Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 October - 31 November 2012
Issue No. 1120
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Don't forget the Villa Aghion

There is far more to a historic villa than just its walls and floors, argues Abeya El-Bakry

Architects and engineers, students, professors and professionals took to the streets recently to protest against the threat hanging over the Villa Aghion, one of Alexandria's leading architectural landmarks built in the early 20th century. Since the 25 January Revolution, real-estate developers and landowners have taken advantage of the political mayhem to tear down old and historical buildings as well as to construct new buildings without building permits. The result has been random construction that is spoiling Alexandria's urban landscape.

The Villa Aghion, built in 1926 in Wabur Al-Mayya, an elite Alexandrian district, is situated on the corner of a street where hundreds of residents have been passing by on a daily basis for decades. What they may not know, however, is that the villa they have been walking past is one of a few buildings built by the French architect Auguste Perret in Egypt. Perret was resident in Alexandria in the early 20th century, and he was commissioned by a Jewish family to build the villa.

The building, constructed during the modernist period, is an example of the architect's use of steel construction techniques in domestic buildings. The French architect gave free rein to the design and construction, producing lotus-inspired ironwork for its balconies and using space to create symmetry and character.

Tragically, on 28 August, 2009, the villa was attacked by bulldozers in the middle of the night, breaking its entrance pillars. The security forces intervened and stopped the demolition, and those working on it were arrested on the orders of general Adel Labib, the former governor of Alexandria. Since last year's revolution, there have been fears that the villa might be under threat once more. According to Law 144/2006, designed to halt the demolition of heritage buildings, the villa is still listed and cannot be demolished.

Meanwhile, the protesters are hoping to restore the building to its former glory since the damage can be repaired. According to a letter sent by the Engineers Syndicate on 9 June 2012 to the Alexandria governor, "we want to direct your attention to the importance of this heritage building, which was designed and constructed by the famous French architect Auguste Perret, a pioneer in steel construction. The architectural, historical and artistic value of the Villa Aghion could never be compensated for if it was lost, since it forms a link in the chain of modern international architectural history and not only in Egypt. No textbook on modern architecture would be complete without mentioning it."

The letter went on to point out that "UNESCO has listed Perret's architectural designs on its heritage lists due to their artistic and architectural value, thereby making them part of the heritage of all mankind and not just of a particular country. Thousands of tourists visit these sites every year, at a time when this building is facing demolition in the city of Alexandria."

Ali Barakat, head of the Engineers Syndicate, said that it "would be impossible that we should have, in Alexandria, one of the few buildings in Egypt that are mentioned in architectural textbooks as representing the modern style, and decide to tear it down." He is one of the campaigners who attended the June campaign calling on the government to take measures to protect the villa.

However, the issue raises questions about how the owners of the villa can be appropriately compensated for maintaining the property intact. Accordingly, among the banners raised was one that suggested creating a fund to raise funds for the owners. Since the revolution landlords have tried to have buildings delisted in efforts that have unfortunately in some cases been successful.

Listing a building can reduce its value. However, due to the current lack of development sites, real-estate developers are still interested in old buildings situated in prime locations. Due to low rents and rising prices, landlords are often keen to sell their property regardless of its historical value.

The case of the Villa Aghion has foregrounded the problems facing Egypt's architectural legacy, especially since some historic buildings have been torn down since the revolution in Heliopolis in Cairo, in Port Said and of course in Alexandria. In the latter city, buildings have been suddenly torn down, or have been built on overnight without the issuing of building permits.

Such developments took place particularly during the administration of former prime minister Kamal Al-Ganzouri, and Khaled Metwalli, head of the eastern zone of Alexandria, said that "we have raised the issue with the government and sent a letter requesting funding to compensate owners so that they will not sell their property, attempt to demolish it, or build new buildings on it. However, these are trying times, and we have to have patience."

Since then, the former governor of Alexandria, Osama Al-Fouli tried to arrange the sale of the Villa Aghion to an embassy, such that the owner could be paid a suitable price for his property. Such a deal would have the additional benefit of guaranteeing the building's maintenance. However, Al-Fouli has recently resigned, and since then news of the deal has sunk from sight.

Part of the problem is that many people today lack awareness of the value of heritage buildings and believe that this value is limited to very ornate or ancient buildings. They often do not take into consideration the historical or cultural value of a given building. Most importantly, they sometimes fail to realise that the country's built heritage is not just the ornate symbol of the past, but is an active reality that constitutes Egypt's visual memory. Many people are unaware of this, and they complain of the lack of ornamentation of modern architecture.

One passing Alexandrian asked what all the fuss was about. After he had listened to the explanation, he said, "but there's nothing special about the villa."

According to architect Mohamed Al-Desouki, "the building's restoration would require highly skilled labour. It could not be done as some people seem to think. It would be necessary to find the original plans and carefully plan its restoration."

The June protests attempted to call attention to the aggressive demolition of Alexandria's heritage that has been taking place. Experts have concentrated on raising public awareness and calling for government action, while citizens have filed complaints with the local government in an attempt to prevent further demolitions.

However, sadly not all such calls have been successful, and often the governmental response has been slow, or non-existent, on an issue that has been raised in more than one city. In addition to Alexandria, Heliopolis in Cairo and Port Said face similar problems. The real threat now is that the country's historic cityscapes may be transformed before the government takes appropriate action to prevent it.

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