Modern Cairo celebrates Egyptian modernism and sounds the alarm for its future

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The AUC Science Building designed by Medhat Hassan Shaheen is one of 20 existing, proposed and demolished buildings featured in Modern Cairo now on display at the Center for Architecture in New York. ARCHITECTURE COURTESY CENTER

Although known primarily for its ancient Egyptian monuments and thousands of minarets, Cairo is also a city of eclectic modern buildings, concrete expressionism and turn-of-the-century revival, reflecting all the aspirations of the bourgeoisie that formed. after the Egyptian revolution of 1919. The 20 projects presented in the exhibition are both residential and administrative, by Egyptian architects including Sayed Karim, Charles Ayrout and Mahmoud Riad. The exhibition also features designs for the Egyptian pavilion never built for the 1939 New York World’s Fair; a chronology of important political, cultural and architectural events in Egypt and abroad; and covers of Al Emara Magazine (1939-59). Considered the first Arabic language magazine on contemporary architecture, both local and international, Al Emara was the main record of Egyptian architectural production during its publication years.

Elshahed said Metropolis that Egypt’s modern heritage has been threatened on many fronts for many years, especially among Western architects and architectural historians, many of whom he says are responsible for “racializing modernism as a white architecture, as if the whiteness of the buildings was somehow related to the whiteness of the architects known to European and American historians, who had no idea what was going on beyond their circle of architectural friends.

Villa Kamel Bek Abdel Halim designed by Charles Ayrout in 1932 was featured in Al Emara magazine, possibly the first Arabic language periodical to focus on contemporary architecture and design. ARCHITECTURE COURTESY CENTER

According to Elshahed, the demolition of modern buildings in Cairo began in the 1970s, “with a gradual increase in pace in the 1990s and monstrously in the 2010s. Architects who protested have been sidelined for decades. . . .a side effect of the dictatorship. It has been a constant downward spiral since Sadat’s presidency in terms of urban affairs.

He also said that he and others had attempted to create an Egyptian section of Docomomo International, but had so far failed.

After undergraduate studies at the College of Architecture and Design at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Elshahed received his MA from the Aga Khan Program in Islamic Architecture at MIT and a PhD from the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at NYU. He is the curator of the British Museum’s Modern Egypt project and the winning Egypt pavilion, Modernist indignation, at the London Design Biennale 2018. In 2019, Apollo Review named him among the 40 influential thinkers and artists under 40 in the Middle East.

The centre’s exhibit was designed by New York-based SOM architect Rami Abu-Khalil and Cairo-based graphic designer Ahmed Hammoud, who also designed Elshahed’s book.

A model of a design for the Secretariat of the Islamic Congress which was proposed by architect Sayed Karim in 1957 COURTESY CENTER FOR ARCHITECTURE


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