Though best known for its splendid World-Heritage-listed historic monuments, its inhabited Cities of the Dead (cemeteries), or its contemporary informal peripheries, Cairo is also a city that has experienced almost all international trends of modernism (in a broad sense) across the entire 20th century. The phenomenon can be traced back to the 1870s when an ambitious ruler, Khedive Ismâ’îl (r. 1863–79), known for his passion for architecture and his will to prove that his country was European rather than African, decided to transform the Egyptian capital according to the model of Paris.
Within less than a decade, new quarters (the actual city’s center) were created at the edge of the historical core; streets were cut through the old fabric, and building types alien to the local context were introduced, starting with a Palace Hotel (1869) by Christopher G.Wray, an Opera (1869) inspired by La Scala in Milan, apartment buildings with commercial arcades, and town houses surrounded by gardens in the Second Empire’s manner. Public parks and promenades, designed by landscape architects with Parisian experience, as well as a vast spa were built south of the city. The result was far from resembling Paris, but an enduring pattern was set among the local elite: the importing of the latest fashions from influential European capitals. Attracted by a growing market, architects, engineers, and contractors of European origin (mainly Italians, but also French, Germans, Austrians, and Armenians) began settling in Cairo, where they more or less reproduced the architecture of their native countries, occasionally using Moorish and later Mamluk motifs to add some sort of “local” touch to their constructions.
Both the eagerness of affluent patrons for innovations from abroad and the hegemony of French and Italian aesthetics continued all through the British occupation (from 1882 to 1922). Building in reinforced concrete started in 1894 and developed quickly. An early example is the Club des Princes (1899), a private theater designed by the prolific Antonio Lasciac, the favorite architect of the Khedivial family from 1895 to the late 1920s and author of a number of princely Italianate palaces still visible today—most of them now adapted to other uses, such as the administration offices of ‘Ayn Shams University (1902, restored in 1997), featuring impressive metalwork and a large stained-glass opening in the Liberty style. Art Nouveau was actually short lived, as elsewhere, but flourished as well in its French and Belgian versions, while also producing some Secessionist buildings, among them the Shaarei Hashamaim Synagogue (1907) by Eduard Matasek. Paradoxically, the British influence appears to have been rather incidental. In residential architecture, it manifested mainly through some blocks of flats of red brick and Norman- inspired details, such as the St. David’s building (1912), by Robert Williams, or the cottage architecture of the garden suburb of Ma’âdî (created in 1905).
Italianate villas and Parisian-styled apartment buildings constituted by far the dominant and lasting model. Department stores were of an unmistakable French inspiration, be it the luxuriant Orosdi-Back Store (1909) by Raoul Brandon, the Sednaoui Store (1913) by Georges Parcq (with fine iron skeleton), or the Tiring premises (1914) by Oskar Horowitz. The major public building of the period, and the first in Cairo for which an international competition was organized, the Museum of Antiquities (1902), typically featured a Beaux-Arts design by Marcel Dourgnon.
Yet the most spectacular development of the early decades of the 20th century was the building, starting in 1907, of the new town of Heliopolis in the eastern desert, 10 kilometers away from the city’s center—and today included in Cairo’s boundaries as one of its most fashionable residential districts. Initially a speculative development on a large scale imagined by the Belgian magnate Baron Edouard Empain, the enterprise turned to erecting a sustainable town, with its own facilities, transportation system, and services, generous public and open spaces, and varied types of housing intended to accommodate a large public, from working to upper-middle class. Due to the strict building regulations and standards of construction imposed by Empain and his architects (among them Ernest Jaspar and Alexandre Marcel), an architectural ensemble of remarkable homogeneity was achieved, although a variety of stylistic idioms were used: Moorish and Mamluk Revival, J aponis me, Indian style, French and Italian Renaissance, and Romanesque.
The prosperous 1920s and 1930s were dominated by an exuberant Art Deco manner, characterized by the extensive use of ornate stuccowork and elaborate metalwork. One of its best exponents was the firm constituted by Léon Azéma, Max Edrei, and Jacques Hardy. Founded in 1921 by classmates at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the firm opened an office in Cairo after winning the competition for the Mixed Tribunals in 1924 and was extremely active until the completion of the project in 1929: Among the numerous villas and blocks of flats that it designed in Cairo, the Nahas villa (1927) and the highly decorated Rabbath Block (1927) deserve mention. Later examples of French modernism include the elegant work of Georges Parcq and Auguste Perret and, more largely, numerous apartment blocks by local architects educated in Paris and strongly influenced by Michel Roux-Spitz’s or Pol Abraham’s “modern classicism,” such as Antoine Selim Nahas, Raymond Antonious, and Charles Ayrout. In contrast, grand public schemes, such as Cairo University’s campus (1937) by Eric George Newmun and the Qasr al- ’Aynî hospital (1937) by Charles Nicholas and John Edward Dixon-Spain, were more in line with the British academic classicism.
Another significant aspect of the interwar period was the emergence, due to the Egyptianization policies adopted after independence in 1922, of the first generation of indigenous professionals. Its initial major concern was the search for a genuine modern “national style,” combining a contemporary language and references to the country’s prestigious architectural heritage. Of note, in this respect, are Mustafa Fahmy’s interesting attempts to synthesize the Pharaonic and Islamic legacies into modern designs, through using massive volumetry—the actual Museum of Modern Art (1936)— eventually mixed with Art Deco stylizations of the Mamluk repertoire—the Dâr al- Hikma (Doctors’ Syndicate offices) (1941). In an expanding metropolis that had already reached 2 million inhabitants by 1937, the following generation, to which belonged Hasan Fathy as well as active and prominent figures such as Ali Labib Gabr and Mahmud Ryad, was more involved in planning and housing issues. Responsible for the layout of the new residential quarters created in 1948 on the left bank of the Nile (Muhandisin), Ryad also elaborated prototypes of low-density economic housing that were used in three major schemes of the postwar period: the garden suburbs of Madinat al-Tahrîr, Helmiyya al-Zaytûn, and Helwân, totaling 4,000 units completed in 1954. They were succeeded by radical advocates of the International Style. A leading figure was Sayyid Karim, author of several early high-rise buildings and, more important, the founder in 1939 of al-’Imâra (Architecture), the first architectural magazine in Arabic, which endeavored to disseminate the latest developments of the international scene into the Middle East. To the same generation belong Mustafa Shawqi and Salah Zeitun, both educated in the United States and claiming influence from Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic architecture; Cairo International Airport (1961) is among the many projects they designed as partners. By the late 1950s, few European architects were still practicing in Cairo, and a major shift of the prevailing architectural references was occurring: Americanism was taking command.
Whereas Fathy’s and his disciples’ internationally-known researches based on vernacular models have left almost no mark on Cairo’s landscape and physical environment, conventional international architecture of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s did have, in the form of taller and taller apartment towers and hotel blocks, unimaginative shopping malls, ugly multistoried parking buildings, and cheap public housing schemes. Quality design and fine execution, as found in the World Trade Center (1988) and Conrad International Cairo (1999) by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s London office with Ali Nour El Din Nassar, remain rather exceptional. There are still very few redevelopment schemes dialoging with the surrounding fabric—as in the case of the Cultural Park for Children by Abdelhalim I.Abdelhalim (1992)—or seeking to integrate the preexisting architecture (e.g., the cultural ensemble formed by the new Opera designed by Nikken Sekkei Planners  and reused former fair pavilions). With globalization entering the scene, approaches to architecture greatly diversified during the 1990s, ranging from the interpretation of tradition pursued by Abdelhalim Ibrahim Abdelhalim, to the deconstructionist collision of old and new praised by Ahmed Mito, author of the neo-Pharaonic new Supreme Court building (2000), whereas countless exclusive compounds, drawing on the American model of the service city and displaying “Spanish-style” villas with swimming pool and garden, are being built on the desertic outskirts of the congested metropolis at tremendous rate. Cairo is definitely entering the 21st century with a fast-changing morphology.
Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.1 (A-F). Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.
ART DECO; ART NOUVEAU;
‘Abd al-Jawad, Tawfiq Ahmad, M is r al-’imarah fi al-qa rn al- ’is hrin (Egyptian Architecture in the 20th Century), Cairo: Maktabat al-Anjilu al-Misriyah, 1989
Abdelhalim, Abdelhalim Ibrahim, “Egypt: Country Focus,” World Architecture, 75 (April 1999) Curtis, Eleanor, “Culture Clash: The Development of New Cairo,” Architectural Design, 67:11/12 (1997)
Myntti, Cynthia, Paris Along the Nile: Architecture in Cai ro f rom the Belle E poque, Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1999
Volait, Mercedes, L’Architectu re moderne en Egypte et la Revue al-’ Imara (1939–1959 ), Cairo: Centre d’Études et de Documentation Économiques, Juridiques et Sociales, 1988
Volait, Mercedes, “The Age of Transition: The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” in The Glory of Cairo: An I llustrated Histor y, edited by André Raymond, Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2002
Volait, Mercedes, “Making Cairo Modern (1870–1950): Multiple Models for a ‘European-style’ Urbanism,” in Urbanism—Imported or Expor ted? Native Aspirations and Fo reign Plans, edited by Joe Nasr and Mercedes Volait, pp. 17– 50, Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Academy, 2003