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.
[“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.”
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.
[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.
[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.
Hassan Fathy and the Identity Debate, Nasser Rabbat
Heritage and Violence, Timothy Mitchell
[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
[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 and Morocco (and Lebanon) had extensive experiences in the production and realization of modernist architecture. In both cases modernist architecture was the product of an awareness of international discourses on architecture. Modernist architecture in Egypt was also the product of the re-imagination of the national self. 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.
[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.
[Apartments for Mme Khairat Bek in Zamalek, 1938]
[apartments for Qershi Pasha in Asyout by architect Albert Abbasi 1946]
[Villa for Mme Valadji in Heliopolis by architect Charles Ayrout 1938-39]
[Apartments for Ahmed Kamel Pasha in downtown Cairo by architect Ali Labib Gabr, 1939]
[Villa for Kamel Bek Abdel Rehim in Heliopolis by architect Charles Ayrout 1932]
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.
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.