Friday,17 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)
Friday,17 August, 2018
Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Debate on the dome

Mai Samih sees the reasons behind the renovation of Cairo University’s ubiquitous symbol

Al-Ahram Weekly

The decision by President of Cairo University Gaber Gad Nassar to change the air conditioning pipes of the Grand Celebrations Hall, perhaps affecting the university’s famed dome, has elicited much reaction.

“The truth is that there is no maintenance process for the dome itself, only for the central air-conditioning system that was installed in the sixties,” Nassar said during a press conference held in Cairo University. “The company responsible for this replaced only the old pipes with new ones of the same width,” Nassar said, adding that the system was renovated in the eighties, then again in 2009 after it stopped working altogether.

“They then had to install separate air-conditioning units,” Nassar said. “The problem was that the length between the internal and external units was up to 10 metres and some external units were installed inside the building which could cause fires. After the 2014 financial amendments, fixing the central air-conditioning devices became possible.”

“Cairo University’s dome is precious to those in charge of it and who will not allow any changes in its appearance under any circumstances,” Nassar said. “These pipes were painted in the colour of the dome which is why no one saw them before.” Nassar added that the renovation was decided some 10 years ago because the air-conditioners were worn out.

But the renovation has stoked debate after photos of the pipes on top of the dome were published in newspapers. Some are saying it has destroyed the dome’s architectural beauty.

“What happened to Cairo University’s dome is a crime against history, a deformation of a historical building,” says architectural consultant Abbas Mahmoud Abbas. “There are hundreds of ways to install air-conditioners instead of the way they chose to install them, by putting pipes over the dome. The dome was built more than 100 years ago and it is time to renovate it. The issue is not the renovation process itself but who executes it, their speciality, and the materials they use. They should not use cement to renovate historical buildings, for example. They should use the same materials that were used to build the building.

“I hope the outcome is good,” Abbas said.

“The dome is the symbol of Cairo University and Cairo, not only a historical monument. This symbol must be preserved using all possible methods. We need a true artist to do so. We are dealing with a unique building unlike anywhere in the world. They should think outside the box,” Abbas added.

“We appreciate the concerns of the Egyptian people about their property, the Cairo University dome. We also value the Cairo University buildings and put more effort in maintaining them than we do our own homes. We will not cover up any mistakes if they are made,” Nassar said.

“Cairo University’s dome represents Egypt’s mind,” argued Soheir Hewas, professor of architectural design at the Faculty of Engineering in Cairo University, and a member of the board of directors of the National Organisation for Urban Harmony. “To preserve the dome and to have it appear at its best shows that people are interested and care, a phenomenon that we have not seen a lot in many things. The fact that people are inquiring about what is going on in the dome is a positive sign. We all care about the mind of Egypt. Any old building in use is in constant need of upgrading of its functional efficiency. Such a great historical building must be updated to match the age especially that the weather is changing in Egypt.

“Installing air-conditioners to old buildings is problematic,” Hewas said. “They have to install it from the outside to avoid as much damage as possible. What we are witnessing in the dome is maintenance and renovation of the air conditioning system already installed in the dome which we did not see since it was probably at a lower level and was painted in a similar colour to that of the building. With the advent of advanced technology someone photographed the phase of installation of these pipes before they were painted. However, there were some changes made to these pipes that made them appear they were on the surface, which should not happen.

“We are meeting with a number of experts and concerned parties to discuss how to solve the problem. The aim is to preserve the dome without any negative effects from air-conditioners,” Hewas said.

“We should cure the problem especially if the problem will cause a bigger problem,” says architectural expert and founder of the Egyptian Architectural House Essam Seifeddin. “Cairo University’s dome and clock are its symbols. They were built in the 1920s. There were no modern studies for controlling the temperature of a building or any type of air-conditioning. The problem was not displayed to those who are specialised and can solve it. The pipes of these air conditioners should be installed internally, not externally. There has to be an intellectual effort behind it, at least from an architectural department. Then air-conditioner installing experts can start work. This should include experts from the National Organisation for Urban Harmony and the Architects Union.”

“The dome was built at the beginning of the 20th century. It was considered unique at the time, covering a wide area without barriers. It is one of the features of Cairo University recognised anywhere in the world,” Hewas said.

According to Cairo University’s website, the Grand Celebrations Hall was inaugurated in 1935, 3,160 square metres. It is roofed with a hemisphere-shaped cupola 52 metres in length which is what distinguishes Cairo University. The dome has small windows on its edge in every direction to allow natural light to enter the hall.

In front of the main entrance there is a foyer which resembles the main hall in architectural features in which cultural seminars and artistic exhibitions take place during the cultural and artistic season of Cairo University. The building is composed of the main hall, the first floor and second floor. It accommodates nearly 4,000 spectators. The main hall includes a broadcasting room and a translation room. It is decorated by Cairo University’s slogan and gilded ornaments. It also includes a huge theatre 20 by 20 metres. It is used for artistic shows presented during occasions. There is also an orchestra hall below the theatre. In the last decade, innovations have been made in the hall including furnishing it with mats, modern illuminating devices and central air-conditioning.

“I think the solution lies in installing the pipes from the back of the building and in the ground or distributing where these pipes are placed, in different parts of the building, instead of on the roof. Water pipes could be drained into nearby toilets, for example,” added Seifeddin.

Professor of engineering in Cairo University Medhat Al-Shazli explained the outcomes of meetings held on the dome. “We will rearrange where the pipes are so that 90 to 95 per cent of them do not show. We will use GRC, a substance to hide the rest of the pipes whose places cannot be changed. This will take about a month.”

“We will not put a nail in the dome,” Nassar said. “The executing company will not charge us extra.”

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