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Dispatch from Venice: 4 national participations worth a closer look

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In June the 14th International Architecture Exhibition (Mostra Internazionale di Architettura) opened in Venice. Curated by Rem Koolhaas, this year’s exhibit is about “architecture not architects.” In the words of the president of the biennale, this is “a research-centered biennale,” in which the participating national pavilions explore the theme of “absorbing modernity 1914-2014.” I have reservations regarding the notion that modernity is “absorbed.” What does that really mean? If we are to accept the metaphor then who made this wet mess in the first place that was later “absorbed” by various nations? I’m not so convinced of the idea that nations are like pieces of toilet paper merely absorbing modernity produced by an unnamed source. Absorption is not an apt metaphor for capturing the last century of historical transformations that resulted in various, often uneven, forms of modernism. Together the sixty-six participating countries “present a portrait of a terrifying century in which almost every country was destroyed, divided, occupied, drained, and traumatized, yet survived,” Koolhaas writes in his introduction.

Nonetheless, the idea of a research-based exhibition reflecting on the history of architectural production over the past century in various national contexts produced some impressive results. Probably for the first time ever one can walk from one display to the next to learn about how various countries experienced this century of architecture. This might be the first true international comparative exhibition on architectural modernism. Some displays are much more impressive in terms of research than others, some missed the point completely, others fell short of really communicating a clear idea or narrative.

Here are snapshots of four of the participating countries and their “research-centered” contributions to the theme of “absorbing modernity.”

Ireland

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The Irish display is a good reminder that less is more. Rather than taking on too much, or everything that a century of modernism in a national context can offer, the curators of the Irish pavilion were smart to set their parameters. The Irish exhibition is titled “Infra-Eireann” and it “presents ten infrastructural episodes across a period of a hundred years. Placing architecture within a technological and cultural flow of national and international dimensions, it explores the operations of infrastructure in the making of modern Ireland at a range of scales from the detail design of objects to entire landscapes and other social and physical territories.” Whoever wrote that paragraph deserves an award for the most concise and clear concept and introduction to an exhibit.

With a variety of media (models, drawings, and photographs) the exhibit showcases 10 particular buildings or projects that the curators identified as key benchmarks in Ireland’s history of modernization. These ten projects fit under categories such as transportation, electricity, education, aviation, television and telecom. The selected buildings not only represent various technological and infrastructural milestones but they also span the century and therefore provide snapshots into what modernism looked like at particular moments in time. Selected projects include the Galway Regional Sanatorium designed by Norman White (1946), and RTE Television Center designed by Ronald Tallon of Scott Tallon Walker Architects (1962). Overall the exhibition wastes no words, space or time to deliver a direct and to the point view of a country’s history of modernism that is somewhat on the margins of the canonical histories of modern architecture. There are no polemics here, just good research. For more information, click here.

Dominican Republic

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Speaking of countries on the margins of the history of modern architecture; the Dominican Republic is participating for the first time at the architecture biennale and it is an impressive first show. The exhibition titled “Fair Concrete: the promise of the ruin” takes one particular site constructed at a particular moment in the country’s history of modernism as site from which to reflect on the past future and the present of modernity. The Free World’s Fair of Peace and Confraternity, a mouthful of a title, took place in 1955 in Santo Domingo and it was organized by the country’s then dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina. In a year 70 buildings were erected to host the event in an area that came to be known as La Feria. The resulting buildings are impressive reflections of the dictator’s ambitions and they “afforded him the opportunity to tout his accomplishments and to reprise, for an international audience, his number one favorite role: that of the Savior in Chief.” Reading these words as an Egyptian ring a few bells.

The exhibit does multiple things at once: on the one hand it functions as a kind of partial archive with a collection of images, texts and archival materials that introduce visitors to an unfamiliar episode in the history of modernism. These items are beautifully arranged in a space constructed out of concrete blocks, translating the title of the exhibition into a material and spatial experience. The next space consists of a series of floating light boxes with archival images of buildings and monuments from the fair site when it was first constructed juxtaposed with its contemporary present life, how it fits half a century later into the city’s social life. In fact this is at the core of the exhibit, how these “ruins” of a past future modern are part of the present social life of the city. For more information, click here.

Bahrain

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Still on the margins of the cannonical history of modernism is the Middle East. Titled “Fundamentalists and Other Arab Modernisms,” Bahrain’s third participation at the architecture biennale presents an impressive overview of the region’s experience with architectural production over the past century. In a bold move, the commissioner of the pavilion, Bahrain’s Ministry of Culture, does away with one of the main, and perhaps most problematic, organizing elements of the Venice biennale: the nation state as an organizational category. Instead, Bahrain commissioned the Beirut-based Arab Center for Architecture (ACA) to create a survey of a century of architecture across the entire region. The result is a publication edited by George Arbid, director of ACA, that brings together essays by sixteen scholars about the Arab Maghreb, Arab East Africa, Egypt, Iraq, Arab Levant, Arabian Peninsula and Bahrain. By doing so Bahrain placed itself and its modernism within a regional context. Arbid selected 100 buildings from across the region which are represented in the book with wonderfully reproduced archival photographs and drawings. This is not an easy feat in a region where public archives are nearly non-existent. This is the first such compilation of buildings and essays focusing on the past century of architectural modernism in the Middle East. The hefty tabloid-sized book, 40,000 copies, are generously provided for free.

The exhibition space, designed by Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury, creates a circular enclosure within the Arsenal building with the books as part of the structure. In a time when many of the region’s nation-states are disintegrating along with their histories of modernization and modernism and when archives and libraries are burned, looted and with them the forever loss of a century of the region’s history, Bahrain’s pavilion is an urgent attempt to recollect and archive the remaining fragments. For more information, click here.

USA

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Interestingly the Middle East as a region appears in another pavilion. The USA pavilion, with an exhibition titled “Office US”goes a step further by presenting a global history of a century of architectural modernism. The link between the various projects built around the world is that they are designed by American architectural firms. One thousand projects in total are available in an open library, each project with a folder consisting of information about it, its designer and additional context. “The forms, technologies, and production processes of US architectural offices have traveled the globe over the last hundred years,” reads the exhibition description. It continues, “from the 1920s European importation of US architectural ingenuity, through the 1950s Marshall Plan architecture and the 1970s oil-fueled projects in the Middle East, to the contemporary global proliferation of super-tall buildings and NGO-sponsored interventions. Individually and collectively, these projects tell multiple, imbricated stories of US firms, as well as a broader narrative of modernization and its global reach.” If Rem Koolhaas is asking national pavilions to explore how modernity was “absorbed” in their respective countries, the US pavilion is shamelessly suggesting that the United States has, through its architectural firms, produced modernity like a discharge for the world to absorb.

American involvement in world politics looms large as one goes from one project to the next. Some of the projects include Hilton hotels built throughout the Mediterranean in the 1950s as part of Cold War politics. There are American military cities in Saudi Arabia. And of course there are many tall glass structures built in Gulf cities, which have given many US architectural firms a new lease on life and an endless market for them to provide their services. This is a very rich contribution to the biennale that may not look like much at first but needs many hours to explore. The viewer here is invited to be a researcher. For more information, click here.

11 Recent Cultural Disasters in Egypt

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In recent decades there had been a slow but persistent destruction of Egypt’s rich cultural heritage, specifically its buildings, archaeological sites, and museum collections. Heritage and the rich histories it carries were under assault with incidents such as the theft of masterpieces from museum collections, the $55 million Van Gogh that disappeared in plain day light as an example, but also lesser known pieces from the country’s vast and uncatalogued collections are constantly disappearing. In most cases these kinds of thefts or sudden disappearances go unnoticed and unreported. The assault on Egypt’s cultural heritage is more often the result of mismanagement, conflicting policies, lack of policy enforcement and the state’s hegemonic control over the arena of culture and heritage in general without proper mechanisms for civilian oversight or transparency. Tens of museums across the country close for extended periods with no planned reopening, sometimes a decade, in the name of renovation. In the meantime the whereabouts and condition of collections remain a mystery and there are no channels for the public to inquire about such information. High level officials are never held accountable. In other times the state is directly the vandal, as was the case with the botched renovation of Cairo’s heritage central station in 2011. Added to this is the insatiable appetite of the market for Egyptian cultural artifacts ranging from ancient statuettes to doors and wooden ceilings of the homes of historic Cairo. These items end up in private collections in Europe and the Gulf.

Adding to the rapid destruction of heritage is the undemocratic nature of urban management in Egypt. Take for example the disastrous case of Luxor where its former governor (an appointed military general with no experience or knowledge in heritage management or urbanism, appointed to run one of the world’s richest cities in terms of cultural capital) decided single handedly to destroy entire stretches of historic urban fabric, forcibly evict residents from historic village homes that represent some of the best examples of vernacular domestic architecture, and to create an empty badly paved plaza in front of Karnak Temple in place of the centuries old trees and palm groves that separated the temple from the Nile. These are but few examples of the havoc done onto the city by its appointed governor with all the tools of the security state at his disposal to intimidate residents and imprison those who get in the way.

One of the main culprits in the deterioration of Egyptian heritage is the state’s take over of the Waqf system, which tied the maintenance of properties to an endowment, and by doing so provided financial resources for the upkeep of endowed buildings. When the system was canceled by the state in the early 1960s, the state failed to provide sufficient funds to maintain previously endowed buildings. This also is tied to the conflict between the Waqf Ministry and the Antiquities Ministry over which institution is responsible for which monuments. Additionally, the Antiquities Ministry is the only one in the Egyptian government required to generate its own income, which it generates from ticketing at historic sites, creating an unbreakable link between national patrimony and tourism: With low tourist turnouts, financial resources to repair and maintain monuments decline and monuments carrying layers of Egypt’s history fall into disrepair. Moreover, this link between heritage and tourism has meant that only sites with touristic potential are maintained while others tucked in the urban fabric and unknown to package tourists become forgotten, locked away and neglected. The link between tourism and patrimony must be undone as Egypt’s material culture is not merely a cash cow for tourist money but it belongs to Egyptians first and foremost.

All of the above was part of the relatively slow destruction of Egyptian heritage. However, since 2011 these processes have accelerated at an unprecedented rate. In the last three years there have been three main processes for this accelerated destruction: first, in many cases the political uncertainly led the middle men in the processes described above to continue and accelerate their work, since there was no guarantee what the future would bring. Second, in other cases the flimsy control of the state over urban issues, such as the selectively applied ban on the demolition of historic or listed buildings, disappeared overnight. Because there was no real comprehensive policy that incorporated heritage into an effective economic structure the ban on demolition was imposed not because there were benefactors or because there was a widely recognized value for such structures, rather the ban on demolition was literally associated with particular persons in the ruling regime. Thus when such figures seemed to be out of the political picture, many heritage buildings were demolished in order for their owners to profit from the land or to build new profitable structures. Finally, a third wave of destruction is a direct result of the political uncertainly where heritage was used as a bargaining chip to shame the revolution or it was in the crossfires of fighting or attacks. Mosques, churches, museums, and government buildings were burned, looted, or destroyed.

It is important to read Egypt’s heritage drain within a regional context. From Syria’s enormous losses of major historical sites to the looting of Iraqi museums and collections following the American invasion. Through various processes of erasure, the “old Middle East” has been systematically losing hundreds of years of cultural heritage. If museums, folklore and cultural constructions were essential tools for the invention of nations in the 19th and 20th centuries, then their destruction could be read as the undoing of nations in the 21st century.

Here is an abbreviated list of some of the major cultural and heritage losses in Egypt since 2011. Many of these cases have been under-reported and lost amidst the news of massacres, mass arrests and political turmoil.

1. Major damage to Cairo’s Museum of Islamic Art and the National Library and Archives building and collections.

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Cairo’s Museum of Islamic Art, known locally until recently as the Museum of Arab Art, holds the world’s most comprehensive collection of Islamic art covering all periods of Egypt’s history since the coming of Islam and including items from around the Islamic world from Iran to Turkey. The museum was closed for nearly a decade to undergo a renovation that resulted in mostly cosmetic changes to the galleries with only a selection of 2500 items put on display, a small fraction of its more than 100,000 items. The building housing the museum is a heritage building completed in 1903 also houses the main headquarters of Egypt’s National Library with its special manuscript collection. Pictured above is a clipping from a magazine from the 1960s complaining about the architecture of the then new police headquarters across from the historic museum.

The Museum was severely damaged in January of this year after a bomb blast targeted the police headquarters across the street. Read more here.

2. Destruction of many of Cairo’s historic and landmark villas and palaces

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Since the 1990s villas and mansions that were built by a burgeoning bourgeoisie from the end of the nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century have been destroyed. Since 2011 the rate of destruction has accelerated and listed villas were targeted and even removed from the heritage list by direct order of the prime minister. Known examples include Villa Casdagli and Villa Ispenian in Cairo as well as the residence of key figures in Egyptian history such as Makram Ebeid palace in Qena (which also happens to be located across the street from the city’s main police headquarters). Many more were damaged or destroyed without ever being studied or documented, taking with them a significant slice of modern Egyptian history.

3. Destruction of Mansoura Theater

In December 2013 a car bomb targeting the police headquarters in the city of Mansoura caused major damage to the city’s historic theater located across the street. While the Culture Ministry vowed to repair the building, the municipality deemed it must be demolished. The fate of the building is still uncertain. The theater is a turn of the century building that was among a series of theaters and opera houses that were built in cities across the country (including small and medium cities) and patronized by the local elite.

4. Looting of the Malawi Museum in Minya

The Malawi National Museum in the southern city of Minya was entirely looted. In August 2013 as many as 1089 objects recorded in the museum inventory were stolen in a single heist. Around 50 items were destroyed or burned. Months later it has been reported that half of the items were later returned. In December it was reported that the museum was undergoing restoration. The museum contained a special collection of artifacts discovered locally. The world famous Nefertiti bust, now in Berlin, was discovered nearby in 1912.

5. Destruction of the Institut d’Egypte

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In December 2011 amid clashes between security personnel and protesters an inconspicuous historic building at the corner of Qasr el Aini and Sheikh Rihan Streets caught fire. The building engulfed in flames was home to the Egyptian Research Council (المجمع العلمي المصري) also known as the Institut d’Egypte. The library in the building contains original publications dating back to 1798 including the famous Description de l’Egypte. Following a gift from a Gulf emir and a botched restoration of the building it was announced the following year that the building reopened although nothing is known about the fate of its collection.

6. Uncontrolled urban transformation of the historic of Darb el Ahmar district in Cairo

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One of the most spectacular urban transformations since 2011 has taken place at the heart of historic Cairo in one of the most revered districts, al-Darb al-Ahmar. Numerous buildings have been destroyed dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries, sometimes with official demolition permits. The problem is not only in the en-mass demolition but also the speedy constructions that have risen above 10-stories dwarfing all that remains of the city’s once intact historic neighborhood with an accumulated heritage of domestic architecture. Authorities have been fully complicit in this enormous cultural disaster often citing lack of security as an excuse for not intervening.

7. Encroachment on archaeological sites at Fustat, Dahshour and Al-Matariyyah

Archaeological sites north-west and south-east of Cairo have been vulnerable to building encroachment. At Dahshour, it has been reported, residents from a nearby village began building cemeteries over the site. While in Matariya, one of Cairo’s ancient sites where the city’s only obelisk is still standing, a neglected archaeological site had been transformed into a waste dump. In Fustat, the site of Egypt’s first Islamic capital, nearby residents began building on the site. In fact these acts of encroachment are the direct result of years of negligence and the policy that has cut monuments from their local context by building fences and treating the urban population as trespassers rather than active members of communities essential to monument preservation. In all the above cases the Antiquities Ministry has been slow to react and incapable of dealing with crises.

8. Partial collapse of Muhammad Ali’s Shubra Palace

This is a truly unique building, which had been inaccessible due to a over-drawn restoration costing millions during the years of Farouk Hosni. After the revolution started, the site, like many others across the country, was closed citing lack of security. During this period of closure news emerged that an entire corner of this early 19th century pleasure pavilion collapsed due to the unprofessional restoration completed years earlier. The news emerged months after the collapse happened. Since then news of the status of the site has been suppressed. It is important to note that “renovations” and “restoration” projects have often been the result of direct order given to a contractor, often with no substantial experience in such work. These projects cost millions without independent supervision of budgets or quality of work.

9. Thefts at several sites in Islamic Cairo

For years historic Cairo has been slowly drained of its exquisite architectural elements from door knobs to entire doors and wooden mosque pulpits and even ceilings of ottoman-era houses. Stories circulate in these districts about middlemen buying and bribing their way through the heritage of the city as their wealthy clients, often women from the Gulf, seek to acquire authentic antiques to decorate their newly built homes in the booming cities of the “new Middle East.”

Since 2011 the rate of these thefts and the audacity of the thieves have increased. While police occasionally foils a theft of historic buildings, many more go under the radar. The theft of decorative element from the door of the Sultan Farag Ibn Barquq funerary complex received some attention in 2012. However, we will never know the full extent of these thefts, again because the very system of managing these sites and the relationship between these buildings and neighboring communities are deeply flawed.

10. The rapid loss of Alexandria’s architectural heritage

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If a city can visually, urbanistically and experientially represent the current state of Egypt most vividly, Alexandria is probably the best candidate. While the transformations taking place in Egypt’s second city can be seen across the county, no city comes close to Alexandria’s rate of deterioration and urban densification due to corruption in municipal government and the security apparatus and the power of the construction mafia. From tens of historic buildings demolished every month to thousands of new illegal constructions rising to the lack of improvement to basic services and the near absence of any municipal policy, Alexandria’s decline is irreversible.

The city’s iconic modernist building housing its municipality was torched and destroyed during the early days of the revolution. Unique structures such as the Villa Aghion were partially demolished, sites of cultural memory such as Lawrence Durrell’s villa are on the demolition list. The “bride of the Mediterranean” as it is known locally, is sinking into the sea.

11. The disappearance of Cairo’s Railway Museum

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Another major casualty of mismanagement and corruption is the Railway Museum at Cairo’s central station. In 2010 it was reported that the museum “lost its tracks” and that a renovation was in order. Then, during the midst of the revolution, a renovation was hastily carried out at the station destroying the architectural design of its interior and the Railway Museum was dismantled. The museum renovation was never completed and the location of its collections is unknown. There is no information as to the intended date of reopening, if any, or who is carrying out the renovation, nor who is designing or curating the collection and display, if any. The world’s earliest museum dedicated to the railways is, for now, gone.

Frank Lloyd Wright Visits Cairo

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[Frank Lloyd Wright accompanied by his wife at the time in the center of a group of architects and the head of the Architects Society, as well as the head of public buildings at the Ministry of Rural and Urban Affairs.]

In May 1957 Frank Lloyd Wright, 89 at the time, visited Cairo on his way back to the United States from Iraq where he spent a week. FLW was in Baghdad, the site of his proposed building for a new opera house as part of the “Plan for Greater Baghdad.” The plan was in the service of the ruling regime during its final days, an attempt by power to create a new public image for itself using its oil money and with the service of world renowned architects. Upon closer inspection the plan includes many entertaining details such as decorative themes derived from the 1001 Nights and a large statue of Haroun ar-Rachid with a good sprinkle of camels and other orientalist motifs. For FLW this was the Iraq he knew and given a blank check to create his master plan and architectural designs he must have thought he was digging deep into the historical treasure trove of the Iraqi past recovering “vernacular” and local references and images.

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[Schematic drawing of the Greater Baghdad Plan, the Opera House is seen on an Island in the Euphrates given to wright to design a cultural complex that will put Baghdad on the international cultural map. At the bottom of the image and on the tip of the island is Wright’s monument topped by Haroun ar-Rachid.]

There were a few Egyptian architects who traveled to the US to study in FLW’s Studio including architect Kamal Amin. Wright’s trip to Egypt was part curiosity and part research, wanting to see more of the Middle East before building his first project in the region. The visit was organized by the Architects’ Society which together with Egypt’s Society of Engineers organized a reception at its main building on Ramses Street near Cairo’s downtown. The reception was attended by many of the country’s practicing architects and their wives to entertain Wright and his wife.

Prior to the reception Wright was given a tour of Cairo, which apparently was off putting as the city’s buildings did not conform to Wright’s expectations. During the reception Wright made a speech in which he was quoted in the press as saying:

It saddens me to tell you that what I have seen of your work in the streets of Cairo, and this is my first time in this city, was far beyond my expectations. I never expected that Egypt, which taught humanity the meaning of civilization, would be home to such cheap architecture built by its own architects and engineers. The many examples of your work I have seen during my speedy tour have no spirit, artistry or dignity. These structures are commercial and pedestrian, never have I seen such architecture for profit as I have seen in Cairo, except perhaps in Johannesburg.

Dear architects and engineers, you are responsible for the architecture of this and future generations. Where in your work is the collaboration between the architect and the structural engineer, between the architect and the artist and artisan, between the architect and the sculptor? Building must result from all these collaborations, otherwise architecture becomes what you have built here, empty, cheap and single-note show pieces. If your architecture shows anything it shows that you built with your minds but not with your hearts. Architecture is not only physics and science, it is life, hope and feelings.*

He then turned his back to his audience and said, “this is enough, I have given Cairo a lesson you should never forget.”

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[Frank Lloyd Wright at the residence of one of his former students Salah Zaitoun, looking at images of recent projects]

It is not clear from the published report on the visit what buildings exactly triggered Wright’s disappointment. Nor is it clear where in Cairo exactly he toured, although given that the reception was at the Society of Engineers building, it is most likely that Wright’s tour was mainly around the city’s downtown area with its many early twentieth century blocks and a smattering of more recent buildings.

There is much to be said about Wright’s observations of architecture in Cairo but for the purpose of this blog post here are a couple of points. First, Wright was seen in Egypt as the father of العمارة العضوية or “Organic Architecture.” However, this approach to architecture had little reverberation in Egypt where a structural modernist idiom was dominant. Second, underpinning Wright’s critique of architectural design in Cairo is Wright’s expectation of local practice in Egypt to be informed by tradition or, to use a less loaded term, local references. This is clear in Wright’s own work such as the Imperial Hotel in Japan, in which local architectural references were incorporated, although perhaps only in an additive fashion and in ornamentation, into his design. Egypt, like Japan, is an ancient place with layers of historical architectural traditions that for Wright would have been necessary elements in his view of a modern Egyptian architecture. This was of course not the case as the prevailing architectural aesthetic in Egypt for several decades already before Wright’s visit was what is known as the “International Style,” preceded by a period of eclecticism drawing decorative references from a wide variety of sources. Third, if indeed much of what Wright saw was the architecture of downtown’s early twentieth century overlaid on a 19th century “Parisian” city plan of radial squares, then Wright must have been shocked by what looked to him nothing like the “east” he expected. This might explain his comment that many of the buildings he saw were “commercial.” Whether Wright’s dismay was pointed at ornamental downtown “Belle Époque” buildings or plain modernist buildings, both of these architectures must have looked out of place for wright. Egypt must have had its own Haroun ar-Rachid to dig up, dust off and put on a pedestal.

The following day after the reception, Wright was taken by a group of architects on an excursion north of Cairo to the Qanater, an area of Nile-side gardens and famous barrages which opened to the public in 1868. This excursion was led by the head of the Architects Society at the time, Tawfiq Ahmed Abdel Gawad, who wanted to show Wright one of the most admired works of architecture and engineering, the barrages. During the trip, it is reported, Wright told Abdel Gawad that he had visited the Egyptian Museum earlier that morning. The museum, Wright said, was more of a storage facility that is not suitable for the display of the treasures of ancient Egypt. Wright then proceeded, in the business fashion of a true global architect, to lobby the head of the Architects Society to get him a commission to build Egypt a new museum so that “he can leave his mark on the East.”

* Cairobserver’s translation of the quote originally published in Arabic.

2013 Cairobserver Review

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In January Cairobserver launched a Facebook page which by the end of the year reached 10,000 followers. The page is updated frequently with relevant news about Cairo’s urban affairs as well as links to other blogs and initiatives concerned with Cairo’s architecture, urbanism, and heritage. To join the Cairobserver Facebook page visit https://www.facebook.com/Cairobserver

In April Cairobserver’s Mohamed Elshahed participated in the conference Learning from Cairo, organized by CLUSTER and the American University in Cairo. Participation in the conference included moderating several panels and discussions as well as leading a walking tour of Cairo’s downtown. To learn more about the conference visit http://learningfromcairo.org/

The Goethe Institute invited Elshahed to moderate two panel discussions this year, the first was in May and focused on the relationship between funding, politics and art in post-revolutionary Egypt. The second panel event was in November about “Cultural Politics as Politics of Identity.

In July and August Cairobserver launched a crowd funding campaign to raise funds for producing a new print issue of the blog/ezine. The campaign reached its goal and the print issue went into production and will be launched on 6 & 7 January 2014 at Megawra and Nile Sunset Annex. To see the crowd funding campaign visit http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/cairobserver-print-issue-2/x/1275261

Cairobserver was invited to participate at the Guggenheim exhibition “Participatory City: 100 Urban Trends from the BMW Guggenheim Lab" on display in New York October 11, 2013–January 5, 2014. The participation is in the form of a video in response to "protest" as a global urban trend as seen from the context of Cairo. The video can be viewed here.

As part of their Fall 2013 issue, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs compiled a list of their favorite Cairobserver posts and conducted an interview with its founder Mohamed Elshahed. The list is here and the interview here.

Here is a selection of this year’s blog posts:

6 January - Hassan Fathy: Architecture for the Rich

An attempt to debunk the myth of the West’s favorite Egyptian architect from the 20th century.

21 January - The Severed Branches of Local Government

An excellent article for the Egypt Independent by Aaron Jakes about the struggle for Egyptians to have access to effective local government. Jakes argues that “For over a century, an arrangement designed to strangle political initiative at its roots has continued to shape the state institutions that often wield the most direct influence over people’s daily lives.”

5 February - Muhammad Ali Street and the Shifting Symbolism of Cairo’s Cityscape

An excellent guest post by Joseph Ben Prestel about one of Cairo’s most revered streets and its layers of history and memory.

7 March - 900KM Nile City: Grappling with Egypt’s Baffling Urban Condition

900KM Nile City is an ambitious urban research project which was presented in February and early March at the Townhouse Gallery with a symposium held at the Goethe Institute.

10 March - CURL: Introducing the Cairo Urban Resource Library

CLUSTER transformed a room in their downtown office into a library stocked with books about architecture and urbanism with particular attention to publications about the region, Egypt and Cairo.

17 March - Walking the City: An Interview with Nabil Shawkat on the Pleasures of Exploring Cairo on Foot

Nabil Shwkat has been leading walks around the center of Cairo with a group of friends on a regular basis. Along the way he discovers the many aspects, sites and stories the city offers to those who seek to know more.

15 April - C.Scapes by Mia Gusberti

Artist Mia Gusberti shares her video work on public space in Cairo which was realized between 2007 and 2009. With the events starting in 2011 public space became a central topic of discussion giving the work an added layer of significance.

22 April - Reviewing the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival

The second D-CAF took place in April with a variety of events taking place at a wide selection of buildings and sites around downtown.

5 May - Running the city: The Making of Cairo’s Marathon

One of the major successful stories of the past year was Cairo Runners. We asked CR about their experience and how mobilizing thousands of runners from a cross-section of society to run at different parts of the city might change the way we experience it.

15 May - CUIP: Introducing the Cairo Urban Initiatives Platform

Another excellent project launched this year by CLUSTER, CUIP makes it easier to navigate the many initiatives and events taking place in the city.

11 & 26 June -  Looking to Beirut from Cairo

A two-part reflection on how the two cities of Beirut and Cairo deal with sometimes similar challenges and how the urban middle class plays a different role in the shaping of each of these cities. Part one here, part two here.

15 June - Two Recent Conferences, Between National Policy and Urban Reality

Dina Lotfy who has contributed to the site with several guest posts, writes about two conferences representing two academic perspectives (the official/institutional and the parallel/independent) on issues of housing and urbanism. (In Arabic)

24 June - This is Not Architecture

A faculty member at the fine arts school presented his vision for transforming al-Mugamma` building (administrative) into a luxury hotel. This is our response. (In Arabic)

7 July - Tadamun: An Initiative for Urban Solidarity

Tadamun is an initiative spearheaded by architect Kareem Ibrahim of Takween Integrated Community Development and Diane Singerman, Associate Professor in the Department of Government, School of Public Affairs, at American University (Washington, DC).

9 July - Profile: Mahmoud Riad

In an effort to increase awareness of Egypt’s history of modern architecture,  “profile” is a series of blog posts that introduces key figures in that history.

9 August - Ouzonian Building, 1950

In an effort to increase awareness of Egypt’s history of modern architecture, this and similar blog posts spotlight particular buildings in Cairo that belong to that history.

11 September - Two Court Cases and the Future of Cairo

Rulings in two court cases came in favor of residents of Ramlet Bulaq and Qursaya Island. These are significant cases with implications on the future of urban development in the city.

7 November - 10 Must-Watch Videos to Understand Egypt’s Urban Challenges

Right to Housing Initiative produced is a series of videos each focusing on an urban issue or challenge as a way to illustrate the problems clearly to a wide audience.

21 November - Studio: Legalizing Spontaneous Behavior in Egypt’s Public Spaces

Studio is a series of blog posts started this year that gives students a platform to share their designs with the public. Antoine Akhrass presents a compelling design to Tahrir Square which celebrates its function as a public space.

Looking to Beirut from Cairo (Part II)

This is the second of a two part reflection on Cairo via Beirut. Here is Part I.

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Show off your own city: Go to Beirut’s bookshops, such as the famous Antoine, and you’ll find a plethora of Beirut-produced books about Beirut. The authors are diverse and the publishers are many and the images portrayed of the city by residents of the city take different forms and tell different stories, indeed there are many “Beyroutes” to discover.

Take for example these two guidebooks pictured above. Beyroutes: a guide to Beirut is a project initiated by Studio Beirut. The project “presents an exploded view of a city which lives so many double lives and figures in so many truths, myths, and historical falsifications that for navigating its streets and its corners you need a whole new set of rules of engagement.” This blurb on the back cover says a lot: it says that Beirut is complex (as is any city) but often guides elide complicity in favor of ease of navigation to select points of interest always directed towards a very narrow audience, the tourist. This guide, however, takes a different approach to introducing readers to a city, this city, Beirut. The book is divided into several sections: “First Impression City,” “Official City,” “Emotional City,” and “Invented City.” Within each of these sections are a variety of items that range from short essays to cognitive maps drawn by residents to photo essays. The pieces herein convey experiences of the city and zoom in on particular places, districts or routes from one area to another. You can read things like “Urban Myths” by Steve Eid who forwards his short contribution by writing “In a city where nothing is certain and rumors and hearsay are all you have to go by, myths become sacred wisdom.” Another piece is “Accidental Monuments” by Reem Saouma, which consists of four photographs which when you turn the page you realize they are actually postcards that can cut our of the book. The postcards depict four sites/buildings in the city that, as the title suggests, have become accidental monuments, such as the City Center Cinema, pictured below, as a (monument to the devastation of downtown), and Charles Helou Station (monument to modernity). Beyroutes is not a conventional guidebook. It is different in format and content. It is authored by residents from different parts and of different affiliations and interests. It is for Beirutis and visitors to use.image

Beirut, a Guide to the City (pictured to the right) by Carole Corm “offers an original take on Beirut. Digging deep into its cultural and historical wealth with Fin de Siecle and Post War thematic trails amongst others, to plenty of suggestions on new boutique hotels, up and coming designers and soon to open art foundations.” This is a very different kind of guide from the one discussed above but it too avoids the traps of mass-produced impersonalized guidebooks available on the market targeted towards international tourists. This is a guide by Beirutis also for Beirutis and visitors alike, whether they are visiting for a week or staying for a couple of months. The book is beautifully designed and printed with photographs by Nadim bou Habib. The spirit of the book is perhaps captured best in a page in which the author debunks “5 cliches about Beirut” such as, Beirut is “the Paris of the Middle East” which is eloquently debunked with “or maybe it’s the Beirut of the Middle East.”

These are but two examples of many more similar books and guides and publications that show Beirut from the perspective of locals without eliding the less than perfect aspects of the city. This printed matter on/about/for Beirut is impressive not only in its quantity but also its creativity, thoughtful content and high quality production. Cairo on the other hand suffers from a deficit in this kind of publication despite being a larger city with many complex stories and narratives, many sites and voices and a huge market of local readers as well as international tourists. International guidebook companies are the most available guides to the city which serve a particular audience. There is also the practical guide to Cairo which stands alone as an alternative guide to the city and it is too conventional in its structure and content. Cairo needs to tell its own stories creatively and celebrate its multiplicity and complexity for its own residents and its visitors..

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Making something new from a lot of old things: Hishik Bishik Show is an amazing production that brings together songs that were familiar to anyone born in Egypt before 1990. These are early to mid-twentieth century songs that are part of modern Egyptian folklore and which are part of a fragmented and fading heritage. The show is performed by 10 singers, dancers and musicians and it is entirely live. The set is simple yet innovative, another proof that a good stage production does not need a large budget to look good.

The songs are arranged together in a sequence that does an excellent job of avoiding nostalgia. This is not an attempt to re-perform classics without intervention, to the contrary. The show is campy without ridiculing the musical heritage that is the source of inspiration and the artists perform with such grace combining professionalism with humor and individual personality. This makes the show an all-new never before seen experience even though its foundations are 50-80 year old songs. يا خارجة من باب الحمام or يا مصطفى يا مصطفى become at once familiar yet brand new. The show is presented in a cabaret setting where the audience sits around tables with food and drink on offer. It is a fun night out that I would have loved to have in Cairo, after all this is Egyptian folklore. But why have our own young artists and musicians veered away from using this rich archive of material as a resource for totally new artistic productions without falling into traps of nostalgia or struggling with questions of authenticity? The Hishik Bishik Show is evidence that looking back and digging into the treasure trove of Egyptian pop culture is a worthwhile endeavor that can produce something totally new, fresh, and entertaining.

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The show takes place in Metro al Madina, a venue in the basement of a building on Hamra Street. This could have been a forgotten unused space, but now it hosts this weekly show and another set of performances and it has its own bar creatively designed using old theater seats. The opportunities to do this in Cairo are endless with tens of old theaters in downtown alone in addition to other neighborhoods sitting empty, closed and unused waiting to be creatively activated.

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Stay a While: Artists need space and often they can’t afford space. In Beirut it seems that a few people have managed to make deals and arrangements between some property owners and artists where space can be temporarily used (could be months or years) for free as long as the owner gets their house back when they decide. It is a kind of soft contract that works both ways, on the one hand the property is activated rather than remaining empty and unused and on the other hand artists can have space to set up their studio space and get their work done. Pictured above is “the mansion” a large urban mansion currently used by an artist community. They are not squatters because there is a deal with the owner, and the space is maintained enough to be functional, there is a working kitchen for example and a communal dinning table with benches in the garden for group lunches and brainstorming. The entire place feels like an escape and and with the burden of paying rent alleviated, the place emanates with positive vibes.

Again such a thing can happen in Cairo where hundreds of independent artists face a difficult time finding affordable studio or working space. When individual artists find spaces they are often isolated and don’t have the luxury of community that the mansion in Beirut provides its artists. In addition, Cairo’s many alternative artist spaces and venues are paying high premium rents and their funding is often donations or from international grants which means a significant portion of their limited resources goes into securing the space rather than into their artistic production and programing. Empty locked up properties in Cairo, particularly downtown and surrounding areas such as Bulaq are abundant but they are managed with commercial interests in mind where providing space for free for artists to work (even with some kind of contract and conditions) is unheard of. Of course in Cairo the big elephant in the room is the state which owns many buildings which can be regenerated by artists if the state grants them short/medium/long term contracts free of charge (based on a process of evaluation and with set conditions) which will allow artist collectives to raise money to repair the spaces, generate the areas around these otherwise dead properties and energize and diversify the local economy.

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Building Boom: Both Cairo and Beirut are experiencing an uninterrupted construction boom, however that boom manifests differently in each city. For instance the boom in Cairo is in the unofficial/semi-official sector.  Contractors (مقاولين) build several buildings at a time, all speculative, often on agricultural land or in pockets within the city, typically with massive corruption involving bribes for permits (if they bother to get permits) and more bribes to get the municipality to connect water, gas and electricity despite the dubious legal status of the buildings. These constructions abuse underpaid labor and incredibly cheap building materials such as concrete and brick.

This type of construction is pervasive and it is the result of a malfunctioning municipal and planning system, a porous legal system, a corrupt state and the abundance of cash that is not plugged into the formalized/official economy. These constructions lead to destruction of agricultural land, demolition of historic buildings particularly old domestic architecture (often undocumented and understudied) and exert pressure on infrastructural systems. When done in the urban core in neighborhoods like Sayeda Zeynab or Abbasiyya such constructions not only lead to the removal/eviction of original tenants and the destruction of their homes but they also lead to a drastic transformation in that urban environment, and the escalation of land and property value. However, the physical form of these constructions do not correspond with academic architectural practice, they don’t look like gentrification to an eye which defines the term with reference to a western paradigm, thus they often escape that kind of critique. For others such construction is misread as a response to housing shortages despite the fact that many such buildings remain vacant for years (speculating on future values and since no taxation is required there is little financial burden on the builders, these are exploitative speculative investments. Cairo has in excess of a million empty new units from this construction sector alone). To others they are also misread as a sign of increasing poverty due to their poor aesthetic quality, namely the unfinished exteriors and exposed red brick, which visually does appear similar to construction in impoverished or lower-income areas.

On the other hand architectural projects designed by Egyptian architects catering to upper income clients tend to be out of sight in the privatized cities outside Cairo proper. Such projects also tend to be low-rise residential units. For a city as large as Cairo with a sizable population with the financial means to build, the number of known architectural firms with practices that conform to international professional standards can be counted on the fingers of one hand. For example the most visible and accessible project by Shahira Fahmy architects is designopolis which is located far outside the city on the desert road to Alexandria. This means that architecture with a capital A is little visible within the core of Cairo.

The situation is dramatically different in Beirut. The difference I point to here is not about taste or design aesthetic but rather about the continued relevance of the profession of architecture to the private capital in the city. Architects have become irrelevant in Cairo’s urban development, perhaps because of the dominance of large development companies and the diffusion of private wealth into corporate cookie cutter developments invisible to the general public. Also because of Beirut’s limited space, upper-end developments remain in the core of the city and are vertical thus visible, rather than Cairo’s horizontal and invisible developments.

What is also significant is that many graduates from Beirut’s schools of architecture, most notably AUB, end up working at firms in Beirut producing architecture in Beirut. That relationship between architectural education, architectural practice and the real estate market has been interrupted in Egypt perhaps because architectural education at Egyptian universities, including AUC, is lagging behind the transformations in Egyptian politics, economy and society. The system is producing professionals whose expertise does not correspond to the needs of Egyptian cities and the Egyptian real estate market, which has led to the marginalization of trained architects in the majority of the city’s development which has been viewed by those very professionals as “informal” and “poor” when in fact things are more complex on the ground than this flattening view. I suppose the question raised by the comparison between the practice of architecture in both cities is how can Egyptian architects make their services relevant again to a wider segment of society so that their practice becomes more visible and contribute to the shaping of the city’s urban reality? Another important point of comparison regarding professional practice is the relatively high standard of Lebanese construction companies’ practice compared to their Egyptian counterparts: the choice of building materials, the execution, construction site preparation and management, and other aspects of the construction industry which have nearly disappeared in the vast majority of Egypt’s constructions.

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Downtowns: The word Solidere often incites reactions that sometimes verge on the aggressive. The story is known: a company formed by the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri, acquired the entire war-damaged downtown area of Beirut and proceeded to remodel and redevelop it with a heavy top-down exclusionary approach that has alienated the majority of Beiruti society and has made the area into a privatized hyper-realistic, pedestrian yet militarized, mostly vacant-above-street-level city center. Debating the accuracy of this popular view is not my interest here. However, I am interested in how that experience in Beirut has affected the reception of another company in another city in another downtown. When Al-Ismailiya company came on the scene sometime in 2009-10 it faced many criticisms including attacks based on an analogy with Solidere’s downtown Beirut. 

This issue deserves its own article, but in the context of this Beirut-Cairo discussion a few points must be made that could be further elaborated elsewhere. Downtown Cairo is not downtown Beirut and Al-Ismailia is not Solidere, and here are a few observations to support my argument that the two projects are fundamentally different. (1) post-war downtown Beirut was a bombed out city heavily damaged and largely depopulated, downtown Cairo, although unmaintained it is far from a bombed out city! and while the percentage of occupancy in the residential apartments is as low as %20 in some blocks it is not depopulated and its streets are buzzing with life and activity. (2) Downtown Beirut is significantly smaller than its Cairene counterpart, the entire core of downtown Beirut is equivalent in size to the area surrounding Talaat Harb Square in Cairo. (3) Solidere grew out of a marriage between political power and private capital, and the company was formed to carry out work that the state was not going to do directly, this is different in Cairo as Al-Ismailia is not a private arm of the state nor is there direct relation between the company and the state nor is it mandated by the state to carry out work that should otherwise be done by a public institution such as the municipality. (4) Because of the post-war state of downtown Beirut, Solidere was able to buy out property rights from the existing owners at extremely low prices given the conditions of the city, however in downtown Cairo the ownership map of the area is far more complex with over %50 of downtown buildings owned by various state owned entities such as banks and insurance companies in addition to a highly complex ownership map of private owners, inheritors not to mention buildings owned by Awqaf. This means that even if it were planned to mimic a Solidere style project in Cairo it would be nearly impossible for a single company to simply acquire entire sections of downtown let alone the entire district.

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Perhaps as way of conclusion I should elaborate on some points that triggered this two-part reflection on Cairo via Beirut. Beirut is bigger than its Downtown and Hamra, just like Cairo is much more than downtown and Zamalek. The intention here was to try to understand how particular aspects of place manifest differently in each city as a result of the difference in the role of the state and private capital in each city. For instance the military is visibly present on Beirut’s streets with armored vehicles and uniformed officers stationed throughout the city, yet that visibility is not a reflection of the military’s control of the city’s economy, for example, as it is the case in Cairo. In Cairo the military functions as landowner, and real estate broker owning large swaths of land in and around the city and selling such lands directly to international developers such as Emaar, or to local businessmen to develop places such as Shorouk City. At the same time the Egyptian state is bloated and ever-present, controlling (and complicating) transactions that range from acquiring permits for opening an ice cream shop to acquiring construction and demolition permits. While this is not unusual and it is in fact the role of the state to control such transactions, the high levels of corruption and the unnecessary complications within this bloated state have had adverse effects on Cairo’s municipal and urban development. The Lebanese state is significantly weaker and less intrusive (at least compared to the case in Egypt) and the relationship between that state and society is significantly more ambivalent than in Egypt. Again this is not to say one condition is preferable over the other, rather it is an attempt to point to the possible differences that contribute to the production of different kinds of cities.

The other major component that presents itself as a contributing factor in the difference between the two cities is the role of middle/upper income private capital. In addition to the spaces of consumption and spaces of cultural production discussed above, there is a visible impact of Lebanese families supporting the arts. While Egyptian independent art institution depend entirely on international grants and funding, in Lebanon there are many families who have been patrons of the arts and who support individual artists as well as institutions such as Ashkal Alwan. This aspect of bourgeois society has nearly disappeared in Egypt where the accumulation of private wealth has not been complemented by an active philanthropic engagement with society and if it exists it is limited to essentials such as food banks and almost never enters the realm of the arts.

In addition, private business of many varieties take Beirut as their point of inspiration. There is a kind of visible passion for the city despite its less than perfect condition. The result is a kind of city branding from below, by the people of the city not by some tourist authority or top-down government institution. I think this is called civic pride.

On another scale, banks in Lebanon, such as Bank Audi and Bank Byblos, have also taken an active role in supporting arts and culture and in financing urban improvement projects, perhaps as part of their corporate responsibility spending, although I am not sure how to explain this. Egypt’s many banks have no role in urban upgrading projects nor in the arts nor in providing financial services such as small loans for young Egyptians to establish small business nor do they allow borrowing to young Egyptians seeking to purchase and restore property in the city center (broadly defined as the area within the ring road).

Finally, Cairo’s enormous real estate developers have not had a positive or active role in improving discourses on architecture and urbanism or supporting any of Egypt’s architecture departments and universities nor creating/funding research labs that seek to produce innovative solutions to Egyptian urban problems in ways that will ultimately benefit Egyptian cities and indirectly benefit their business endeavors. Solidere, as controversial as it maybe, publishes Portal 9, “a journal of stories and critical writing about urbanism and the city.” The journal, pictured below, is published in both Arabic and English and provides an excellent platform for the dissemination of urban and architectural research covering contemporary and historic topics with a particular focus on Middle Eastern cities. I can’t imagine what an architectural journal published by the developers of Madinaty or Porto New Cairo would look like.

Beirut suffers from many of the same problems Cairo confronts, from the destruction of historic heritage, to the lack of democratic municipal management and the increasing privatization of public spaces and urban amenities. However, it seems that beyond the apparent aesthetic and taste level contrast with Cairo there are fundamental differences between the two cities that result from the ways in which the relationship between state, society and capital is negotiated in each context. Looking at Cairo through the lens of Beirut maybe helpful in understanding Cairo’s complexity through a comparative view that moves beyond the usual north-south pairing (looking to European cities for lessons) and beyond the fad of idolizing Gulf cities as a point of reference for Cairo’s development and urban culture.

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[The Beirut waterfront, the city’s premiere public space for promenading]

image[Portal 9 (right) launched in 2012 is a journal dedicated to writings about the city, The Outpost (left) is a quarterly magazine that “aims to ignite a socio-cultural renaissance in the Arab world through inspiring its readers to explore a world of possibilities.”]

Looking to Beirut from Cairo (Part I)

This is the first of a two part reflection on Cairo via Beirut.

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Comparative urban perspectives can be helpful. Beirut, only a short one hour flight away from Cairo, offers some interesting possibilities for reflecting on Cairo’s urban condition. Cairo has been the victim of city-pairing that has been less productive or informative, take for example the concept of “Dubaization” flaunted for a decade and even championed by some Egyptian architects and architecture academics in their envisioning for Cairo’s urban future or their attempts at grasping the city’s urban development from malls to the never-off-the-ground attempts at high rises along the Nile. In retrospect, looking at Cairo via the Dubai lens was little useful in understanding the city’s transformations over the past decade.

Beirut on the other hand complements Cairo and as a point of reference could be useful in understanding the trajectory of Cairo’s urban culture. The majority of this two-part reflection will function as a kind of condensed partial list of observations and a descriptive attempt at capturing some of the many facets that I find compelling in Beirut, particularly while keeping Cairo as my frame of reference. So to be clear, especially to my Beirut friends, this is really a post about Cairo, and I don’t claim to offer a comprehensive view of Beirut and I won’t be attempting to capture Beirut’s complexity since I only know it as a repeat visitor moving within a very particular geography within the city. To be more precise this is a post about the impact of bourgeois society in each city.

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[Zaituna Bay, a waterfront marina development with a public boardwalk, restaurants and shops.]

Beirut and Cairo have a long history that ties them together. Families from Lebanon immigrated to Egypt over a century ago where they along with Syrian families formed a lively Shami-Egyptian community. Egyptian and Lebanese singers, writers and actors exchanged ideas, collaborated and traveled between the two countries frequently. Egyptian intellectuals fled to Beirut in the 60s. Cairo- and Beirut- based architects were in dialogue. Cairo-based Antoine Selim Nahas, one of Egypt’s leading modernist architects who is of Lebanese origin, co-designed the Beirut’s archaeological museum (National Museum). The building features a facade inspired by Ancient Egyptian architecture.

There are obvious differences between Cairo and Beirut: Beirut is a city of two million while Cairo is home to twenty million. Beirut is geographically limited with the Mediterranean coast on one side and mountains on the other dotted with villages and small towns that serve as suburbs. Cairo, however is flat for the most part with no natural limits defining its edges which has led to a horizontal expansionist urbanization that has more than tripled the city’s footprint in the past two decades alone.

However, I attribute the contrast between the two cities to two major differences: (1) the relationship of the state (and the military) to the city and (2) the relationship of private capital to the city, in each case respectively.

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Instability: In recent months it has been amusing watching the Egyptian middle and upper class freak out about power cuts, worsening traffic (was it really better before?), and the overall state of political confusion. (Yes these are developments that deserve serious political mobilization to prevent them from becoming the new normal). But, in Beirut the power is cut daily for three hours on a set schedule, which has created a market for power generators for those who can afford them. Still, electricity bills are astronomical in Beirut compared to Cairo. Traffic can be bad here too, and there is nearly zero public transport infrastructure and a taxi ride is minimum $7 (LE50). The city has a massive refugee population, a history of civil war, and car bombs still happen, not to mention Israel has bombed the city recently and got away with it. Political life in Beirut is too complicated for me to grasp but I think it is safe to say that it does not amount to political stability.

Yet the city is thriving and its middle class is relentlessly making it work. There is a sense of resilience that is unmatched in Cairo where famously during the early days of the revolution some faced very middle class problems like being unable to order pizza delivery. What have the Egyptian middle and upper class done to Cairo during the -now viewed with nostalgia- political stability of the past 30 years? Political stability in Cairo turned it into a segregated food court out of American suburbia. The more interesting bourgeois venues were few, over-priced and made exclusive even if what’s on offer was nothing more than dressed up mediocrity. Overall there has been relatively little investment by Cairo’s bourgeois into the urban core with much of private investment being directed with state policy towards the desert fringe, thus fragmenting the potential for the formation of a powerful urban bourgeoisie proud of their city (a social, economic and political entity that the authoritarian state might have to please).

Despite political instability Beirutis have created an interesting city for eating, drinking, shopping, walking, and creating. And despite the security challenges of that city there isn’t the kind of obsession with walls/fences protecting the privileged few from the rest (for contrast see any major hotel in Cairo or the city’s premier shopping destination City Stars Mall). Entry to the swimming pool of the St. George Club costs $30 yet it is directly visible and open onto the publicly accessible and free waterfront boardwalk of Zaituna Bay (pictured above). There are no walls, no bomb-sniffing dogs and no tens of underpaid security guards.

Beirutis aren’t waiting by the sidelines until things calm down to do the things that make the city a destination for its own residents and visitors. Beirutis are consumers but of a different kind than Cairene consumers. Yes there are international chains in Beirut but there are many more alternatives, indigenous forms of commercialism driven by strong concepts and individualism.

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Concept: Strong design concepts lie behind Beirut’s various commercial establishments. Take for example Urbanista, a popular recent addition to Gemmayze. The restaurant/cafe has a spacious interior with modern decor that is eclectic and is at once international and contemporary Lebanese. There is a little garden in the back and free internet throughout. Every detail in the space is designed with attention, from reused and reclaimed parts and pieces of furniture to exposed brick, industrial lighting, and polished concrete floors, this is an urban hangout, hence the name. At the entrance there are some items for sale, some local design items others international imports, all items that cater to the “young urban professional.” In addition to the design and high concept the food and drink are top quality. Urbanista offers its clients an experience, something that I find to be lacking in many similar establishments in Cairo where often there is high concept but low quality product or mediocre concept and product. Urbanista, and establishments like it in Beirut, is driven by an owner with vision and hands on management.

Another example is the recently opened Jaï, a chef-operated delivery and catering service specialized in east Asian dishes. Chef Wael Lazkani, a well-seasoned and traveled chef who cooked at some of the world’s top restaurants decided to establish a business in his hometown Beirut. His concept is a delivery/catering kitchen with a table that seats 4. The kitchen is in a storefront open onto the street so passersby can see and smell the delicious Asian flavors being cooked up as they walk by. The well-designed kitchen is inviting, clean, modern and most importantly the food is ridiculously delicious and affordable. There are dishes on the menu of Chinese, Indian, Thai and Indonesian origin but they are all done with chef Wael’s creative design. The food is inventive and not obsessed with “authenticity”. Creating a kitchen without a full seated restaurant reduced overhead and management costs and creates room for the business to grow. The chef himself runs the kitchen from opening to closing, making Jai another example of Beirut’s labor of love.imageimage

Another concept-driven owner-run establishment is Papercup, a bookshop specialized in books on art, architecture, design, photography, and fashion. The shelves are stocked with a beautiful collection the likes of which I have not seen in Cairo despite the recent surge in bookshops. The magazine rack is impressive with particular attention to art/architecture magazines emerging from the region lately, many of which are out of Beirut. The shop has a few tables and the owner, who was working there when we visited, offers an incredible service of ordering anything that isn’t on the shelves with complimentary shipping. Delicious coffee is also served. The design of the shop is simple, clean, modern, making use of typical Beiruti cement tiles and the shop identity/logo/concept is manifest in specially-designed lighting fixtures.

These are just three examples of this kind of individualized entrepreneurship that shapes Beirut. Although Cairo has recently witnessed the emergence of concept-driven spaces of consumption they tend to still function within the dominating business models in Egypt: franchising/fast food, which are less about placemaking and creating a unique space and more about creating a product that can be multiplied endlessly, which is far less charming.

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[The office of the Arab Center for Architecture in Sassine, Beirut]

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[Arab Image Foundation premises in Gemmayze]

Sharing Knowledge: This week Lebanon participated in International Archive Day, in which several Lebanese institutions opened their archives to the public to stimulate interest in the work carried out by these institutions and to stimulate interest in history in general. Two of the participating institutions are the Arab Center for Architecture and the Arab Image Foundation.

The Arab Image Foundation, established in 1997, is the leading photography collection and archive in the region. The non-profit organization has been collecting, restoring, digitizing and archiving photographic material for over a decade and making their material available to researchers as well as producing exhibitions and books that publicize their work and the region’s photographic history. Their beautifully designed facility is inviting and the staff are helpful. Visiting the AIF it was difficult for me to understand why such an organization does not exist in Egypt. There are separate attempts, such as the state’s CULTNAT project which has tried to digitize Egypt’s photographic heritage but after years of that program they have little to show for it and there is no physical archive nor did the organization engage the public in any meaningful way. Then there are Egypt’s hoarders, both Egyptian and foreign, who collect and accumulate all kinds of heritage material including photography which they never share waiting for the moment THEY will write this book or create that exhibition, none of which materialize. There are few exceptions in Egypt such as AUC’s exhibitions on Van Leo, but again AUC is already is universe within a universe, closed onto itself and such exhibitions on campus premises pale in comparison to the efforts done by AIF. What is so inspiring about AIF is that everyone working their is passionate and that there is an understanding that there is a need to make this photographic heritage seen by the public sooner than later. This has led to unexpected collaborations such as the organization’s recent collaboration with Samandal (see picture below), Beirut’s graphic magazine, where the Samandal team was invited into AIF archives and produced an entire issue based on photographic material from the collection. The issue included an index of the original photographs.

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[The Arab Center for Architecture’s exhibition titled “Modern Design and Architecture in the Arab World: the Beginnings of a Project,” the exhibition was held in a modernist house in the center of Beirut and the owner allowed the ACA to transform the space for the exhibition in exchange for a symbolic gift, essentially the ACA was not burdened with renting the space.]

The Arab Center for Architecture was established in 2008. Founders were George Arbid, Fouad El Khoury, Nada Habis Assi, Bernard Khoury, Hashim Sarkis, Amira Solh and Jad Tabet. The center is mainly focused on recuperating the heritage of modernist architecture in Lebanon and beyond. The young organization recently acquired a space that functions as their office and archive where material collected can be sorted and stored. Last month the ACA put on its first public exhibition, curated by ACA with architect Mazen Haidar as assistant curator. The organization and the exhibit show the level of serious engagement with questions related to modern heritage, modernist architecture, research and architectural history. All questions that should concern Egypt’s many departments of architecture and its many decedents of famous architects who practiced in Egypt just two generations ago leaving behind massive archives and collections. Why has there been no such organization established in Egypt? While the scale of building and modernist architecture in Egypt far surpasses anything found elsewhere in the region, what we have left as a public and as researchers is nearly nothing. There are architect’s archives in private hands but they are decaying and unreachable. The Egyptian National Archives has not presented itself as a reliable place for collections to be deposited nor has it sought such collections. In the meantime there were no efforts to do as the Lebanese have done and establish a serious independent center for architecture that focuses on this important heritage so closely related to questions of history and identity relevant to the present.

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[Ashkal Alwan space in Jisr el Wati during their Home Works Forum 6 program]

Working together: Coming from Cairo to Beirut I always sense an enviable sense of collaboration. Perhaps because the city is relatively small and because everyone seems to know everyone, people seem to work together more. Collaborations happen within arts and culture field but also across fields. A space established by one group can be easily transformed to be used by another group for another purpose temporarily. Collaboration does not mean that artists, architects and others have lost their competitive edge.

For example during last month’s Home Works Forum organized by Ashkal Alwan, the program incorporated some of the city’s many spaces and venues such as Babel Theatre, al-Madina Theatre, Metropolis Empire, Beirut Art Center, 98 Weeks, and Artheum. Other art galleries organized shows to coincide with the forum. More generally collaboration is felt in Beirut in the sense that persons and organizations work together, share facilities and equipment and support each other. See for example the We Are Working network, a directory of arts and culture organizations working in Lebanon. This sense of collaboration is now extending beyond the city and the country into a regional level with the establishment of the Modern Heritage Observatory, an initiative led by Beirut’s AIF and ACA along with the Association for Arabic Music and Cinematheque de Tanger.

image[Samandal (right) a graphic magazine out of Beirut. Shown here is the special issue that resulted from the collaboration between Samandal and the Arab Image Foundation. Blending Traditions (left) is an example of Beirut’s many publications that celebrate the city and its sites of memory, in this case Cafe Younes, established 1935.]

This is the first of a two part reflection on Cairo via Beirut. Part II is here.

Hassan Fathy: Architecture for the rich

Hassan Fathy’s New Gourna from Oliver Wilkins on Vimeo.

Last January the Gezira Art Center hosted an exhibition and a series of events about architect Hassan Fathy and his work. Hassan Fathy is perhaps Egypt’s most renowned architect from the 20th century, but why?

The exhibition was beautifully curated and organized with images, text, models, video projection, as well as samples of Fathy’s mud bricks, the most essential element of his constructions. Fathy’s 1945 housing project for the relocation of the village of Gourna in Luxor was his most famous and internationally renowned project. The village which has fallen into disrepair (watch video above) is currently the focus of a UNESCO rehabilitation and documentation project. Gourna was not a project free of controversy nor was it a success, at least for the intended inhabitants of the village. Fathy left no mark on Egypt’s urban centers: Cairo and Alexandria don’t have examples of Fathy’s architecture (with the exception of a mausoleum and few private homes), his ideas printed in his “Gourna, tale of two villages” (later published by the Chicago University Press with the condescending title “Architecture for the poor”) have failed to produce any practical solutions for Egypt’s urban and housing problems. Despite this underwhelming record, Fathy’s oeuvre is celebrated in the West as an example of “other/vernacular modernism” and is celebrated in Egypt mostly by his students as authentic modernity/spirited continuity with the past.

It is difficult to fully comprehend why Hassan Fathy overshadows his contemporaries who had successful practices, built many buildings and engaged in current discourses (Ali Labib Gabr, Antoine Selim Nahas, Mahmoud Riad). Fathy also overshadows his colleague Ramses Wissa Wassef (who like Fathy engaged with the question of vernacular architecture and perhaps was more successful in balancing modern practicality with vernacular identity without falling in the trap of essentialism). Finally, one of Egypt’s most influential architects of the modern period, Mustafa Fahmy, will never make an appearance in a Western curriculum of the history of modern architecture nor in an Egyptian exhibit, yet Hassan Fathy might. How can this selective celebration of a figure with little impact on his community and profession be explained?

The legend, the myths

Fathy had interesting ideas about architecture, there is no denying this fact. But he wasn’t the only one with interesting ideas in 20th century Egyptian architecture. Fathy had a strong following of students, particularly in the 1970s when the notion of vernacular modernism was emerging in Western academia coinciding with proclamations of the failure/death of high-modernism along with the birth of post-modernism. Egypt, like many countries, particularly those who had recently experienced heavy-handed state-led development in post-revolution or post-independence “third world” societies, experienced high-modernism withdrawal.

Over the past couple of decades there have been numerous articles keeping the memory of Hassan Fathy alive. Nearly every six months there is a new piece regurgitating a long list of myths and stereotypes about Fathy as the ONLY architect worth remembering, as a founder of green-environmentally friendly architecture in Egypt, as the symbol of authenticity and culturally sensitive design, and as the humble architect who worked with people to realize his designs.

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[“An empty village like the tombs of the pharaohs and its called Gourna” from the popular magazine al-Musawwar, 1961. Note Hassan Fathy’s name isn’t mentioned, it only mentions “built by the state in 1945.”]

In a nutshell, the standard narrative, as stated in this 1999 discussion of Fathy’s legacy, argues the following  “”The “modern movement” in the West, which aimed to use new architectural materials and technology to improve the life of the ordinary city-dweller, had foundered on aggressive stylistic innovation and an arrogant disregard of the past; Fathy showed how social needs could be met using familiar, vernacular styles, materials and techniques, and with the participation of the “consumer.” However, I have some reservations on nearly all of the points made here:

1) I find it extremely dated and naive to look through a narrow perspective at twentieth century architectural development and continue to argue that “the modern movement” was an exclusively “western” endeavor. Architects around the world, including Egypt, engaged in practices that responded to common developments and problems such as the availability of new materials and technologies and the pressing issues of urban areas particularly the need for housing. These were not “western” problems and in finding solutions, professionals across the world dealt with those concerns using the latest accessible designs and approaches. This is the 20th century and the world is to a large extent connected via new media and communications. Thus to expect a solution to modern urban problems in Egypt (or any other non-western country) to be drastically different from say Italy, Spain or France is to accept racist and orientalist notions that the non-western other is essentially non-modern (or their modern must be a different kind, more primitive modern), otherwise a pragmatic concrete housing block in Africa designed by a local architect using locally produced materials is at best viewed as “western.”

2) The claim that Hassan Fathy used “familiar vernacular” architectural language is far from the truth. Domed architecture in upper Egypt is funerary, not residential/domestic, hence the refusal of such form by villagers. Similarly, the claim that his materials and techniques were familiar and local goes against Fathy’s own description of the process of instructing builders how to create his mud brick and the many repeated attempts to perfect building his domes. This was instructed architecture as were the modernist designs he distanced himself from. Had this been truly vernacular, then the presence of an architect arriving from the urban capital hundreds of miles away should have been unnecessary. Fathy’s domes for domestic space were not traditional, rather they were an “invented tradition.”

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3) The claim that “consumers” of Fathy’s spaces “participated” in the making of the architecture negates the stark difference of position between Fathy, as the knowledgeable professional, and the builders/villagers/dwellers as recipients of his expertise. In fact, the extent of participation was clearly defined along that line of expert vs receiver of expertise and Fathy is even documented in photographs, including one shown at the exhibition last year where he is clearly instructing, standing over builders, rather than the image propagated about the architect as working with, as equal, learning from as well as teaching the builders.

The other myth perpetuated about Hassan Fathy is that his architecture represents the “continuity of Islamic architecture,” an argument forming the spine of Ahmad Hamid’s 2010 book Hassan Fathy and Continuity in Islamic Art and Architecture: The Birth of a New Modern. In this book, Ahmad Hamid positions Hassan Fathy in relation to a long tradition of Islamic Architecture as well as in relation to the advent of twentieth century modernism. The book focuses on Hassan Fathy as “a condenser of an older intelligence” (45) and as an agent of reviving and creating anew an architectural practice that is connected with the essence of an Islamic architectural tradition.

I would argue that Fathy’s architecture is premised not on the continuity of a particular tradition, Islamic or otherwise, but rather as a reactionary response to modernism as a style and a project. In this sense his architecture is less about authenticity and more about romanticism, not unlike European architects and critics of the 19th century who reacted against new concepts of architecture by resorting to primitivism and revivalism.

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[Streets in the Habous Quartier in Casablanca, Morocco built by French colonial architects in the 1930s in a madina-like “vernacular” mode for native, working and middle classes in contrast with the modern town center for European and upper classes]

Also, Fathy’s most famous project, New Gourna, is for me less of “architecture for the poor” than it is a colonial project. Not colonial in the sense of foreignness, but in the approaches and techniques of imposing on a local population the vision of an architect coming from the capital commissioned by a central state to build following state orders, rather than following the desires of the locals. In other words, the residents of Gourna did not commission Fathy nor did they seek his services. New Gourna brings to mind Habous Quartier in colonial Casablanca, a district built in the 1930s by French “experts” for the “native” population using what the French must have thought of as “vernacular” madina architecture.

[the 1964 film الجبل “The Mountain” is inspired by the story of Gourna and features an architect trying to relocate villagers away from the mountain where artifacts have been found. Scenes were filmed in New Gourna]

Vernaculars old and new

Hassan Fathy was certainly an architect who belonged to a particular moment in the twentieth century along with his contemporaries in Egypt, India and elsewhere who reacted to concrete and increasingly standardized architecture of the twentieth century. However, the pompous celebrations, flowery descriptions, selective admiration of Fathy in the last several decades since his international recognition in the 1970s has had negative consequences. Somehow the celebration of Fathy came at the expense of recognizing other architects from twentieth century Egypt, particularly the modernists. By promoting the legacy of Fathy the notion that Egypt’s modernists were merely copycats with little contribution of their own to Egyptian architecture or modern architecture in general has been fully ingrained and accepted. Additionally, the perpetuation of Fathy’s romantic ideals has failed to confront the realities in which we live: that his ideas and concepts fail to respond to the mass need for housing, and that his rejection of concrete and modern materials has not been heeded by the poor for whom he claimed to design.

Since Fathy’s 1940s experiment and 1960s book about that experiment, a new vernacular has emerged, one which academics, architects and casual observers continue to negate and choose to ignore. Egypt’s vernacular, what the masses are actually building and without the services of architects (architecture without architects) is reinforced concrete and red brick and it is eating up the country. The refusal of architects to work with this reality to theorize and conceptualize new approaches that accommodate the needs of communities and the available (not the most sustainable) materials has delayed the potential for something interesting to be created here. While some continue to dust off the figure of Hassan Fathy on the pedestal, millions of square meters of concrete and red brick are rising around Egypt, from the center of the capital to the rural outskirts and small villages. While Hassan Fathy’s “architecture for the poor” is exhibited in the posh district of Zamalek, the poor have been building in what is closer to Le Corbusier’s domino house than Fathy’s mud brick domed village houses. Pragmatism rather than identity-driven reactionary nostalgia is what drives the poor in how they build.

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[Le Corbusier’s domino house, a basic structure using concrete slabs and minimal support]

Fathy’s reaction to modernism as a style was to create a style of his own, the poor however are not concerned with style as much as they are with shelter. For now Fathy’s legacy is retained in the rural “Hassan Fathy Style" houses for the urban rich designed by his students. And that is fine. But the rest of the profession must move on and confront the red brick and concrete and offer new solutions and designs that could be adapted by the masses to maximize the utility and sustainability of Egypt’s new vernacular, before it is too late.

Further reading:

Hassan Fathy Revisited, Panayiota Pyla

Hassan Fathy, A Critical Review

Hassan Fathy and the Identity Debate, Nasser Rabbat

Heritage and Violence, Timothy Mitchell

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The “White City” and Egypt’s modernist heritage

image[Aerial view of Tel Aviv’s White City]

In 2003 UNESCO added Tel Aviv’s “White City” to its list of world heritage sites. The “White City” consists of three zones (central White City, Lev Hair and Rothschild Avenue, and the Bialik Area) containing around 4,000 buildings built from the 1930s to the 1950s in various interpretations of the modernist style. Tel Aviv was initially founded in 1909 in Ottoman Palestine. The city later developed following the urban plans of Scottish architect Sir Patrick Geddes (1925-27) during the Mandatory Palestine period.

According to the UNESCO, the area was included in its heritage list for two criterion:

Criterion (ii): The White City of Tel Aviv is a synthesis of outstanding significance of the various trends of the Modern Movement in architecture and town planning in the early part of the 20th century. Such influences were adapted to the cultural and climatic conditions of the place, as well as being integrated with local traditions.

Criterion (iv): The White City of Tel Aviv is an outstanding example of new town planning and architecture in the early 20th century, adapted to the requirements of a particular cultural and geographic context.

"Authenticity" of the architecture and the "integrity" of the area are cited as additional reasons for inclusion. With its new status the area can now enjoy conservation efforts to maintain its 20th century stark modernity, along with the rise of its real estate value and its maintenance along strict guidelines to ensure the preservation of this now world heritage site. Here is a bit more of the site’s description:

The three zones have a consistent representation of Modern Movement architecture, although they differ in character. Zone B was built in the early 1930s, and zone A mainly from the 1930s to the early 1940s. Zone C, the Bialik district, represents local architecture from the 1920s on, with examples of Art Deco and eclecticism, but also a strong presence of ‘white architecture’. This small area represents a selection of buildings that became landmarks in the development of the regional language of Tel Aviv’s modernism. The buildings reflect influences from the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier and Erich Mendelsohn. The buildings are characterized by the implementation of the Modernist ideas into the local conditions. The large glazed surfaces of European buildings are reduced to relatively small and strip window openings, more suitable for the hot weather. Many buildings have pilotis, as in Le Corbusier’s design, allowing the sea breeze to come through. Other elements include the brise-soleil to cut direct sunlight; the deep balconies served the same purpose, giving shade, as well as adding to the plasticity of the architecture. The flat roofs were paved and could be used for social purposes. A characteristic feature is the use of curbed corners and balconies, expressive of Mendelsohn’s architecture. The buildings also include a certain amount of local elements, such as cupolas. The most common building material was reinforced concrete; it had been used since 1912, being suitable for less-skilled workers. Other materials were also introduced, such as stone cladding for the external surfaces, and metal. There was some use of decorative plasters, although decoration became a matter of carefully detailed functional elements, such as balcony balustrades, flower boxes and canopies

image [detail from the Gamalian building in downtown Cairo designed by Kamal Ismail 1939-41]

The inclusion of the site also notes that although this is the work of European architects who either emigrated to or were commissioned to do work in Mandate Palestine, “their work in Tel Aviv, they represented the plurality of the creative trends of modernism, but they also took into account the local, cultural quality of the site.” Moreover, “None of the European or North-Africa realizations exhibit such a synthesis of the modernistic picture nor are they at the same scale.”

So why is this important or relevant to Cairo’s or Egypt’s urban heritage? The statement quoted above in bold argues that one of the reasons this particular urban site (encompassing 4,000 buildings) is important is because it is unparalleled not only in Europe but also in North-Africa. In affirming its modernity, the Tel Aviv application for heritage recognition denies the availability of modernist heritage of its kind and scale in the supposed source of modernism-Europe, and in its geographical vicinity-North Africa.

Egypt, Morocco and Lebanon had extensive experiences in the production and realization of modernist. In those cases modernist architecture was the product of an awareness of international discourses on architecture. That production was also responsive to local/national demands by various sectors of society. Modernist architecture in Egypt was also the product of the re-imagination of the national self as envisioned by individual architects. Modernist architecture was perceived by architects as the language of the time but also of the place. Despite many architects being educated in places as diverse as Liverpool, Zuirch and Paris, they all returned to Egypt and engaged in a discourse that emphasized that their architecture was responsive to both time and place, a kind of localization of an international movement with references to various schools of modernist design.

Egypt’s case offers a particularly interesting counterpoint to Tel Aviv’s. The architects practicing in Egypt using this 1930s onward style were Egyptian or first/second generation Egyptians (of Syrian, Lebanese or other origin who have settled in Egypt). This is one stark difference with the Israeli case where the practitioners, according to the official story, were themselves escaping Europe or visiting architects. The second point that makes Egypt’s modernist legacy interesting is that those architects were Egyptian educated until university then traveled abroad where schools of architecture offered Masters and PhD degrees in architecture then returned to Egypt. They went to a variety of schools that had their own schools of thought regarding the development of modern architecture, yet they all returned to practice side by side in Egypt producing a melange of variations of modernist design. Furthermore, from the 1930s modernist design was seen as a nationalist response to the previous three decades of ornamental architecture introduced in middle and upper class dwellings by European architects (as opposed to the visually modern 19th century stripped down middle and upper class Egyptian house, whose facade was already void of aristocratic references). While  Western observers today dismiss the authenticity of Egypt’s modernist episode, Egyptian architects at the time saw their work as an embrace of the moment’s architectural language but also the simple forms, plain facades and flat roofs were reminiscent of Egypt’s architecture from the not-so-distant past.

Modernist design was widely accepted and had become popular among the business elite, the upper and middle classes who built new apartments, banks, offices and villas. The Egyptian government’s 1940s experiments in workers and village housing were in the minimal modernist style. It was so pervasive that it didn’t have the “avant garde” status attached to modernist design in Europe (Where the idea of a flat roof was considered controversial aesthetically but also functionally. The flat roof and modernism’s cubic forms were after-all inspired by North African dwellings from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.) And thus Cairo, Alexandria, smaller cities and even villages were places where modernist design was seen.

Important to note is the contrast between Europe and Egypt regarding the development, significance and uses of modernist design. While in Europe the modern movement’s development was directly linked to questions of affordability, socialism, revolution and worker housing, in Egypt the design practice embracing modernism was paired with grand apartments, aristocratic villas and the clients were the wealthy capitalist elite. This means that the kind of modernist design found in Egypt was combined with particular standards of comfort and luxury reflected in the square-footage of Egypt’s modernist apartments, and their finishing materials and fixtures. Modernist design developed in Europe during a time of economic hardship while Egypt was experiencing relative economic prosperity.

Egypt’s experience with modernist architecture spanned the mid-1930s into the 1960s. Yet there has been a deep reluctance by western scholars to consider Egyptian contributions or iterations of modernism. Similarly, this wealth of architectural discourse and practice has been forgotten within Egypt with only minimal research done on the material. Western observers claim that 20th century architectural modernism was purely a European and later American project that was then exported and copied in other locations. Similar arguments have been made about 19th century modernity (specifically modern urbanism) and in fact about modernity in general. Following this Eurocentric perspective some Egyptians have also adopted this narrative, seeing no importance in uncovering Egypt’s experience of modernist architecture. The central argument by the naysayers is that this modernist aesthetic was not an authentic representation of Egyptian architecture and that it was mere mimicry (despite numerous texts, publications and lectures by those architects stating exactly the opposite). It is in this context that the World Heritage inclusion of the “White City” has deep political implications.

image [page from a 1942 Egyptian journal showing an article “Architecture in Arab Lands” with a picture and site plan of Haifa government hospital in Palestine designed by Erich Mendelsohn in 1938]

In the case of the “White City,” the majority of the participating architects were admittedly imported, European transplants. Furthermore, much of the work celebrated in the “White City” was from the 1920s-1940s when the state this World Heritage site belongs to did not yet exist. Following the current narrative, the work of Egyptian/Arab architects Ali Labib Gabr, Charles Ayrout, Antoine Selim Nahas and others in Egypt isn’t representative of Egyptian architectural identity while the work of Mendelsohn and other European architects is an authentic expression of Israeli modernity! The “white” in “White City,” it seems, doesn’t only refer to the modernist buildings but also to the builders. Modernism, it seems, is a white enterprise and everyone else is simply a copycat.

In 1950s and 60s Egypt the Egyptian state allowed some architects who were active in the 1930s-40s to practice their modern design at an unprecedented scale. The state fully embraced modernist design as an expression of national progress, in what I argue is continuity rather then a rupture from pre-1952 Egypt. However, by 1970 when Sadat took office Modernism had died and Egypt was nearly bankrupt. Egypt’s modernist heritage from the previous decades was not seen as worthy of protection and its proliferation made it mundane and taken for granted. In the course of the forty years of Sadat and Mubarak Egypt lost much of the modernist heritage that accumulated over the previous forty years.

The 2003 inclusion of the “White City” has provided a physical and architectural proof of one of Israel’s founding myths that it is “the only Modern country in the region.” This contrasts with the emphasis on Egypt as an ancient country by the Sadat and Mubarak regimes (at the expense of Egypt’s modern heritage). Following Nadia Abu El Haj, who focuses on Israel’s manipulation of archeology and ancient heritage, I argue that the “White City” is also being used to provide “facts on the ground” to legitimize a certain myth or narrative about the state as a white modern haven amidst a brown and unmodern Middle East.

In the meantime, here in Egypt, since 1970 there has been near systematic erasure of modernist heritage coupled with a reluctance by the state to embrace modern heritage in general as evidence of Egypt’s advances in the last two hundred years. The result, despite the fact that Egypt had an extensive, locally designed and elaborated version of modernist design, what remains is the melancholy of black and white nostalgic images pieced together from the scattered archive in personal collections, used book dealers and sidewalk vendors. State institutions including the so-called ministry of culture are the culprits. Egypt may never have a UNESCO World Heritage site from the 20th century but it is never too late for Egyptians to rediscover what was so common not too long ago.

*Addendum: The purpose of this post is to highlight how the reasoning for one site’s inclusion (by UNESCO and international observers) as worthy of preservation and heritage status are nearly the same reasons for excluding Egypt’s contribution from the same period. Equally important is to highlight the failures of Egypt’s heritage and cultural institutions to recognize and protect Egypt’s modernist heritage.

image [Apartments for Mme Khairat Bek in Zamalek, 1938]

image [apartments for Qershi Pasha in Asyout by architect Albert Abbasi 1946]

image [Villa for Mme Valadji in Heliopolis by architect Charles Ayrout 1938-39]

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[Apartments for Ahmed Kamel Pasha in downtown Cairo by architect Ali Labib Gabr, 1939]

image [Villa for Kamel Bek Abdel Rehim in Heliopolis by architect Charles Ayrout 1932]

Paris was never along the Nile

Warning: I’m about to throw a brick at the glass house where a lot of people live.

The expression “Paris along the Nile” is popular among nostalgists and Orientalists alike. It has gained currency among a growing bourgeoisie who view contemporary Cairo with discontent and find a fragment of its imagined past to be a redeeming escape only because it maybe referenced via Paris, the “capital of modernity.” Contemporary Orientalists also use the expression to further emphasize the notion that Europe, namely Paris, monopolized the very idea of 19th century urban modernity. The straight boulevard is thus a Parisian invention and if one exists in Cairo or any other city, particularly non-European cities, then credit is due: “Thank you Paris, thank you Haussmann, what would our cities have become if it weren’t for you?”

Numerous books and essays perpetuate the notion that 19th century Cairo was nothing more than mimicry, and a bad copy at that, of Paris. Words such as “flimsy” and “haste” almost always make it into the description of “Khedive Ismail’s Cairo.” In fact Paris was never along the Nile, nor were the intentions, designs or social and political contexts of 19th century Cairo at all similar to Paris, nor should they have been.

Here are a few reasons why Paris was never along the Nile:

1.     The relationship between the existing historic city and its 19th century extension in each case differs significantly. In Paris, the medieval city was entirely erased with only few highly selected monuments left as testament of the past. In Cairo the old city was left intact. Few modern streets were surgically cut through the dense fabric such as Clot Bey Street and Muhammad Ali Street. Streets carved out of the existing city were done slowly taking up to 40 years to complete, and such streets build on urban policies that began with Muhammad Ali’s Tanzim laws for urban modernization. Khedive Ismail’s plans were thus a continuation of policies that existed for decades prior to his vision for urban expansion.

2.     Architectural style is not comparable in the two cities. Baron Haussmann’s plans for Paris called for a strict building code that dictated building styles and elevation dimensions including window sizes and heights of floors which created a certain level of uniformity not found in Cairo. Ali Pasha Mubarak, planner of Cairo’s extension on the other hand did include some building requirements, mostly minimum building costs to guarantee a certain level of building quality without defining architectural styles. This opened the door for real estate developers and speculators to hire the architect of choice (who came from various Mediterranean countries mostly France and Italy, where the profession of architecture was well established) who conceived and built mostly residential blocks utilizing various architectural styles including some attempts at incorporating “local” motifs. The end result is a much more eclectic rather than the fascist architectural uniformity of Haussmann’s streets. In addition, only a small percentage of the urban plan was actually filled architecturally by the time Ismail’s guests arrived in Cairo. Much of the building fabric was filled during a building boom at the turn of the century from 1897 to 1907 and again in the 1920s. A final period of building commenced in the 1940s and even the 1950s left an architectural mark on this part of the city.

3.     Haussmann’s urban plan for Napoleon III was designed to allow for the French army to march down wide streets in case the French revolted (again). The political dimension of Paris’ design is a central component that should not be overlooked and that element is missing from Cairo’s planning intentions. Napolean III and his regime were authoritarian and used the city as a mechanism to force society into a new capitalist way of life where a certain dress code, a particular code of public behavior, and a certain type of consumerism were promoted by the very fabric of the new city. This political and economic authoritarianism was not present in Ismail’s Cairo where camels and herds were freely allowed to occupy the new spaces and commercial life largely continued into the new city with the addition of department stores as it was the a new global trend (without replacing existing trade or social networks). For Ali Mubarak and Ismail what had been built in Paris was simply a response to conditions in cities across the world: unhealthy spaces, crowdedness, sewage problems, lack of open space, etc.

While those basic factors listed above were motives for urban revolutions across the world, not only in Paris and places that supposedly mimicked Paris, the solutions were inevitably similar in conception. If the problem is, for example, the need for efficient streets for the transport of goods across the city, then why should the solution be conceptually different in Cairo from Paris, London or Mexico City? Is it because the orient likes cul-de-sacs and mysterious narrow lanes versus the pragmatic west that naturally solved the problem with straight streets? This is what it comes down to, the belief that modernity is a European business and conflating the terms modernization with Europeanization as if they are interchangeable. Also this assumes that Paris has a monopoly over urban modernity but also a monopoly over European urbanity.

Stanley Lane Poole Cairo

Edward Lane and Stanley Lane Poole (a page from his The Story of Cairo pictured above) both escaped Europe during a transformative period and they were distressed when they witnessed Cairo undergoing similar processes of change. For them escaping to Egypt meant getting away from “modernity” because (being Orientalists) they assumed that Cairo was frozen in time, stagnant, unchanging. And for them places in Cairo that seemed to combine elements they labeled Oriental with elements they understood to be European were particularly distressing, as they thought those two worlds should not blend in such ways. It was also at this time that the medieval city gained the label “Islamic Cairo” as if in contrast with “unIslamic” modern Cairo. Islam was embodied only in medieval space and modernity was clearly its European antithesis. It maybe interesting to consider the urban patterns of medieval Paris in comparison with medieval Cairo, they too share much more in common than we are told to believe.

Some will insist “But Ismail himself said he wanted Egypt to be part of Europe” or that he only went on his modernization urban project after his visit to Paris for the World’s Fair, or that he really built it to impress his European guests. That may all be true but these statements are not enough to wholly dismiss the actual processes that took almost a century to give us the part of Cairo we today call Khedival Cairo, nor does it give enough credit to the local actors, architects, entrepreneurs and builders who realized Ismail’s “vision” in stone (or brick or concrete).

At the core of the faulty narrative of “Paris along the Nile” is that it views the two cities (Cairo and Paris) in a vacuum. Also missing from that narrative is Cairo’s relationship to another key city, Istanbul. In fact there is a constellation of cities across the globe all of which underwent similar transformations for different motivations and by various regimes transporting urban planning models via differing mechanisms. Vienna and Berlin, Mexico City (colonial) and Buenos Aires and other cities experimented with urban modernization models that were later credited only to Haussmann. These cities and others developed in the spirit of the time (zeitgeist) in an increasingly connected world. Also cities such as Torino (war), Barcelona (expansion) and St. Petersburg (imperial) had already experimented with urban models that later came to be known as Parisian. The dominance of Paris as THE modern city is a political one related to empire and cultural hegemony, and it is time we let go of such hang-ups.

Cairo was, is and always will be Cairo. What makes a city isn’t just its buildings or street patterns, it is the people who build, labor, occupy and navigate the city that matter the most and those people were always Cairenes, were never “Parisians.” Buying into the narrative that downtown Cairo, or “Khedival Cairo” is less Egyptian has contributed to its negligence. But where do we draw the line? Is Mamluk architecture really anymore Egyptian than Ottoman or the eclectic architecture of downtown? The brilliance of Egypt is that it does not need to choose a period in its past to place on a pedestal. 19th century Cairo is as Egyptian as any other part of the city. Paris was never along the Nile, and that is ok.

+pictured above: Dome of the Abd-al-Hamid al-Shawarby Pasha building. Designed by the architect Habib Ayrout in 1925.