Cairobserver — modern urban vernacular

modern urban vernacular


Building on an earlier post, here are some more reflections on this often overlooked building typology which represents one of Cairo’s modern vernaculars (late 19th-20th centuries).

The brick buildings pictured above are not located in an “informal” area or on the outskirts of the city or along the ring road. These are in the center of Cairo in the district of Abdeen, a 19th and early 20th century neighborhood that grew out of the limits of the old city and into the 19th century expansion. Those particular buildings are on Mohamed Farid Street, which continues further north in downtown proper where it is lined with some of 19th/20th century Cairo’s grandest buildings. In its southern part however the street has more humble beginnings. Although Abdeen Palace is just a stone’s throw away, the buildings here dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries are residential buildings where middle class families resided.


Some turn of the century brick buildings survive. Those buildings, in my estimation, represent one of Cairo’s forgotten vernacular typologies. They can also be counted as an early iteration of the contemporary reinforced concrete and red brick typology dominating the city. There are fundamental differences however between these century old buildings and their contemporary counterparts.

On the most basic level, these buildings use the same materials as their contemporary counterparts, that’s where the similarity ends. The differences are in the ways these materials are used, the proportions of spaces, and the craftsmanship.

These buildings were most probably not designed by architects (as in someone who received formal training to gain the official title of architect), rather this typology like the majority of the city’s built environment was constructed by builders, not different from today’s developers/contractors. The difference comes in the centrality of artisans and specialists who conceive and execute certain elements of the building (carpentry, brick work, iron work). Today’s developers and builders who build for the majority of the population seem to have lost their grip on the well-trained artisans. Artisans who were trained in an apprenticeship system have all but disappeared. Therefore the majority of today’s building work is undertaken by unskilled labor. That is the fundamental difference between these brick and concrete buildings and their contemporary equivalents.

This vernacular architecture should be the subject of study and documentation. Such buildings are sidelined as insignificant, mundane and unworthy of study. However, these buildings remind us that “back to basics” isn’t a bad way to go. In the big picture so few of Cairo’s buildings throughout its history (like many other cities) were actually designed by architects. We tend to forget that architecture as a profession is relatively new and has historically catered to the top echelons of society. What about the rest? They built and continue to build without architects but skill, artistry and traditions of building technique evolved and were refined and readjusted to suit the times.

The building below and others pictured here, are reminders of what buildings are about: basic shelter. There aren’t so many ways to arrange the plan for a one or a two bedroom apartment and the materials available predetermine many factors. The question is, will it be done sloppily or will artisans and builders execute the various elements of building well enough that they survive a century even if they are only exposed brick and concrete slab buildings. There is beauty in this architecture and it lies in its honesty, simplicity and functionality.


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