A journey through Downtown stories

Menna H Ashour , Tuesday 5 Mar 2024

Architect Menna H. Ashour visits the renovated architectural heritage of Downtown Cairo with its bustling streets, culture, and community during the Cairo Design Week

The "Get to Wander" experience at La Viennoise court. Photos: Nora Koloyan


From 23 February to 2 March, Egypt’s leading design platform the Cairo Design Week (CDW) transformed parts of the capital into a bustling creative hub celebrating art, design, and cultural heritage. 

The CDW, now in its second edition, extended across the city’s major design districts including Heliopolis, the historic Citadel, and Downtown, with additional design pockets in Zamalek and Maadi. 

The Design Week connected people and places through city walks, brand activations, fashion and photography exhibitions, panels, and workshops, as well as immersive social and cultural experiences fostering knowledge exchange, learning, public engagement, and dynamic community. 

It bridged gaps between enthusiasts and professionals while showcasing and nurturing emerging talent and emphasising the important role of soft power in activating and rejuvenating heritage as well as culture and identity.

The Downtown Design district immersed visitors and participants alike in a journey of discovery into the area’s architecture, people, culture, community, history, heritage and urban landscape through creative eyes and with a fresh contemporary twist. It was a fusion of architecture, art, fashion, passion, culture, and human connections, creating an inspiring cosmopolitan flair to match the identity and culture of Downtown.  

The district includes many iconic venues and recently renovated Downtown buildings including the Tamara building, the La Viennoise Court, the Consoleya, the Radio  Cinema and Theatre, the AUC Tahrir Campus, and the Kodak Passage.

“Downtown offers an urban experience that is lacking in suburban developments and gated communities, a very dynamic and contemporary city centre that is full of innovation, energy, and diversity and welcomes people from all walks of life,” said Karim Al-Shafei, CEO and chairman of Al-Ismaelia for Real Estate Investment and the mastermind behind Downtown Cairo’s rehabilitation.

“A destination for city and cultural tourism for visitors to see and experience contemporary Egyptian culture,” he added. According to Al-Shafei, the partnership with CDW came naturally. “We have always supported the art and cultural scene in Cairo as well as supporting various initiatives and events, it promotes diversity and attracts visitors from all socio-economic segments,” Al-Shafei said.

The CDW is an ongoing project that does not only revolve around one week per year but is also a platform for the design industry. “Our project in collaboration with Alchemy in the Tamara building is creating a space for designers and the design community to collaborate all year round,” Al-Shafei said. 

Al-Ismaelia has partnered with the Alchemy Experience led by Karim Mekhtigian, Mohamed Fares, and their partner Eman Hussein, to turn the iconic Tamara building into Tamara Haus, a design address in the heart of Cairo. The building stands as a testament to Downtown’s architectural splendour. It has been restored to become a destination point and revive the lively spirit and faded historic magnificence of Downtown Cairo.

Tamara Haus hosted the Alchemy Experience during the CDW and is meant to be home to the design community in Egypt more generally, corroborating design through retail, hospitality, food and beverages, and renowned Egyptian design houses. It will also be hosting hotel suites and a rooftop restaurant.

“We want to highlight the stories and the heritage of Downtown,” said Mekhtigian, founder of the Alchemy Design Studio. “The aim of the Tamara Haus is to create a destination or a creative hub in Downtown Cairo having an amalgamation of different creative industries, fashion, design, and hospitality.”

According to Mekhtigian, the purpose is to create a cultural lifestyle through encouraging real culture, not only surface-level cultural life.

“Creating a place that reflects the cultural diversity of Cairo Downtown with all its layers with a new contemporary key was the idea,” he said.

As part of the CDW, Consoleya and AUC Tahrir hosted the Cairo Designathon, while the Radio Theatre hosted the DeForum, or the Egyptian Design Forum. “The CDW is the ultimate design event in Egypt, and it furthers the aims and purposes of showcasing the Egyptian design ecosystem and puts it on the global scene,” said Mohamed Radwan, founder of the Cairo Designathon.

“The Cairo Designathon is a design marathon for designers to collaborate together on designing innovative solutions to the social problems that face communities both locally and globally. It aims to generate positive social impacts through good design, collaboration and innovation,” Radwan said.

The Cairo Designathon challenges designers to solve complex problems in innovative ways. “It generates design solutions to some of society’s most pressing issues and aims to shed light on the capabilities and creativity of Egyptian designers, while simultaneously providing solutions for Egypt’s pressing challenges, he added, saying that it also creates opportunities for designers to get exposure and recognition both locally and internationally.

Throughout the week, Cairo Designathon hosted six design challenges, spanning architecture, interior design, furniture, visual communication, fashion design, and a product design challenge by El-Araby Group. The event concluded with a jury announcing six winning teams.

DeForum is Egypt’s largest design event, offering a platform for designers to share knowledge, exchange ideas, and discuss design industry topics through talks and discussion panels. 

During the CDW, the La Viennoise Court hosted the “Get to Wander” event by commercial developer Wander. It's an immersive social experience inviting attendees to wander through a journey that infused suburban vibes into the newly renovated building, challenging preconceived notions and fostering connections. The experience was basically a re-imagination of the good old “summer cinema” days of Cairo with all possible entertainment around it, blending design, innovation and community building.

The Factory hosted the Design district exhibition, while the Warehouse hosted the showcase by Bazarna, where brands could tell their stories celebrating fashion design and entrepreneurship.

Last but not least, the Kodak Passage hosted Studio 34, Designdustry and Cairo’s Woodworking Workshop, activating a series of hands-on courses, and engaging session exploring learning and public engagement.

The whole of the CDW was a journey through a Downtown area rich in culture, social diversity, and architectural heritage, where the lines between space and time blur, blending Egyptian identity with contemporary lifestyles, historic buildings, area history, culture and people.

It took visitors on an inspiring experience of diverse stories and artful reverie. It was like travelling in your own country while creating connections with people, places, and community.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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