Modern Architecture in Cairo: An Unsung Treasure

/ 18 Mar 2020

Modern Architecture in Cairo: An Unsung Treasure

In his introduction to Cairo Since 1900: An Architectural Guide, architectural historian Mohamed Elshahed writes that he hopes the book “will inspire residents and visitors to see Cairo in a new light,” and “will lead to the protection and preservation of some of the buildings included in it, for the sake of the city and its historical memory.”

This book is a gift to those who love Cairo, albeit a bittersweet one, since it inevitably highlights the ongoing loss of so much of the city’s modern architectural heritage.

Recently published by the American University in Cairo Press, the book is beautifully designed, as elegant and functional as many of the buildings it documents. It is a small, compact, softcover volume that can be carried along as one explores the city. It contains a clear, concise and informative introduction, a small glossary and maps on which the location of each building is noted. The buildings are grouped by neighborhood and each is documented by one or two pages of text and illustration.

The book’s production was supported by the Barjeel Art Foundation and carried out by an extensive research team, led by Elshahed, who is the creator of the Cairobserver blog. He was also the curator of Egypt’s Modernist Indignation exhibition at the London Design Biennale in 2018 and of the British Museum’s Modern Egypt project in 2017. He is currently teaching as a practitioner-in-residence at New York University. (See a related article, “Scholars Consider What Popular Culture Means in Egypt Today.”)

A Changing, Hybrid Capital

The buildings documented in Cairo Since 1900 range from famous landmarks to unknown but interesting examples of particular architectural practices. Examples include parks, bridges, workers’ residences, movie theaters, banks, grand apartment buildings, and houses of worship. The book shows buildings that were planned but never executed, ones that have been demolished, and ones that have been altered beyond recognition.

The architect Sayed Karim stands over a scale model of Nasr City, his plan for an urban expansion of Cairo in the 1950s (Photo: Private collection).
The architect Sayed Karim stands over a scale model of Nasr City, his plan for an urban expansion of Cairo in the 1950s (Photo: Private collection).

“The purpose is to show that the city possesses a genuine modern built landscape that has value per se,” writes the French scholar Mercedes Volait in her foreword. “Many will agree that there is a life for modern architecture besides icons and manifestos! Exposing Cairo Modernism on its own terms does break, however, with standard narrative in twentieth-century architecture and art history, where so little space is provided to Modernism outside the West.”

“Cairo is essentially a twentieth-century city,” Elshahed argues in his introduction, since it is from 1900 onwards that it has developed at an extraordinary rate. Its population rose from two and half million in 1947 to more than 20 million today, and it witnessed a series of construction booms.

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It is no surprise then that Cairo has been a “dynamic, heterogenous city that embraces change and the new,” as Elshahed writes. Its mid-century architects hailed from or had studied in many different countries and they fused elements from numerous styles.

“The purpose is to show that the city possesses a genuine modern built landscape that has value per se.”

Mercedes Volait   A French scholar

“The melange is reflective of Egypt’s place in the eastern Mediterranean as a crossroads, a sponge that soaks up influence and regurgitates it in new forms,” writes Elshahed. Cairo architects were also influential across the region, designing buildings and public spaces for many other Arab capitals.

Demolished History

Unfortunately much of this vibrant production is under-documented, under-valued and has often been wiped out with little thought.

“Cairo is an unstable city: it constantly changes its skin, transforming its urban and architectural character in a piecemeal fashion and at a speed that far surpasses the pace of scholarship and documentation,” writes Elshahed.

One challenge in collating a modern architectural history of the city is the physical destruction of modern buildings, which are not viewed as worth preserving.

Egyptian law requires that a building be at least 100 years old to be protected. But once a building is registered as a landmark, its use is severely restricted. This has led many building owners to consider a century as a sort of deadline to demolish a building. As Elshahed explains, “a lucrative clandestine business specialized in inconspicuously damaging otherwise structurally sound heritage-worthy buildings” has arisen. Because of this, “the bulk of Cairo’s modern buildings worth protecting have already disappeared.”

The Al Ahram building, completed in 1968. From the book Cairo Since 1900: An Architectural Guide, by Mohamed Elshahed (The American University in Cairo Press).
The Al Ahram building, completed in 1968. From the book Cairo Since 1900: An Architectural Guide, by Mohamed Elshahed (The American University in Cairo Press).

The state itself has shown as little regard for the city’s modern architecture as many developers. In the last two years, the Egyptian authorities have done terrible damage to the historic neighborhood of Heliopolis, destroying nearly 100 acres of green space and century-old trees, to build wider thoroughfares for traffic to a new administrative capital in Cairo’s desert outskirts. (See a related article, “Arab Universities Often Silent in Debates on Public Space.”)

The Modernist Blind Spot

When buildings or neighborhoods are demolished, they often disappear from history, because their presence was never properly documented.

“Modernism in Egypt has not been granted national heritage status, as if history stopped at the threshold of the twentieth century,” notes Elshahed. “There are no specialist government or private bodies recognizing, archiving, documenting or protecting Modernist buildings.”

Architecture education in Egyptian universities “marginalizes and often omits the history of modern architecture,” he adds. Architecture students “graduate without taking a survey course on the history of modern architecture in Egypt, a major blind spot in architectural education.” 

For Elshahed and other scholars, Al Emara, a pioneering Arabic-language magazine on design and architecture that was published between 1939 and 1959, has been an inspiration and a resource. A comprehensive survey of 20th century Egyptian architecture was published by one of Al Emara’s editors, Tawfiq Abdel Gawad, in 1989 but contained errors in the identification of some buildings.

Cairo Since 1900 is a thoughtful, valuable attempt to engage with the diversity of Cairo’s modern architectural history before it is obliterated.

“Architects in Cairo urgently need to gain access to knowledge about the architects of the past century to provide inspiration, points of departure, or continuity,” argues Elshahed, “in order to create a contemporary Egyptian architecture that is aware of its predecessors.”




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Copyright © 2018 Al-Fanar Mediaحقوق © 2018 الفنار للإعلام