The Mogamma: Architectural gem or bureaucratic oddity?

Daily News Egypt
8 Min Read

The Mogamma. Much has been made of the administrative building which looms over Tahrir Square in all her majesty. And though loathed by many, its persistence in the Egyptian imaginary is remarkable.

Construction began in 1950, under the auspices of the Soviet Union.

Presenting buildings as gifts to potential allies was a familiar form of courtship for the USSR during the early years of the Cold War.

And so Cairo received its Mogamma – a name that roughly means a “collection or “coming together of things.

Architect Kamal Ismail explained the building was a “simplified form of the Islamic style. And though the Mogamma was completed before the revolution, it has become associated with Nasserist architecture.

With hundreds of buildings burned on Black Saturday in 1952, a new face of downtown emerged in the years to come. The Mogamma, with its plain styling and emphasis on central organization, was spared and in fact appropriated as a symbol of the new regime.

Today the building is still a nerve-center of activity, accomplishing many of the most basic state functions for citizens. Fourteen stories house 18,000 employees and the dozen or so ministries in which they work. Tahrir Square has changed significantly since the 1950s, and Mogamma is at the heart of a scene of juxtapositions between the colonial, capitalist and socialist eras.

Employees quite literally emerge from the ground, through a vast underground parking garage or the Metro, filing in at 8 o’clock to a complex which has been characterized not by its architecture but by the bureaucratic ideology behind it. Here, design, efficiency and function were lost in the careful algorithm that is architecture.

The portico through which one enters in the front of the building is a glamorous prelude to the halls within, high with arches that span the entrance to welcome visitors inside.

In the main circular entrance there are four elevators and four lines of diligently queued employees. The tiny elevators retain a futuristic air. Panels above the elevators illuminate the floor numbers and emit a gentle “ding.

Faux green marble covers the walls, with concrete trim at the top in the design of a delta seal. What was once luxury looks dated today.

A wide banner of a waving Mubarak wraps around part of a balcony on the floor above the small “Studio Polaroid shops which sit on either side of the wide, two-way stairwell opposite. The utilitarian nature of the small elevators is met by the more elegant, ornate rails and window gratings of the staircase.

On the first floor is the passport and immigration office. But wander up the stairs and the Mogamma changes, drastically. The harsh light emanating from the first floor isn’t to be found anywhere else as darkness prevails in the stairwell and landings.

On the floors above the circular rotunda is covered by steel grating, where plastic wrappers and empty koshary tubs sit and cats prowl about. People continue walking around this central space through walls of peeling yellowed paint, oblivious to whatever garbage may be in there.

The Mogamma is not as daunting when one recognizes it is not a maze but rather a series of halls and offices designed like a ladder with five rungs and four courtyards in between. It is a city unto itself, with unique quarters, people and decoration.

Wide red racks in the hallway hold prayer rugs. Little kiosks with cookies, tea, coffee and sodas occupy intersecting hallways. On some floors, it is delivered on trays. Bathrooms are plentiful, with old ceramic fixtures and tiled floor in shades of soft blue and green. The bathroom attendants are also omnipresent.

Most noticeable is the community the building has fostered. The camaraderie among employees is clear and their long-lasting relationships evident as they tuck in to breakfast together upon arriving, gathering around tables with pita, fuul and fruit. Despite standardized dimensions, each office is its own world.

But the contents of each office are entirely different – with different doors even. Once more, the impersonal and harsh exterior of he Mogamma does little to reveal the unique personalities of the rooms within. The windows and layout of every floor is the only standard aspect to the building.

Most every office has a set of desks in the middle of the room and couches against a wall. Some of the couches are leather, others vinyl and some bear elaborate and colorful prints. Oriental carpets or bamboo cover some floors. Paintings, calligraphy and posters decorate walls.

Oddly, there is an abundance of posters depicting beach scenes, both in hallways and inside offices. The scenes depict waves gently lapping against shorelines, dolphins jumping and sandcastles in bluish hues. It is an almost scandalous allusion to the escapism being entertained in almost all visitors’ minds.

All doors are open, allowing one to peek inside offices. If anything, it is a symbolic reassurance that the state and its employees are accessible and their activities transparent. But most visitors know this is not the reality.

It is still cloaked in secrecy and is a building of many mysteries. Photography is strictly prohibited. There are few signs, directories or indications as to where a given office might be.

Purpose and design collide here. The Mogamma’s purpose is to process the documents, permits, registrations and visas of millions but the design of the building is not necessarily conducive to the visitor accomplishing such tasks.

Rather, it is designed to accommodate thousands of state workers in one location.

It may not be welcoming or user-friendly, but the Mogamma has realized its own name and brought people together to work in this vast building which consists of hundreds of smaller communities within. The building may be in decay and uncomfortable, but employees have done their best to make it cozy, make it home.

After eight hours the workday draws to a close and employees bid goodbye to the female security guards outside.

The feeling that comes from being inside the dark, dank building is easily relieved by the sunshine and all is well.

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