Through the looking glass
Heliopolis is more than a suburb of Cairo, argues architect Adel Mokhtar. It is rather an embodiment of the city's past, its present and future
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Adel Mokhtar; The Baron's Palace lit up at night; the Basilica Church; children's artwork on Baghdad Street as part of the month's festivities; many of the neighbourhood's buildings have recieved a face-lift in preparation for the centenary; innovative design
From an oasis in the desert to a unique residential suburb, Heliopolis
should be seen by contemporary architects as a model of urban development.
Looking closely at the Belgian Baron Empain's 100-year-old plans,
one has a sense of what it means to invest in a dream, a dream that,
resting on solid foundations, soars through a far-reaching vision. A
century into its life, Heliopolis is no longer a small, luxurious suburb
occupied by foreigners and the well-off: it has expanded sufficiently
to take in part of the growth of the metropolis; and rather than its
basic design, it is the layers of architecture it accumulated in the
process that make it worthy of interest. Baron Empain was no simple
investor, he was rather a true developer, an innovator who made history;
and it is precisely such an orientation that present-day investors in
Egypt require. He brought to the project some 70 architects from all
over Europe and LE6 million in capital, a sum equal to Egypt's entire
state budget at the time, and the result, at this initial stage, was
an amalgam of classic, Islamic and Coptic architecture, three elements
seamlessly blended in the design of the Basilica Church, for example.
Khedive Ismail's attempts to enhance the suburbs were influenced by
European styles, specifically French architecture. This is why downtown
Cairo's squares look very like the Parisian models that inspired them.
Heliopolis, by contrast, preserves Egyptian concepts of architecture;
and as such it embodies a far deeper concept of development. Empain's
approach, which quickly attracted foreigners and Egyptians, extended
to the streets, the sunny sides of which were flanked by arches to protect
pedestrians from the searing rays. Likewise, to make the change of perspective
more attractive by limiting it to one vista at a time, the streets were
designed in curves. Empain thus integrated small, hardly obvious details
without which the experience of the neighbourhood would nonetheless
be far less distinctive. It was urban development at its architectural
The Heliopolis centenary is an opportunity for examining those areas
of Egypt that require architectural thinking. The design of Heliopolis
forces the architect to examine broader issues of urban development.
It reveals how, for example, because construction preceded vision in
the new satellite cities built around Cairo, many of the sites are chaotic
and aesthetically unattractive. At an even more basic level, the Heliopolis
design takes into account the fact that the normal growth rate for a
city is 25 years, whereas current efforts, while failing to make provisions
for transportation and other amenities that could draw residents away
from the city centre, ludicrously expect the newly developed areas to
grow in five or six years.
It may be surprising that the suburbs growing around Heliopolis, like
Nasr City and Al-Nozha Al-Gadida, have tended to lack taste, but it
only goes to show what happens when a neighbourhood (Nasr City in this
case) is built according to political rather than architectural principles.
Likewise those who were given permits to build subsequent to the 1960s,
when the latter neighbourhood emerged, were not required to adhere to
the architectural codes governing Heliopolis, with the result that we
have had to deal with all manner of visual pollution.
It's a vicious circle. When children grow up in places that lack any
semblance of design, you can't expect them to have a sense of architecture
as adults. It is said architecture is the mother of all arts. The more
people learn about it the more interest they have in the arts. Sadly,
in contrast to Heliopolis, the new cities have no architectural identity.
As individualism triumphs in our society, people give up on any sense
of belonging; they pursue their personal happiness, forgetting that
it incorporates collective aspects of life. The state has a role to
play through revising existing laws and firmly executing viable ones.
But ultimately development is in the hands of the people and Heliopolis
opens the door to taking initiative.
Based on an interview by Dena Rashed