Architectural Cairo: Between Nostalgia and Rebirth

Architectural Cairo: Between Nostalgia and Rebirth

Cairo is a city rich with architecture. It has witnessed countless changes throughout history and has gone through many phases of development, and deterioration. The architectural icons in this city are splendid, and can even be confusing at times. Eras of history and civilizations are immediately evident wherever you go and, with a keen eye, you can easily guess the era in which a particular structure was built. You can also tell which of these eras were characterized by artistic taste and which were characterized by economic hardship. Architectural Cairo in modern history can be highlighted with three main phases of change, and here is an overview of the general, broad picture.

We begin our overview of these architectural changes with the phase that started what is know as Modern Cairo, which was during the rule of Khedive Ismail. Khedive Ismail was known for his boundless ambitions to bring Egypt up to the same level of culture, civilization and development that was enjoyed by most nations of Europe at the time. It was during his reign, in 1869 to be exact, that the Suez Canal was inaugurated. It was also during his rule that Cairo’s most beautiful buildings were created.

Aiming to realize his dream of making Cairo part of Europe, Khedive Ismail began with the construction of downtown Cairo. Places such as Tahrir Square, which was previously named after him, Kasr El-Nile Street and Soliman Basha Street were assembled, each holding monuments and statues of utmost beauty. He saw to the construction of beautiful homes with high ceilings and windows, beautiful carvings and vast internal spaces for living.

It was also during his reign that Cairo’s train station was founded, previously known as Bab Al-Hadeed. And, with the establishment of the Suez Canal, he built the Royal Opera House, which was burned down on October 28, 1971. He also saw to the foundation of breathtaking parks including Andalus Park, Orman Park and the National Zoo.

Khedive Ismail was an artistic man who had a vision for the future, knowing that Cairo was a city that will live for centuries to come, and he knew that the construction he saw to during his days will stand to be historic monuments of great value in our present day. He saw to the creation of a harmonious and picturesque Cairo, making it the most beautiful city in the Middle East. His reign is known as the golden age of architecture in Egypt.

When this architectural evolution reached its optimum stage, it slowly began to decline and a new phase and ideology of construction began in Cairo. Egypt as a whole went through economic crises that broke the morale of its citizens and changed their perspective of beauty as a whole. The country went through wars, revolutions, high rates of population increase and inapt political and economical policies that made architecture take a turn for the worse.

These factors resulted in the prioritizing of expansion in construction over beauty, architectural value and sometimes even over quality. With the beginning of the 60’s, following the 1952 revolution, the ideology that was taken over by the leaders of the country was that of practicality. There was a serious need for housing the poor, and this need had to be met with as little expenses as possible.

This ideology resulted in projects such as public housing schemes. The outcome of these schemes was blocks of ugly and overcrowded buildings made to house members of the working class. Apartments were characterized by their low ceilings, small windows and small rooms. Buildings were constructed with almost no spaces between them, exposing the residents to their neighbors and not giving them the privacy a home should provide.

Unfortunately, during the 70’s, huge buildings with repulsive exteriors, and magnificently laid out interiors popped up in districts of Cairo such as Mohandessien, Heliopolis and Maadi. Residential buildings of that era stand today like huge matchboxes across our streets, with chaotic, disorderly exteriors subject to demolition based on the preference of the each resident. If they desired more internal space, they closed up a balcony, and the result is a mayhem of windows and verandas each completely different than its neighbor.

The current phase of construction in Cairo is going through what I like to call the Awakening Phase. Even though the rate of population increase is still high and the economic status is wavering, people are breaking free from the economical ideology that had consumed them for decades.

Constructors and investors have taken the best of the past two stages and created a new architectural philosophy. We are now witnessing the construction of high buildings, with low ceilings, moderate interior spaces and fine-looking exteriors. Simple carvings on the outside of buildings, large entrances with ample designs and greenery have begun to emerge, merging between “economic” and “handsome.”

There is even a desire to return Cairo to its prior beauty that was taken over by the government when laws such as the prohibiting of demolishing buildings of historical value were implemented. Projects to repair historic Cairo were undertaken, and among them was the rehabilitation and renovation of the Baron Palace in Heliopolis. Districts such as Hussein, Khan Al-Khalili and Ghooreya were refurbished and turned pedestrian only to help maintain their beauty. And, of course, turning the old garbage dump in Salah Salem road into the scenic Azhar Park is a perfect example of the awakening that we are going through.

Nowadays, every new building is built with a touch of beauty that is not necessarily expensive or extravagant. The government has even set laws that oblige investors to provide garages in buildings and laws that compel having a minimum distance between constructions as to allow habitants a somewhat decent amount of privacy within their homes.  

There is also the direction of Cairo suburbs, which encourage residents of the city to move out of it and decrease the population within. And, it is worth mentioning that all the projects in suburban areas such as New Cairo and 6th October are constructed abiding to new, strict laws, and following the new ideology that blends cost-effectiveness with beauty.

The Awakening Phase is well on its way of making this city a beauty once again. We still have a long wait to go, but we are headed in the right direction. There are questions that hover on my mind as I end this article. What will the phase following this one be like?

Where will we go after we reach the optimum of the Awakening Phase? We can take it a step further, or we can decline into another plunge of mayhem architectural changes.

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