On the first of February the long-abandoned and unused Villa Casdagli on Simon Bolivar Sq. was looted and its staircase was set on fire. The following day I visited the building after reading news that it was “burned to the ground” and found the fire department finishing its job in controlling the isolated fire. The building was standing strong but it had been stripped of any removable valuable ornamentation, or as the fire department officer called it, the building was “peeled.” What happened at Villa Casdagli is hardly something new nor does it have anything to do with revolution or the “security vacuum.” Historic buildings, particularly those from the 19th and 20th centuries have fallen victim to organized looting, vandalism and even official cover for their subsequent demolition by people as high up in the state as previous prime ministers (directly requesting the removal of buildings from heritage lists). Following this particular incident there has been no official response from the state and its institutions responsible while the most visible response from the cultured elite has been one of despair.
The latest incident at Villa Casdagli reveals the failures of the state in safeguarding and capitalizing on heritage as well as the failures of Egypt’s heritage society to take a leading role in creating awareness, creating proposals and offering alternatives to the fate of Egypt’s modern heritage and most importantly in making the heritage issue relevant to a wider audience outside the privileged few. Also, the incident makes certain the failure of Egypt’s professional cadre of engineers and architects who have not developed the professional environment and practices that prepare them to handle such heritage buildings regardless of their state in order to bring them back to life.
[As the burned and discolored plaster surface peels away it reveals a new modern, clean stone wall. This building is ready for a new life.]
The villa, which was built in 1910, under all the ornamentation, plaster, gilded frames, and wood floors is a masonry structure built with brick, stone and the floors and ceilings are of iron and concrete, hence it was little damaged structurally in the latest snafu.
The building had recently received some journalistic attention for its apparent neglect and need for restoration. Hidden behind trees, the villa had gone unnoticed to unknowing pedestrians until clashes in Tahrir Square spread to the nearby Simon Bolivar Sq. and led to the subsequent erection of a second wall on that square blocking off the street leading to parliament (the first wall was already erected blocking the street leading to the US embassy). The erection of the second wall had turned this important junction into a dead end and pedestrians had to get around the wall to go to their work in the area which led pedestrians to cut through the garden of the villa to jump its wall to make their way around the obtrusive obstacle course of walls. This was an unintended consequence of the road block wall, but it made the villa accessible and visible.
Of course not everyone was unaware of the building, it had been eyed for renovation, potentially paid for with a $5 million USAID grant to transform it into Cairo’s first Institute for Museology.
Government bureaucracy and conflict between the ministries of antiquities and education (the former tenant of the building until around 1999) delayed any possible progress in the status of the building which continued to be vacant and unused.
Then suddenly there was a night of renewed clashes on the last day of January during which a truck was loaded with large gilded frames, marble fireplace mantles, and extremely heavy ironwork that once lined windows and balconies. By morning the clashes had magically ended and the villa was “peeled.” This isn’t the first of its kind, the Villa Ispenian in Haram was given the same treatment recently. Looted items end up on the market for antique dealers and much of it ends up outside the country where it can be sold for a higher price. Whatever wasn’t removable was vandalized but with the exception of the staircase the building survived intact. Apparently the Education Ministry already has some kind of report of the incident.
This isn’t about this particular building, rather this recent incident could have been an opportunity for all those involved and those interested in heritage to raise pertinent issues that have been needing resolution for years: Why are such buildings, particularly those in state ownership and use, allowed to sit unused and allowed to deteriorate? How can the state capitalize on the historical and heritage value of this real estate? What is wrong with the current laws and regulations regarding heritage/historic buildings particularly those from the 19th century to the present? What are some proposals for legislation that could remedy the situation and save what is left and what are the benefits and who benefits? Villa Casdagli could be a visible and easy to understand illustration of why these are important questions to raise as part of a wider conversation that brings in a wider audience beyond the small group of heritage enthusiasts.
Additionally, once the fate of the building is saved from a potential demolition permit, the work should be carried out by a local firm, one that demonstrates that Egyptian practices are ready and capable of carrying out such work. Often such projects go to international architecture firms, denying Egyptian firms from building a portfolio of successful experiences of renovations/conservations of modern heritage buildings. One such local company more than ready to do this work is Takween, a group of talented young architects and planners who have experience working in Egypt in various contexts and with heritage sites.
This building was a victim not of the latest clashes, but of thirteen years of neglect following forty years of misuse. There is a cause here that needs to be perused regarding Egypt’s modern heritage buildings, but this cause will only be advanced if activists and heritage enthusiasts jump on an opportunity such as this to highlight the problem to a wider audience and to offer alternatives and make more people dream about the potential of these properties and their significance to the economy, to history, etc.
The building lost some of its decorative elements, but that hardly means it is “destroyed.” Think of post-WWII European cities, they were destroyed, and they have been rebuilt like new, some tourists never realize that many of the seemingly medieval city squares and surrounding buildings are in fact fifty year-old reconstructions. So, no one should put their hands up in despair because we lost a wooden staircase and some mirrors. With $5 million, if that money is still available, this building could provide a much needed institution such as an Institute for Museology, but it could also provide an excellent case study in architectural conservation in Cairo.