Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 August 2010
Issue No. 1012
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Memories of Baron Empain

Painstakingly restored, the Villa Empain, Brussels residence of the Empain family, has been turned into a centre for dialogue between east and west, writes David Tresilian

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Before rushing to Brussels to see the Villa Empain, a Centre for Art and Dialogue between East and West that has recently opened in a villa formerly belonging to the family of the Belgian industrialist Baron Empain, it is as well to be aware that the Empain in question is not Edouard Empain, builder of the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis at the beginning of the last century, but his son Louis.

While there are certainly memories of Heliopolis to be found throughout the newly restored villa, property of the Boghossian Foundation, a private concern set up by a family of Lebanese-Armenian jewelers, these may not be enough to attract visitors interested in the planning and development of the Cairo suburb.

On the other hand, a visit to the Villa Empain does throw additional light on the fortunes of the Empain family, aside from the achievements of the first Baron Empain in Egypt and elsewhere probably best known for the kidnapping of the third baron, his grandson, in Paris in the late 1970s and his subsequent sequestration pending payment of a ransom.

This tragic turn of events, one of the great celebrity kidnappings of the last century, has tended to overshadow even the memory of the first baron, let alone that of Empain's son, Louis, who did not follow in his father's footsteps. Instead, Louis Empain seems to have been a patron of the arts, and visitors to his Brussels villa today, designed in art nouveau style in the early 1930s, are plunged back into the atmosphere of the time, helped by the exquisite restoration work that has been carried out on the previously derelict building and its period features.

It is all rather like being taken onto the set of a Noel Coward play, the two-storey villa, its rooms arranged around a central reception area bathed in overhead natural light, being ideally suited for the kind of gatherings imagined in Coward's frothy plays. How well it all works as a Centre for Art and Dialogue remains to be seen. As an exhibition space, the villa works perhaps surprisingly well, given that the original architect's remit was to design a house for living in, though Louis Empain does not in fact seem to have spent much time there.

The rooms are large and inter-connecting, and all of them benefit from ample natural light. From the Centre's first exhibition, Path of Elegance between East and West, it is impossible to say how the institution will develop, though perhaps the signs are not all good. Will the Villa Empain fulfill its function as an institution that will "create and promote a real dialogue between the East and the West," as the publicity material puts it, taking in a range of cultural, artistic, educational and scientific activities?

On the basis of a first visit, it seems not impossible. But what stands out is the quality of the restoration work carried out on this 1930s Brussels villa.

ENTERING THE VILLA, a first room on the right-hand side contains period photographs of the Empain family, including photographs of Heliopolis and the Baron's Palace, an Indian- style folly that Edouard Empain had built in the centre of the new development, its derelict hulk easily visible today as one takes the road from the airport to the centre of Cairo.

While this history, unrelated to the villa's first or present owners, is not referred to in the exhibition that follows, it seems that the Empain name is still above all linked in Europe to Cairo and the Arab world, at least in the popular imagination. The Centre's gift shop is full of Heliopolis-related materials, along with picture postcard reproductions of the district's landmark buildings, among them the Byzantine-style basilica, built in reinforced concrete in 1913, in which Edouard Empain himself is buried.

Since the publication of French academic Robert Ilbert's pioneering research into the early history of Heliopolis, published in 1981 as Héliopolis: Le Caire, 1905-1922: genèse d'une ville, the story of this in some ways quite unlikely orientalist-style development has been much returned to, not least by architects Agnieszka Dobrowolska and Jaroslaw Dobrowolski in a 2006 study and, most recently, by a team of mostly European contributors to a sumptuously produced volume, Héliopolis, edited by Marie-Cécile Bruwier and Anne Van Loo, that includes prefaces by Mrs Suzanne Mubarak and head of the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation Zahi Hawass.

Heliopolis, in fact, has sometimes been seen as an expression of the sort of dialogue, perhaps cooperation would be a better word, between east and west that the new Brussels Centre seeks to encourage, its orientalist decoration and resolutely up-to-the-minute building techniques, adapted from garden- city style housing developments in Europe and the United States, bringing together style and substance to produce what was considered at the time to be the last word in modern living.

While it is of course quite possible to be nonplussed by the cod historicism of the suburb's architecture, much of it consisting of standard European-style apartment buildings built in brick with reinforced concrete structural elements, but disguised behind a plaster façade of the Mamluk-style mouldings, functionless minarets and fantastic towers and domes familiar from 19th-century international exhibitions, it is also possible to feel a certain fondness for the resulting "oriental" atmosphere.

As Ilbert explained in his 1981 study, Heliopolis was the result of Edouard Empain's desire to build a new city in the desert that would respond to the demand for housing generated by the Cairo real-estate boom of the time -- the districts of Maadi, Zamalek and Garden City were developed during much the same period -- while simultaneously tempering the developer's wish to make money with non-utilitarian elements of scarcely restrained fantasy.

For Ilbert, the functionless minarets and domes decorating the buildings on the Boulevard Abbas, now Ibrahim al-Laqqani Street, give visitors "the impression they are wandering through an exhibition ground." It is as if, he says, "the architect had got hold of a textbook on Arab art and lifted out a set of motifs." The buildings' mixture of styles and forms "accentuates the 'baroque' aspect of the facades, making their parody of Arab art somewhat more bearable."

For art historian Lilian Karnouk in her book Modern Egyptian Art, "the neo-Moorish style adopted in Heliopolis originates in a taste for Islamic decorative arts and grandiose scenographic effects, introduced into Egypt by European colonialists and orientalists. It does not represent any extension or reveal any understanding of traditional architecture in Egypt [and] domes and arches are added for purely ornamental effect and serve no other function."

All true, of course, though extravagant decoration and grandiose scenography were by no means the monopoly of colonialists and orientalists. Visitors to Brussels today, for example, perhaps on their way to the Villa Empain, cannot fail to notice the city's late nineteenth-century Palais du Justice, a grotesque pile of masonry that raises the period's quest for solidity and confidence into a historicising fantasy of epic proportions, rather like the banking and other commercial buildings springing up across the continent at the time.

Having made a fortune building transport networks in cities across Europe, invested in electrical power plants, and built the railway lines in Belgian king Leopold II's notorious private colony in the Congo, Empain may have wanted to indulge in a project that, while being less obviously lucrative than some of those he had previously been involved in, could bring his imagination more fully into play.

Like his famous French contemporary Gustave Eiffel, he was a self-made man who had successfully built an empire on the back of the huge, often colonial, construction contracts that were then available to European engineering firms. Perhaps, when Empain started to spend several months a year in Egypt from the early years of the century onwards, he was looking for a backdrop onto which he could project dreams that for economic and other reasons were unrealisable elsewhere.

Certainly Ilbert, reviewing Empain's motivation for building his city in the desert, a "sort of Brooklyn -- either a colossal success or a complete disaster --" indicates that he micromanaged the project from the start and was unwilling to let details escape him. He wanted to realise a grandiose dream, Ilbert says, but his attitude was always a strictly pragmatic and business-like one, "contrasting with the marvelous designs, never built, of many theoreticians of urban planning."

The development of Heliopolis was supposed to make money, among other things, and the district boasts no major works of architecture. We are a long way from the visionary work of Gropius or Le Corbusier, further still from Lutyens's reinterpretation of traditional Indian architecture in New Delhi. Empain employed mediocre architects, and costs were an abiding concern. Paying the tiny amount of LE1 per feddan for originally 5,952 feddans of desert land beyond Cairo's then limits in Abbassiyyah, the company Empain set up with Egyptian partner Boghos Nubar Pasha was awarded the transportation concession to the new district, as well as a monopoly on utilities.

The risks would certainly have still been great, Ilbert says, but the "Cairo Electric Railways and Heliopolis Oases Company" project, starting as "a simple matter of real-estate speculation, [nevertheless] ended up by becoming a complete city." Vast amounts of capital had to be raised, most of it from large investors, to complete the infrastructure, with the company only becoming profitable, if it did so at all for some who invested, once the transport system had been built, the street plan laid out, landmark buildings constructed and electricity, water and sewerage supplied.

Yet, by1909, only a few years after the land was purchased and contracts signed, there were already 29 kilometres of streets and avenues, 168 buildings, including two hotels, followed a year later by a race course and Luna Park amusements area, all despite an early financial crisis that left the company gasping.

One of the district's new hotels, the Heliopolis Palace, was apparently the largest in the world when it was built in 1908/ 09, having 400 rooms, an imposing 30-metre-high lobby with 11-metre reinforced-concrete dome, and elevators able to carry 20 people. "More like Versailles than an Ottoman palace" in its design and floor-plan, in Ilbert's words, despite the outsize neo-Mamluk façade, the building was later converted into the seat of the Egyptian presidency.

FOR ANYONE FAMILIAR with Heliopolis today, the history of its foundation and development makes a fascinating story, bringing together an almost irresistible cast of characters and a set of intriguing themes, including that of the dialogue between east and west highlighted at the Villa Empain.

In addition to Empain himself, an extraordinarily driven man, there were the architects Ernest Jasper and Alexandre Marcel, responsible for the district's neo-Moorish style and the designers of its landmark buildings, as well as, in Marcel's case, of the Baron's Indian palace, a mass of elaborately sculpted cladding set around a comparatively modest two-storey villa core, and the Byzantine basilica.

This material would make a marvelous exhibition and one relevant to the Villa Empain's aims. Where better to hold an exhibition on the construction of Heliopolis than at an Empain family villa, now converted into a centre for dialogue between east and west?

However, for its opening show the Villa Empain has chosen not to take this path, and its first show, Path of Elegance between East and West, has a different content. While the exhibition brings together some interesting individual pieces, some of them drawn from the Boghossian collection, some from private and corporate collections and some from public museums, the range is rather wide -- east seems to mean anywhere east of Suez, including China and Japan -- and older pieces are mixed with modern and contemporary according to unexplained criteria.

Moreover, "elegant," for the purposes of this exhibition, seems to mean "very expensive," or at least this is the only clearly unifying factor, for example among the items brought together in one of the villa's upper rooms.

This contains a set of 1920s art deco broaches, a group of the tiny evening bags one associates with twenties flappers, done and lent by the jewelers Cartier, a tobacco box presented to Nubar Pasha by French emperor Napoleon III in 1870, presumably one of his final gifts, and a jewel-encrusted fly-swat, given the rather superior-sounding French name of a chasse- mouche, but still a tool for swatting flies, that once belonged to former Egyptian monarch king Farouk.

Wandering through the show, it is hard not to regret that the Centre has apparently not been able to put on a more challenging exhibition.

According to Ilbert, writing in 1981, one of the difficulties of reconstructing the history of Empain's Heliopolis lay in the inaccessibility of the Belgian company's records. He had to make do with the incomplete records kept by the nationalised Egyptian company instead, making it impossible to reach firm conclusions regarding the company's financial structure and how much money it was able to pay out to investors -- important questions when considering Egypt under British occupation and the role played in the colonial economy by foreign capital.

The Villa Empain would be ideally placed to revisit this history, and if it were able to use the Belgian archives it could put on a genuinely revelatory show.

Villa Empain, avenue Franklin Roosevelt 67, Brussels.

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