Amazing, Beautifull, Constructed, Dreams, Ephemeral, ....... Valiant, Wonderfull, Xtraordinary, Y Zen destroy them?

1900bp stands for 1900 Buildings Preservation

This blog was set up as a device to launch a campaign against the often conscious and deliberate destruction of some amazing old buildings that are part of our common human heritage.


Cairo Going, Going, Gone (Part I)

This is an article I had published in the Community Times March 2006 issue. Sadly, not much has been done about this issue ever since. The fence in the picture on this post was destroyed last week:

Cairo, Going, Going.........Gone?

Military Decree no. 7 of 1998 has been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Council Court last January. It’s true; the ban against demolishing old Villas and historical buildings has been lifted. The court based its decision on grounds that Martial law cannot govern civil affairs such as those relating to personal property rights. True, maybe… But why lift the ban before an alternative solution is worked out? As expected, the nightmare has begun. One by one, our few remaining architectural gems are falling to the ground. Villas in every single governorate are being attacked. The witnesses and the testaments of our country’s long history (one of the few remaining things we Egyptians are still proud of) are being slaughtered, erased from existence. Tall, grey buildings are quickly replacing the many styles (including baroque, art-nouveau and neo-Islamic) that once graced the streets of a Cairo that is now almost gone. The grey city has sadly now become dubbed as “The concrete forest”. When it comes to endangered architecture, villa Serag ElDin in Garden City is a case in point. Originally built in the early twentieth century for real estate magnate Karl Beyerle (according to chronicler Samir Raafat) then eventually purchased by Wafdist leader Chahin Serageldin; it is now owned by his many heirs and would cost millions to be restored. Maybe this is why the villa now stands neglected and run-down. Its barren garden is home to stray cats and dogs and the statues around it are broken and crumbled. The once glorious beauty is now a very sad sight. The villa is currently up for sale, and many concerned people are following the developments to see what will end up happening. We cross our fingers. But why does this issue seem to be so complicated? Well, here’s the conundrum: these beautiful, usually abandoned edifices are owned by private individuals, whom in many cases own little else. Real estate moguls looking for any free inch of land to profit from, offer to pay these people prices usually ranging from 10-50 million LE for their property. Why, you ask? Well definitely not to restore them and bask in their glory (where have you been for the last 30 years?). They are after them to knock-down, build high and profit from. In short, our heritage is being razed to the ground only to enrich the usual suspects. Gone is the age of the Empains (Heliopolis) and the Garozzo's (city center and Khedevial Palaces), now is the age of the hungry moguls, stopping at nothing to squeeze every penny out of an inch of Egypt’s land. But why is our heritage constantly under the threat of demolition? Is it because of the population explosion? That is indisputably a factor. However, it’s not the main reason in this author’s opinion. There seems to be a cultural change, a new culture of unquenchable greed that reigns over beauty, over law, over order, over everything is growing uncontrollably. Need proof? Just go out to the newly built cities in the desert surroundings of Greater Cairo , take the Kattameya area for instance. There you’ll see it: a demonstration of today’s Egypt. Apartment buildings in the middle of the vast space of the desert, crammed densely together, the streets between them barely seeing the light of day. Some may object and say that it is costly to space out the buildings and the infrastructure that serves them. But no, it’s not about the costliness of the wider infrastructure, it's about making more profit, plain and simple. What everyone is demanding at the moment, is that the government compensates the owners of these edifices by purchasing their property from them. However, this solution is far from possible. The head of the Heliopolis District, for instance, states that his neighborhood's share of architectural heritage amounted to 1150 buildings according to the Ministry of Housing (first and original) heritage list. Add to that the rest of the districts and governorates that constitute all of Egypt. Even at bargain prices, it's impossible for the state to buy all the buildings. And you can be sure, they are all worth buying, because they are all what's left after the massacres of the last three decades. Assuming the government could even buy all the intended buildings, they would still be left abandoned, like the many schools being abused by government ministries. Classrooms and offices are crammed into villas and palaces that were originally fit for kings. Crystal chandeliers after having been stripped of every piece of crystal are now replaced by brash, buzzing fluorescent lights. The delicately painted walls are now covered in cheap posters stuck heartlessly on any surface. Dozens of desks are grating the parquet floors which were once fit for museum display. Palaces such as that of Prince Said Halim and Baron Empain are left abandoned simply because no one knows how to re-use them and what to re-use them for?... The situation is tragic.

Cairo GGG (part II)

The Main Culprits

Now the problem here is not only about losing architectural heritage. It is about urban planning, which is the responsibility of the Ministry of Housing. According to urban planning law, every district is to submit its zoning regulations to the Ministry of Housing, and be held responsible for supervising these regulations. Accordingly, you had a Maadi in which every Villa was to be built on no more than 50% of the land, no closer than 5 meters from its fence, and the fence was no more than handsome, manicured bushes. In Heliopolis, buildings were not allowed to be more than 5 stories high, and like Maadi, no more than 50% of the plot of land was to be built on. Mohandessin also had its zoning regulations ensuring that buildings weren’t too tall or too closely built. In all neighborhoods, areas were divided and classified as residential, or commercial. So you couldn't just freely rent your apartment to a store in the middle of other people's homes. The problem now is that these zoning regulations were eventually thrown out the window. And a law was later passed allowing buildings to go as high as one and a half times the width of the street with a maximum of thirty six meters. Thirty six meters translates into approximately 12-13 stories high. There are obviously many, many buildings that are built past that limit. The law limiting the height of buildings to 1.5 times the width of the road is flaunted around by the Ministry of Housing as a control mechanism for building heights. However, even if this law is abided by (although it is more usually violated) it is still disastrous. Take for instance, the average number of cars in a 12 storey high building. They will most likely be close to 150. Of course parking areas cannot even sustain a quarter of that number. Thus, if original zoning regulations had planned for x number of dwelling units (producing an average of y & z number of people and cars) you end up with double or triple the planned figures, packed into the same area as a result of the new law issued by the Ministry of Housing itself. Studies were made to prove that if all buildings were built along the height regulations imposed by the Ministry of Housing (1.5x the width of the street), services allocated to each area would need to at least be doubled to reach their already humble target rates. Today we are starting to feel the consequences of the absence of urban planning in our everyday lives. As I was told by many people living in Cairo, you cannot walk around your house in privacy most of the time. Your neighbors can easily see and hear you through the windows. And to make matters worse, these densely packed apartments are sold at exorbitant prices, as we all know. Why do we put up with this? People must grow aware that the quality of their lives is compromised by this gross negligence, and they must demand their rights. For not only are we feeling crowded-out in our homes, most Egyptians are growing weary and frustrated with daily traffic in our streets. However, it's not only our nerves that are getting wrecked here, it's our lungs, our bodies and those of our children. About which more is explained below.

Cairo GGG (part III)

The Effect of the Absence of Urban Planning on Pollution in Cairo

The dwellers of densely packed districts, such as Mohandessin, Shobra, Ain Shams and others must realize the fact that their lives are in direct danger. The dust alone that is carried into Cairo from the desert makes it unsuitable to live in according to experts. Add to that the fact that factories are built in urban areas, rice straw is burned yearly (following the instructions of the Ministry of Agriculture) causing a "black cloud" to hover over the city for weeks. According to the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency, 15,000 to 20,000 deaths per year in Cairo are attributable to pollution-related causes (and we all know 'official' means multiply by two). In summer, while Cairo's more affluent move around in cool, air conditioned cars, sipping their warm cappuccinos, Cairo's lesser fortunate suffocate to death due to poor ventilation in overcrowded housing that also causes water shortages, poor or absent sewage, all exacerbating the heat waves that constantly drain the weak. We haven’t even started discussing vehicular traffic, which of course increases rapidly as the city grows. Instead of spreading out horizontally, Greater Cairo is growing vertically and the increasing number of vehicles are all circulating in a very limited radius. The dire consequences of the inconceivable number of cars puffing black smoke in our faces day in and day out must be made clear to everyone. Awareness must be raised, and problems must be solved from their roots. The buildings simply cannot keep getting taller! We cannot have more and more people crammed into the already overpopulated districts. Spread out, make space, leave the few small buildings alone, architectural heritage or not.

Cairo Going, Going Gone (final)

But why is our heritage last on the list?
We have seen how poor urban planning results in high population density, insufficient services, a lower degree of privacy in homes, and higher pollution. Losing our architectural heritage should not be considered of any less importance on this list. It is our right to protect our city’s cultural character and to live in decent surroundings as it is our right to breathe clean air. We once had a beautiful city that our preceding generations speak of with pride and pleasant nostalgia. The present generations (those who aren’t begging for immigration anywhere out of Egypt and counting the minutes) are now stuck with a mutilated and disfigured Cairo, with only few remaining hints of beauty. It is because of this free mutilation that we lost Villa Um Kulthum, as well as the old Semiramis Hotel, and it is because of this that there was a serious intention not long ago to raze our beautiful train station in Ramsis square, in order to “re-organize”… right. Architectural heritage lists were prepared by the Ministry of Housing, by the Ministry of Culture, as well as by the local districts. Besides the fact that people who actually want to register their property do not know who to go to; the most common complaint from all sides is that names are constantly being clipped out of these lists and the efforts of hard working architects and urban planners who prepare them are going in vain. You'd be surprised to know that our main culprit, the Ministry of Housing itself, commissioned teams of experts to study this problem in different areas (Maadi, Garden City and Zamalek) and requested those teams to come up with a rigorous analysis of the situation along with proposed solutions. The outputs had to be accompanied with their financial assessments as well as suggested ways to compensate owners. This was all done, after years and years of work. Where is all of this now? The team members themselves do not know. The outcomes of their project were never published, the whole initiative was simply killed and all of their efforts, in vain. This issue is obviously not unique to Egypt. Cities with architectural heritage exist in every continent, and in every context. In no case is the government required to purchase every single building of architectural or historical value. This is ridiculous. However, governments may purchase a precious few and impose bans, rules and restrictions (ones that are followed, and aren't strategically lifted for short periods of time) on the owners of the rest. In some countries, these buildings are confiscated altogether being symbols of civic pride and noble accomplishments of the past. In cities such as New York (also suffering from high population density) people are obligated by law to restore and properly maintain their private property. The expense they entail for this is considered as "part of the burden of common citizenship" and "an obligation of being a member of a civilized community" (quoting a court verdict mentioned in an New York University published paper on landmark preservation). Our owners here can be compensated with more than just having the privilege of living in a civilized community and in a city with a clear cultural identity. Many ideas have been proposed for the government to utilize, rather than just handing out cash. These ideas include tax-deductions, trading the property for plots of land in the city's peripheries, enabling the owners to use the edifices as bank collateral, raising the rent in old buildings to a reasonable level and many more. It was one of those ideas that saved the Baron's palace in Heliopolis. The owners were given a plot of land in Al Qahira Al Gadida and the Ministry of Culture claimed the Palace and now intends to restore it (although they haven’t to date). In Cairo on the other hand, owners are caught red handed, intentionally vandalizing their own property in order to weaken its foundations and have it declared architecturally unsound. A usual problem, as mentioned by the head of the Heliopolis district, is that when this is proven and charges are pressed on these individuals, they are ordered to repair the damage they inflicted (just repair), and this is never done. And the few cases he used as examples happened to relate to owners from Egypt's more wealthy strata. It's not about needing money, it’s about wanting more. In any case, how can the government demand owners to restore and maintain their own buildings when it limits the rent of old apartments to an average of 10 pounds a month? How can the government punish an individual for defacing a building when the Ministry of Education is practically vandalizing the villas of Egypt with their overcrowded, unruly schools. Even the Ministry of Culture confiscates buildings and leaves them abandoned (take the Nasreyya school for instance). The government prohibits practices that are harmful to health and morals; the annihilation of our heritage must be considered as such. The destruction of an architectural landmark should become a criminal offence and those accused should be punished accordingly. The one strength that the military decree had (despite its supposed unconstitutionality) was that it imposed a prison sentence. Other laws, which exist to ban or limit the demolition of historical landmarks, simply impose fines and temporary suspensions of building permits that barely even slow down real-estate moguls who resort to bribes for clearing obstacles from their path. The government first helped them by invalidating the zoning laws that were carefully laid out by the older local authorities (such as Baron Empain's Heliopolis Housing Company established over 100 years ago) and then helped them further by prioritizing money over heritage and civic obligation by leaving the arena open for real estate moguls to raze the remnants of our past and then get away with only trivial punishment. It is sad that those who treated Cairo like a princess, adorning and enhancing its beauty, were the foreign residents of the past. Its native-borns on the other hand, by and large have only been treating it like a poor slave, abused and worked to the bone. Unfortunately, this issue doesn’t only relate to our beloved Cairo. Public outcry from concerned voices in governorates such as Assyut, Menya, Mallawi, Mansoura and not to mention Alexandria has saved villas, such as that of Erfan Pacha Seif el Nasr and Villa el Menshawi in Assyut, from destruction. But lately, it has become a losing battle, when the only law that stood at their side was overturned, making way for the wild packs of profit-seekers to ravage the cities, leaving those of us who care about aesthetic beauty, history, heritage and this country's memories to weep as we watch on the sidelines our country being violated by its own children. The government recently discussed this issue in a meeting of the cabinet, and approved a law to govern the protection of architectural heritage. But the law, as it was written in the official newspaper, is vague and obviously going to be just one big, useless loophole. The one crucial factor in this issue seems to be re-use. This especially applies to the old villas and palaces such as Sakakini and Nasreyya. Turning them into schools and government offices kept many alive, but they are being slowly stripped of their beauty and soul. A few on the other hand seem to be re-used successfully, such as Prince Omar Tousson Palace in Zamalek (now inhabited by RITSEC) and the Rose Al Youssouf Villa on Kasr El Aini st. Many suggestions were made to the Ministry of Housing by the research teams mentioned above. There are many ideas that can be taken from other countries, such as turning villas into private art galleries and museums (private meaning a percentage of the fees will go back to the owners as part of the compensation package). We can definitely come up with more creative solutions, but if the government buys our privately owned architectural heritage and leaves it abandoned or abused, as is now the case, then we will not have solved the problem. In this regard, the help of the private sector and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) is required to raise funds for restoring and properly re-using our architectural heritage, as well as raising awareness concerning its importance in our civic lives. My plea to the government is this: Re-instate the local district zoning laws. Do not underestimate the importance of the remnants of our history; coveting our past does not conflict with looking towards the future. It keeps you grounded, and reminds you where you came from, especially when it’s a past well-worth coveting. Do not underestimate the importance of beauty and aesthetics in our surroundings; it affects our psyches, attitudes and personal tastes. Help us love our cities, don’t make us hate living in our homeland because of its immense ugliness. Re-impose the military decree protecting villas and historical buildings, temporarily, until a method is devised to compensate owners and establish a proper system. Punish those who kill our past with utmost severity. We need a strong public stance on this issue. We need good ideas on how to compensate owners and appropriately re-use buildings. I am sure that the 920 metric tons of lead emissions we breathe in our city air, daily, have not killed all our brain cells yet. We can still solve this problem. We must. Send in your comments and ideas on this issue to savecairo@yahoo.com.


Five Hundred

One month already, the Facebook Cause was launched, and we are nearing the 500 recruits. 500 people who took the time at least to join the cause. Many using up even more time to invite friends and those in turn taking the time to join in. I want to thank every one of them for their time and effort. Presented like this we have reasons to celebrate, In a month we launched a cause, and a blog and we have recruited a fair amount of people. Things seem to be heading in the right direction.

However, what I find amazing and a bit worrying is that people do join the cause silently. 500 people who uttered 17 remarks on the wall. Even the people who took the time to invite their friends and to recruit people to the cause are just joining in silently as if they are entering a Cathedral or a Mosque for a funeral. Maybe am I slightly unfair as discussions are quite hot on the Cairo Heritage group but I have the feeling people are joining in with no real hope that anything is going to happen. As if they only join so as to reassure themselves that they are not responsible for what is happening and as if to make a statement that when asked for their opinion they would object.

Let's be positive! This is already a tremendous first step, and any long march starts with one tiny step.

Please feel free to comment either here, on the cause page or in the group. Please join us and let's organize ourselves so that at least we inform each other of what happens and when it does. Official media and newspapers are not enough as I know for a fact that many have quit reading newspapers.

I suggest pictures of dismantled buildings or in the process of dismantling being posted wherever and whenever is possible, together with a short history of the building. The reasons of its historical or architectural relevance.

As Mustafa Kamel said: "Life is senseless with despair and
Despair is senseless with life."

Links to the group and the cause are available on our previous post.



Why was this blog started?
I really do not know ...
It all started with a discussion in a group on Facebook. A group whose main topic of discussion is how to try and preserve some of the endangered historical buildings.

As I felt there was an actual concern about those buildings and out of a genuine concern after the final dismantling of this amazing "Villas jumelles" that used to be a school at a point, or the even less understandable dismantling of the Abou el Ela bridge and its disappearance. I thought about launching a cause again on Facebook to see how many are we that are really concerned and who might given the right informations at the right time try their best to prevent such "crimes" .
Somehow, the cause has become a success and has been growing steadily since its launching. It is true that there are no specific plans as yet in order for us to make our voices heard, but in union lies strength .
The next logical step was to launch a blog which eventually might become an "official" voice opposing uncalled for dismantling and eventually to pressure towards restoration of such buildings. And what I personally mean by restoring is not the slightly incredible Walt Disney revamping that happens these days in Islamic or Coptic Cairo.

I do not understand for example the glass veranda on this under restoration building nor why the originally unpainted Stones have been painted in a creamy color that will probably be dirty yellow when it is time for a highly mediatized re inauguration.
Finally, I still mourn the Mohamed Ali Stables in "Beau Lac"that are supposedly under restoration but somehow I doubt it will ever go back to its former glory fearing it will will suffer the same indignity as this British Building that I think was the Gaz company in Abdel Moneim Ryad square whose facade stood for a few years after the building was dismantled raising hopes that it would be kept. But then all of a sudden this standing facade was not standing anymore. Same thing happened to the Matatia Building and I am now really worried about the rest of the Attaba Square. First on the line will probably be the central post office specially after the revamping of all Post offices unless it is the Tiring building that goes first.
I actually hope that this nightmare of mine will never come true...