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 (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.

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