Once the hallmark of architectural elegance and a rare example of a well-planned suburb, the Cairo district of Heliopolis is today under threat from property developers. When will the government act to save it, asks Mohamed Mursi
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Clockwise from top: Korba in 1931; the tramline, and in the background the suburb's main church, the Basilica; Baron Empain's Palace; Heliopolis Palace Hotel, now Egypt's Presidential Palace; Heliopolis buildings constructed in Arabesque style and with shaded colonnades
It's not so painful, perhaps, when a villa is pulled down in the Cairo district of Mohandessin and replaced by a high-rise. But when the same thing happens in Heliopolis, it is more distressing. Mohandessin is a new suburb, one that took shape in the 1970s with the resurgence of the luxury housing market. But Heliopolis is an older neighbourhood and an architectural treasure, and it is being ravaged.
The demolition of old villas built in the distinctive style of the beginning of the last century when Baron Edouard Empain created the suburb is nothing short of criminal, according to Mohamed Abdel-Baqi Ibrahim, a prominent architect who has recently carried out research on Heliopolis.
The architectural model on which Heliopolis was based offers a damning contrast to the random development to which we have since grown accustomed, Ibrahim says, pointing out that the suburb was built at the beginning of the 20th century to answer to the rising demand for housing in Cairo.
The story begins with Baron Empain, a Belgian investor and industrialist, who bought some 6,000 feddans of land from the Egyptian government at a price of one Egyptian pound per feddan. Empain liked the site because of its location in the desert northeast of Cairo where the air is dry and crisp.
Empain's idea was to create an attractive town, not just a dormitory suburb, and to achieve this a tramline connecting the suburb to downtown Cairo was inaugurated in December 1910. Other features of the new suburb included an amusement park at the entrance, later dubbed Grenada Town, though this park, which featured a cinema and promenade, has since disappeared and unsightly high-rise buildings now stand in its place.
A horseracing track was also built to attract the country's financial and cultural elite, and this is now the Heliopolis Merryland Park.
According to Ibrahim, the developers of Heliopolis followed the principles that inspired the creation of various Paris suburbs, where entertainment and train connections to the city centre were also built. The Heliopolis Company hired Ernest Jaspar, a Belgian architect, to design the Heliopolis Palace Hotel, now Egypt's Presidential Palace. Jaspar also designed the suburb's main church, known as the Basilica, to serve as a religious focal point. The inimitable Baron's Palace with its Indian motifs added a grandiose touch to the scheme.
However, Heliopolis was primarily meant to be a residential suburb, not a recreational resort, so the developers built ample housing for middle-income employees. The suburb was divided into two areas, with the southern section, close to the intersection of Al-Ahram and Ramses Street, being dedicated to middle and upper-middle-income housing. Curved streets were introduced into the original plan, the aim being to avoid the visual boredom of a grid pattern.
The suburb's northern section, the area surrounding Midan Al-Gamei, was originally dedicated to low-rent accommodation for workers. Green areas were also provided in public spaces as well as at the peripheries of the building plots.
Once the population of the suburb had grown, and an airport had been built to the east, further expansion was required, and Heliopolis grew into the semi-independent suburb of Cairo that we know today with several distinct residential areas. The commercial area was originally mostly around Ibrahim Al-Laqqani Street, while the horseracing track moved to the north to make way for the creation of Merryland Park.
In the suburb's various residential areas the developers provided affordable housing for different income groups, coupled with entertainment and transport facilities. They also enforced building codes to ensure that each area retained a distinctive architectural character. In the original scheme, 46 per cent of the area was dedicated to housing, eight per cent to services, five to industry, 29 to streets, and 12 to gardens.
The focus was on creating a development that had a distinctive architectural character and would have open spaces and wide streets. Arcaded promenades were attached to the sides of commercial streets, and the height of the buildings was strictly regulated. Empain personally approved the architectural blueprints and the decoration of the façades.
Private builders had to comply with regulations established by the Heliopolis Company and were asked to keep buildings under five storeys high, to a maximum height of 20 metres. The first buildings built in the suburb were those surrounding the development's core. Built in an Arabesque style and with shaded colonnades, these established a style that was later followed by private builders who bought land from the company and had to comply with regulations governing decoration, height and other details.
However, all this was 100 years ago. Today, visitors to Heliopolis are greeted by buildings of 20 storeys or more, together with nondescript shopping malls and design-challenged government buildings and hospitals. Heliopolis is being denuded of its original beauty. The suburb's villas, once the hallmark of elegance in this well-planned district, are being pulled down by developers seeking to make a quick profit and oblivious to the area's history and architectural heritage.
Entire buildings have disappeared, replaced by architectural atrocities. The enchanting Al-Horreya cinema, for example, has now vanished, replaced by an unsightly shopping mall.
This decline, which began in the 1970s with the high-rises at Roxy, has gone on unabated. Will the government ever take action to save Heliopolis? Baron Empain must be turning in his grave.