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Posts tagged modern

Cairo on the toilet: a brief history

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[Advertisement from 1939 for a company selling and installing modern bathrooms]

Domestic space, in Egypt and elsewhere, underwent enormous transformations for a larger segment of urban society from the beginning of the 20th century. While innovations in modern plumbing began to become available to the elite in their palaces and residences in the mid to late 19th century, the majority of society still had to do things the old way (bucket of water for washing and go outside for #2). However, within the span of a decade in the beginning of the 20th century modern plumbing was accessible to more people. Already buildings built during the boom of 1897-1907 in Cairo were equipped but those were not where the majority of Egyptians lived. By the 1920s things pick up quickly and pipes were added to older homes across the city while newer buildings built by and for the middle and working class began to have more access, still it was considered a luxury. Remember that the hammam was still an important feature in the city and every neighborhood had several such spaces.

Improved hygiene at home and rational domestic space appear in the popular press and popular culture as evidence of good manners and class. For example, advertising for modern bathrooms proliferates in the 1930s onwards. At the same time popular magazines were saturated with advertising for household items as well as personal hygiene products such as Nabulsi Farouq, a popular soap named after the king. In a popular ad circulating in the 1940s, Egypt’s two leading performers Muhammad Abdel Wahab and Om Kulthoum are pictured along with testimonies to the product at hand: “Naboulsi Farouq is an enjoyable and surprising product that attests to Egyptian industry,” a signed statement by Om Kulthoum reads.

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In a 1944 film, “Bullet to the Heart,” Abdel Wahab performed one of his most famous musical scenes entirely in a modern bathroom as the star undressed and sang in the bath. That particular scene and song are essentially a celebration of modern plumbing. Yet this was a celebration of modernity as afforded to a particular class inhabiting a particular kind of dwelling. Middle and upper classes were to desire and therefore pay for such amenities and perhaps hire an architect along the way to provide the plans for such spaces. A modern bathroom was a sign of social refinement and class mobility.

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In the early 1950s modern sewage and plumbing were still not available to vast segments of society particularly outside big urban centers. During that decade the state invested heavily in sanitation, sewage and water infrastructure. Housing projects across the country built by the state introduced many to the modern bathroom for the first time. The state also  manufactured toilets, sinks and other household items for the modern Egyptian family. Such products were sold at reduced prices in showrooms across the country. The toilet became a national project and a symbol of developmentalism.

Houses of France in Cairo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Profile: Mahmoud Riad

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[Mahmoud Riad and his graduating class at Cairo University, 1927.]

It maybe about time for the canon of the history of modern architecture to include an Egyptian architect from the modernist period. And if one Egyptian architect from that period is to be included it probably should be Mahmoud Riad. Riad is a prolific architect and planner who built many iconic buildings in Cairo (still standing) and who wrote and lectured about matters of planning and workers’ housing. He graduated from Cairo University’s architecture department in 1927 then went on to acquire a masters degree from Liverpool in 1931. During his apprenticeship he worked with “Shreve, Lamb and Harmon on their Manhattan masterpieces, the Empire State Building and 500 Fifth Avenue, before returning to Egypt to establish his own practice.” Riad founded his practice in Cairo in 1933 and later served in the Ministry of Public Works and the Cairo Municipality.

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[Riad’s thesis proposal for a bus+rail terminal for Alexandria, 1931.]

"In the 1950s, after years of service at the Ministry of public works, he was named Director General of the Cairo Municipality, a position that he held until the late sixties. During his tenure, he oversaw and developed some of Egypt’s most important projects, like the planning of Nasr City and Cairo Stadium. News of his stern and professional reputation made waves in the international scene, as he was asked take part of the UN meeting on metropolitan planning as one of the "expert" professionals in the field. In 1965, Mahmoud Riad was appointed the position of technical advisor to the Ministry of Housing & Public Affairs in Kuwait , where he oversaw the planning and construction of all projects taking place in Kuwait until his death in 1979 - leading him to establish professional and personal relationships with the likes of  Reima Pietila, Sir Colin Buchanan, and  Kenzo Tange."

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[Ford facilities at Imbaba in Cairo, 1937.]

Riad’s most notable projects include the Egyptian Cotton Company’s Cardiology Clinic and hospital in the industrial city of Mahala el Kobra in 1943. Also, The Misr Insurance Company building in Lazoughly, 1946; Misr Insurance Company building in Tawfiqiyya, 1948; Misr Insurance Company building on Talaat Harb in downtown Cairo, 1952; The Socialist Union Building (the now burned NDP building), 1959; The Arab League, 1955; and Hilton hotels in several cities including Luxor, Aswan, Alexandria as well as in Cairo in partnership with Welton Becket.

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[Misr Insurance Building on Talaat Harb Street under construction, completed in 1952.]

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[Model of the Arab League Building, completed 1955.]

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[Elevation of the Misr Insurance Company Building in Tawfiqiyya, completed 1948.]

Mahmoud Riad is a foundational figure in twentieth century Egyptian architecture. His legacy is little known outside a small circle of specialists as the Egyptian modernist phase continues to be undermined within the contemporary education of Egyptian architects. As it is the case of many of Riad’s fellow architects from the early and mid-twentieth century the legacy of such architects can only be assembled with the availability of archival materials. Luckily the family of Riad has maintained his archive. The family maintains Riad’s architectural practice which is now seeing its third generation. The information and images posted in this blog post come from a fantastic beautifully designed website by Riad’s grandson architect who has meticulously constructed a portfolio of Riad’s works, a biography, a CV as well as an assortment of other materials such as personal correspondence with Kenzo Tange. The website showcases the continuity of the family business across three generations from Mahmoud Riad’s first 1933 establishment of his practice to his son’s practice and now the grandson.

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[Mahmoud Riad with Um Kalthoum in the 1950s.]

Destruction Alert: historic gate demolished with official approval

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Event: Book Launch of Maisons de France au Caire


Book Launch on Wednesday May 29 at Institut français d’archéologie orientale (IFAO) in Mounira at 5-7pm, followed by a presentation and debate with the author, Mercedes Volait at 7pm, and an exhibition and sale at 8pm.

Maisons de France au Caire. Le remploi de grands décors mamelouks et ottomans dans une architecture moderne
(French Diplomatic Architecture in Cairo. The reuse of Mamluk and Ottoman Fragments in Modern Buildings).

Cairo: IFAO Publications, December 2012 [in French and Arabic]
Hardcover, 298 pages, 231 illustrations.
ISBN 978-2-7247-0636-9

The book presents a detailed analysis of the two main premises that the French diplomatic mission successively occupied in Cairo : the Neo-Mamluk mansion designed in 1875-79 for the French aristocrat and early Islamic art collector Gaston de Saint-Maurice, based on the reuse of historical material (marble fountains, floors and panels, moucharabiehs and carved ceilings), complemented by matching design, and the Neo-Moroccan structure designed in 1934-38 to accomodate the historical fragments when the diplomatic mission was transfered to a new site. Based on unpublished sources, both visual and textual, complemented by contemporary photography, the book traces the artistic and political history of these consecutive reuses and reveals their accompanying epigraphy, of which a full illustrated catalogue is proposed.

The table of contents is available at:
http://www.ifao.egnet.net/publications/catalogue/978-2-7247-0636-9/

Cairo’s 19th century transformation in 7 points

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Cairo, like many cities across the globe, underwent a significant process of urban transformation in the mid-19th century. At the core of these transformations, which can be traced in cities from Latin America, Europe, and Asia, are sewage systems, street lighting, and drinking water systems. Most of these major infrastructural changes happen below street level, which explains why commentators on the 19th century often look up at what is visible, buildings, and rarely look below their feet. Also important to note that contrary to the dual city narrative 19th century infrastructural changes were implemented in both new and old parts of the city, with varying difficulty and speed for obvious reasons. Cairo has fallen victim to urban history that has elided the complexity of the city’s urban transformation during that time. I have already argued before that Paris was never along the Nile. On a recent trip to Paris I walked down the uniform apartment blocks of Haussmann’s Paris and stayed in one such building where behind the homogeneous facades are often small apartments reached by rickety small wooden stairs. Cairo’s 19th century (and early twentieth century) apartments were often dismissed as hastily-built Parisian simulacra in analysis obsessed by reductive East/West dichotomies and which privilege the eye. A closer investigation of Cairo’s “Parisian” architecture beyond reducing architectural history to facade reading, reveals a different set of socio-economic constructs that produced these buildings.

The focus on the above-mentioned aspect of 19th century urban development in Cairo has kept the major changes of that era in the footnotes of the official narrative. Today, as the city is desperately in need of comprehensive urban transformation and upgrading it is important to highlight the less visible but major projects carried out 150 years ago around the reign of Ismail that continue to shape the city today in ways more fundamental than mere aesthetics. Here are 7 major 19th century projects that reshaped Cairo:

1. Stabilizing the Nile Banks: The Nile in Cairo shifted with season which made the prospect of urbanization Nile-side a difficult one. Stabilizing the banks of the river, completed by 1865 and filling the adjacent areas that previously flooded made urban development possible and added riverside properties to the city’s real estate. However before the prospect of real estate the first large Nile-side building erected along the newly stabilized river were the new barracks of the Egyptian army (1865-68) known as Qasr el Nil. Tahrir Square would have been underwater if it wasn’t for this major infrastructural project. Qasr el Nil Bridge was also erected following the stabilization of the river and was opened in 1871.

2. The Northern boundaries: The areas north of historic Cairo near the recently built train station (1854) consisted of small hills which were flattened and and used in the draining and filling of the city’s lakes further south. Near by there were fields of radish فجل which were removed to make way for a new neighborhood named Faggala فجالة and Sakakini further north. A square was planned fronting the train station as the city’s northern entrance and Shubra street (tree-lined and extending north to Muhammad Ali’s Shubra palace) was connected to this area directly.

3. Abdeen Area: To the west of the old city was a small lake fronted by the estate of Abdeen Bek. The area was surrounded by marches to the west and slums to the east. The estate became the location for a new royal palace (moving the seat of power from the citadel down to the level of the city) and the new palace was built in 1863. The lake and marches were filled and a city square and new streets extending from the new palace were planned. The neighborhood of Abdeen was born.

4. Azbakiyya: Another area that was radically transformed was the posh district of Azbakiyya which overlooked a lake. The lake was filled and transformed into a garden during the rule of Muhammad Ali and the garden was redesigned again during the rule of Khedive Ismail. The transformation of Azbakiyya included the creation of several small public squares such as Khazindar and Attaba as well as Opera Square. The famed Cairo Opera House (1869) was built along side the public garden and several hotels were erected on the west side of the garden which was a linking space between the edge of the old city and the westward urban expansion that became downtown.

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5. The East Bank: Major avenues were planned to crisscross the city connecting the western edge of the old city to the Nile. Such new streets were Emmaddidin, Muhammad Farid Bek, Almalika (Ramsis), Merit Pasha and Qasr el Aini. Ismailia Square (Tahrir) began to take shape by the 1870s as well as surrounding squares such as Bab el Louk and neighborhoods such as Mounira, Dawaween. These newly planned areas were paved with water systems underground, sidewalks and trees above and street lighting installed before building lots were developed by individuals.

6. The West Bank: Also following the stabilization of the river the west bank, which was raised two meters above water level, was available for development. Although it largely remained agricultural several new projects were implemented: The Orman Botanical Garden and the Giza Zoo as well as the Pyramids Road. A new Giza palace was erected as well.

7. Gezira Island: Known today as Zamalek, the island was consolidated out of several smaller islands and was largely left as a retreat with a palace and garden erected to host the French queen during her visit (today’s Marriott). With the exception of the palace the island was meant as an escape, a natural landscape dotted with wooden shacks/huts which gave the island its name. Eventually parts of the landscape were formalized into gardens and later streets were implemented such as Gezira St., Gabalaya St., Nile St., and eventually Foad St. (26th July).

These major projects were initiated during the reign of Khedive Ismail, however earlier projects took place during his grandfather’s rule such as the opening of several streets through the old city and the legislation of Tanzim laws for urban management. Also other major transformation took place later in the 19th century such as the filling of Khalij al-Masri (1890s) and the creation of Cairo’s first tram line in its route on what became today’s Port Said St.

Destruction Alert: Villa Casdagli

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On the first of February the long-abandoned and unused Villa Casdagli on Simon Bolivar Sq. was looted and its staircase was set on fire. The following day I visited the building after reading news that it was “burned to the ground” and found the fire department finishing its job in controlling the isolated fire. The building was standing strong but it had been stripped of any removable valuable ornamentation, or as the fire department officer called it, the building was “peeled.”  What happened at Villa Casdagli is hardly something new nor does it have anything to do with revolution or the “security vacuum.” Historic buildings, particularly those from the 19th and 20th centuries have fallen victim to organized looting, vandalism and even official cover for their subsequent demolition by people as high up in the state as previous prime ministers (directly requesting the removal of buildings from heritage lists). Following this particular incident there has been no official response from the state and its institutions responsible while the most visible response from the cultured elite has been one of despair.

The latest incident at Villa Casdagli reveals the failures of the state in safeguarding and capitalizing on heritage as well as the failures of Egypt’s heritage society to take a leading role in creating awareness, creating proposals and offering alternatives to the fate of Egypt’s modern heritage and most importantly in making the heritage issue relevant to a wider audience outside the privileged few. Also, the incident makes certain the failure of Egypt’s professional cadre of engineers and architects who have not developed the professional environment and practices that prepare them to handle such heritage buildings regardless of their state in order to bring them back to life.

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[As the burned and discolored plaster surface peels away it reveals a new modern, clean stone wall. This building is ready for a new life.]

The villa, which was built in 1910, under all the ornamentation, plaster, gilded frames, and wood floors is a masonry structure built with brick, stone and the floors and ceilings are of iron and concrete, hence it was little damaged structurally in the latest snafu.

The building had recently received some journalistic attention for its apparent neglect and need for restoration. Hidden behind trees, the villa had gone unnoticed to unknowing pedestrians until clashes in Tahrir Square spread to the nearby Simon Bolivar Sq. and led to the subsequent erection of a second wall on that square blocking off the street leading to parliament (the first wall was already erected blocking the street leading to the US embassy). The erection of the second wall had turned this important junction into a dead end and pedestrians had to get around the wall to go to their work in the area which led pedestrians to cut through the garden of the villa to jump its wall to make their way around the obtrusive obstacle course of walls. This was an unintended consequence of the road block wall, but it made the villa accessible and visible.

Of course not everyone was unaware of the building, it had been eyed for renovation, potentially paid for with a $5 million USAID grant to transform it into Cairo’s first Institute for Museology.

Government bureaucracy and conflict between the ministries of antiquities and education (the former tenant of the building until around 1999) delayed any possible progress in the status of the building which continued to be vacant and unused.

Then suddenly there was a night of renewed clashes on the last day of January during which a truck was loaded with large gilded frames, marble fireplace mantles, and extremely heavy ironwork that once lined windows and balconies. By morning the clashes had magically ended and the villa was “peeled.” This isn’t the first of its kind, the Villa Ispenian in Haram was given the same treatment recently. Looted items end up on the market for antique dealers and much of it ends up outside the country where it can be sold for a higher price. Whatever wasn’t removable was vandalized but with the exception of the staircase the building survived intact. Apparently the Education Ministry already has some kind of report of the incident.

Now what?

This isn’t about this particular building, rather this recent incident could have been an opportunity for all those involved and those interested in heritage to raise pertinent issues that have been needing resolution for years: Why are such buildings, particularly those in state ownership and use, allowed to sit unused and allowed to deteriorate? How can the state capitalize on the historical and heritage value of this real estate? What is wrong with the current laws and regulations regarding heritage/historic buildings particularly those from the 19th century to the present? What are some proposals for legislation that could remedy the situation and save what is left and what are the benefits and who benefits? Villa Casdagli could be a visible and easy to understand illustration of why these are important questions to raise as part of a wider conversation that brings in a wider audience beyond the small group of heritage enthusiasts.

Additionally, once the fate of the building is saved from a potential demolition permit, the work should be carried out by a local firm, one that demonstrates that Egyptian practices are ready and capable of carrying out such work. Often such projects go to international architecture firms, denying Egyptian firms from building a portfolio of successful experiences of renovations/conservations of modern heritage buildings. One such local company more than ready to do this work is Takween, a group of talented young architects and planners who have experience working in Egypt in various contexts and with heritage sites.

This building was a victim not of the latest clashes, but of thirteen years of neglect following forty years of misuse. There is a cause here that needs to be perused regarding Egypt’s modern heritage buildings, but this cause will only be advanced if activists and heritage enthusiasts jump on an opportunity such as this to highlight the problem to a wider audience and to offer alternatives and make more people dream about the potential of these properties and their significance to the economy, to history, etc.

The building lost some of its decorative elements, but that hardly means it is “destroyed.” Think of post-WWII European cities, they were destroyed, and they have been rebuilt like new, some tourists never realize that many of the seemingly medieval city squares and surrounding buildings are in fact fifty year-old reconstructions. So, no one should put their hands up in despair because we lost a wooden staircase and some mirrors. With $5 million, if that money is still available, this building could provide a much needed institution such as an Institute for Museology, but it could also provide an excellent case study in architectural conservation in Cairo.

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Destruction Alert: Villa Ispenian

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Last month a historic villa from the early twentieth century with unique architectural eclecticism and which was filled with antiques and a rich art collection was looted and destroyed. Below is an article by Nevine El-Aref which first appeared on Al-Ahram Weekly on February 8, 2013.

Safe as houses? Not under the MSA

The luxuriously furnished villa of Kevork Ispenian on the Pyramids Road was looted and destroyed despite being on Egypt’s heritage list. Nevine El-Aref mourns the early 20th century edifice

At the Giza Plateau end of the Pyramids Road, near the Mena House Oberoi Hotel, the neo-Islamic villa of Kevork Ispenian stands wretchedly, its Mamluk and Ottoman features revealing the extent of the damage to this beautiful, historic house.

The destruction is over; the house stands in ruins. The garden, once laid out with an immaculate lawn and decorated with rare species of plants and trees and graced by a ceramic mosaic fountain, is now embellished with lumps of limestone and fallen bricks; littered with Mamluk mashrabeya (wooden lattice work) that formerly covered the windows and balustrades. Rubble and rubbish are scattered over the ground among the dead trees and palm trunks.

The house itself is in no better condition; on the contrary it is in a terrible state. Heaps of rubble and sand are piled on the floors, making it hard to tread on and walk through the rooms. Parts of the walls and decorated marble rails and slabs were scattered all around, while wooden doors engraved with foliage and geometrical decorations and beautiful mosaics that once decorated the arcades are broken and missing.

“What a loss!” Ahmad Al-Bindari, a researcher and photographer at the Centre for Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage (CULTNAT), told Al-Ahram Weekly sadly. He went on to say that the villa, constructed and designed by architect Charles Aznavour in 1935 as a rest house or weekend retreat for the Armenian father and son team of Kevork and Paul Ispenian, both collectors, was a great piece of heritage and its loss was tragic.

As befitted the house of collectors, several Mamluk and Ottoman artefacts, including those belonging to French architect Ambroise Baudry, were woven within its interiors. Baudry moved in 1871 to Egypt where he spent 15 years, during which he received many commissions, both private and royal. He constructed the Matatia edifices at Ataba in Downtown Cairo, which was demolished during the 1990s. In 1873 Baudry was given responsibility for the decoration of the interior of the salamlik (men’s quarters), the façade and the marble staircase of Khedive Ismail’s palace in Giza.

Baudry built a very distinguished residential villa for himself in Abdel-Khalek Tharwat Street in Downtown Cairo, which he decorated with authentic Mamluk and Ottoman artefacts. By the turn of the 20th century, Ispenian had bought Baudry’s genuine collection along with others when all the villas in Abdel-Khalek Tharwat Street were demolished and replaced with huge apartment buildings as part of a plan to convert the area into a commercial and residential zone.

According to Al-Bindari, the Ispenian Villa stayed in the possession of the Armenian family until the 1960s when it was then sold to the Abdel-Nour family, who in their turn sold it to the Supreme Council for Antiquities (SCA), now the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA). Meanwhile, the house contents were put on Egypt’s Islamic and Coptic Heritage List after that the house was abandoned. The doors were sealed in red wax, meaning that it was forbidden to enter and whoever stepped inside and removed the wax would be subjected to the law.

“I used to visit the house every now and then, but I have only seen it from the outside,” Al-Bindari told Al-Ahram Weekly. He added that during his tour of office he had grown fond of the house and its distinguished architectural elements, and had even invited his friends to come so he could show them its wonderful design. “But sometimes the wind doesn’t blow the way we want,” he said. Last spring, when Bendari went for his usual visit, he found the Ispenian Villa was not the one he used to admire. The iron gate lay on the floor, broken in two pieces. The structure was partially demolished, and the house and garden were a total mess and in the worst possible condition.

Al-Bindari was told that the house, like many other monuments and archaeological sites in Egypt, had been looted during the January 2011 Revolution when security in the country was almost non-existent. However, he told the Weekly that there was no way of knowing for certain what had happened or how the destruction had come about.

“Whoever stole the contents knew what he was doing,” Al-Bindari insisted. “It was systematic. Everything from the ornamented roof, the ornamental screens, the marble floors and even a historic column supporting the balcony have been stolen. They took their time and took everything apart.”

Bendari pointed out that the condition of the villa was not unusual by any standards. “These things happen all the time because of negligence,” he said.

So what did happen to the villa? Why was it possible for it to be subjected to so much looting and destruction? Is it the property of the antiquities department or not? If so, where is the new antiquities law and its amendment? Why is it not being implemented? One of the law’s articles is one that prohibits any encroachment and destruction of archeological sites and a prison term for offenders.

Mohamed Abdel-Rehim, head of the Islamic and Coptic monuments section, told the Weekly in a telephone interview that the building was not on the Egyptian antiquities list and that the villa was still owned by Abdel-Nour family. It was not a historic house which must come under the jurisdiction of the Historic Buildings law affiliated to the Giza governorate, nor did it come under the antiquities law or the MSA. He insisted that the building was not a listed monument.

Meanwhile, archaeologist Ahmed Taha, an inspector at the Giza section of the MSA, laid all the blame for neglecting the building on the Tourist and Antiquities Police (TAP), who failed to protect the house even though there is TAP station not 10 metres from the Ispenian Villa. He also said that during the tenure of former MSA minister Zahi Hawass there was a project to convert the historic villa into a museum for Islamic art, but no steps were taken to implement the plan. Taha’s statements are verified by an MSA official, who required anonymity. The official said that the collection of the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) in Bab Al-Khalk was stored in the Ispenian Villa while the museum was under lengthy restoration. Some objects from this collection are now on display in the MIA while others were transported to MSA storage rooms in the Salaheddin Citadel.

Mokhtar Al-Kasabani, professor of Islamic monuments in the archaeology department at Cairo University, who was the MSA consultant for Islamic monuments during the Hawass tenure, also supports Taha’s statements. He says the house is an MSA property and should come under the new antiquities law and its amendments.

The empty 30 feddan plot neighbouring the Ispenian Villa is owned by former minister of tourism Mounir Fakhri Abdel-Nour, who was willing to sell it to the MSA for a mega development project.

As a member of the committee who was in charge of the project, Kasabani said that the whole site in this prime area overlooking the Giza Plateau was earmarked to be transformed into a resort for tourists. It would include a small museum of Islamic art, a motel, bazaars selling replicas and souvenirs, a cafeteria and a bookstore for archaeology and art books. A parking area and a cinema would be also built as part of the complex. However, Kasabani said that regrettably the revolution had put the plan into jeopardy and it had been abandoned. The villa, he went on, was looted during the revolution and some of the mashrabeya and the mosaic fountain that once decorated the garden were missing.

“The current government and the MSA don’t care enough about Egypt’s history and its culture,” Kasabani told the Weekly. He added that a few months ago a contractor damaged the Ottoman warehouse and grist-mill of Madash-Merza in Boulaq Abul-Ela, and that even though he was caught red-handed he was set at large with a fine of only LE500. This contractor, he said, returned to Madash-Merza and resumed the demolition, and nobody moved a finger to save this great Ottoman monument, not even the MSA. Now he had built the first floor of his new building. What made things worse, Kasabani pointed out, was that all antiquities crimes were no longer prosecuted under the new antiquities law and its amendments which had priority on the court roll. Instead, they came under the usual criminal law, according to which a case can take years to be solved.

Kasabani suggests that to protect and rescue Egypt’s cultural and antiquities heritage, the MSA might be converted into an Independent Egyptian Authority affiliated directly to the president’s office rather than a ministry within the government echelon.

Muhammad Ali Street and the shifting symbolism of Cairo’s cityscape

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[the arcades in Muhammad Ali Street.]

By Joseph Ben Prestel

For many passers-by, the Southeastern edge of Ataba Square might be marked by the hustle and bustle from a myriad of shops selling electronic gear, household amenities, and other essential goods for everyday life. In this neighborhood with buildings packed densely next to each other, the view up Muhammad Ali Street is surprising. As if unimpressed by its crowded surroundings, the street runs for about two kilometers straight towards Sultan Hassan Mosque. Looking up from Ataba Square, the dome of the mosque is visible at the very end of the thoroughfare. This perspective bears witness to the building initiative that Cairo went through in the second half of the nineteenth century, when Khedive Ismail (1863-1879) ruled the country. Yet Muhammad Ali Street dodges the “Paris on the Nile” narrative often used by travelogues and guidebooks to describe this period. Instead, the street carries a multiplicity of meanings that have been attributed to the urban environment over time. Allusions to it associate the street with a range of topics, from nineteenth-century Paris to Egyptian folk music.

Construction of Muhammad Ali Street was completed between 1872 and 1874. The street was part of the large urban renewal program under Khedive Ismail, whose aim was described by his minister of public works Ali Mubarak as making “the streets and buildings ready for the expansion of trade, to align the cityscape to the prosperity of the country.” Whereas Ismail’s building spree focused mainly on new quarters of the city, such as Ismailiyya or the area around Bab al-Luq, Muhammad Ali Street was one of the few interventions in the old part of town. The street was designed to provide an important shortcut between the eastern and western parts of the city. Prior to its construction, Cairenes had to cross at least five other neighborhoods in order to get from the then thriving quarter of Azbakiyya to the citadel. After 1874, Muhammad Ali Street offered a direct connection between these two centers of urban life. With a width of twenty meters, the new thoroughfare meant a tremendous intrusion in an area in which streets had up until then not been wider than six meters. The project required cutting through two kilometers of densely populated neighborhoods. According to some statistics, the construction of the street resulted in the destruction or partial destruction of about 700 buildings. A few structures on Muhammad Ali Street still show traces of this process today. In order to make way for the new street, the front part of the fourteenth-century mosque of Qusun was destroyed. The remainder of the building, however, was left intact and only a new facade was added, leaving behind evidence of the demolition process. With its unique view, its arcades, and a boulevard-like width, Muhammad Ali Street represents to some scholars a prime example of the kind of intervention that urban historians associate with late-nineteenth-century Paris. To them, the street is merely a Cairo version of the famed Rue de Rivoli in the French capital. Often, such accounts deplore the present state of the street, implying that Muhammad Ali Street lost some of the grandeur it held in the past.   

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[Screen shot from the movie Sharia al-Hubb (1958), in which the street and its arcades are depicted.]

Yet the symbolism of the street was never reduced to a seemingly apparent allusion to Paris. Instead of turning into a mark of French-inspired urbanism, Muhammad Ali Street soon acquired an ambiguous reputation as a center of musical entertainment. As early as 1880, police reports warned that it attracted dubious women from the entertainment industry. At the same time, brass bands such as the Hasballah group started settling on the street. By the middle of the twentieth century, Muhammad Ali Street was well known as a center of Egyptian folk music. The street appeared in numerous cultural productions, such as the 1945 movie Sharia Muhammad Ali. In the 1958 blockbuster Sharia al-Hubb starring Abd al-Halim Hafez and Nagwa Fouad, the street serves as the backdrop for a story of social ascent. Through his musical talent, the poor Abd al-Munem finds his way to love and fortune, ultimately moving from Muhammad Ali Street to the opera house. The movie, which opens with a long shot of the street, exhibits Muhammad Ali Street as the place where musicians live, gather, and are contacted by potential customers, such as the hyped-up foreigner “Christo” who hires Abd al-Munem to teach music at a club for young ladies. According to studies on female dancers in Egypt, the entertainment industry on the street began to decline in the 1970s. Yet scholars  were still referring to the street as a center of folk music into the 1990s. In his Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt, Walter Armbrust wrote: “Muhammad ‘Ali Street is famed as the street of traditional entertainers. Even today, when most of the entertainment business has moved to Pyramids Road in Giza, or other newer glitzier neighborhoods, Muhammad ‘Ali Street is thick with shops selling lutes and other musical instruments.” The number of music shops might have dwindled further since the publication of Armbrust’s book in 1996, but the name still conjures images of Egyptian folk music. Three years ago, a Cairo-based TV station produced a program teaching belly dance under the title Sharia Muhammad Ali.

 It might be  a telling irony that this street, which some historians like to refer to as Cairo’s Rue de Rivoli, is popularly known as a center of Egyptian folk music, thus linking characters as diverse as Eugène Haussmann and Nagwa Fouad. To the superficial observer, none of these references are immediately apparent. Today, Muhammad Ali Street is packed with furniture shops. Rather than recalling lutes or nineteenth-century Paris, it appears more like a place where you would buy an armchair along with a three-piece suit. Looking at Muhammad Ali Street from different historical perspectives illustrates that there is more to the streets of Cairo than meets the eye. Instead of one essential meaning, its history reflects the multi-layered symbolism attached to streets, squares, or buildings. Despite the intentions of political groups or planners, the meaning of these urban spaces can hardly be fixed.  

Destruction Alert: Mohamed Ali Shubra Pavilion

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One of the corners of the recently restored historic pavilion of Mohamed Ali in Shubra, has collapsed. A 55 million Egyptian Pound ($9 million) restoration took place 7 years ago and the building was “reopened” to much fanfare. In reality the “restoration” was a botched job using cheap materials (including low quality paint) and utilizing the services of contractors inexperienced in historic preservation/conservation. The Ministries of Antiquity and Culture both have a dismal record when it comes to successful restoration work and have failed to protect much of Egypt’s heritage under their auspices. Often “restoration” projects such as this become excuses for public funds to be squandered by officials, consultants and construction firms. A recent fiasco at Ministerli Palace in Manial revealed how corrupt the system is when scaffolding was put up, closing the palace for years, only to be removed after the beginning of the revolution revealing that no work had been conducted.

It is important to note that in 2009, after the pavilion “restoration,” rare paintings of members of the Mohamed Ali family were stolen from the Shubra Pavilion and the incident received nearly no press coverage and no officials were held responsible. This predates the theft of the Van Gogh painting from another Ministry of Culture museum in 2010.

The Mohamed Ali Shubra Pavilion is a unique structure combining late Ottoman, French and Italian as well as Egyptian influences in its odd design centered around a pool with an island and seating areas around its perimeter.The square building was a separate structure built in 1820 near a Shubra Palace which was built in 1912 by architect Pascal Coste and which was located along the Nile in Shubra and had been destroyed by its owner in the 1930s. Samir Raafat has the complete story:

Marveled by all who visited it during his reign, Mohammed Ali’s Shubra Pavilion consists of an artificial marble-lined pool with as a whimsical centerpiece, an elaborate octagonal Carrara marble balustrade surrounding a fountain-islet sporting marble statuettes; the whole resting atop 24 raised marble crocodiles spraying water out of their menacing jaws.

Surrounding the pool is a raised wide square gallery fronted by moresque wrap-around veranda with 104 slender load-bearing bronze-based marble colonnades.

Overlooking the pool from the interior of the gallery are 112 low-lying windows with bronze railings.

The gallery built in wood and plaster has four corner salons (diwans or kiosks). As though standing sentinel on these salons are four water-spouting marble lions.

Not unlike the interiors of contemporary palaces built in the Citadel complex including the Bijoux Palace (1814), the Harem Palace built in 1827 (now military museum) and the Daftarkhana (1828), the Shubra palace and its annexes included a melange of styles ranging from faux oriental to gaudy European.

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[The central pool area of the pavilion, the corner which collapsed is one of the four partial dome structures such as the one shown in the background of this image]

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[to see the pavilion in action, click on the above screen shot to watch a scene from the film Cairo 30, which depicts a party taking place in the pavilion in the early part of the twentieth century]

Although the collapse took place around July 2012 news of the disaster has been muted. An investigative report was published by Al Ahram months later and another critical piecewas posted on the news site Masress. More recently the story was published in the heritage news section of Al-Rawi, Egypt’s heritage review magazine.

The piece posted on Masress is particularly important because it puts the Shubra disaster in within a larger context of corruption by officials in the ministries of culture and antiquities.

د. عبد الفتاح البنا الأستاذ بكلية الآثار جامعة القاهرة يري أن انهيار احدي القباب التي تغطي أحد القاعات الركنية بسرايا الفسقية بقصر محمد علي بشبرا بعد أقل من 6 سنوات من استلام القصر من مقاول الترميم بتكلفة معلنة 55 مليون جنيه يضاف إليهم ماهو غير معلن من أعمال تكميلية قد تتخطى هذا الرقم، هي بمثابة كارثة ولن تكون الحادث الوحيد بل سيتكرر ذلك كثيرا ولن ننسي منذ أربعة أشهر ما جري لشارع المعز لدين الله الفاطمي الذي غرقت آثاره في “المجاري” وكم السرقات التي تحدث جهارا نهارا لوحدات أثرية بالمساجد والدور والأسبلة الإسلامية وكل هذا يجعلنا في إطار حملتنا ضد الفساد في الآثار بصدد فتح ملف مشروعات ترميم الآثار خاصة ما كان في حوزة السجين “أيمن عبد المنعم” وزملائه سواء من سجن معه أومن هم مازالوا طلقاء لم تقتص منهم العدالة حتى وقتنا هذا !! لاسيما وأن حواس وغيره تغنوا بإنجازاتهم المزيفة في وقت كان الفساد والزيف هو السمة السائدة.
صندوق التنمية الثقافية أو “مغارة على بابا ” في وزارة الثقافة كما يطلق عليه د. عبد الفتاح البنا، كان يتولاه أيمن عبد المنعم، هذا الشاب اليافع الذي تحول لمليونير خلال سنوات قليلة، ويتردد أن الشركة التي اتهم بتقاضي رشوة منها بأعمال الديكورات فيها وتأثيثها بأثاث جيد، شمل قطعا من السجاد الإيراني وتحفا نفيسة، هو كان المسئول عن مشروع تطوير القاهرة التاريخية، ورسميا تولى أيمن عبد المنعم إدارة صندوق التنمية الثقافية الذي يسمونه بالإضافة إلى أكثر من 10 مشروعات أثرية أخرى.


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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Landmark: Tiring Department Store

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Visible slightly to the north from the narrow overpass that links Opera Square to Azhar Street is a corner building with four kneeling Atlas statues lifting a glass globe. This was the Tiring Department Store, one of Cairo’s many houses of early twentieth century shopping and consumption of modern goods.

The store was founded in 1910 by Victor Tiring, an Austrian merchant born in Istanbul who specialized in Turkish tailoring. The Tiring family had built its first store in Vienna in 1882. The building was designed by Oscar Horowitz, a Czech architect who studied in Vienna and who designed similar shopping destinations within the Austro-Hungarian sphere. The Tiring Store in Cairo was completed in 1912 and when it opened it was the city’s premier shopping destination for imported luxury goods. With the events of World War I, the British occupation in Egypt had deemed all Austrians and Hungarians as enemies and forced their departure from Egypt. The Tiring department store was only in business for few years and its business was interrupted due to pressure from the colonial administration which forced it into liquidation by 1920.

The five-story building was designed with open floors and an airy feel fit for modern shopping and it would eventually become the desired property by other department store owners but complications due to ownership led to it being abandoned. Shortly after the demise of the short-lived Tiring, the building became home to squatters, primarily small-business and workshops who set up shop in its vast floors. It has been used since by a variety of people for a variety of activities, there was a bar, a mosque, full-time residents, clothing workshops and a cafe occupying the building at one time.

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This is the story of many buildings, perhaps hundreds in Cairo and other cities. At first it may appear that the main obstacle confronting any effort to save Tiring building is related to ownership. However, another building not far away, fronting Opera Square and the remaining parcel of Azbakeya Garden is the former Continental Hotel which is also occupied by small workshops informally, yet it is owned by the state. Other buildings around downtown and the surrounding districts have been undergoing a process for decades aimed at intentionally removing links to original owners. Those were the properties of owners who fled the country, were forced out either by the British or subsequent regimes, or properties where heirs immigrated and entrusted the property to a lawyer or anyone who later illegally sold it to themselves and obscured links to the original owners. This has led to legal disputes and often buildings have been “frozen” with no one to claim them as their own and thus they fall for squatters or idle eternally. What I am trying to argue, the Tiring Building brings attention to the legal dimension complicating the potential regeneration, maintenance and reuse of such properties. And this calls for a legal framework and carefully drafted policy.

The Tiring Building was built a century ago, yet it was used by its original owner for its intended use for less than a decade. Despite this, it has become part of the urban heritage of Cairo and its iconic Atlases and glass globe have become a landmark referenced in works of art, literature and seen in film. The building, and others like it, is part of Cairo’s cityscape and it presents us with a challenge of dealing with its complicated history, ownership issues, accommodate/legalize its current users, maintain its architectural heritage, make it economically sustainable and make it accessible to the public.

The building should also be seen in its urban and social context. It sits at a unique location linking old and new Cairo and near Attaba Square where other key buildings such as the fire department and the original post office stand. Near by is the Attaba vegetable market, one of downtown’s central markets, and surrounding streets are bustling with commercial activity. There is massive potential in this area to organize, develop, accommodate current commercial activities while diversifying the uses and users by inserting new ones. However, the scale of needed development in Cairo’s central districts needs new strategies that move beyond the approach of focusing on individual buildings and seeking the needed funds to restore them without considering their relationship to context and their potential new uses. Many of the historic buildings which have been restored by the state following this approach have sat empty for years or have been transformed into “cultural centers” where no real activity takes place.

The Tiring Building is desperately screaming for attention for the entire district to be revitalized in cooperation with its current users. However, with the current governance structure which does not align with community structures in the city there will be no revitalization. Communities in Cairo are full of buildings around which the various districts can develop, whether the Sakakini Palace in Sakakini or the Tiring Building in Attaba, those buildings can act as the starting point in a community-driven, government-led approach that integrates buildings of historic significance with the communities that live in and around them in ways that protect the architectural heritage, stimulate economic development and provide new opportunities. Such efforts need sound policy and such policy needs to build on a political structure that empowers communities rather than treat them as mere squatters to be removed.

tiring building