Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1194, (24-30 April 2014)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1194, (24-30 April 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Protecting architectural heritage

Can the government prevent Egypt’s Belle Époque architectural heritage from falling into oblivion, asks Nevine El-Aref

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The architectural designs that dominated Egyptian cities during the 19th and early 20th centuries exhibit a multiplicity of styles, reflecting the influence of local, regional and cosmopolitan trends and tastes. One only has to traverse any downtown street in Cairo or Alexandria to enjoy the splendours of baroque, Roman-Byzantine, Ottoman, European, Art déco and Art nouveau architecture. These edifices formed Egypt’s architectural identity throughout the so-called Belle Époque.

However, after the 1952 Revolution the fate of these structures was uncertain, though the government issued several ministerial and military decrees in an attempt to protect them.  Most recently, the National Organisation for Urban Harmony (NOUH) was set up in an effort to protect this architectural heritage and to preserve it for future generations.

Nevertheless, many buildings considered as being among the country’s architectural gems have been subjected to demolition, a fact that has led Egypt to lose part of its architectural identity. In 1988, former prime minister Kamal Al-Ganzouri issued 13 decrees in an attempt to reverse this trend, including one banning the destruction of residential villas. The decree reinforced already existing building codes that prohibited the demolition of old buildings, villas and palaces. It also plugged loopholes that had allowed architectural masterpieces to be knocked down.

In the 2000s during a campaign launched by the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) to promote democracy, equality and human rights, toppled former president Hosni Mubarak announced the annulment of all military decrees ordered under the Emergency Laws unless they were necessary for maintaining law and order. Although the announcement was applauded by the public, it had the effect of threatening architectural edifices that had been protected by these decrees.

Former minister of culture Farouk Hosni announced that the nation’s architectural heritage would be preserved, as the military decrees in question had only protected buildings of architectural importance unregistered on Egypt’s Heritage List. Antiquities in general were protected by Law 117 of 1983, while buildings of historical importance or architectural value were protected by law 178 of 1961.

In an attempt to preserve Egypt’s rich and varied architectural identity further, the NOUH, established under the umbrella of the Ministry of Culture by Law 144 of 2006, was set up to prohibit the demolition of buildings of distinguished architectural value and stipulate their preservation and protection. Several buildings dating from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s were registered on the NOUH’s list of buildings of architectural importance in an attempt to guarantee the protection of the country’s eclectic architectural heritage.

However, property owners used loopholes in the law in order to pull down buildings they owned overnight, potentially making them large amounts of money. Meanwhile, other owners deliberately let buildings they owned decay, such that they would then have to be demolished.  

The owner of a protected Art déco building in Al-Sayeda Zeinab in Cairo, for example, destroyed its roof in order to prove that it was structurally unsound and therefore suitable for demolition. Singer Um Kulthum’s former villa in Zamalek, as well as distinguished villas in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis, the Giza suburb of Mohandessin, and in the cities of Assiut and Alexandria, were also demolished under similar pretexts.

The fate of Egypt’s architectural identity is now once again under threat of being transformed into an unsightly landscape of concrete blocks. The situation became critical after the 25 January Revolution as a lack of security overwhelmed the country, allowing unscrupulous real-estate developers to tear down ancient buildings.

In an attempt to halt such developments, a group of engineers, architects, archaeologists and activists gathered in front of the Cairo Governorate buildings some months ago in order to protest against the demolition of the country’s distinguished architecture and the spread of ugly cement buildings within the streets of Cairo and other cities.

“This phenomenon is destroying the character and structure of Cairo,” said architect Nairy Hampikian, adding that Cairo had long suffered from dreadful urban planning that had become particularly chaotic in recent years. Amid a general lack of security, large and ugly buildings had spread quickly in the streets of the city, disfiguring its distinguished cityscape and leading to the razing of historic buildings.

Old Cairo, in particular, is a vivid example of continuous urban habitation. It gained its heritage status not only because of its large number of monuments, but also because it has retained its own spirit, streets and customs from centuries ago. It was for this reason, Hampikian pointed out, that UNESCO had listed Old Cairo on its World Heritage List as an ensemble in 1979.

Regrettably, the city is now under threat from profiteers who tear down smaller old buildings that are not on Egypt’s heritage list and construct in their place huge cement-based residential buildings, towering over the district’s authentic buildings. “This is threatening the city with removal from the UNESCO list, since it is losing its architectural character and urban structure as a result,” Hampikian said.

 “Ugliness is spreading all over Cairo, the city of 1,000 minarets,” she added.

Protesters against this situation are asking the government to freeze all construction licences in Old Cairo for a year, remove illegal buildings and extra floors, and refuse to provide such buildings with drainage systems and electricity. They have asked the government to work in collaboration with civil society and local councils in order to protect Old Cairo as well as historical buildings all over the country.

 “The problem will not be solved unless the relationship between the government and its responsibility to protect these historical buildings and the desire of their owners to make their property a lucrative investment is fine-tuned,” Mohamed Abu Seada, head of the NOUH, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

 “I understand the position of the owners,” he went on, adding that some of them had no assets besides their property which they struggle to maintain.

“These items of our heritage should definitely be preserved, but there should be a system to compensate owners. Why should they be punished for owning something of value as cultural heritage,” Abu Seada asked.

Up until now, the compensation committees assigned by the government had not compensated owners due to a lack of resources. Therefore, Abu Seada suggested, compensation should take other forms in order to encourage owners to protect these buildings and not to deliberately transform them into ramshackle structures.

Compensation could be in the form of tax exemptions, he said, increases in rental fees, or the provision of free maintenance. “Offering the owner of a historic building land in return for expropriating the property could be another way of compensation,” Abu Seada pointed out. Were such measures taken, the owners would be contented when their properties were registered on the NOUH’s Heritage List and would even ask for their registration, he said.

Abu Seada told the Weekly that in order to preserve Egypt’s architectural identity the NOUH was collaborating with civil society and NGOs interested in preserving the country’s architectural heritage, such as those in Heliopolis, Garden City, Zamalek and Maadi. The NOUH also intended to work with international organisations concerned with heritage, such as ICCROM.

 “The NOUH’s new role is to find a solution to regulate the relationship between the role of the government in protecting these buildings and the demands of the owners of them in order to protect Egypt’s architectural identity,” Abu Seada said.

He said that Egypt had a large collection of different architectural styles and designs, starting from the pre-historic period to modern times. The NOUH intended to set up a fund to preserve historical buildings that would be financed from taxes or funds raised from structures open to tourists. This fund would then be used to maintain these buildings.

To fill loopholes in the construction laws, especially those concerned with historical buildings, amendments are now being added to Law 144 of 2006 and the unified construction law. Over the last ten years, Abu Seada said, these loopholes had led to the removal of several buildings from the NOUH list of historical buildings by court order.

“If the government is keen on protecting and preserving the country’s architectural identity, it should exert all its efforts to do so,” he concluded, adding that the government should not take controversial decisions that could lead to the removal and demolition of a building from the NOUH’s list of historical buildings.

Two weeks ago, the cabinet offered the land on which the former National Democratic Party (NDP) building is located neighbouring the Egyptian Museum in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to the Ministry of State for Antiquities, which then decided to demolish the building that was gutted by fire during the 2011 Revolution. The Ministry of Culture rejected the decision and sent an official protest to the cabinet, on the grounds that the building was on the NOUH list of historical buildings and protected by Law 144 of 2006.

“The NOUH has written a detailed report explaining the reasons behind its objections and drawn up a plan to restore the building,” Abu Seada said. He said that the NDP building was registered on the organisation’s list because it represented an important era in Egypt’s modern history. The building was once the premises of the Cairo Governorate and then of the Arab Socialist Union, the Supreme Council of Journalism, the National Council for Women, and the NDP. It also has important architectural value because it was designed by Egyptian architect Mohamed Riad, who also designed the nearby Arab League building.

“It is not logical to demolish the building simply because it was once the premises of the NDP,” argued Abu Seada.

Ahmed Sharaf, head of the museums section at the Ministry of Antiquities, told the Weekly that the land that houses the NDP building was part of the adjacent Egyptian Museum when it opened in 1902 and was used as a dock for boats bringing visitors from the Nile. The land was taken from the Museum after the 1952 Revolution to house elements of the regime, including the ruling NDP.

Antiquities Minister Mohamed Ibrahim has assigned a committee consisting of legal and archaeological experts to take legal procedures to remove the NDP building from the NOUH list. According to the Ministry of Antiquities development plan, part of the NDP building will be kept in situ and not demolished in order to bear witness to the 2011 Revolution, while the other spaces will be transformed into an ancient Egyptian botanical garden like the one in Luxor, or an open air museum for ancient Egyptian arts.

For Ibrahim, the building has no architectural merit, and its current condition, after being set on fire during the revolution, is risky for the nearby Museum. “It is like a bomb that could explode at any time,” he said.

Meanwhile, Abu Seada has protested strongly against plans to demolish one of the most important residential villas in Alexandria. The villa, once belonging to Gustave Aghinon and designed by French architect Auguste Perret, has been allowed to fall into a very poor state of conservation. Perret was responsible for designing several buildings in Egypt, three of which are in Alexandria. He also designed the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris and the concert hall of the city’s École Normale de Musique.

The villa was built in 1922 and is located in the Wabur Al-Mayya district in Alexandria. A first demolition attempt was made in 2009 by court order, but the government succeeded in expropriating it from its original owner and compensating him. After its restoration, it is hoped that the villa can be transformed into a museum for the architecture of the Mediterranean countries.

However, for the time being 40 per cent of the building has been demolished, and a committee is being formed to evaluate its restoration. The NOUH is also setting up projects to protect the country’s historical gardens, among them the Antoniadis Gardens in Alexandria, the Al-Azbakiya Gardens in Cairo, the Al-Orman Gardens in Giza and the Al-Asmak Gardens in Zamalek.

The NOUH is planning to ask for the help of the international community and institutions in the United Kingdom, Italy and France that are leaders in preserving historical buildings. These countries helped Egypt to discover its ancient heritage and protect it through excavation and restoration missions, said Abu Seada. It was now their role to help preserve the country’s architectural identity.

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