Built in the 1930’s, Cinema Radio is located on Talaat Harb St. (formally Soliman Pasha St.), the most frequently visited street in Downtown Cairo. The building is composed of two main elements: an office building fronting the street and a cinema reached through a passage. The office building is made up of over 120 rooms and the cinema building (originally one large cinema hall with Cairo’s largest screen which was later split into two separate levels) now hosts a cinema and a theater, each 1,500 sqm, which are both currently vacant. The passageway runs through the office building leading to the cinema, with commercial space lined on both sides. During the glory days of Downtown, Cinema Radio premiered Egypt’s most prominent movies and was frequently visited by the affluent society of Egypt.
No this is not about “westernization” or inauthentically copying some European monopoly on 20th century modernity. The cinema was among a series of large movie houses built all around Egyptian cities by Egyptian private investors who have built a great deal of wealth since the early 1920s following the 1919 revolution and the establishment of Egyptian financial institutions such as Bank Misr and its companies including Misr Studio (for film production). This was the golden age of Egyptian cinema and these deco movie houses were the spatial manifestation of that new form of public sphere, one that is rooted in the 20th century (the spirit of the time, zeitgeist) and not in the spirit of Europe as Eurocentrists propagate.
As the film industry suffered, the former capitalist elite was eradicated after the early 1960s nationalization of private wealth, the buildings that stood as testament of a vibrant private sector economy (office buildings) and active film industry (the large screen of Cinema Radio) deteriorated and were later occupied by new tenets who tried to use the space in ways that accommodated their needs. The building is emblematic of the disappearance of downtown’s prestigious status which is a story not unique to Cairo but one which can be found in downtowns all across the world from European capitals such as Lisbon to North European cities such as Detroit. Regeneration of these downtowns is a controversial proposition and is challenging.
The challenge: What to do with real estate which was built to fit a particular economic strata and architecturally and spatially reflects a level of grandeur? The other aspect is the historical value of this real estate, these buildings are not abstract square footage. This real estate has the additional value of heritage and history and acts as testament of Egyptian modernity and historical development. Losing this real estate is akin to losing the documents, the evidence and facts on the ground that showcase Egypt’s 20th century modernity IN SPITE OF colonialism not because of it.
Some have imposed a western-centric leftist critique of the idea of regenerating downtown Cairo. In western capitals, built with the wealth generated from two hundred years of colonialism, slavery and exploitation, the discourse of preservation is a right wing one. Rightly so anti-gentrification movements represent resistance to such approaches to urban development. However I would argue that this perspective is not universal and should not be applied wholesale outside the context of western metropolitan centers, particularly European capitals. In the Egyptian context, reviving a history of modern Egypt, spot lighting it and making it accessible to a wider Egyptian and visiting public could have the potential of resisting colonial and neocolonial narratives about Egyptian inferiority and “failed modernization.” This is a debate for another post.
[Video: Al-Ismaelia’s Karim Shafei takes al-Masry al-Youm on a tour of Cinema Radio]
Cinema Radio should be seen in this context. It is currently owned by Al-Ismaelia for Real Estate Investments and the company intends to bring the building back to life in its efforts to invest in downtown. The building had been largely vacant, like many downtown buildings and the company was able to reach deals with former tenents and buy the property. The property is challenging however because of the vast scale of the cinema which as I said above reflected a much more vibrant film industry in Egypt. Today it would be impossible to fill such a hall for film screenings everyday and therefore it will be difficult to be financially sustainable. The necessary approach is to think outside the box which led to a recent deal struck with the popular TV program El Barnameg to film its shows in front of a live audience using the theater space.
[Video: Teaser promo for Season 2 of El Bernameg TV show featuring Cinema Radio]
This intervention should be the first step in a longer process of renovation and revitalization that will utilize the office building as well as the commercial spaces in the passageway leading to the cinema. Architect Hassan Abouseda has created some preliminary proposals for the building’s revival featured on his website.
[Cinema Radio facade of the office building facing Talaat Harb Street with passage in the center leading to the cinema in the back. Before and after renovation image from Hassan Abouseda architects]
[Current state of the Cinema facade showing the original understated modernist 1930s facade and additional adjustments added by the previous owner, which will be removed during renovation]
[Interior of the cinema space, the upper tier, which sits above the theater space on the level below]
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