After two years of renovation work, this weekend the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo celebrates the completion of work on the upgraded facilities. The Institute was founded in 1971 as a hub for cultural exchange as well as teaching and research particularly in the fields of Arabic & Islamic studies, Egyptology, Archaeology and Papyrology, among others. Part of Leiden University, the institute welcomes scholars from eight participating universities in the Netherlands and Flanders.
The institute has occupied its current building in Zamalek since its founding in 1971. The exact date of the building construction is unknown, however, judging by its architectural character, it appears to be from the nineteen-teens.
Over the years adjustments were made to transform a building that was intended for residential use to fit its new function as home for a research institute with publicly accessible spaces, offices as well as short-term residences for scholars. The director of the institute also lived in the building until recently.
The structure consists of a basement, an elevated main level reached by a stair and two upper floors in addition to a roof terrace.
The renovation called for meeting the following needs: optimizing space, modernizing the structure while maintaining original character, provide new common facilities, new office space, new classrooms, new sanitation facilities and removal of unneeded kitchens, upgrade scholar guestrooms, bigger library space, fire safety and emergency exits, and new mechanical systems (most notably a new central ventilation system). All this had to be done while the institute continued its functions.
The project was managed by Bert Dopp from Leiden University’s real estate department. Architect Ernst Hoek provided the design and local contractor Wafaa Dewidar implemented the project.
The renovation team worked to maintain original details such as the balat flooring in the entry hall and the ironwork on the stair rail. In both cases the team attempted to reproduce such details to expand beyond their original locations: The stair rail was reproduced in order to extend the stair further up to reach the roof terrace (where it had originally terminated at the top floor). The new railing seamlessly continues the original work. Similarly the team wished to reproduce balat tiles to expand them beyond the entry hall into other rooms. However, the balat industry is all but gone in Egypt and it was not possible to find the proper artisans to carryout the work.
In addition to aesthetic considerations, the renovation involved serious modifications that were done in context-sensitive ways: In addition to extending the stair a further level, a shaft was created through the entire building to carry wiring, ventilation systems and pipes. The entire structure was rewired with new networks and wireless internet as well as a sound system in some places. The air vents are discreetly positioned in the ceilings to provide much needed ventilation without disturbing the spatial quality of the rooms with their high ceilings and airy feel. An emergency stair (spiral) was fitted along the back of the building to allow for an escape route from the roof and top floor.
In addition to maintaining existing detail and adding new building systems, there were added architectural details. Those new additions are: the reception desk and the bar at the roof terrace, as well as glass walls placed at the thresholds (creating vestibules) and finally a new guard kiosk outside the building.
The institute commissioned a Dutch artist to create tiles bearing the logos of participating universities and institutes which were then broken and reassembled on the bar and reception desk.
Glass walls, sealing the interior spaces to help maintain temperature controls, also provide a visual function of marking thresholds (at the main entrance, the roof terrace and the basement entrance to classrooms) in a consistent manner. This added element also sensitively makes an architectural statement without overpowering the original structure. The pattern on the glass was designed by the architect and is inspired by perforation both in Dutch lace and Egyptian arabesque wooden screens.
The pattern was also used on the shading device designed for the guard kiosk outside. The new kiosk provides lockers for guards and guests to leave their bags, fire safety controls and security features. The design of the kiosk is inspired by Dutch greenhouses and it is built around an existing tree in the garden of the building.
The NVIC renovation proves that Cairo’s historic architecture can be transformed into modern, well-designed spaces suiting new functions with the right intentions and good practice. The potential for similar projects in Cairo is countless, however the professional framework, design practices and contractors needed for successful adaptive-reuse/building renovations are lacking. The NVIC project provides a successful model for building transformation that is sensitive to functional needs, cultural context and architectural heritage.
To visit the NVIC website, click here.