Egypt's architects mobilize against tsunami of high-rise buildings

As Egypt's new administrative capital gains momentum, architects caution that new is not necessarily better in urbanization.

al-monitor The sun sets over Cairo, Egypt, Dec. 5, 2016.  Photo by REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh.
Youssra el-Sharkawy

Youssra el-Sharkawy


Topics covered


May 17, 2019

The residential villas and the modern corporate buildings that line the main streets of New Cairo, a new suburb to the east of its namesake, often draw the lavish praise of politicians and admirations of the public.

A group of architects, however, are not among the admirers. They think that New Cairo — and similar suburbs and towns on the outskirts of Cairo — is made up of dull cement blocks and poor imitations of high-rise buildings and gated communities that are found in Gulf states.

“In New Cairo … there is no harmony of architectural styles. It is a [bizarre melange of] classic, modern, post-modern or high-tech. We are afraid that this alien style will spread to the current capital,” architect Ahmed Salah, one of the organizers of an exhibition titled “Architecture Tsunami” at the American University in Cairo (AUC), told Al-Monitor.

The exhibition, which brought together different works, photos and a series of interactive visual interpretations, sought to show the changes and movements in the urban planning of Cairo. It looked back to Egypt's architectural history in photos, then showed how old neighborhoods have changed or new ones built.

Egypt’s capital is home to different architecture styles. The Khedivial Cairo — which includes the downtown area from Kasr el-Nil Bridge to Attaba — was established over 150 years ago. Its magnificent buildings are built in the European classical style and the streets imitate those of Paris, right down to the style of the lamps, as per the instructions of Khedive Ismail, who ruled Egypt and Sudan from 1863 to 1879. Ismail, invited to Paris by Emperor Napoleon III in 1867, was so impressed by the architecture of the City of Lights that he asked French architect Georges-Eugene Haussmann to design Khedivial Cairo. In Medieval Cairo (Islamic Cairo), which was founded in 969 by Jawhar al-Siqilli, these buildings line the same streets and alleys as those dating back to the Fatimid era.

In 1906, Cairo started to expand into the desert when wealthy Belgian engineer Baron Edouard Empain (1852-1929) started to build the area of Heliopolis, 10 kilometers (6 miles) from downtown Cairo. The baron kept the same style of downtown Cairo in the architecture of Heliopolis including in areas such as Roxy and Korba.

However, now the architecture of Cairo is facing drastic changes as the country is not only establishing a new administrative capital city deep in the desert, but it is also reshaping the identity of the old capital by rebuilding and polishing its buildings.

New Cairo — also known as the Fifth Settlement — was established in 2000. It is built in an area of about 70,000 acres on the southeastern edge of Cairo governorate. Due to overcrowding in the capital, many residents decided to move to New Cairo with its new buildings, wider roads and a better quality of life.

“We built Cairo along the Nile, but [by building New Cairo] we went to the desert,” Malak Saudi, who just graduated as an architect from AUC, told Al-Monitor. “The architecture there seems to be inspired by the [modern cities] of the Gulf — themselves copycats of some American buildings and skyscrapers. That makes our contemporary architecture a copy of a copy.”

She added, “We can’t change what has been already done. But we aim to change the future.”

However, there are no signs that the trend of ultra-modern buildings is changing. In 2015, Egypt decided to establish a new administrative capital in an area of 170,000 feddans (176,400 acres), with wide boulevards and luxurious high-rise buildings. The government is planning to move governmental institutions, ministries and thousands of employees to the new capital by 2020.

But many Cairenes are asking just what will happen to the historical buildings that have been housing the ministries and government institutions. The building of the Ministry of Education, for example, is a historical palace that was built around 1874 by Ismail for one of his daughters. The governent then bought the palace located near Tahrir Square and turned it into the headquarters of the Ministry of Education in 1931.

“[This move] is very dangerous. The country is now saying with a very loud voice that it is not keen on taking care of the old capital as it is building a new one in the desert,” said Amr Abdel Kawi, professor of practice at the AUC Department of Architecture and head of NextARCH Lab.

In 2017, the government decided to demolish the Maspero Triangle, a major 35-hectare (86-acre) slum in Cairo, as part of a huge urban development plan to build luxury malls and hotels.

“Probably many buildings will be demolished to make room for other buildings that do not fit in the old Cairo, but in the new cities. This capital will change and become a memory that will fade away with each generation, until it disappears completely,” Abdel Kawi told Al-Monitor.

To discuss this issue, “NextARCH Lab," an engagement platform, was established this year at the AUC Department of Architecture. It gathers stakeholders, professionals, engineers, architects and academics from different parts of Egypt, and aims at provoking critical questions and delivering solutions that improve the quality of life in the city. The exhibition “Architecture Tsunami” (April 14-mid-May) was one of the events organized by the center.

According to Abdel Kawi, urbanization and the architecture style of the new settlements have a direct impact on the people, and often makes them feel isolated. “Most of the new cities have gated communities, modern compounds surrounded by walls. This kills the connection between the people,” he noted.

But architects alone, Abdel Kawi said, cannot change the situation, particularly if the government simply brushes aside their opinions. “For example, the government says that the architecture designs and building licenses should be approved by an accredited ‘engineer’ — without stressing that he should be an ‘architect,’” he added.

For preserving the heritage of Cairo and keeping its identity, Abdel Kawi said a broad-based dialogue that would involve architects, contractors, developers and the general public is necessary. “We want to bridge this gap by engaging people in dialogue. We plan to take our activities and exhibitions to the malls to engage the public,” he concluded.

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