Designing a cosmopolitan

Aida Nassar
8 Min Read

An overview of the influences on Cairo’s changing skyline

CAIRO: Cairo has been aptly dubbed “the city of a thousand minarets. The sheer numbers of mosques dotted around the city have dominated its character in recent history, though Coptic churches and Pharaonic monuments have vied for their share of attention. Today, a glance over the city and it feels like a new element is emerging in the skyline. Modern, shimmering edifices have been erected introducing a new dimension to Cairo’s architectural temperament. Forty or 50 years from now, if you look out at Cairo’s skyline, will “the city of a thousand minarets be transformed into a silhouette of towering, shiny modernity au courant with contemporary capitals around the world?

Cairo’s architectural environment is a testimony of our history. The Fatimids and Ayyubids built many great mosques and tombs in Al-Qahira. Salaheddin constructed the Citadel, which still compellingly towers above our city. When the Mamelukes came to power, a surge in construction cultivated Cairo’s architecture in the Islamic style. A system of nonhereditary rule encouraged leaders to build lasting testaments to their leadership and, along with their strong connection to Islam, the Mamelukes succeeded in forging a lasting imprint on the City’s character that remains today.

In 1867, Khedive Ismail traveled to Paris where he became acquainted with Haussmann’s new urban design. Duly impressed, he decided to redesign Cairo using the European capital as a model. From then and until the 1940s, Cairo experienced another building boom. Elements of Islamic design were set aside for mosques and gave way to European styles that incorporated a national flavor with the use of local materials.

Architectural historians argue that this national flavor was completely lost after the 1940s, when international style dominated the architectural surroundings. Large concrete blocks emerged. Governments and institutions built edifices that gave priority to function at the expense of design.

Cairo, from Pharaonic times to the present, has been susceptible to a variety of cultural styles. Like any other city, the architectural landscape is a combination of local and foreign influences. The Pharaohs adapted elements of Greek and Roman styles. The Mamelukes were greatly influenced by the Ottoman Empire. Downtown was molded by a desire to replicate a European city. Post-revolutionary Cairo interpreted the socialist ethic in Communist-style blocks.

Recently, the city is undergoing yet another construction surge. As a result, a hodgepodge of buildings have emerged, each adapting a different style, or, in some cases, none at all.

“The interesting thing about Egypt right now is that we’re at a point where I think people may be tired of a particular style of architecture; all the communist style boxes that we have, declares Hisham Youssef, an Egyptian-American architect based in New York who is Senior Design Manager of International Projects with Gensler, the no.1 ranked architecture design firm in the world.

As the head of architecture and interior design projects for Gensler in Egypt, Youssef has an insight on what will influence new design. “People have traveled, the taste is a lot more sophisticated than it used to be. The time is ripe, right now, to look into stylistic expressions as far as design, he adds.

“One of the trends I’m seeing, going back to corporate design, is getting [a firm] from overseas. It’s not so much o’dit el khawayja (foreigners compound) . it has to do with experience, says Youssef. “Unfortunately you’ve only done five buildings, we’ve done 100. We know something you don’t know. It’s not because we’re smarter than you are, it has to do with experience. I think that’s what some of our clients are looking for.

So, by default of experience international architectural design firms are going to have a strong input on how our urban center is going to transform in the near future.

But what will define Cairo’s new architectural design? Recently, dominating the skyline are some clear examples: the newly built Nile City Towers, shiny and resplendent; Al-Azhar Park; Smart Village’s interpretation of hi-tech style and the building to house the Supreme Constitutional Court on Maadi’s corniche. We are in the process it seems, of searching for a new understanding of Egyptian architectural design. But does it exist? Some reinterpret or simply incorporate elements of Islamic architecture. Neo-Pharaonic design introduces a modern take on an ancient style – redefining pyramid structures and recreating temple entrances. Others simply want to reconstruct a sense of urban modernity. The one thing they have in common, according to critics, is that they lack creativity.

“The attempt to copy the look of a temple entrance, the pyramids, and all that is kind of kitsch. It’s almost like designing something for Epcott Center [in Disney World] or an amusement park, says Youssef.

It looks like theater decoration, not architecture, its cliche, agrees architect Omar El Farouk in an earlier interview with Reuters.

Others argue that it’s an attempt to separate architecture from religion. It s a nice way of harking back to the past and also providing a national viewpoint that is non-denominational, Salima Ikram, an assistant professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, explains to Reuters.

And yet others have suggested that both Islamic and neo-Pharaonic styles are a defiant attempt to depart from Western style elements. New York Times reporter Nicolai Ouroussoff describes the Aga Khan Foundation’s promotion of the Islamic style in the design of Al-Azhar Park as an “unspoken mission, in essence, to stem the relentless flow of Western modernity.

In essence, our struggle to modernize while retaining our cultural heritage – and depending on our interpretation be it Coptic, Islamic, or Pharaonic – will be reflected in our environment. Cairo has always been a crossroads of culture, where Islam meets Christianity, where old meets new and East meets West. In the future, the minarets that dominate our horizon will be juxtaposed with modern skyscrapers. Our national style may never be defined a single element, but may emerge as a reflection of our overwhelming cosmopolitan character.

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