infrastructures, Literature and Culture. Ed. Elleke Boehmer and Dominic Davies. London: Palgrave Macmillan (2018).

‘The Architect and Externalities: Translating the Commons as Design Strategy.’ in Public Occasion Agency: Events 01. Ed. Jan Nauta. London: Bedford Press (2012).

Playing by the Rules: An Inside-Out Guide to Behaving in the Square Mile.’ in London +10. Ed. Carlos Villanueva-Brandt. London: Architectural Association Publications (2010).


How should we plan the cities of tomorrow?, with Michael Keith and Andreza de Souza Santos, The Conversation, 18 Oct 2016.

So what difference will the 2016 New Urban Agenda make when the world has had enough of experts?, with Michael Keith and Andreza de Souza Santos, ESRC Urban Transformations, 17 Oct 2016.

New migrant urbanisms and the United Nations Habitat III conference in Quito, with Michael Keith and Andreza de Souza Santos, Centre on Migration Policy and Society, 17 Oct 2016.

O que podemos dizer sobre o futuro das cidades no Brasil e no mundo?, with Michael Keith and Andreza de Souza Santos, BBC Brasil, 27 Sept 2016.

A place for the UK in supporting UN-Habitat’s New Urban Agenda – the role of the ESRC’s Urban Transformations network, ESRC Urban Transformations, 15 Aug 2016.

A Compound in Common: The Case of ‘Little Duweiqa,’ Haram City, Jadaliyya, 19 Feb 2015.

Assistant Professor of Architecture and Urban Studies
Director, MPhil in Architecture and Urban Studies (History/Theory)
Fellow of Gonville and Caius College
Director of Studies for Clare College
Dr Nicholas  Simcik Arese