Faulty laws turn Egypt's architectural heritage from gold to dust

Ameera Fouad, Wednesday 19 Feb 2014

The loopholes in Law 144/2006, meant to safeguard Egypt's architectural heritage, continue to warrant the demolition of irreplaceable landmarks, including Alexandria's Villa Aghion

villa aghion

“Villa Aghion is now being destroyed! Will you do something?” was the cry on the Save Alexandria Campaign poster on Wednesday 5 February -- the day the antique villa in Egypt's Mediterranean city met its tragic, and fatal, destiny.

Alexandria is, in fact, losing a large number of its outstanding architectural landmarks in favour of an ever-expanding concrete jungle of tall, unattractive buildings.

Even after the city governor froze the demolition decree that had already allowed the destruction of 70 percent of Villa Aghion, Ahmed Youssef, a neighbour of the villa in the Wabour Al-Maya area, reported “We are woken every day at dawn by the deafening sounds of the power shovel knocking down the villa.” 

The ongoing massacre of heritage edifices in Alexandria is fuelled by the loopholes found in the various conflicting laws in place.

"There is always a misconception between what should be called historic buildings (Group A) and what should be called heritage buildings (Group B). In fact, such a misconception often fools even intellectuals and the press," said Ahmed Hassan, senior teaching assistant at the Faculty of Fine Arts' architecture department and one of the founders of Save Alex.

"Historic buildings (Group A) are protected by Law No 117 for the year 1983 – commonly known as 'the law for the protection of antiquities' – and this law is always safeguarded by the Ministry of State for Antiquities Affairs. 

Heritage buildings (Group B) are protected by Law No 144 for the year 2006, designed to regulate and prevent the demolition of non-ailing constructions and preserve the country's architectural heritage. The prime minister is in charge of enlisting such heritage buildings in coordination with the concerned department at the Ministry of Culture," Hassan explained. 

The 90-year-old "Villa Aghion should have therefore been protected by Law 144/2006, as it is listed in the heritage preservation inventory (Group B), which identifies and preserves the governorate's architecture heritage," Youmna Borg, an architect and member of Save Alex told Ahram Online.

Villa Gustave Aghion, built in 1922 by French architect Auguste Perret, is an architectural emblem of the first use of concrete in housing construction. In his thesis titled "The building of Auguste Perret in Alexandria" published by the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Alaa El-Habashi wrote:

"Perret paid great attention to the landscape surrounding Aghion’s villa. He provided a symmetrical design along the East-West axis, where the building, a rectangular pool, and a series of stepped loan platforms are consecutively placed. Perret’s landscape design was so much appreciated that it was published in the famous French magazine l’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui explaining the optical refinements the architect considered in modifying the proportions of the architectural and landscape elements." 

It is worthy to note here that Perret's reconstruction of Le Havre was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. His only work in Egypt's Alexandria is now almost entirely demolished due to a flagrant manipulation of available laws. 

How Villa Aghion, along with 36 others, was removed from the Group B list to allow its demolition remains unclear. However, the usual scenario goes as follows:
Since no authority, or ministry, is assigned which enforcing the preservation law, once a case is filed against the government claiming a monument not to be historical, it is usually won by means of an antiquities expert, rather than a heritage expert, simply testifying the following: "This building is not an Ancient Egyptian, Islamic or Coptic antiquity." And in fact, it isn't – yet it most certainly is heritage.

Once the building owners have won the case proving their villa "is not an antiquity," the Ministry of Housing automatically removes it from the list – which is how 37 buildings became unlisted from Group B.

According to the chapter dedicated to the Ministry of Housing in the state's official paper on 22 January (issue No 8 of 2014), 28 buildings in Alexandria have been recently removed from the city's heritage list (Group B). Such decrees, which may appear as mere legal incidents between owners and the state for a villa, deal severe blows to all parties concerned with the preservation of architecture and heritage inside of Egypt and outside.

Expressing its utmost grievance, the Consulate of France in fact issued a statement on its website to denounce the latest demolition in the plainest terms. 

"There are solutions. Instead of allowing such priceless landmarks to rot in neglect, their owners should be compensated and the government then turn the dust into gold within a framework of cultural and historical investments," said Mohamed Abul-Kheir, co-founder of the Save Alexandria initiative.

Revised laws need to be issued and applied not only to safeguard heritage buildings but even ordinary ones. People’s lives and the city's infrastructure are inevitably jeopardised by the speed and irregularity with which certain building are constructed, he added.

"Alexandrians are doing their best to preserve their heritage and we ask them to immediately report to us any suspicious activity surrounding any old building," Abul-Kheir pleaded. "We beseech the government to halt demolition decrees which will inevitably lead to Egypt's losing Alexandria for good.”

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