Urban regeneration is natural and necessary, but given current development demands, an often nasty process. Referencing works in Turkey, India, Morocco, Cypress, etc; the discussion will focus on issues of cultural heritage, public space, policy, and dirty daily contemporary urban realities in search of alternative methods of operating.
Jason Hilgefort studied urbanism at The University of Cincinnati and architecture at UBC in Vancouver. His works range from New York to Bombay. He is a project leader at Maxwan A+U, and has his own office Land + Civilization Compositions. He is also a contributor to uncube magazine.
The Talk will be held at MEGAWRA on March 28 at 7pm.
Visible slightly to the north from the narrow overpass that links Opera Square to Azhar Street is a corner building with four kneeling Atlas statues lifting a glass globe. This was the Tiring Department Store, one of Cairo’s many houses of early twentieth century shopping and consumption of modern goods.
The store was founded in 1910 by Victor Tiring, an Austrian merchant born in Istanbul who specialized in Turkish tailoring. The Tiring family had built its first store in Vienna in 1882. The building was designed by Oscar Horowitz, a Czech architect who studied in Vienna and who designed similar shopping destinations within the Austro-Hungarian sphere. The Tiring Store in Cairo was completed in 1912 and when it opened it was the city’s premier shopping destination for imported luxury goods. With the events of World War I, the British occupation in Egypt had deemed all Austrians and Hungarians as enemies and forced their departure from Egypt. The Tiring department store was only in business for few years and its business was interrupted due to pressure from the colonial administration which forced it into liquidation by 1920.
The five-story building was designed with open floors and an airy feel fit for modern shopping and it would eventually become the desired property by other department store owners but complications due to ownership led to it being abandoned. Shortly after the demise of the short-lived Tiring, the building became home to squatters, primarily small-business and workshops who set up shop in its vast floors. It has been used since by a variety of people for a variety of activities, there was a bar, a mosque, full-time residents, clothing workshops and a cafe occupying the building at one time.
This is the story of many buildings, perhaps hundreds in Cairo and other cities. At first it may appear that the main obstacle confronting any effort to save Tiring building is related to ownership. However, another building not far away, fronting Opera Square and the remaining parcel of Azbakeya Garden is the former Continental Hotel which is also occupied by small workshops informally, yet it is owned by the state. Other buildings around downtown and the surrounding districts have been undergoing a process for decades aimed at intentionally removing links to original owners. Those were the properties of owners who fled the country, were forced out either by the British or subsequent regimes, or properties where heirs immigrated and entrusted the property to a lawyer or anyone who later illegally sold it to themselves and obscured links to the original owners. This has led to legal disputes and often buildings have been “frozen” with no one to claim them as their own and thus they fall for squatters or idle eternally. What I am trying to argue, the Tiring Building brings attention to the legal dimension complicating the potential regeneration, maintenance and reuse of such properties. And this calls for a legal framework and carefully drafted policy.
The Tiring Building was built a century ago, yet it was used by its original owner for its intended use for less than a decade. Despite this, it has become part of the urban heritage of Cairo and its iconic Atlases and glass globe have become a landmark referenced in works of art, literature and seen in film. The building, and others like it, is part of Cairo’s cityscape and it presents us with a challenge of dealing with its complicated history, ownership issues, accommodate/legalize its current users, maintain its architectural heritage, make it economically sustainable and make it accessible to the public.
The building should also be seen in its urban and social context. It sits at a unique location linking old and new Cairo and near Attaba Square where other key buildings such as the fire department and the original post office stand. Near by is the Attaba vegetable market, one of downtown’s central markets, and surrounding streets are bustling with commercial activity. There is massive potential in this area to organize, develop, accommodate current commercial activities while diversifying the uses and users by inserting new ones. However, the scale of needed development in Cairo’s central districts needs new strategies that move beyond the approach of focusing on individual buildings and seeking the needed funds to restore them without considering their relationship to context and their potential new uses. Many of the historic buildings which have been restored by the state following this approach have sat empty for years or have been transformed into “cultural centers” where no real activity takes place.
The Tiring Building is desperately screaming for attention for the entire district to be revitalized in cooperation with its current users. However, with the current governance structure which does not align with community structures in the city there will be no revitalization. Communities in Cairo are full of buildings around which the various districts can develop, whether the Sakakini Palace in Sakakini or the Tiring Building in Attaba, those buildings can act as the starting point in a community-driven, government-led approach that integrates buildings of historic significance with the communities that live in and around them in ways that protect the architectural heritage, stimulate economic development and provide new opportunities. Such efforts need sound policy and such policy needs to build on a political structure that empowers communities rather than treat them as mere squatters to be removed.
Goethe Institut [5 El Bostan Street, Downtown, Cairo]
December 8, 2012
6:00 pm – 8:00 pm
Tamer El Said, Filmmaker, Co-founder of Cimateque
Heba Farid, Artist, Founding member of Contemporary Image Collective (CIC),
Project Coordinator of the Photographic memory of Egypt program for CULTNAT
Bruce Ferguson, Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, the American University in Cairo
Karim Shafei, CEO of Al Ismaelia Real Estate Developments
Ania Szremski, Curator, Townhouse Gallery
Moderated by: Mohamed Elshahed, Founder and Editor of Cairobserver.
This panel discussion explores the role that artists and arts organizations are playing in the development of Downtown Cairo. A direct dialogue between representatives of Al Ismailia Real Estate Developments and The American University in Cairo with artists and cultural organizations currently staking out cultural outposts downtown (including Townhouse Gallery, Cimateque, and CIC), the panel re-examines the classic appropriation of artists as catalysts for urban regeneration by real-estate developers seeking future gentrification. How might things play out differently in Cairo? How is Cairo different from other cities, such as New York and Beirut, where such cycles of gentrification have taken place? What role may the underutilized AUC campus play in providing a cultural anchor Downtown? What are the advantages and downsides of private sector partnerships between real estate stakeholders and independent artists and arts organizations? Through critical conversation this forum seeks to explore potential local strategies for sustaining artists’ access to the generative contributions they make to urban development.
This program is curated and organized by Beth Stryker and Omar Nagati/Cluster with support from the Ford Foundation and the Goethe Institut. It is part of a series of activities sponsored by the Ford Foundation that aim to provide a platform to facilitate communication and learning among Egyptians working on issues affecting the urban environment.
الفنانيين كمحفز للعمران
معهد جوته: 5 شارع البستان – وسط البلد
السبت 8 ديسمبر، 2012
من الساعة 6 إلى 8 مساءا
تامر السعيد، مخرج، الشريك المؤسس لسيماتيك
بروس فيرجسون، عميد كلية العلوم الإنسانية والاجتماعية، الجامعة الأمريكية في القاهرة
كريم الشافعي، الرئيس التنفيذي لشركة الاسماعيلية للتطوير العمرانى
انيا سريمسكي، المنسق، تاون هاوس جاليري
تحت إشراف: محمد الشاهد، مؤسس ورئيس تحرير كايرو ابزرفر
تسعى هذہ الجلقة إلى خلق حوار نقدى ما بين مطور العمران ومؤسسات مالكة لأرصدة عمرانية (الإسماعلية و الجامعة الامريكية) من جهة، ومؤسسات ثقافية وفنية ذات مواقع متقدمة فى عمران وسط المدينة (تاون هاوس جاليري، سيماتيك، مجموعة الصورة المعاصرة) وذلك لإستكشاف الدور الذى يلعبة الفنانون فى تطوير وسط المدينة، وتطوير رؤى بديلة ومستدامة للإطر المؤسسية والمالية للساحات الفنية والثقافية (منهم من يتعرضون لخطر الإنتقال خارج وسط المدينة بنهاية عقودهم الإيجارية قصيرة الأجل). وسوف يتم التعرض لأمثلة إقليمية ودولية بمدن أخرى من خلال رؤية مقارنة لدراسة دور الأرصدة االثقافية والإقتصادية فى تطوير الثراث العمرانى لوسط المدينة.
ينظم هذہ الجلسة كلا من بث ستريكر وعمر نجاتى بدعم من مؤسسة فورد ومعهد غوته. وهى جزء من سلسلة من الأنشطة التي ترعاها مؤسسة فورد والتي تهدف إلى توفير منصة لتسهيل الاتصال والتعاون بين المصريين العاملين على القضايا التي تؤثر في البيئة الحضرية.
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]
Excerpt from Al-Ahram Weekly:
Netherlands/Flemish Institute in Cairo (NVIC) and the American Research Centre in Egypt (ARCE) convened a one-day Heritage Management Workshop on 22 November to review the current situation in Egypt and discuss a way forward. In her opening address Kim Duistermaat, director of the Netherlands Institute, which hosted the event, said: “Archaeology is no longer purely an academic discipline. Research and site protection are two sides of the same coin. Archaeology is a study of the past; site management relates to the present.”
The participants had this to say:
“Any project to save an historical or archaeological area is doomed to failure unless it takes into account that the monuments themselves form but an infinitesimal part of the social fabric of an area.”
“To revitalise and successfully conserve an area depends on understanding the forces that created it in the first place, the pattern of streets or waterways, domestic architecture, as well as commercial and manufacturing activities.”
“The further training of professionals is essential and so is community involvement.” “Something has to be done about the structure of politics and regulations.”
“The grassroots of society have to be taken into consideration because they are every bit as concerned about the country’s heritage as the policy-making segment of the community.”
“Education is vital.”
“Get more young students involved.”
“It is not possible to develop and implement long-term plans for conservation and to subsequently maintain sites, without qualified employees, and an educated populace.”
Read full report, here.
Cairo’s nineteenth and twentieth-century architectural heritage is not only unprotected by the state but it is under continuous attack by authorities who have drafted laws to de-value it (in favor of raising value of the desert cities) and who have discouraged private enterprise or entrepreneurs from intervening. Not only are we abandoning our own modern heritage but we are also systematically erasing it from existence. Cairo has a very complex and rich architectural heritage from this time that reflects of a rich economy and society. Here is an example of how things could be, as has been done in the Tunisian capital. Note the similarity in building types such as central markets, theaters in addition to apartment blocks and public spaces which have all received attention from authorities and professionals. Important to note that in order for this project to take place two entities must be in place: a municipality and a professional independent association of architects, historians and conservationists with a mandate to make recommendations and oversee the work. Neither of those institutions exist in Cairo.
Location: Tunis, Tunisia (North Africa)
Architect: Association de Sauvegarde de la Medina de Tunis (ASM)
Client: Municipality of Tunis
Completed: 1998-2007 ongoing
Site size: 60’000 m²
The nineteenth and early twentieth-century architectural heritage of North African cities embodies an important cultural exchange between the southern and northern Mediterranean. This heritage commonly lies adjacent to the old medinas, and has often been neglected in the drive to revitalise the historic centres of cities in this region. The Ville Nouvelle of Tunis, a recipient of the 2010 Award for Architecture, which was built when Tunisia was a French Protectorate, . Its construction reflected a move from the urban patterns of the old medina to a grid plan that changed the character of the city. The urban revitalisation plan, devised and spearheaded by the Association de Sauvegarde de la Médina de Tunis (ASM), has restructured the public spaces of the area around Avenue Bourguiba and Avenue de France and made them chiefly pedestrian. It has also listed and restored key monuments, such as the Théâtre municipal de Tunis, Marché central, Ancien Tribunal administratif and Cinéma Palace, which are once again in use. The ASM continues to actively guide institutions and individuals in the public and private sectors who wish to undertake preservation projects, in order to ensure overall quality and meet the objectives of the many stakeholders.
For more information, please see: http://www.akdn.org/architecture/project.asp?id=3985
Photographer Xenia Nikolskaya lives in St. Petersburg, Stockholm and Cairo. She has done 15 solo shows, and her pictures are featured in the Bibliotheca Alexandria Arts Centre and Sveriges Allmänna Konstförening. She has done commissions for Newsweek, Conde Nast Traveler and the Hermitage Museum.
Nikolskaya currently teaches photography at the American University in Cairo and is editing her upcoming book, “Egyptian Dust: The Social Life of Endangered Spaces,” which will be released in February 2012. The book will include 70 pictures featuring buildings in ten Egyptian cities, with text by historian and poet On Barak.
Polis recently met with Xenia Nikolskaya in Stockholm to talk about the project.
To read the interview on Polis and for more incredible interiors of Egypt’s forgotten palaces, click here.
UPDATE December 2, 2012: The photographs are now published in the book Dust: Egypt’s Forgotten Architecture, available for purchase.
From Azbakeya Garden, previously Cairo’s premier public park, emerges today’s 26 July street, previously Foad I, once one of Cairo’s most prestigious boulevards. The street takes a slight bend to the north before it intersects with now Ramsis Street. Situated directly opposite Azbakiya Garden, at the opposite end of the street, right before the bend is Cairo’s main courthouse, previously the mixed courts.
In front of the court is a triangular space, today a parking lot. At first I thought this must have been another case of Sadat/Mubarak era parking replacing some kind of a public space. However, an undated photograph shows the space occupied by cars as early as the 1940s possibly even the 1930s (car experts might like to tell me based on the cars in the picture, roughly when is this?) Also note on the left edge of the photo Rivoli Cinema building (in case that helps in dating the image).
I suppose when the mixed courts building was erected in 1934 space must have been needed for parking. By then cars were more present on Cairo’s streets and all those snazzy lawyers and their clients must have had cars as well. So making the triangle in front of the court a parking lot may have been necessary. There was no shortage of public space in the city so transforming this relatively little triangle into parking was less political and more practical.
Today the triangle (parking lot) seems to less serve the court and more function as just another parking space in the congested downtown. Some cars look like they have been sitting there for months collecting dust and others are covered, which means they might be there for even longer. The court building, like all public buildings in the city, is now surrounded by an iron fence, inside of which are even more cars, many look like a second line of defense, a sort of junk yard.
So if the parking lot has been there because of the court then what might have occupied the triangle before the construction of this building (breaking ground was in 1925)? This was the climax of one of Cairo’s main boulevards so something must have been here before the court building. I never knew what was there until I recently had a Baedeker’s Egypt guide from 1914 in my hands. In it the map shows the triangle as a green space. Furthermore, the street on the other side of the triangle (opposite Foad I street as it bends to intersect with then Queen Nazli Street) was called Genainet el-Mothalit Street شارع جنينة المثلث OR Triangle Park Street!, which is now the beginning of Champollion Street. Foad I street was called Boulak Street (as it went from Azbakeya towards the direction of Boulak).
Another undated picture (hanging on my wall) shows the triangle presumably before it was turned over to cars and after the court was built. Notice how Cinema Rivoli isn’t built yet.
To my mind this could be one of those relatively simple urban regeneration projects where there is some room to experiment and develop a model for other similar spaces across the city. The plot is large enough for a discreet underground parking facility with a new park/garden/public space above ground marking this historic intersection and the glorious court building.
In a perfect world when the metro construction and other work is finished under the Azbakeya, it will be redone and opened to the public. 26 July will be tree lined leading to Triangle Park and the court. The park will feature a few shade trees and some benches and under there will be parking space. It isn’t all that difficult to realize.
The necropolis east of historic Cairo and under Muqattam hills is about ten times bigger than Al Azhar Park just across Salah Salem highway. It has received some attention from architectural historians due to the exquisite funerary architecture. There are tombs, mosques, and schools. Although this is only one layer of this Qarafa, as it is known to Egyptians. Besides the historic layer there is a living community that lives among the historic buildings, mostly in buildings that look like self-built apartment houses elsewhere in the city. Contrary to popular belief, few actually live in the tombs. The population may have changed over the course of the last forty years and it may have been larger at some point but today those living in this part of the city are not many. But there are enough families to give this place a sense of community and keep it alive.
This large area is diverse with different conditions, density of residents, density of historic buildings, and varying levels of livability. Also important to note is that Cairo’s historic cemetery continues south of the city core where it is called the Southern Cemetery or Shafii Cemetery. The Southern Cemetery is about double the size of the northern one. While the northern is about the size of the island of Roda, the southern one is about the size of the island of Zamalek!
I’ve only walked around the Northern Cemetery so the rest of this post will focus on that experience.
Salah Salem creates a clear edge on the western side of the Qarafa. As soon as one crosses the pedestrian bridge over Salah Salem from Al Azhar Street and into the Qarafa, the highway humm dissipates and it feels very peaceful and almost secluded. It is easy to forget that you are in a city of 20 million while you’re here. Walking around the grid of walled tombs and funerary complexes, varying in size, age, and style, once in a while there is sign of life: a little girl playing with a ball, an old man spinning thread, a puppy with its mother. Considering how forgotten it feels, there is a sense of romanticism that is inseparable from the place.
An empty sofa at one of the corners is a reminder that this is a nice place to sit. Not only is walking around the regular pedestrian streets so pleasant but it is easy to imagine those streets paved, street furniture arranged in various formations perhaps facing each other to encourage conversation or facing a beautiful wall or door to allow for solitude and contemplation. Some parts of the Qarafa have old trees, others newer trees planted recently but most of it lacks landscaping or vegetation. But some well placed trees and flower boxes can transform the Qarafa into a green lung for the city and a unique network of public spaces.
Then there is the architecture: Galila El Kadi’s 2007 book by AUC Press, Architecture for the Dead focuses on the built heritage of the cemeteries. The publisher’s blurb is helpful here: “The great medieval necropolis of Cairo, comprising two main areas that together stretch twelve kilometers from north to south, constitutes a major feature of the city’s urban landscape. With monumental and smaller-scale mausolea dating from all eras since early medieval times, and boasting some of the finest examples of Mamluk architecture not just in the city but in the region, the necropolis is an unparalleled—and until now largely undocumented—architectural treasure trove.”
The buildings range from extravagant and large to beautiful simple humble mausolea that can be astonishingly modern(ist) in their simplicity (despite being 300-500 years old). In addition to tombs and mausolea, we visited an incredible mosque, Masjid al Sultan Barquq. For historic photos and architectural description of this outstanding building click here.
The porch depicted above is one of two identical ones at opposite sides of the front facade. It is one of the most comforting, well balanced spaces I have experienced and the view is stunning. This is the northern porch and it overlooks a particularly green part of the cemetery, dense with trees. Again it is easy to picture what the entire Qarafa would be like with the addition of trees in other parts. From the roof of this building, or from the minarets above, a panoramic view of the city is unlike any I’ve seen: the towers along the Nile are far west, the historic core in the foreground beyond the tree tops and to the north Heliopolis and the east the Muqattam hill.
Further south (still in the Northern Cemetery) and roughly in its center is a little community with shops and small houses, with some bigger apartment buildings in between. These are not tomb dwellers but if you insist on taking things literally, they do live in the middle of a cemetery. But if it isn’t clear by now, this cemetery isn’t like any other. There is what could be called a main street and even a square. It is quiet, no cars, air is fresh, people are friendly as ever and full of smiles.
There are too many details, some ancient others only months old but equally fascinating, to mention. The Qarafa is particularly interesting not because of the cliche of “city of the dead” but rather because it is in the middle of Cairo, and it is open (not gated or fenced for example), and it is open for outsiders such as myself to meander through. And although there is great diversity in what this zone offers, it still retains a sense of cohesiveness but it isn’t a neighborhood feel (although that is there in part), and it isn’t architectural uniformity, and it isn’t the product of an urban plan or a master plan, there is something else that creates a sense of cohesion.
There is so much potential for this part of the city to be a green lung punctuated with historic architecture and a thriving small community. And the people who live here will do the job, pave the street, water the trees and restore the buildings if they are taken into account and if a plan is put forth. People have always lived here who worked in maintaining the buildings and tombs. But with the collapse of the Waqf system and as families bury their dead elsewhere outside the historic cemetery, those whose livelihood depended on this place have been forgotten. When we were leaving, a family was sweeping the street in front of their house, hanging lights and preparing for a party “come back tonight,” we were invited to a wedding.
Gamal Mubarak & Co. had a plan for Qarafa, or at least parts of it: to raze the area and make an exclusive complex of office buildings.
*image at top of this post is a screenshot from Youssef Chahine’s Cairo.
Just around the corner from AUC’s downtown campus and Bab el-Louq Square is the remains of a once lively art deco cinema. Cinema Rio’s entrance, flanked by two store fronts, is marked by a central, slightly phallic, architectural element with the Arabic letters ر ي و “RIO.” The entrance was lit up by flickering light bulbs that lined the sign above, the marquis and in the shape of an arrow on the ceiling of the entrance hall pointing to the interior. Once inside there are two ticket windows, one on either side, and a concession stand.
Straight ahead one enters the main space: this is an outdoor cinema.
Concrete stands with metal seats flank the entrance into the main space but the rest of the cinema space is a flat area with hundreds of intact original metal seats. Seats are facing a blank facade at the front of the “room” where films were projected. Now the blank wall and much of the cinema is overgrown with trees.
This cinema, probably built in the 1930s, was one of a series of outdoor cinemas around Cairo. Another famous, but now gone, outdoor cinema was at Sakakini Square further north. These open air cinemas were another feature of urban Egypt as they were also present in Alexandria and a few others scattered the Delta. Few of these survive and Cinema Rio may be the last standing open air cinema in Cairo.
With a central location, near Tahrir Square, Bab el Louq, the AUC campus, the downtown art galleries and bars, Horeyya Cafe, this cinema has huge potential to be an art house/independent film cinema and the audience is already there in the area. The two store fronts that belong to the cinema could be made into a coffee shop and a book shop. This could be a catalyst for urban regeneration in the Bab el-Louq/downtown area and enrich the cultural scene.
The owner attempted to reopen a few years ago but faced many governmental and bureaucratic hurdles which led him to abandon the property. He hires a man who lives on site to watch the property.
This is a perfect example of how government policies and restrictions damage any creative potential for investment. In addition, in a police state (which Egypt still functions like one in many sectors despite Mubarak’s “departure”) cinemas and media are highly regulated and content is controlled. Cinemas must abide by very restricted regulations which make it very difficult for something like an independent film cinema to open and be economically sustainable.
With a very simple and mild renovation this cinema could be brought back to life and made into a cornerstone of downtown’s social and cultural scene and with it energize the street and surrounding area.
*photos by Will Raynolds
Around turn of the century to the 19teens a new feature in Cairo’s urban life appeared: The Central Market. This is yet another important but forgotten element in modern Cairo’s urban history and so far as I know nothing has been written about this, yet.
My first introduction to these markets was at Bab el-Louq (a short 3 minute walk east of Tahrir Square). Bab el-Louq square is the long elliptical space midway between Abdeen Palace (Gomhoriyya Square) and Tahrir Square. In around 1870-73 when the palace and the Qasr el Nil Bridge were built; Ismail Street (now Tahrir Street) was to link the two together but the line had to bend in order to connect the bridge with the palace, that bend became Bab el-Louq square. The Square once had an important tram station until all the tram lines (almost all 124 kilometers of tram lines) were dismantled under Sadat in favor of cars. Today the Square is a parking lot.
Overlooking the square is a large turn of the century building with a large central arch. It was difficult to notice what this was at first because of the typical clamor of storefronts which fragment any once cohesive facade. The inscription above the central archway reads “Marche de Bab el Louq 1912” in French and “سوق باب اللوق ١٩١٢” in Arabic.
The interior is a beautiful, intact, original iron truss roof not unlike what you see in turn of the century train stations. The floor plan is a grid of shops selling (or that once sold) vegetables, meat, poultry, dairy, etc. I have a feeling these shops were once much more attractive as the market was once truly central to the community and was well frequented with shoppers. There is also a gallery on the second level that borders the perimeter with more shops. The gallery is reached by the original iron stairs and railing, although there has also been some modifications added. It seems as though some squatters have moved into the rooms on the upper floor which overlook the streets outside.
Today the market is in a sad state and is little frequented by shoppers who shop elsewhere. Many of the shops and shop spaces are either closed or vacant and only a few vendors are present but their livelihood depends on this place. I am not sure what went wrong here and why this place fell into disrepair but it seems like it could again become a viable commercial and food center for the community. Perhaps this is part of the problem, the community, is no longer the same as the one that was once served by this urban institution.
Once I discovered Bab el-Louq market, I continued to admire it every time I was in the area. I thought it was the only one until one day while in a taxi on the overpass above Attaba Square and over Azhar Street I had a glimpse of yet another massive market structure. And Indeed there is another central market near Attaba and it seems to be even bigger than the one above. I haven’t yet explored this building but it is there and as the image below shows it has a cross plan rather than Bab el-Louq’s more rectangular plan.
And to my surprise, while I was checking out the disaster of a renovation at Cairo’s train station, I walked out and decided to walk through Boulaq and reach the Nile. As I entered the area where the microbusses line up to pick up passengers outside the station, I noticed a dilapidated large classical facade. At closer inspection I found the faded letters that once read “Marche, سوق” and I couldn’t be happier to discover this place. This building too I haven’t explored in detail but the image below shows it too has a cross plan and it is sizable. I believe it said 1901 for its inauguration date, although I need to go back and check.
Together these three markets form a triangle around central Cairo. These were the main destinations for the urban bourgeois to shop for food around 1901 or 1912. It would be interesting if there are other central markets from this era that have also survived and are waiting to be brought back to life. Central Markets have been replaced by the corner stores “بقالة”, vegetable street markets or supermarkets such as Metro or hypermarkets such as Carrefour. A century after these were built and now when Cairo is in desperate need for urban regeneration, these Central Markets can be catalyst projects that have the potential to become again focal points for communities and provide commercial space for vendors. I think of Barcelona’s Mercat de Sant Josep every time I go to Bab el-Louq and I hope that somehow these markets will be revitalized and with them revitalize the communities around them.
With a name like Merryland, this ignored and forgotten park continues to be a happy place for some. Come here on a random afternoon and it may seem empty at first but a closer look will reveal couples behind bushes, under trees and various hidden spots canoodling, ahem. Also to be found in this leafy island in the middle of Heliopolis is another species seemingly rare in other parts of Cairo, the peeping tom.
I do not know the history of Merryland except that it was once (50s, 60s) a well-visited park with a casino at its center, a favorite among couples. The park is littered with abandoned and delapedated reminders from various eras including a mid-century concrete band shell with concrete seating, a small Oscar Neimeyer influenced building (is it a bathroom?), an abondoned TGIF restauraunt (probably from the 90s?) and of course the 1960s casino structure in the center.
My friends tell me when few years ago an investor attempted to build an entertainment center in the center of the park and razed a huge patch of trees only to have his construction leveled by the government (because he violated law? or didn’t pay enough bribes?). This means that in the middle of the beautiful trees, frozen-in-time children’s playground and random concrete slabs is a pile of rubble.
Despite this, couples still go here, well some couples, because the park retains its reputation as a place to go and get lewd and no one will look if you’re discreet enough. (I am all for that, people have got to do what people have got to do). So despite its less than perfect state (I say that a lot on this blog don’t I?) the park provides some much needed green space for a few dozen couples (and their observers) a day.
Until the government gets its act together and consolidates existing green space in the city and creates new ones to be managed by a city-wide parks department (in my wildest dreams, I know), this park will be a wonderful haven for those who can still enjoy a beautiful tree with a loved one despite the pile of concrete and the peeping tom.
entry fee: one pound.
A lot can be said about the sad state of the pyramids plateau, the surrounding area and the atrocities being constructed across the highway with views of the world’s most magnificent ancient monuments. A lot could also be said about the main road that leads to the pyramids from the center of Cairo which was originally planned in the 19th century under Khedive Ismail as a picnic road with shade trees covering the entire way, the trees are no more. Sometime in the mid-20th century the road was transformed into Egypt’s Vegas strip with nightclubs, casinos, theaters, cinemas and cabarets lining the way, many of which have fallen into disrepair or were shutdown since the 1980s. Going to a cabaret in 1959 Cairo did not mean the same as going to a cabaret in 1989 Cairo.
And a lot can be said about Zahi Hawass’ disastrous management of the site and the selection of the plateau as the site for a new museum of Egyptian antiquities. And every tourist who has been to the pyramids experienced first hand the hassles of horse and camel jockeys (many of whom were paid to attack protesters in Tahrir Square in the infamous “battle of the camels.”) Ironic that visiting the greatest monuments (in size) of such an ancient civilization can be such an uncivilized experience but do not blame the locals or the culture, blame the managers and those responsible for the site. Most tourists would be happy to pay $20 for a 30 minute camel or horse ride by the pyramids if Mr. Zahi allowed for regulated pricing but why would he bother.
A lot can be said about this part of the city which amazingly seems so disconnected despite the fact that urban fabric is now surrounding it on three sides. But I wanted to bring your attention to one building on the site, one that is not all that ancient but is equally important.
The building pictured above was a restaurant once upon a time. It was originally built by the royal family as a rest house! I’ve seen it referred to on a map as “Farouk’s rest house.” The neo-Pharaonic building was designed by Mustafa Fahmy in 1946. I think it became a restaurant briefly after the ouster of the king then it was permanently shut down. It appears in a few passing shots in films from the 50s and 60s when couples would actually go to the pyramids plateau not just to see the pyramids but to have a romantic lunch at this restaurant.
Adding to the unfortunately unpleasant experience of visiting the pyramids is the lack of a cafe or a restaurant or even a place to buy some water. Although the site is littered with Hawkers selling cheap trinkets that are nothing but an insult to the civilization that left behind these architectural wonders. So most tourists are whizzed away in their tour buses to have their continental lunch somewhere and few adventurers walk out the site and avoid the taxi hassle and go to the Mena House for lunch. But there should be an option on site and the building above was already that option so why is it not one the best restaurants/cafe in the city? Few shade trees in the building’s garden and a mild renovation is all this needs (and a good chef of course).
There has been a few “development plans” for the site, most famously the erection of a fence, supposedly to keep hawkers out (which is funny because there is plenty of hassle to go around, the fence was probably another faux project with a big bill where some money was pocketed along the way). But none of the redevelopment plans seem to even recognize this fantastic 1940s building.
The pyramids are supposed to be on top of Zahi Hawass’s CV but the truth on the ground is pretty awful and the site is badly managed. Hopefully the future will be much better for the pyramids as for the rest of Egypt’s heritage if a certain someone just stays out of the business of antiquities. So for now, if you can’t afford lunch at Mena House and you want to have lunch by the pyramids, you can always go to Pizza Hut.