“This building sums up the Egyptian way”, says Mohamed Elshahed, author of the new architectural charter, the Cairo Since 1900. “A developer gets direct permission of the chair, then another chair is supplied with its own circle of business men who want a piece of the pie. The initial investor says no. The project is abandoned. What kind of city is this that allows the built environment to be shaped in such a way?”
The result of several years of digging through random, archive, Elshahed guide is a fascinating example of the form. It includes 226 buildings, some unfinished, some demolished, some even never built. Many seem to be banal, the everyday, of the buildings, not the kind historians would necessarily consider as worthy of veneration. And that is precisely the point. “The book is not intended to be used as a sample of Cairo as it is now, but a record of what has been, or could have been,” said Elshahed, a curator and historian of architecture, who founded the Cairobserver blog. “Therefore, a large part of the city was demolished before we have even discovered and documented. This means that, despite years of development, the Cairo is not a place where you can stroll and really feel of the story, or to determine who has done what and when. It’s so confusing.”
Elshahed was motivated to compile the book after attending a new generation of architects Egyptians to take what he saw as no apparent interest in the recent history of their own city. “The architecture of the twentieth century here is a huge blind spot,” he says. “The students learn things that are irrelevant and the production of designs that may as well be in New Jersey.” Coupled with this, he says, is the alarming increase in the pace of the demolition. Egypt’s heritage laws require a building to be at least 100 years before he can be considered for state protection, which resulted in a sort of deadline for the owners intentionally damage or demolish their buildings before they reach their centenary year.
As he writes in the book’s introduction, which gave birth to “a lucrative illegal enterprise specialized in discreetly cause damage to otherwise structurally sound heritage worthy buildings to prevent entry and create the case for the issuance of a demolition permit”. The Techniques used range from the flooding of the foundations for the injection of the acid in the structure, to accelerate the decomposition and to encourage the collapse. And besides, in the context of the Egyptian civilization, a century is a mere blip. “We are constantly being told that we are a 7,000-year-old country,” said Elshahed. “If you instill this idea in the population, and then a building from 50 years is nothing. The history of modernism has been largely swept under the rug, seen as a small drop in the ocean.”
Much of the city was demolished before we have even discovered and documented
His book is a call to arms, a rallying cry to take another look at the daily fabric of this richly layered city. The selection of the buildings shows a wide range of styles that have been used abundantly throughout the century, promoted by the political leaders and their desires to replace what came before. There are ornaments in the Neo-Mamluk, the confectionery in the early 1900s (often designed by European architects working in Cairo, trying to be “context”); the bold experiments with international modernism and brutalism in the 1950s and ‘ 60s, under the presidency of Nasser, the renewed search for identity in the 1970s, with the vernacular revival, followed by inflated post-modern structures clad in ancient egypt, fancy dress. Finally, there are a handful of sci-fi fantasies that are never all done out of the drawing board. It is as confused and frantic in a full view that the experience of walking in Cairo energetic streets.
Emerging from the scrum is Sayed Karim, the author of nearly 30 buildings in the book. After studying in Switzerland, Karim returned to the magazine Al Emara in 1939, the world’s first Arabic-language architectural journal, and claims a kind of modern architecture that was rooted in the Egyptian context. Its two Ouzounian Building (1949) and Zamalek Tower (1953) are blocks of concrete brise-soleil (shading fins) as an important feature on the facade, while its plan for the Merryland park has seen a series of expressive concrete canopies scattered around a landscape of playfulness. But Elshahed insists on the fact that the style was the least of Karim concerns.
“Egyptian modernists have not been obsessed by the idea of style, like their western counterparts,” he said. “They were interested in the use of construction materials and technologies available in Egypt, rather than applying a style pattern book. In Al-Emara journal, the word “modern” does not explicitly refer to a style, but is used to refer to the latest developments and materials of construction.” The absence of a pure stylistic dogma is, he thinks, exactly why this type of architecture has been ignored.
There are a number of curious and aberrant buildings in the book, also, which seem to defy the stylist conventions completely. Gamal Bakry Villa Badran, built in 1971, stands as a chubby rebellion against the proliferation of diluted modernism across the capital. Part Flintstones, part of Barbapapa, the residence has a primal, monolithic look, which is formed of a bulbous boulder-forms connected by planted terraces. A reinforced concrete church, designed by Seddiq el Shehab-Din in 1955, is also original research, as well as the neck of the hull of an upturned boat.
Then there is the enigmatic Al-Rahma mosque, Nasr City, built by Hassan Rashdan in 1982, a spaceship crossed with a mountain, consisting of a pyramid, octagonal, surmounted by a dome. During this time, the ancient Egyptian revival reached a peak altitude camp in the form of the Supreme Constitutional Court, was designed by Ahmed Mito in 1999 (changed much since his original design, he claims), featuring gigantic, cartoonish columns of the temple of shortage of capital, streamlined portals. It is a rich buffet to browse, but there is a noticeable gap when it comes to outstanding examples of contemporary architecture.
“Today, there is an unprecedented amount of construction in Egypt,” said Elshahed. “We are going to build a new capital and new satellite cities, but, ironically, there is almost no presence of architects in the public life. It is very visible divide between who has access to the services of an architect and who does not – and the segment of society that is now behind the great walls. The elites have regressed to the inside of their gated communities, the architecture has disappeared.”
• The cairo Since 1900: An Architectural Guide by Mohamed Elshahed is out now.