A newly published guidebook on Cairo’s architecture since 1900

David Tresilian , Tuesday 9 Jun 2020

A new book is an essential guide for anyone interested in Cairo’s modern architecture, writes David Tresilian

Cairo’s architecture since 1900
Cairo’s architecture since 1900

Cairo is not the only city to have had problems protecting and preserving its modern architecture. Other cities have had too, with common problems being not only the cost of renovating modern buildings that may not conform to contemporary building codes but also finding new uses that can help to ensure their preservation.

Older heritage buildings can often be protected by refunctioning them as tourist destinations. Nobody would suggest neglecting the Louvre in Paris even though it lost its original function as a royal palace several centuries ago as the building now more than earns its keep as a world-class cultural destination.

But what to do with later buildings can be a more difficult question. Not only is their range far wider, including everything from commercial and residential buildings to office blocks, factories, and railway stations, but the adaptive reuse of such buildings for contemporary purposes, the best guarantee of their conservation, can be far more of a challenge. For every former royal palace that can be turned into an art museum, there are dozens of less grand, but still significant, buildings that may not have obvious contemporary uses.

Such buildings may also not be significant enough in themselves to warrant conservation – not every historical building is a masterpiece – but they may be important as examples of the architecture of the time in which they were built. Taken together, they may create ensembles or entire districts that are greater than the sum of their parts. Imagine London without its terraced housing or Paris without its apartment buildings. The loss of one would not be a disaster, but it could damage the architectural and aesthetic coherence of an entire district.

In Cairo, as architect Mohamed Elshahed notes in his Cairo since 1900, an Architectural Guide, a newly published guidebook to the city’s 20th-century architecture, the problem is compounded by the fact that not only have many of the city’s older buildings lost their economic rationale, and can therefore be threatened by developers, but they are also sometimes not seen as being architecturally significant at all. The ensemble of buildings around Cairo’s Tahrir Square includes at least two that many people would identify as being of historical significance, for example, in the old AUC main building and the Egyptian Museum. But there are also others that they might wish to see the back of.

It may be difficult for some to feel the same fondness for the Nile Hilton building, built in 1953-58 to designs by Egyptian architect Mahmoud Riad with the American Welton Beckett, the Arab League building, built in 1955 and also by Riad, and the gargantuan Mugamma administrative building, finished in 1951 to designs by architects Muhammad Kamal Ismail and Fahmy Momen, but Elshahed says we should. These buildings are important expressions of the architecture of the times in which they were built – in other words they are valuable whether or not anyone likes them – and they make up an architectural ensemble that would be damaged by the removal of any individual part. They are vital components of a sense of place.

Many readers of Elshahed’s book will think he is right in wanting to preserve Cairo’s threatened modern buildings, while at the same time being sceptical that such arguments on their own will necessarily save even the more favoured. They did not save Riad’s 1959 Arab Socialist Union building next to the Egyptian Museum, for example, burned during the 25 January Revolution and later demolished. This was despite the building’s technical competence, emphasised by Elshahed, and its importance as a witness to the time in which it was built. 

They have not saved many modern buildings in the rest of Cairo either, for which similar arguments might have been made, and they might not even save the Mugamma, whose future as an office building may be in doubt when government offices move to the New Administrative Capital. If this building were in London, it could have a future as a mega-hotel or set of high-end flats, rather in the way the former London Council buildings, once a warren of municipal offices, have been turned into highly desirable apartments.

Could that happen to the Mugamma or some of the other modern buildings in Cairo that Elshahed wants to see preserved? As he notes elsewhere in his book, there are plans to save at least the more economically viable buildings in the downtown district through area rejuvenation schemes and at the moment probably rather limited renovation. However, in order for their futures to be assured, more will be required than a lick of paint on the facades of these sometimes-crumbling buildings. 

New economic functions will need to be found, probably still as mixed commercial and residential buildings. But this will require not only the downtown area regaining its identity as a high-end retail and commercial district, but also people wanting to move back into an area that has suffered enormously from marginalisation.

This has taken its toll on many of the downtown area’s modern buildings, and the cost of their proper renovation and reuse will be high – almost certainly higher than the preferred option of many developers, which is to plan new-build communities outside Cairo. 

Cairo’s architecture since 1900
Cairo’s architecture since 1900

Architectural guide: In the meantime, Elshahed has performed a sterling service in putting together his guidebook, which anyone interested in Cairo’s modern architecture will immediately want to have. 

It identifies some 220 buildings from almost every Cairo district and provides descriptions and photographs of them. There are maps giving the locations of the buildings, and there is a stimulating introduction by Elshahed situating his work against the backdrop of what has sometimes been indifference to Cairo’s modern architectural heritage. This has now given way to a revival of interest among architects and academics. It is to be hoped that it will permeate more fully among decision-makers and developers.

Some of the modern buildings Elshahed considers are well known. He writes of the Immobilia building on Sherif Street, for example, that this striking example of the international style was the result of a 1937 competition, with the winning architects Max Edrei and Gaston Rossi setting out to build what at the time was a commercial and apartment building that technically was as advanced as any in the world as well as being the largest in the Middle East.

Of the twin Misr Insurance Company buildings on Talaat Harb Street he writes that these buildings, though often overlooked at street level like many of those considered in Elshahed’s book, are technically highly accomplished examples of the international style, the first being designed by Mahmoud Riad in 1950 and its opposite number across the street by Sayed Karim in 1952. The latter shows the naturalisation of this style in Egypt and its development in a characteristic building type, with retail space on the ground floor, three or four floors of office space above, topped off by further floors of apartments. 

Such buildings make up the texture of the downtown district and lend it much of its character as a mixed retail, commercial, and residential area on an originally European model, with mostly private-sector developers having pitched in during periods of economic expansion to commission sometimes fairly standard iterations of international style designs and sometimes more innovative buildings marrying common lines and materials with local needs and decorative and even structural features.

Whereas in Europe modern architects set out to use what became known as the international style with its clean facades, interplay of curved and straight lines, and use of standardised materials as an answer to the problem of how to build housing at scale in urban contexts, replacing insalubrious 19th-century slums, in Egypt the style was more likely to be directed at the upper middle classes. Buildings were built as private investments, often by insurance companies looking for ways to sink excess funds or by individuals looking for ways to place their money in assets likely to produce reliable revenue streams.   

Cairo’s modern architectural background is also punctuated by more decorative stand-out buildings, either for reasons of prestige, if they are residential and commercial buildings, or to mark some specific function if they are public ones, in which case architects drew upon established and developing types. In addition to its mixed-use commercial and residential buildings, the downtown area also includes banks, corporate headquarters, and some government buildings, with these often being placed at the end of sightlines to anchor squares or larger public spaces. 

The splendid Aziz Bahari building on Mustafa Kamel Square, built by architect Antoine Selim Nahas in response to a private commission in 1938, is a good example of the large-scale residential developments typical of the 1930s, with its apartments finished to a high standard and the building as a whole dominating the adjoining Square. 

The Assicurazioni Insurance Company building on Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat Street, built in 1939 by architect Arnold Zarb, appeared on the cover of Al-Emara, the first building magazine in the Arab world, and offered residents centralised air-conditioning as well as on-site furnaces for rubbish disposal. The Murad Wahba Pasha building on Qasr al-Nil Street, built in 1949, has 24-room “villa” apartments on the top floors and a 160-car garage in the basement, originally pulling in its owner a monthly rental income of LE7,300, a vast amount at the time.

Elshahed’s book is full of such fascinating details, and while he focuses on the buildings of the 1930s to the 1950s, he does not ignore earlier buildings built in the historicising styles popular at the beginning of the century. These include the faux Mameluke Awqaf Administration building on Muhammad Sabri Abu Allam Street, finished in 1929, and the Khedival Buildings on Emad al-Din Street built in 1911 in a monumental French Neo-Baroque / Italian Neo-Renaissance style. Among the later buildings considered is the Al-Ahram main building on Ramses Street, finished in 1968 to designs by architect Naoum Shabib.

While Elshahed’s preferences are for the buildings of the 1950s and 1960s, with French architectural historian Mercedes Volait noting in her foreword that these are “somewhat closer to his heart,” he writes dutifully even of anachronisms such as the Serageldin Palace in Garden City, now moth-eaten after years of being unmaintained. He writes enthusiastically in his introduction of the state-led architecture of the 1950s and 1960s and has harsh words to say about its collapse in the 1970s, probably a bleak decade for architecture worldwide. “Situated modernism” – the grafting of indigenous elements onto out-of-the-drawer designs – continued in the 1980s and 1990s, producing distinctive and well-finished buildings, such as the Jameel Centre building on the AUC old campus in Tahrir Square.

But postmodernism also began to cast its baleful shadow over Egyptian architecture at the end of the century, with pastiche and decorative games replacing attention to architecture’s social role. While there was not “a vibrant local critical assessment of modernism in Egypt that could produce an architecture that was consciously postmodern,” Elshahed writes, “fragmentation and facadism grew in popularity as architects and clients relied heavily on pastiche to signify wealth and status” in developments all too familiar in architecture worldwide.

Mohamed Elshahed, Cairo since 1900, an Architectural Guide, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2020, pp407



*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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