French consulate in Alexandria demands halt to razing of Aghion Villa: VIDEO

Ahram Online, Thursday 6 Feb 2014

Owner of historic villa, built by two prominent French architect brothers in 1927, remains defiant and insists he will turn building to 'dust', despite order from Alexandria's mayor and French consulate

The French consulate in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria has demanded an immediate halt to the demolishing of a historic villa, one of the city's oldest and most iconic architectural sites.

The demolition of Villa Aghion, built in 1927 by two famous French architects, brothers Gustave and Auguste Perret, began on Wednesday morning, despite an order from the governor of Alexandria that it be stopped.

The villa's owner Metwalli Mahmoud has remained defiant, saying that he will "send it to dust in 72 hours," Al-Ahram's Arabic news website reported.

"If it were illegal, we wouldn't have done it [in plain sight of everyone] during the day time," he told Al-Ahram, while standing next to debris from the wrecked parts of the villa.

However, the French consulate has warned that UNESCO will interfere if the dispute is not resolved. The villa is listed on the organisation's list of world heritage sites.

Mahmoud, who insisted that he has all the required demolition permits, signed by the district's officials, has described the objections as "extortion by those who claim to be cultural advocates."

Heritage activism group Save Alex has held several protests in objection to the demolishing of the villa and demanded new legislation to stop heritage abuses.

"We have already lost 70 percent of the villa; the most significant parts," Save Alex's Mohamed Abou El-Kheir told Ahram Online.

Since the court works independently and not in accordance with the National Organisation for Urban Harmony, the group responsible for maintaining Egypt's architectural heritage, similar sites are repeatedly being demolished, Abou El-Kheir added.

Thirty-five similar historic properties in Alexandria have been demolished in the last five years.

London-based newspaper Al-Hayah has reported that Villa Aghion, emblematic of Egyptian-French heritage, was deemed a historic landmark but that the owner, Mahmoud, used the country's ongoing political turmoil to his advantage, finding a legal loophole which allowed him to remove the villa from the heritage list and get demolition permits issued by court order.

Located in Wabour Al-Maya, one of Alexandria's wealthiest neighbourhoods, the private residence was completed by the Perret brothers for fellow architect Gustave Aghion between 1926 and 1927.

The building derives additional historic significance from being the first of a series of buildings erected by the Perret brothers in Alexandria and Cairo between 1927 and 1938.

The Perret brothers, prominent figures of the neo-classical architectural movement, are credited for numerous iconic buildings in Paris, including the 1913 Theatre of the Champs-Elysées.

Designed on three levels across the facades, columns and walls, with a garden and rectangular swimming pool, the villa was the first Perret brother project to use red bricks as a decorative element, a motif that has since been widely used in many other buildings inside and outside France.

A series of identical pyramidal sun breakers were designed to cast shades in the main hall, a blueprint only used in the three buildings designed by the Perret brothers in Egypt.

Up until its destruction, the villa attracted thousands of visitors each year.

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