Cementing Cairo’s place in history: the architect ensuring the city's buildings are never forgotten

'If the buildings are not documented or photographed, it’s like they never existed at all,' says Mohamed Elshahed

Saint Mark's Orthodox Coptic Cathedral in 1968. Photo Hesham Mohamed Hassan
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Paris was ripped apart and renovated in the 19th century by Baron Georges-­Eugene Haussmann, one of the most famous urban planners in history. Even now, 130 years after his death, Haussmann's transformation of the French capital into the City of Lights sparks controversy – was he an ingenious planner or an imperialist vandal?

Regardless of where you sit on that argument, it is widely accepted that the Paris that previously existed was meticulously documented on paper for future generations.

This is not so much the case with Egypt. The old is often recklessly torn down to make room for the new without thought of documentation. Renovations are carried out with little interest of preserving original intent and design.

This picture taken on January 29, 2019 shows a view of St Mark's Cathedral, at the Coptic Orthodox Church's headquarters, in the capital Cairo's central Abbasiya district, during the French president's visit. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

As such, there is an impending risk the city will lose touch with its history, an added floor, repainted facade or torn-down building at a time. "A lot is demolished by the state and other forces still acting under laws and regulations put in place by the Nasser regime," Egyptian architect and researcher Mohamed Elshahed says.

"Often, the buildings in question are seen as lower in value. According to the law, a building has to be more than 100 years old to be given heritage status. The fact is, we don't know how to deal with our modern and contemporary history. So we risk losing a lot."

Part of Elshahed's book, Cairo Since 1900: An Architectural Guide, which will be released on Wednesday, January 15, is a rebuke against how we think of heritage. It explores 226 buildings from around Cairo. They are not necessarily masterpieces in the architectural sense – a category that often shapes the selection of buildings for guides such as this. They are mostly office and apartment buildings, hospitals and state institutions, and hotels like the 1982-built Shahrazad Hotel. There are also embassies, such as the Embassy of the Czech Republic, built in 1980. They are all architecturally interesting, even if not avant-garde.

SHARJAH, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 04 JANUARY 2020. Mohamed EL Shahed with his Installation that portrays his recently published book n the architecture of Cairo in Egypt. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Razmig Bedirian. Section: Arts and Culture.

The book also lists some mosques and churches, including St Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, which underwent a complete renovation in 2018 as part of its 50th anniversary. Mosaics and plaster crosses were added and the cathedral lost its original architectural intent.

Some of the buildings in the book have already been torn down or gruesomely defaced. Others – such as Zaha Hadid's Nile Tower – have never existed and are simply proposals. However, the entries give a representative sample of one of the world's largest and most densely populated cities. They all make up a part of Cairo that risks being wilfully ignored or forgotten.

The Petroleum Cooperative Society, by architect Muhammad Ramzy Omar, in 1957. Photo Al Musawwar

"If the buildings are not documented or photographed, it's like they never existed," Elshahed, who is also editor of the Cairo ­Observer, says. "The 20th century produced useful buildings, not monuments. We are not yet prepared in the Middle East to think about heritage in that environment. We think of heritage as ancient, often subscribing to outdated ideas. We want to cut it off, put it in a museum and isolate it."

While the book can be read at home on a comfy couch, it is meant to be picked up and taken around the city. Each building in the book has its GPS co-ordinates listed, along with its architects and the year it was built. There is a QR code in the book, too, which takes readers to a website that will launch with the book's release, giving a more mobile-friendly guide to the city. "The descriptions are as faithful to the original design as possible, with notes regarding major alterations or changes that have happened over the years."

SHARJAH, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 04 JANUARY 2020. Mohamed EL Shahed’s recently published book on the architecture of Cairo in Egypt. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Razmig Bedirian. Section: Arts and Culture.

The idea for the book came in 2015, when Elshahed was approached by the ­American University in Cairo Press. Initially, they proposed a guide of two areas in the city: Downtown Cairo and Zamalek, an upper-class neighbourhood on an island in the Nile. ­Elshahed says those two areas have already received relatively more attention than other parts of the city, so he proposed a citywide guide instead. "While my work has focused on Modernism in Egypt, a lot of it also tries to move out of the boxes we've created for ourselves," he says. "Including geographical boxes. There's no reason to focus just on those two areas."

Elshahed assembled a team of volunteers, who went around the city, surveying districts, taking photographs and identifying buildings. A list of 600 structures was compiled. "That number was then whittled down based on which of the buildings we could identify. It is difficult to talk about a building if you don't have the names of its architects or patrons, and the year it was built. It becomes speculation."

There were also challenges with compiling the photographs for the book. While Egypt is constantly on the list of top tourist destinations, taking photographs in public areas can be difficult. "It's a bit of an ambiguous grey zone," Elshahed says. "Almost each one of the 15 volunteers was stopped by security forces as they were photographing buildings. We had to be very discreet. That, along with the fact most of the buildings have been subject to visible pollution like signage and repainted facades, made it hard to take a good picture."

A demolished villa designed by architect Charles Ayrout, pictured in 1933. Photo Al Emara

Elshahed finally decided on printing black and white photographs of the buildings in an effort to make the book more cohesive in style and substance. Some of the images also came from magazines – such as Al Emara, which was one of the main sources for Elshahed's book – and postcards. None came from the national archive in Cairo. Even Elshahed, who can be seen as one of the most specialised researchers of modern architecture in Cairo, has difficulty accessing the archive.

"It's pretty much inaccessible. You have to get permission to go in and do research, and even then there's a limit on how many documents you can look at per day. Things are not where they are supposed to be. You can't take pictures of documents with your phone. When you have a situation where the official archive is inaccessible and people cannot make their alternative archives to document their environment, it's a recipe for disaster," he says, adding that it makes it difficult for current generations to have a sense of history and place. The book will be part of the Cairo Modern book exhibition at the New York Centre for Architecture, held from March 26 to July 11.

SHARJAH, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 04 JANUARY 2020. Mohamed EL Shahed’s installation that portrays his recently published book on the architecture of Cairo in Egypt. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Razmig Bedirian. Section: Arts and Culture.

Elshahed is currently in the UAE with an installation on display as part of the Sharjah Architecture Triennial. The work expands on the topic of the book and is housed in one of the classrooms at the old Al Qasimiya Private School. A picture of former president of Egypt Gamal Abdel Nasser hangs over the blackboard. It looks down at a few downtrodden desks, a symbol of the state and its place in the classroom. Red tape runs along the floor, demarcating a lion's share of the classroom. It is meant to signify the size of a classroom in one of the 4,000 schools built during Nasser's reign. It is difficult to imagine 42 students sitting comfortably in the area within the red tape, as was standard. But Elshahed says classes would accommodate much more in reality. "Some would have 56 students in it."

The installation, New School / Future Egyptians, which was set up with researcher Farida Makar, uses historical documents to explore the transformations in the education sector that took place under the Nasser regime. The School Premises State Foundation was established with the purpose of building 400 schools annually across Egypt. To achieve this target, the foundation commissioned the design of a dozen prototypes to be used as a model. The architects' views often collided with those of teachers, as their child-­centred learning approaches were not attainable with the rigid designs.

Most of these academic buildings have become debris as a result of cost reduction during the building phase and a lack of maintenance over the past four decades. The 1992 earthquake in Egypt brought down the last of the schools. New ones were built in their place, but they still followed the architectural approaches of the Nasser era. "For the state, this was a project that had political currency," Elshahed says. "The idea was to sell the notion of a new age, a postcolonial age. The state would often use this kind of language to promote its agenda. In reality, it was more of a publicity stunt."

Elshahed says he knew what he wanted to present at the Sharjah Architecture Triennial when he knew that the school was one of its venues. Part of his PhD studies at New York University focused on the state's centralisation of architecture, particularly of schools. Elshahed is set to teach a class on curating architecture and material culture later this month as part of a practitioner in residence programme at the Kevorkian Centre for Near Eastern Studies.