Posts tagged adaptive reuse

Houses of France in Cairo


The French diplomatic mission in Egypt has occupied two notable houses of exceptional architectural appeal. Both houses utilized fragments from Mamluk and Ottoman decorative elements, which came from various houses and structures around the city. The decorative fragments were reused in these new settings around which the new modern houses were built. Architectural historian Mercedes Voliat and photographer Blas Gimeno Ribelles have documented and analyzed these two houses and their decorative features in the recently published book Maisons de France au Caire. Le remploi de grands décors mamelouks et ottomans dans une architecture moderne. The book (French/Arabic) is published and is available for purchase at the Institut Francais d’Archeologie Orientale (IFAO) in Mounira.

The French embassy building in Giza was built in the 1930s when modernist architecture was widespread in Cairo particularly in newly developed areas and among the bourgeois class in general. Yet the interior of the embassy is dressed in antique Mamluk and Ottoman patterns reused from older structures. The main hall of the building is impressively ornamented with a montage of historic Cairene interior architectural details including stone inlays, wooden ceilings, inlaid wooden doors, and brass lighting fixtures. The modern 1930s building was designed to accommodate these precious decorative interiors, which came from an earlier modern house built in 1880-85 for Gaston de Saint-Maurice (1831-1905).



The house of Gaston de Saint-Maurice was built on land gifted by Khedive Ismail located on what is today Sherif Street in downtown. The French government acquired the land/house soon after to establish its new embassy. The new house incorporated fragments of historic structures that were collected from Cairo. The urban transformation of the city throughout the 19th century meant that many older structures were demolished to make way for new ones. Sometimes state-planned projects such as the cutting of the avenue of Mohamed Ali through the historic fabric caused the demolition of hundreds of structures including houses and sometimes mosques. These demolitions led to a lucrative trade in building parts including entire wall panels, doors, and ceilings which were sold to collectors, aristocrats to decorate their new homes and sometimes shipped abroad for the homes of wealthy Orientalists. The use of historic fragments in new buildings was increasingly popular during the same time in France. The adaptive reuse of historic fragments became a new art as it required artisans to create new pieces that fill the gaps and correspond with the older pieces. This new art called for the study of ornamental motifs and gave rise to an increased art historical interest in oriental interior/decorative architecture.


The building on Sherif Street was neo-Mamluk with various details belonging to various architectural styles from Islamic architecture. The building built in the 1880s was not unusual for that period when many notables and aristocrats built in an eclectic historicist style. The new building was inspired by a collection of architectural fragments and the interior decoration was composed of actual fragments belonging to different eras, different buildings and different styles.

As the area known today as downtown developed rapidly in the 1920s onwards from an urban fabric of mostly palaces and villas to tall modern apartment blocks the French Embassy acquired land in the then newly developing areas of Giza near the Nile and a new house was built in the 1930s. Again, in the new house fragments which formed the interior of the 1880s house were removed before that house was demolished and the interiors were reassembled in the new modern understated structure. The new building set in gardens consisted of a modern Moorish inspired design, rather than Cairene palatial architecture. The architecture was designed to host the interiors from the 1880s house. The main hall (pictured at the top of this post) is particularly impressive. Of course, since the Giza building was erected some of its parts had been redesigned or redecorated with various elements including art deco. However, the main halls with the reused Ottoman and Mamluk decor remain the main features of that building.


The book is divided into five chapters with a particularly important conclusion that sheds light on the forgotten art of reusing old architectural fragments, a practice that had existed in Cairo for centuries. The book concludes with a question about such practices as seen in these two houses: is such reuse of building materials impertinent or is it a way of salvaging heritage?

Of course such a question has no easy or universal answer but the author makes the case that in these particular houses the reuse of decorative elements from demolished Cairene houses reinvents and in ways protects heritage that could have been lost. Of course such practices continue today in much more destructive ways as intact historic buildings (examples: Villa Casdagli, Villa Ispenian) get vandalized in order to feed the clandestine market for antique building parts the clients of which are mostly outside of Cairo and Egypt. The recent destruction of several villas is evidence that the market for building parts to be reused in new buildings for the wealthy elsewhere is a lucrative endeavor. Of course these recent developments are significantly different from the context in which these two French houses in Cairo were built.

Destruction Alert: historic gate demolished with official approval


This week a gate that belonged to a large residential complex, which was already demolished, was bulldozed with the permission of authorities. The demolition has caused outrage and protest by concerned citizens. The gate appears to date from sometime between the mid-18th century to the early 19th century and was located on Bab al Wazir Street in the heart of historic Cairo’s Darb el Ahmar district. The building was once the home of Egypt’s grand Mufti (1921-1928). The demolition comes at a time when the heart of historic Cairo has been continuously under assault losing entire historic houses (typically three stories) which have been replaced by taller, higher density modern apartment blocks as tall as 8-10 stories. Domestic architecture, no matter how old, is rarely registered as monument, which means that the primary elements of historic districts such as Darb el Ahmar are extremely vulnerable in the face of real estate speculation, typically within the informal economy sector which involves paying large sums by the developers to the authorities in order to turn a blind eye to their building frenzy.

Mohamed Abdelaziz, the official responsible for the development of historic Cairo project at the antiquities ministry, deflected the news by arguing that the gate was of no historic significance and that the demolition was completely legal. This incident raises several persistent questions which have not been confronted regarding Cairo’s urban development particularly in historic areas.


[The destroyed gate which was already vandalized by election posters for Islamist candidates including the current president. Photo by Ahmed Hamed via]

The most pressing question is WHO in Egypt today determines what counts as heritage/patrimony and who decides on the categories? There are multiple governmental bodies responsible for different and often overlapping kinds of heritage often governed by outdated rigid categories which often have orientalist or colonial origin. For example, the vast and vague category of “Islamic Architecture”: What is and what is not “Islamic” architecture? This gate was determined undeserving of protection because it was not “registered as an Islamic monument.” In fact the decorative motifs seen in this gate can be found in many residential structures from that period and they often go undocumented and dismissed because they do not easily fit into 19th century categories of Mamluk, Ottoman, Fatimid, etc. There are house gates with floral motifs, others with faces carved above the portal and others with letters or family symbols. Such diversity and architectural individuality do not interest the official institution of antiquities (governed by dated art historical categories imposed from elsewhere), because these houses are/were part of the everyday and often belonged to families with no notable members. Spaces of the everyday, even if centuries old and well-built and expressing innovative building craft, are not part of the record.

But even buildings which were listed have not benefited from their listing and are often neglected, undeveloped, and un-restored. With few exceptions such as the Aga Khan project for Darb el Ahmar, there has been no comprehensive urban development plan for historic areas that take economy into account. Listed buildings, under current laws, are economic burdens on their owners who are highly restricted from benefiting financially from their valuable property by perhaps acquiring permits for renovations or adapting them to new uses. Thus, even listed buildings are often intentionally damaged by their owners in order to qualify for a demolition permit and often architects and engineers working for the state bureaucracy assist owners in destroying their own properties for a fee, knowing that once the property is freed of its heritage building it can be developed with profitable real estate. It is shameful that over a decade into the twenty-first century a country like Egypt and a city like Cairo, which had and continues to have a high density of historic structures waiting to be adapted and incorporated into an urban economy, there is yet to emerge a sufficient system to deal with this heritage properly. Lack of imagination and corruption in peacetime are causing damage to Cairo’s urban heritage at a rate that could only be matched by a natural disaster or war. Indeed images of damaged listed buildings such as Villa Casdagli (oddly registered as an Islamic Monument), resemble war damage. State institutions responsible for that listed building have not moved to respond to that damage not least to erect a fence around the property five months after its destruction.

It is important to note that major buildings which were listed were demolished with official permission in recent months. Last month Cinema Rialto, one of Alexandria’s landmark cinemas disappeared over night.

Thus, listing is not the primary issue regarding the demolition of the Darb el Ahmar gate, since listed buildings face a similarly uncertain fate.


[The emerging skyline of the once historic Darb el Ahmar district as seen from Azhar Park]

The other issue presented by this latest catastrophe is the persistent question of adaptive reuse: Why were the wall and gate not incorporated into a new structure? such practices have a long history in Cairo as ancient as the city itself. Buildings and parts of buildings have been continuously incorporated into new structures for centuries. Across historic Cairo an observant eye will pick out fragments of ancient buildings incorporated into subsequent structures creating a sense of layering and richness which makes the historic city so exciting. However, for such practices to take place today two elements are fundamental: (1) an overall vision and policy that encourages the adaptive reuse of buildings or architectural fragments, and (2) the necessary technique and design practice needed to consult the construction of new buildings containing existing fragments. What is needed is a serious exploration of the possibilities that lie between total annihilation approach and the “open air museum” approach to historic urban areas.

The demolitions of this gate and of many other historic structures across the country are often “legal.” Legality here merely connotes that developers acquired the needed permissions in exchange for a hefty “gift” to local officials, municipal engineers and police officers.

Finally, to conclude, the unnecessary demolition of this gate is an occasion to shame some of the incompetent institutions responsible for Cairo’s urban environment: Shame on the so-called National Organization for Urban Harmony. Shame on the Governorate of Cairo. Shame on the Ministry of Antiquities. Shame on the Ministry of Culture. Shame on the Awqaf Ministry. Shame on the Ministry of Housing. All the above institutions have a track record of failure and mediocrity dominated by corruption and cronyism. All these bureaucracies have together failed to emerge with a vision for the protection and development of Egypt’s historic urban centers in ways that save heritage, allow for social continuity (no evictions) and economic prosperity.

Lessons from elsewhere: Milan Design Week, When Districts Compete

Around the world this spring and summer several international events take place at several cities, the Cannes Film festival, the Sharjah Biennial, the Venice Biennial and others are events that bring flocks of visitors interested in particular cultural productions such as film and art to those cities. The events serve various functions from energizing the economies of cities to revitalizing otherwise neglected spaces to creating dynamic reputations (branding) for those cities. In all cases such events put their host cities on the world culture map and bring visitors year round beyond the limited time frames of those events. In Egypt, events such as the Cairo Film Festival have failed to make a similar impact on the city. Aly Muhammad Ahmad visited Milan Design Week and reflected on the power of international events in revitalizing cities and keeping them going.


The main exhibition at Milan Rho

By Aly Muhammad Ahmad

Architecture has always been as much about the event that takes place in a space as about the space itself. Bernard Tshumi, Event Cities

Every year during April and for a week, Milan, the well known city as the capital of design and fashion, is well dressed to welcome one of the most important design events in the world: the Milan Design Week. The event takes place in Rho exhibition area (the main exhibition), and also at different districts and neighborhoods which are considered for young designers.

The upcoming lines are not a report about the event and the competition that takes place between designers from all over the world or their amazing works, but it is an attempt to consider an urban perspective on another competition that takes place between different city districts, neighborhoods and public spaces.

Different spaces in each district, whatever their original functions are, switch into exhibition areas. A university, a kindergarten, a warehouse or a workshop, it does not matter, they are all switched to serve the design exhibition.

The two examples below are for two districts that are quiet and calm neighborhoods during typical everyday life but during the Design Week, they are the most well known and active spaces in the city.


The Egyptian booth at salone satellite 2013

Ventura Lambrate

Ventura Lambrate area is a remote area and the main street where the exhibition takes place is full of warehouses, abandoned factories and workshops for small crafts where people are exhibiting their works side by side with their crafts tools.

There are some light fixtures, benches on the outside and bars to sell water and snacks are all what you need to bring life and people into a warehouse and display the different products in open partitions. The warehouse or the abandoned building becomes vibrant and occupied by people and designers and their products.

A kindergarten is changed and switched into another exhibition space for fashion design; many other buildings are easily switched into new temporary functions.


The exhibition at different Warehouses


The exhibition at Workshops

Via Tortona

Located behind “Porta Genova” train station, “Zona Tortona” is a very calm street with a lot of small houses with courtyards inside and some small shops outside. The courtyards and garages on the ground floor are ready to receive the new function during design week, for example, an entrance garden for a firm head office is switched to an open exhibition. The calm street becomes a crowded pedestrian path; entrances on both sides are opened to welcome people, the small shops display their products outside. Booths are everywhere, people are watching, taking photos, contemplating the products, drinking and crossing from one space to another. It’s totally a vibrant and lively space.


Courtyards at Tortona

Every space is well used; the corridor of an old palace is temporarily used as an open area for display. Many other places are hosting events and exhibitions, the courtyards and rooms of universities, the city centre public spaces, and many more.

Milan is fully booked every year during April because of Design Week; people from all over the world head to the city. In addition to the event, touristic sites across the city become activated and well-visited. The event is an important source of income to the city and its hostels, hotels, museums, transportation, and commercial spaces. Good infrastructure and services are very important to host an event like this.

It is all about a vision and a will to convert a specific place or a city to an attraction point. Why don’t you stop, visit, buy, eat, be entertained and enjoy an atmosphere full of art, design and beauty. It’s a will to bring life to a certain space.

It’s very strange how in Egypt we don’t appreciate the value of historical buildings and how we are neglecting them until we wake up everyday on news about the destruction or the collapse of all or a part of them. It is also strange how we feel shame from old crafts workshops and how we want to get rid of them, instead of discovering the potential inherent in them, while other people have crossed over this by giving value to non valuable buildings through contemporary and elegant functions, design, new concepts and creativity. This requires another look at the city and its contents.

Aly Muhammad Ahmad is a graduate student at the School of Architecture and Society at the Politecnico Di Milano.

Cinema Radio comes back to life

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]

NUOVO CINEMA PARADISO (Tribute To Classical Egyptian Cinema) from Lana Al Sennawy on Vimeo.

Lessons from elsewhere: São Paulo

محمود خالد

قمت بزيارة مركز (إس إي إس سي) في مدينة ساوباولو البرازيلية بالأمس، المكان عبارة عن مجمع ضخم من المصانع التي أوقف العمل بها عام 1977 إذ بداء العمل على تحويله الى مركز ثقافي وإجتماعي من خلال بعض التعديلات الانشائية واضافة مبني جديد يضم النشاطات الرياضية،الى أن إفتتح بالكامل عام 1982 أي منذ ثلاثين عاماً، وقامت المهندسة المعمارية لينا بوباردي الذائعة الصيت بمبانيها الحداثية بتصميم وتنفيذ هذا المشروع، ورجال الأعمال هم الذين قاموا بتمويل المشروع بشكل كامل، وكان الهدف الرئيسي; هو أن ينعم العمال في التجارة وباقي أفراد المجتمع وعائلاتهم بالاستمتاع بمعارض للفنون بجودة فنية عالية، عروض مسرحية لآحدث وأهم فرق المسرح، حفلات الرقص والموسيقى، الإشتراك في دورات تدريبية متعددة (حرفية ونظرية ولغوية للكبار والصغار)، ممارسة الرياضة، تناول وجبات الغذاء والعشاء في كانتين يقدم الوجبات الىسريعة بالاضافة الى مطعم شيك يقدم أشهى المأكولات باسعار محتملة (حيث أنها بالفعل مؤسسة غير ربحية)، وأخيراً وليس أخراً إهتمام خاص بكبار السن حيث توفير العديد من الكتب والجرائد المرتبطة بالمواضيع التي يهتمون بها وتوفير مكاناً لهم لمناقشة هذه الموضوعات، (وهو بالفعل من أهم النقاط التي أثارت اهتمامي في هذا المكان، فكم منا يشكو باستمرار من العديد من المداخلات والأسئلة التي تصدر عن أصحابنا من كبار السن في المحاضرات والمناقشات الثقافية في مصر دون التفكير في كيفية ادماجهم في مناخ آخر فعال وأقل مللاً من الذهاب للقهوة ولعب الطاولة).ـ

الهدف من هذه الزيارة كان مشاهدة معرض الفنان ازاك جوليان وهو من أهم الفنانين المعاصرين في العالم حالياً، بلا خجل لم اتوقع على الاطلاق أن يكون هذا المعرض جيداً أو على الأقل جيد التنفيذ ليصل لدرجة ما من حرفية مؤسسات الفنون المعاصرة في إنتاج المعارض، حيث كنت على دراية بخلفية المكان “الاجتماعية والتنموية” وهو بالطبع مايتعارض مع فكرة الحرفية والجدية والتعقيد في العمل الفني وهي الفكرة المعروفة عن الفن المعاصر في وسط المؤسسات الثقافية المستقلة في مصر، حيث العمل الفني إذا وصل الى تلك الحرفية والجدية والتعقيد فهو سريعاً ما ينعزل عن المجتمع ويصبح غامضاً وبالتالي يتناقض مع الأجندة “التنموية والاجتماعية” لتلك المؤسسات والتي تهدف الى الإندماج في المجتمع والمساهمة في تطويره.

كانت الأربعة أعمال المقدمة في هذا المعرض على المستوى الفلسفي تحتوي على درجة عالية من التعقيد السياسي والاجتماعي والجمالي في مضمونها بالاضافة الى التعقيد التقني حيث تنفيذ المعرض الذي جاء مبهراً في حرفيته وذكائه، لم تخلو صالات العرض من أطفال المدارس المصحوبين بعدد من العامليين في المركز لشرح الأعمال لهم، كبار السن يملئون المكان، الشباب والطلبة منزويين في الأرجاء للمذاكرة والقراءة، بالاضافة الى العديد من الشباب (الذي يطلق عليهم شباب الساحل في مصر) يخرجون ويدخلون الى صالات الجيم،

باختصار المكان كان ديمقراطياً بمعنى الكلمة، يجسد معنى المشاركة في جو مليء بالخصوصية، يؤكد أن الاستمتاع وممارسة الثقافة والفن والرياضة بمختلف انواعهم هو السبيل الوحيد لتعايش طبقات المجتمع المختلفة مع بعضها فقط إذا تعاملت مع هذه الأشياء كقيم مجردة للمتعة وليست كمظاهر إجتماعية تنحي أو تجبر الأخرين على التخلي عن ممارسة نوع معين من الرياضة أو الفن حث أنها لا تنسجم مع الأجندة العامة.

ليس الهدف هنا هو مقارنة هذا النموذج بالنموذج المتهالك لقصور الثقافة ومراكز الشباب في مصر والذي يتسأل معظمنا عن أهمية إستمرار دفع مرتبات للعاملين بداخلها حتى ألان، وليس أيضاً الهدف هو تنشيط ذلك الحلم المرتبط بالثورة المصرية في إحتلال وزارة الثقافة ونقابات الفنانين وإعادة هيكلتهم لان هذا الحلم باختصار أصبح مرتبط بالنسبة لي بإعادة هيكلة جهاز الشرطة وكتابة دستور لائق ببلد بحجم مصر، وايجاد من يمثلنا فعلياً (كشعب) داخل ما يسمي مجلس الشعب وغيرها من الأحلام التي مازلنا نحلم بها جميعا ويناضل في سبيلها الكثيرون

السؤال الذي لم أسطع التخلص منه منذ أمس هو موجه الى مؤسسات مثل التاون هاوس وساقية الصاوي تحديداً، حيث أنهم يقومون على نمط مشابه في ألتمويل والادارة، الى أي مدى سيظل الفن المعاصر (بالمعنى الاحترافي) عائق في برامجهم التنموية والاجتماعية؟ الى أي مدى سيظل الفنان والانتاج الفني المحترف في أخر أولويات تلك المؤسسات؟

للمزيد من الصور اضغط هنا

Buildings are not disposable

[An abandoned 1940s cinema in Abbaseya]

Buildings are not disposable, most of the time at least. Except many of Cairo’s new buildings in the center and periphery of the city, particularly the new breed of “villas” which are not villas nor apartment buildings but an ambiguous third kind, seem to be built badly anticipating their destruction soon after in the ongoing process of speculation. Those newer buildings seem to be built as disposable, replaceable, temporary. The problem is that there is a lot of money in Egypt, despite what we’re constantly told, but that money is in private hands and that money goes into the one sector that is growing despite the economic/political snafu Egypt is experiencing: Construction. This money being invested in a select few manifestations of “construction” could be used to rehabilitate many of Cairo’s existing buildings that seek a second or third chance, another life. There are buildings that sit empty or half destroyed but with a little investment they can be transformed into brand new, full of character with a little bit of history and memory, place-specific interesting real estate. That kind of transformation, the adaptive reuse of old buildings, needs a few things: 1. an interested investor who sees the value in salvaging an old factory, warehouse, apartment block or department store. 2. laws and regulations, municipal oversight that guarantees the transformation of buildings into their new functions without compromising safety or historic value. 3. professionals, contractors, and designers who have the needed skills to do the job. Of course all of the involved parties in this process need to have a little imagination.

Many of the posts here on Cairobserver have suggested that existing aged buildings be revived and reused either for their old functions or new ones. These buildings may be very ordinary and so this conversation is beyond the reach of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, thank goodness. The purpose here is to revive old buildings by making them relevant to today’s society and making their spaces usable for new functions. The idea of turning AUC’s old library into an art center is a proposal for adaptive reuse. Similarly the idea of reviving Bab el Louk’s old vegetable and meat market, just around the corner from the AUC library, was also an invitation to consider the adaptive reuse of that space, to make it relevant again to a wider public, of course in the case of the market this transformation must involve the current stake holders and the few sellers and occupants of the space. This is by no means an invitation for a neoliberal takeover.

Egypt in general, including Cairo, despite the systematic attack on the built environment, still has a lot of existing space that is ideal for some adaptive reuse. So the money is available, and the spaces are available but there isn’t the professional framework needed (very few firms do adaptive reuse in Egypt, which is strange, and architecture schools do not encourage the concept at all, which is stranger) and there isn’t the legal and municipal framework that would promote such projects.

[A former brewery in central Berlin is now used by many functions such as a supermarket, a gym and offices for New York University’s branch in the city.]

The hard part is the legal framework, which is political and in the present situation anything is easier than law and politics in Egypt. But in better times in the distant future, laws will need to be drafted that promote the reuse of existing structures which have fallen into disrepair or lost their present function, and this is not limited to historically valuable or heritage buildings. For example, the buildings and spaces of a large brewery in Berlin which is no longer used as a brewery are being used by many other functions: a supermarket, a gym, university offices, a shop, and more. The existing buildings, once the brewery was out of business, were not an obstacle to development, to the contrary, these existing buildings were transformed into an opportunity for investment and development (by interested investors, backed by the municipality and with the work of professional architecture firms). The construction industry needs to diversify its work and adapt to the latent potential in Cairo’s existing buildings.

One can make an argument that adaptive reuse of old buildings or parts of buildings is part of an Egyptian building tradition. Many of Cairo’s famous landmarks have had several lives, for example Al Hakim Mosque was used as an arsenal, a prison, a hospital and until the 1960s as a school. That is adaptive reuse and it has been happening at that particular site for a 1000 years. Today the building still stands and part of what makes it interesting beyond its physical form is the fact that we can tell that story of how so much has happened in that space other than what its function is today. Basically, buildings have stories to tell, beyond what the eyes can see. Other examples of adaptive reuse are all over historic districts of Cairo. Look closely and you will find parts of ancient walls incorporated into relatively newer buildings. A thousand year old wall can be part of a 600 year old house.

Doors, windows and other fittings travel throughout the city and are reused in different buildings from those they were intended for. In fact there is an active black market for Cairo’s used doors, windows, metal work most of which gets shipped to places such as Israel, the Arabian Gulf countries and antique markets in Europe. The export of these reusable parts is largely due to the fact that these items, have relatively little value locally as many of Egypt’s moneyed class are blinded by the new and shiny while other places desperate for character and aged things import our unwanted treasures. Imagine how full character these new tasteless “villas” in New Cairo would be if they incorporated and reused some of Cairo’s doors, tiles and other building parts. Egypt’s nouveau riche constantly replace gold with tin.

[Tate Modern is London’s modern art gallery/museum housed in a former power station built 1947-1963 which stopped operation in 1981. The building’s exterior had minimal change and the interior was redesigned for the new function by Herzog & de Meuron. The gallery opened in 2000]

Some of the word’s most successful public buildings/spaces projects in the last decade have been adaptive reuse, most notably New York’s High Line and London’s Tate Modern. But not all adaptive reuse is so big, visible and grand, sometimes it is just an old farmhouse incorporated into a new house or an old apartment building reconfigured with new layouts and refitted for a 21st century living.

[The High Line is a former elevated railway that has been out of use since 1980 and was recycled/redeveloped/reused as an urban park. The park transformation, and before it the saving of the rail track from demolition are the efforts of local residents. The park opened in 2009 and has led to a development spur in the area]

Why is it time to seriously consider adaptive reuse in Egypt? Because the alternative (destroying existing buildings to build new ones or developing desert fringes) is proving to be an economic, cultural, environmental and social failure. Too much money is being spent on new real estate of low quality, terrible design when it comes to sustainability, no consideration for history or cultural memory and it is all amounting to a housing bubble that is bound to burst, especially when all those new homes in the desert are occupied in ten years and when they all realize that they can’t even flush a toilet because the infrastructure isn’t designed to handle that pressure.

What is needed now? First the money, or the investors with money, need to see the potential in investing in old seemingly falling apart buildings. If they lack imagination lets help them visualize what these spaces can be. Then the construction industry really needs to explore the potential profits that can be made in restoring, reusing, adapting, conserving, and redesigning existing buildings. New practice needs new expertise, new knowledge and new skills and these need to be developed yesterday. It is time for one of Cairo’s architecture schools to take adaptive reuse seriously and to consider building a program that focuses on the needed skills, technologies and knowledge to transform Cairo’s built fabric into usable renewed spaces. Proper analytical tools, design practice and historical awareness are necessary because we can not afford to have another Cairo Station disaster on our hands.

The role of government? Part of the struggle here is how to transform old age (even just a decade or two old) or history in general into value? Take for example one of the world’s youngest countries, Australia. With just about two hundred years of national history, the Australian government has taken an interest in adaptive reuse for historical reasons (the desperate need to piece together a historical narrative with the needed physical evidence) but also for environmental reasons. Check the Australian government’s department of the environment and heritage’s 20-page pdf defining “what is adaptive reuse” and highlighting its economic and environmental benefits in addition to showcasing various case studies. Click here.

A good place to start is for us, residents of Cairo, to begin to see the potential in the aging buildings around us. Look around you on your typical route everyday and see how many neglected and abandoned buildings could be revived and reused.

Cairo the adaptive reuse capital of the world? Don’t hold your breath.

Read more- Help the Aged: innovative adaptive reuse in architecture.

[Abandoned and heavily damaged Granada racecourse in Heliopolis]

Idea: The Cairo Art Center

Since January 2011 there has been a flourishing art/performance/dance/music scene in Cairo, but space has been limited. There has also been an exponential interest in the city, its architecture, and urban space. With limited resources, artists and artist collectives, performers and musicians have been making due to find space to meet, practice, perform, and create. This maybe an opportunity to create a new kind of art space in Cairo, a space that is not just a gallery, but rather a center, a meeting place for Cairo’s emerging creative forces.

Pictured above is an ideal candidate for a Cairo Art Center, perhaps an institution similar to the Beirut Art Center, New York’s PS1 or Barcelona’s CCCB. The building was the American University in Cairo’s library until the university moved to its new campus several years ago. It is now unused and vacant.

Why an art center: Because there is interest, there is demand for space, and there is a growing art movement that can not be accommodated in traditional institutions.

Why this building: Its location in downtown, proximity to the Tahrir Square and its location in relation to downtown’s other art/cultural spaces (this will enrich downtown’s art network and add to the city center’s cultural life).

The building is also an ideal candidate for an art center because of its architecture. Raw concrete, high ceilings, large open spaces. All it needs is for the interior to be stripped, minimal additions using smart cheap design for new spaces such as a cafe/bookshop, and simply designed offices, meeting rooms, etc. Also a colorful neon sign on the building facade would be nice.

Can it work? This initiative must be led by the AUC administration, as the university owns the building. AUC must be a partner and a host for this new and public institution. Business sponsors such as real estate firms investing in downtown can support the project in addition to regional art collectors and sponsors. Funders of art institutions/programs such as Ford can help. Finally, corporate sponsorship can help fund the space.

A minimal staff for the maintenance and management of the building in addition to running the cafe, bookshop and art/architecture library will be needed.

The main purpose of this possible art center is to create an open space for Cairo’s creative forces to meet. Meeting rooms and studios in addition to gallery space and multipurpose rooms can host lectures, talks, events, openings, performances, etc.

There are many details that would need to be decided but this is merely a proposal for a way to reactivate a fantastic building in a central location with a much needed program.

Just something to consider.

Redefining Heritage

ُThis article is available in English, here.

مى الطباخ

 (ليس هناك فى الواقع شىء أسمه تراثلورا جين سميث ٢٠٠٦)

سمعت تلك الجملة للمرة الأولى خلال دراستى فى مركز التراث المستدام" التابع لجامعة لندن وقد ساعدتنى على تغيير فهمى لمشكلة الحفاظ على التراث. حتى تلك اللحظة كنت أعمل فى الحفاظ على المبانى التاريخية فى مصر وانجلترا مع التركيز على حماية قيمتها الملموسة. وبعدها بدأت أفهم أن المبانى التاريخية والنسيج الاجتماعى المحيط بها تحمل رسالة ضمنية عن حياة الكثير من الناس على مر العصور والمشاكل والهموم التى كانت تعتريها.

كلنا نعرف أن النسيج الحضرى التاريخى فى معظم الدول النامية وبالذات مصر يعانى من قدر كبير من الاهمال وأن المناطق التاريخية أحيانا ما تتحول إلى ما يشبه العشوائيات. ومع هذا فإن المبانى التاريخية وكل ما يحيط بها تحوى شهادة على حياة اجدادنا، فهى تخبرنا بالكثير عن عاداتنا وتقاليدنا وتقنياتنا، ويمكننا أن نتعلم منها الكثير عن معتقداتنا واقتصادنا ونظمنا السياسية والاجتماعية، ولهذا يحق لنا أن نشعر بالانتماء والاستقرار والفخر إزاءها.

فى مصر، حيث تأثرت الثقافة المحلية سلبا وإيجابا بالحقبة الامبريالية، سعت الحكومات منذ الاستقلال إلى تطوير البلد اقتصاديا تلبية لإحتياجات السكان المتزايدة. وما لبث كل ما هو قديم أن وقع ضحية للإهمال، إذ تم اعتبار المناطق القديمة عاجزة عن التعامل مع الإيقاع السريع للعولمة والنمو الحضرى، وبالتالى تم تركها للفقراء.

نتج عن هذا انفصام بين حياة أغلب المجتمع وحياة المناطق التاريخية، حيث تم انشاء الكثير من المناطق السكنية خارج المناطق التاريخية، وأصبحت تلك المناطق الجديدة هى الأكثر نموا ونشاطا. أما الأحياء القديمة بحرفها التقليدية ومبانيها التارخية فقد أصبحت مزارا للسياح فى أفضل الأحوال، او وقعت ضحية للإهمال فى أحوال أخرى، لتصبح شاهدا على الفجوة المتزايدة بين القسم من السكان الذى يتمتع بمزايا الحياة الحديثة والقسم الذى لا يقدر على تحمل ثمنها.

نالت فكرة اعادة استخدام المناطق التراثية بشكل مستدام بعض الاهتمام فى مصر مؤخرا. وقد أسعدنى الحظ أن أشارك فى أكثر من محاولة لإحياء بعض المناطق التاريخية، بما فى ذلك منطقتان فى القاهرة وواحدة فى بورسعيد، وهى أولا مبادرة درب اللبانة" التى قمت فيها بدور المعمارى الرئيسى للترميم والمنسق الفنى، وثانيا مسابقة اعادة تأهيل صيدناوى الخازندار والانسجام الحضرى فى ميدان الخازندار" والتى فزت فيها مع الدكتورة ابتسام فريد من كلية الفنون الجميلة فى الاسكندرية وفريقها من الطلبة والمعيدين بالجائزة الاولى، وثالثا وأخيرا الدراسة الأولية للحفاظ على فندق ناشيونال والمجمع المحيط به" فى بورسعيد.

الشكل 1: صورة حية من درب اللبانة،2010

الشكل 2: تخطيط مقترح للمبادرة، 2010

مبادرة درب اللبانة للتنمية المستدامة تتم بالشراكة بين الحكومة والقطاع الخاص

تمثل تلك المبادرة نموذجا يستحق الإعجاب بشأن امكانية التعاون بين القطاع الخاص والأجهزة الحكومية من أجل تحقيق ظروف معيشية أفضل وتطوير الاقتصاد المحلى وأيضا، وهو الأهم، حماية المناطق التاريخية التى وقعت ضحية التدهور، ومنها منطقة درب اللبانة فى قلب القاهرة الاسلامية.

خرجت المبادرة إلى النور مع انشاء جايا" وهى شركة متخصصة مساهمة مصرية تم تأسيسها سنة 2010 ويرأس مجلس ادارتها الدكتور منير نعمة الله. تهدف الشركة بشكل رئيسى إلى الحفاظ على التراث الطبيعى والثقافى للأحياء التاريخية وادماج المجتعات المحلية فى التنمية المستدامة فى المدن التاريخية. وكان اختيار درب اللبانة اختيارا مثاليا نظرا للتنوع الهائل للآثار التاريخية مع كثرة المبانى الأثرية التى تهدم بعضها بينما ظل البعض فى حالة جيدة، وأيضا نظرا لانخفاض كثافة السكان نسبيا وسهولة الوصول إلى الحى وتوفر الأراضى الفضاء والتى تحول بعضها إلى مقالب قمامة. وفى تلك الحالة فإن الجهة الرسمية التى تتعاون مع جايا" هى المجلس الأعلى للآثار.

تهدف المبادرة إلى تطوير درب اللبانة من خلال سلسلة من التدخلات التى تهدف لإعادة استخدام بعض المساحات واحداث نوع من التأقلم الذى يفيد فى تحسين نوعية حياة السكان المحليين وتنشيط الاقتصاد المحلى فى القاهرة التاريخية. تم تصميم المبادرة بهدف تحويل درب اللبانة إلى مثال حى للتصميم الحضرى المستدام يتم من خلاله تشجيع المعماريين والمخططين ومديرى المدن المحليين والدوليين على انتهاج اساليب مشابهة.

تدير المبادرة شركة نوعية البيئة الدولية (إى كيو آى)، بينما يتولى العمل الفنى فريق مصرى-فرنسى من المعماريين الشبان وخبراء الفن تحت اشراف المعمارى الفرنسى سيرج سانتيللى" وهو الذى قام بتصميم مطعم جوار البحيرة" فى حديقة الأزهر. ومن المقرر أن يبدأ العمل فى الموقع قريبا.

اعادة تأهيل مبنى "صيدناوى الخازندار" وووضع تصميم حضرى يعيد الانسجام إلى ميدان الخازندار

بعيدا عن القاهرة الاسلامية وفى قلب القاهرة الخديوية تم اطلاق هذا المشروع على شكل مسابقة نظمتها الشركة القابضة للسياحة والفنادق والسينما" والجهاز القومى للتنسيق الحضارى" فى محاولة لإعادة استخدام المبنى كمركز ثقافى تجارى وتحقيق الانسجام الحضرى فى الميدان والمنطقة المحيطة.

يعد صيدناوى الخازندار" والميدان المواجه له من أفضل نماذج المعمار الاوربى الراقى وتنسيق المساحات العامة التى شاعت فى القاهرة ذات الطابع الكوزموبوليتانى فى القرنين التاسع عشر والعشرين. هذا النوع من المعمار والذى يصنف بوصفه نيو-كلاسيك أو نيو-رينسيانس كان مطلوبا من قبل الطوائف الأجنبية التى انتعشت لفترة فى مصر والتى كانت تود أن تعيش بشكل يقارب نمط الحياة الأوربى. لذا تم استقدام المعماريين من مختلف أرجاء أوربا لكى يصمموا الفنادق والبنوك والمصانع ومحطات القطار والقصور وغيرها من الأماكن التى تضارع فى تصميمها وتقنيات بنائها مع آخر صيحات المعمار فى أوربا. “صيدناوى الخازندار" الذى بنى فى 1913 هو واحد من تلك المبانى، وقد صممه المعمارى الفرنسى جورج بارك" للأخوين السوريين صيدناوى ليصبح أول حلقة فى سلسلة المحلات التجارية الكبرى التى انتشرت بعدها فى مختلف أنحاء مصر. عند بناء هذا المبنى كانت المنطقة المحيطة تعج بالنشاط التجارى وبها عدد لا بأس به من المحلات التجارية المتعددة الأقسام مثل تيرينج" وشيكوريل" والتى كانت تبيع آخر منتجات باريس ولندن.

بدأ التدهور مع التأميمات اعتبارا من الخمسينات، عندما تحولت ادارة المحل إلى موظفين حكوميين وأصبح الهدف هو تلبية احتياجات الزبائن المحليين بأسعار اقتصادية. عندما حدث هذا تغير كل شىء، من الملكية إلى الإدارة وأسلوب عرض البضائع والطبقة الاجتماعية للزبائن أنفسهم. وأصبح المحل يبيع البضائع الرخيصة والمعتادة بدلا من تلك الفاخرة والمرتفعة الثمن. تم منذ ذلك الحين تغيير شكل المحل والميدان المواجه أكثر من مرة ولكن محاولات الترميم السابقة عجزت على ما يبدو عن فهم السبب الأصلى فى انشاء المحل وشكله الفنى.

وكان من اللازم أن نقوم بدراسة الماضى والحاضر بشكل متزامن لكى نفهم الفكرة وراء انشاء المكان بشكله الأصلى وأيضا لكى نتعرف على المشاكل الاجتماعية والاقتصادية والبيئية الحالية. وأصبح الهدف الرئيسى للمشروع هو تحسين الأوضاع المعيشية لمستخدمى المكان الحاليين، ويليه الحفاظ على التراث الثقافى الملموس وغير الملموس للمكان.

تمت الموافقة حتى الآن على المشروع الابتدائى ونحن على وشك البدء فى عمل الرسومات المعمارية والإنشائية التفصيلية وحساب التكلفة المرتبطة بها.

الشكل 3: صورة حية من ميدان الخازندار، 2010

الشكل 4: الموقع بشكله المقترح، 2010

دراسة أولية بشأن اعادة تأهيل مجمع فندق ناشيونال فى بورسعيد

المثال الثالث هو من مدينة بورسعيد المعروفة بتاريخها الكوزموبوليتانى العريق. بالرغم من اختلاف الموقع والثقافة فإن المشاكل التى واجهتنا فى بورسعيد لا تختلف كثيرا عما رأيناه فى المثالين السابقين بالقاهرة. فالمبنى الأوربى الطراز والذى بنى فى أواخر القرن التاسع عشر مع افتتاح قناة السويس يعانى من الاهمال والتدهور المادى وإساءة الفهم والاستخدام وغير ذلك من المشاكل.

مبنى فندق ناشيونال الذى تم تسجيله تحت فئة أ" فى المبانى التراثية هو ملك للحكومة وتديره الشركة المصرية للعقارات. الطابق الأول من هذا المبنى مؤجر فى أغلبه لأنشطة تجارية بينما يظل الطابق الأول والفناء الداخلى خاليين.

فى 2011 قمنا بدراسة أولية للمكان بناء على طلب من مؤسسة فرديناند دى ليسبس" الفرنسية وبالتعاون مع منظمة آليانس فرانسيز بور سعيد”. كان الهدف فى البداية هو حساب تكلفة اعادة ترميم مبنى فندق ناشيونال (الشكل 5، الركن السفلى فى الجانب الأيمن من المجمع) بهدف تحويله للمقر الجديد لـآليانس فرانسيز بورسعيد”. ويلاحظ أنه كان هناك مشروع دراسة سابق قام به طلبة شايو" تحت اشراف كلودين بياتون" فى 2006.

تلت هذا بعض المفاوضات التى أسفرت عن تأكيد أهمية دراسة المجمع ككل من أجل تقديم نموذج لمشروع رائد للتنمية المستدامة بالمدينة.

اقترح المشروع اعادة ترميم القشرة الخارجية للمجمع بغرض إعادتها بقدر الإمكان إلى الحالة الأصلية مع ترك المستأجرين الحاليين لمحلات الطابق الأرضى فى مكانهم والعثور على استخدامات بديلة للطابق الأول والفناء الداخلى مع اجراء التعديلات المطلوبة.

الشكل 5: الموقع بشكله الطبيعى، 2006

الشكل 6: مخطط الحفاظ المقترح لمجمع فندق ناشيونال، 2011


مشروعات الحفاظ على التراث الناجحة هى مشروعات تتضمن ادارة التغيير على نحو مستدام

لابد أن نتفهم السياق الحضرى قبل أن نضع أى خطط للحفاظ على المبانى التاريخية المقترحة

لابد من أخذ المشاكل الاجتماعية والاقتصادية والبيئية المحلية فى الاعتبارعند تقييم الأهمية المعمارية والتاريخية لموقع أو مبنى تاريخى

يمكن رفع الوعى العام بالقضايا الثقافية وزيادة الاحساس بالانتماء من خلال اشراك الجمهور فى اتخاذ القرارات

اعادة احياء المناطق من خلال الاهتمام بالتراث هى أحد الأساليب الفعالة لتحقيق التنمية المستدامة، وهى تتطلب بناء جسور مع الاجهزة الحكومية وأيضا تشجيع المستثمرين المحليين على المساهمة

Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo ends two-year renovation

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.

Resurrecting Boulac Bridge

One of Cairo’s iconic bridges, Boulac Bridge, is pictured here in 1961 during the 9th anniversary of the 1952 Coup/”revolution.” The bridge was located at the extension of Boulac Street, later renamed Foad Street and currently holding the name 26th of July Street (which begins at Azbakiyya Garden bending at the High Court and on to the bridge which crossed the Nile from Boulac to Zamalek on Gezira Island). It’s name later changed to Abu el Ela (after a mosque by the same name that was located near the bridge’s entrance from the Boulac side). Throughout its history, the bridge carried a tram line, cars and pedestrians. In 1996 the bridge was dismantled, deemed as insufficient for Cairo’s growing traffic. It has since been replaced with the current 15th May Bridge. It is rumored that the iron Boulac bridge, which was built in 1910, was moved to a Nile side location further north near the district of Sahel. There are also rumors that it was sold for scrap, as it was the fate of other iron bridges.

It seems obvious if the bridge, or part of it, still exists somewhere in Cairo, it should be reused in some capacity. In 2009 there was a proposal to use the bridge parts to create an art space or give it a commercial use (Much like what was done to the old Imbaba Bridge which was moved to Damaietta). That proposal was never carried through. However, last November amidst all the upheaval Egypt is experiencing, officials found the time to reopen the case of the 700 Million Egyptian Pound investment plan for the bridge and renewed the initial idea of turning it into a private “touristic space.” Al Wafd paper presented the project in nationalist guise, as was usually done by the regime in such private projects that typically involved massive corruption, deals with contractors, money laundering, etc.

Here is an obvious use for the bridge that doesn’t involve turning public property into private investment with no return to the public. Re-use the bridge as a pedestrian bridge.

Crossing the Qasr el Nil Bridge is one of Cairo’s most accessible and popular activities and it is free. With public space so limited, particularly space overlooking the Nile, a pedestrian bridge crossing the Nile in central Cairo would be a transformative project and a great addition to the city’s “public good.”

There is an obvious location as well: between the 6th October Bridge and Qasr el Nil Bridge. The bridge could link the Cairo Tower with the Egyptian Museum.

The increasing privatizations of public amenities have reduced the standard of the city over the past several decades significantly. Instead of creating another privately owned space using this historic structure, it can be used the way it was always intended to be used, as a bridge. At the same time it can provide pedestrians, who are the majority of this city’s population, where only %15 own private cars, with an additional promenading space where they can experience the Nile and views of the city. The bridge appears to be in near perfect condition in an early 1990s Amr Diab video.

GOPP and other organizations should promote public projects that will raise the standard of living in Cairo. There is no use of having pockets of luxury and private enterprise if they sit within the context of a deteriorating city. Raising public standards, public projects, public space all contribute positively towards any future private investment. This is a call for those who are concerned to save the Boulac (Abu el Ela) Bridge and resurrect it as a pedestrian bridge in a popular location. It would be a good step for greater public good.

More information: Al-Ahram Weekly, here.

There is already a monument

 “Architecture is the expression of every society’s very being.… [But] only the ideal being of society, the one that issues orders and interdiction with authority, is expressed in architectural compositions in the strict sense of the word…. Thus great monuments rise up like levees, opposing the logic of majesty and authority to any confusion: Church and State in the form of cathedrals and palaces speak to the multitudes, or silence them. It is obvious that monuments inspire social good behavior in societies and often even real fear. The storing of the Bastille is symbolic of this state of affairs: it is hard to explain this mass movement other than through the people’s animosity (animus) against monuments that are its real masters.”—   George Bataille

The increased presence of military personnel during the years of WWII intensified the awareness of the occupation which was not welcomed. Cairo was ready for revolution. Ismailiyya Square was the stage of the killing of thirty Egyptians who demonstrated at the steps of Kasr al-Nil Barracks, still occupied by British troops. The building and the square gained an increasingly negative image during this period and were seen as symbols of corruption, occupation, and injustice. When British troops left the Barracks in 1947, the King personally ordered the demolition of this grand building which was originally built to house the Egyptian army. the nervous king must have seen the destruction of the building as a message to the population that he too was anti-occupation. In reality, the building itself had nothing to do with the occupation and destroying it did nothing to change Egypt’s political situation or the role of the British in the country. but the visibility of buildings make them associated with the political powers who occupy them and therefore the stones somehow become politicized.

Imagine Tahrir Square if the barracks building was still there, of course its function would have evolved over time and most probably it could have been transformed into a municipality building or even a hotel with the two central gardens overlooking the Nile. It would have been amazing to be able to stand in Tahrir, look at the old barracks building and be able to trace the changing history that it has experienced from Egyptian Army, to British, to Independence then whatever functions it may have had. Adaptive reuse circa 1947 Cairo would have been a great argument to make rather than simply raze a building and with it erasing history. if people in power would always have their way to destroy buildings that occupied or housed or were used by opposing/colonial or disliked political symbols then our cities would never evolve and the memories and histories that are loaded onto buildings would be reduced to a few old pictures and anecdotes that survive those acts of revenge on architecture.

Now also in Tahrir Square another building is being targeted by the same destructive logic. The torched former headquarters of the National Democratic Party slightly north of the site of the former barracks awaits an order to raze it to the ground. As if all Egypt’s problems have been already solved this building has been recieving a fare share of discussion regarding its fate. all opinions agree that it must be torn down and the question is what should be done with its location. some have suggested a garden for the Egyptian Museum, others suggested offices for human rights organizations.

The building opened in 1958 along with the Hilton and the Arab League, all three buildings forming Nasser’s new Nile skyline. Initially the building housed the Cairo Municipality, later its function changed to house the Socialist Party and later yet it housed offices for various political organizations such as the Women’s Union before finally becoming the headquarters of the NDP. the buidling itself is a typical concrete 1950s slab with a regular facade and balanced proportions. it is part of Egypt’s history and part of the evolution of Tahrir Square.

Now, my guess is that the fire that broke out in the building on January 28 did not structurally damage the concrete monolith. However the fire did leave some very visible scars on the facade. while amatures and architects scramble to come up with a monument to place in Tahrir, the torched NDP building stands as the most visiually powerful monument to the revolution. Here was the symbol of the country’s untouchable ruling elite torched on the “day of anger.” so why the rush to tear down this most powerful visiual reminder of the people’s will and their ability to bring down a corrupt elite?

I think it is time to break the cycle of taking out our anger on buildings. There is no need to constantly “cleanse” the cityscape of “unsightly” reminders of aspects of our past some powerful politicians may not want to keep around. I think the best way to come to terms with what just happened to Egypt and its momentous revolution by keeping the torched NDP building as a reminder to us Egyptians of what people power has done but also as a reminder to politicians that they too could be swept away by the people.

How to keep the building is another question: I am not suggesting we leave this massive building in such a prime location vacant like Beirut’s Holiday INN. I can imagine the shell of the building remaining with the interiors renovated to house whatever institutions the city decides, perhaps human rights organizations as it has been suggested. but the skin of the building should continue to show proudly the marks left by the flames that toppled one of the most powerful and oppressive regimes in modern Middle Eastern history.

Related article, here.