In a few days’ time a group of urban planners and designers will be going through the final entries in a competition to find the best design for a café by the sea in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria.
“The Human and the City”, an Alexandria-based research centre, set up the competition with the aim of promoting ideas for designs compatible with port cities.
“We understand that there is a growing trend to build cafés by the sea. What we hope for is that if we have to build cafés on the beaches they will be to the best designs that are compatible with the beaches and will not block the view of the sea for pedestrians walking along the Corniche,” said Kholoud Said, a member of the centre.
Said said that the initiative was only “one step in a much larger scheme that we are going to embrace to raise awareness of the need for inhabitants and visitors to this city to always remember that they are in a port city. In every port city, one needs to be able to see the sea.”
“The Human and the City” was established by a group of young Alexandrians who have volunteered their time and efforts to come together to raise awareness of the “threatened beauty of the city of Alexandria”.
“The sea is an integral part of this beauty, and the image of the people on the beach or walking on the Corniche is something central to the identity of Alexandria,” Said said.
Late last month, the centre held a two-week photographic exhibition in the Alexandria art zone of Bysaria for Arts entitled “Time Machine: Then and Now”. The exhibition featured non-professional photographs taken over recent decades by families frequenting the Alexandria beaches over the summer months.
There were in black and white, coloured Polaroids, and prints of smart phone photographs. “The point was to show the evolution of the beaches of Alexandria and the people who have frequented them. Before the North Coast mania, the beaches of Alexandria used to be beautiful and large enough for people to enjoy themselves,” Said said.
Herself in her early 30s, Said remembers well the days when “almost every family in Alexandria would spend a simple swimming and sunbathing afternoon on the public beaches.” Said along with her parents and siblings would carry a simple lunch box, a sunshade, and a few chairs to the beach and spend a lazy afternoon or a whole weekend day there.
Today, Said would not even be able to place her sunshade and chairs, however. “They must be stored somewhere in the house, but this practice is something from the past,” she said. “It was nice, however, to recall some glimpses of this time that has been almost eliminated over the past decade or so as the beaches have been taken over by concrete buildings and cafés,” Said said.
She agreed that “perhaps” part of the reason the cafés have taken over the beaches is the increasing demand for them from families whose women have abandoned the pleasures of swimming and sunbathing and opted for conservative clothes instead. The creation of the summer holiday resorts along the North Coast is “perhaps another factor,” she said, given that most of those who opt to spend their summer holidays in Alexandria are more interested in finding a café where they can sit rather than go swimming.
“This might be true, and we would need to look at the socio-economic issues behind it, but there is still no such thing as a port city where it is challenging to get a glimpse of the sea,” she said.
THE CITY AND THE SEA
According to Sherif Farag, an architect and designer, the challenge facing Alexandria today is not just the erosion of the beaches, or construction near the sea to allow for concrete blocks that serve as cafés.
The style of the modern architecture is equally problematic, he said. “I am not just talking about the heights that are now practically blocking the view of the sea, except for those apartment buildings constructed right across from the beaches. I am talking about the designs of many of the new buildings that are built across Alexandria, both new and to replace demolished old buildings,” Farag said.
A great many of these buildings fall short on the basic aesthetic requirements for construction in port cities, he said. To attend to this problem, Farag has decided to allocate part of his time and efforts to help students of architecture in Alexandria to acquire some of the necessary skills to do their jobs better. His architectural and design bureau has allowed for the training of 50 upcoming graduates of architecture and urban-planning departments, helping them to acquire the skills and for that matter the taste to design buildings in Alexandria.
Farag takes the students around the city to observe and then asks them to select a possible spot that would be eligible for the construction of a public building or an apartment building in a way that would make it modern, beautiful, compatible with a port city, and fitting a reasonable budget.“It is about acquiring what it takes to give space to your imagination. It is also about having a feel for what the city is about,” Farag said.
Alexandria, Farag added, is a city with a long history “that goes back way before the cosmopolitan era, which was never really about all of the city anyway, that fascinates many people. And whatever an architect or an urban planner does in the city, they need to be very careful not to fall into Dubai-sation, not because we like or dislike what Dubai is, but because Alexandria is a port city with a history of thousands of years and not a city built in the desert. It is all about identity,” he stressed.
Ahmed Kadri, a young architect and designer, is working on a volunteer project to document the architectural heritage of a prominent Alexandria neighbourhood living through and beyond the demolitions that are now taking place.
“This is what a photograph album, for example, would do: we look at it and we learn about the lifestyle of those past years. This is what photographic documentation is ultimately all about, and this is why we are trying to document what is left of the once thriving neighbourhood of Kafr Abdou,” Kadri said.
In his early 20s and a graduate of the architecture department at Alexandria University, Kadri joined a design business that operates from Kafr Abdou. He had often thought that this neighbourhood had beautiful architecture that did not receive adequate attention from the conservation campaigns that have for over a decade worked to protect the architectural heritage of the coastal city. “Being at the heart of the neighbourhood every day for work prompted an urge for action,” he said.
It was clear, Kadri said, that Kafr Abdou was losing its architectural heritage “just like the rest of Alexandria.” It was also clear, he added, that there was not much that could realistically be done to stop the destruction of the beautiful villas built in this neighbourhood in the early decades of the 20th century.
Kafr Abdou is part of a larger neighbourhood known as Abul-Nawatir. It was originally a zone for the British military presence in Alexandria and was later turned into an up-scale residential area. The main street that now carries the name of Kafr Abdou originally carried the name of Lord Allenby who headed the British expeditionary force in Egypt in 1917 and whose name is associated with the repression of national protests.
After the ouster of the monarchy in Egypt in 1952, the name of the street was changed to carry the name of Kafr Abdou, originally a neighbourhood in Suez that was subject to British atrocities that almost destroyed it after forcing the eviction of the residents. Like the original Kafr Abdou in Suez, the Kafr Abdou of Alexandria has been suffering what Kadri qualifies as the erosion of its original lifestyle.
“This was originally a neighbourhood, or part of a neighbourhood, where villas were the norm. There were of course some apartment buildings, but those were not at all high-rise and they were all built to high aesthetic standards. Now this is all being lost, unfortunately,” Kadri said.
“There are a few buildings that might survive the demolitions because they are on the list of architectural heritage that was put together in 2007, but even this is not enough of a guarantee that they will not be knocked down,” he added.
It was this fear of losing what still stands as testimony of the history of the neighbourhood that prompted Kadri and a group of other young architects and photographers to start documenting the life of this Alexandrian quarter.
“There were lots of initiatives to document the architectural heritage of the city, but those were essentially focused on downtown Alexandria, which has also suffered a huge loss of its architectural heritage. Nothing had been done before to document Kafr Abdou,” Kadri said.
“Yet, Kafr Abdou is fast losing its treasures because when we first started to make a map of what we were going to document it was in March this year. By June, already two villas were totally lost, and I am sure we will see some high-rise residential buildings coming in their place,” he added.
“We have to face it: in a few years from now, only a very few buildings of this neighbourhood will still be there simply because there is an increasing demand for housing and a declining interest in the architectural heritage,” he said.
“The gentrification that is happening in the neighbourhood, as some buildings are turned into restaurants or art centres, might keep a semblance of what the neighbourhood was, but we are still talking about a significant change in this once upscale residential area,” he argued.
Kadri and the group that calls itself the Kafr Abdou Cataloguing Team are planning to finish their work before the end of the year. “The cataloguing we are doing is not just about a set of photographs of the streets of the neighbourhood, but also a set of maps and a history of its evolution,” Kadri explained.
Ultimately, he argued, it might be essential to real-estate developers and entertainment industry entrepreneurs, who will benefit from the catalogue in the short run to decide on the selection of venues for new projects. But in the long run, it will document the history of the area of Kafr Abdou.
SKETCHES AND RENOVATIONS
In a more ambitious and time-consuming venture, architect Mohamed Gohar has for close to five years been drawing the fast-disappearing architectural heritage of Alexandria, particularly in the downtown area.
According to Gohar, his “Description of Alexandria” is a “cultural and artistic documentation study seeking to document the heritage of the city and its architectural and cultural memories, presenting a true image of today’s Alexandria and the recollections of the past. It also seeks to enhance the engagement of the society in preserving that legacy through long-term awareness.”
Gohar explained that based on first-hand oral investigations and extensive field surveys of sites and buildings, the sketches and other materials will be presented in a book that will include a systematic documentation of the city by describing every building and site recorded on a map.
Gohar is not sure how much will be left of the buildings he is currently drawing by the time he is done, however. “I guess it all depends on what people think and feel about their city and for that matter its architecture. If there is no bond between the people and the city and for that matter the buildings, then it will become very hard to secure their support for the preservation of the architecture,” he said.
Gohar is convinced that for future generations it will appear that the history of the city, or for that matter its identity, will just be the point they are in. His documentation, he hopes, will recall the longer history. However, no matter the volume of support, some buildings are bound to be lost for a whole variety of reasons ranging from the financial ambitions of some to the development needs of a small city with a growing population or simply bad conservation measures and poor awareness of the value of the architectural heritage.
In 2007, fewer than 300 buildings were registered on Alexandria’s first list of architectural heritage. The list was controversial, given the arguments that some made in favour of including more buildings or of giving priority to some buildings rather than others. But some of the buildings on the list still stand as threatened.
To cut the losses of the architectural heritage that have hit Alexandria hard during the past decade, SIGMA, a company with a portfolio varying from construction to petrochemicals, has chosen to act to give a new lease of life to some of the most remarkable buildings in the downtown area, what is largely known as the heart of cosmopolitan Alexandria.
“We are not just focused on downtown, because there are very interesting buildings away from the downtown area, but we mostly work on downtown,” said Mustafa Abul-Ela, an architect at SIGMA.
According to Abul-Ela, it was in 2008 that the company started its campaign to buy, renovate, and re-launch some of the city’s architectural gems “that are really an integral part of the identity of Alexandria.” Over the past decade, SIGMA has re-opened three buildings that have been partially turned into luxury studio apartments for rent, office spaces for high-scale companies, and cafes and restaurants for Alexandria’s upscale clientele.
“In a way, we think we did more than save a few beautiful buildings. We are also saving the identity of downtown that used to be a hub for dining and entertainment,” Abul-Ela argued.
The state of the economy of the city is crucial to the continuation of the SIGMA project because the more the economy grows the bigger the possibility for the company to launch renovated buildings for residential and commercial services.
However, Abul-Ela insists that the preservation of the identity of a city like Alexandria goes well beyond the capacity of a few buildings or a few books or exhibitions. He finds all initiatives necessary, but he insists that what the city really needs is modern and efficient management that will include the concerned government authorities along with non-governmental bodies and experts.
“What we need is to have a vision for the future of this city, a vision that is designed to keep its identity,” Abul-Ela said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: History, the city and the sea