Under the headline “Soliman Pasha Street and Square”, Watani prints in its Arabic issue this week the story of the famous Downtown Cairo street and square that bear this name. The buildings which stand there are a veritable treasure of aesthetic architecture that constitutes considerable real estate wealth. Coincidentally, Watani International publishes a story that delves into the topic of Cairo’s Downtown area, its past glory and present predicament.
Many Downtown Cairo streets, among them Soliman Pasha’s, boast outstanding buildings of exquisite architectural styles that constitute historic political, cultural, economic, social and artistic heritage. These streets and buildings together represent a dear part of Egypt’s “good old times”. In fact, this part of Downtown Cairo, also known as Khedival Cairo, has always compared to—even surpassed in its beauty—Paris, Vienna and other beautiful cities in Europe.
I will not go through the expansive historic material presented in the feature story in this issue of Watani; I will just say it cites the history of landmark buildings such as Groppi’s, Café Riche, Theatre and Cinema Radio, Yaacoubian Building, Cinema Metro, Cinema Miami and Omar Effendi Building. These are but a sample of the wider Downtown Cairo heritage covered in our limited space. Our coverage is backed by reliable references on the city, including books by Soheir Zaki Hawwas, Nizar al-Sayyad, and Abbass al-Tarabily.
I would like, however, to shed light on the study in contrasts that the current state of the Downtown Cairo represents. It brings to mind the Egyptian folk saying: “Shiny from the outside, but God alone knows what’s inside.” Those who have not gone into the buildings of Khedival Cairo any time soon might be forgiven for thinking I am being unfair to official efforts exerted throughout the last three decades attempting to wipe off the effects of long years of neglect. These efforts started timidly by giving the facades of the buildings a crude limewash paint, which only worked to blotch the buildings rather than refurbish them. The residents hated the crude patch-up, and architects lamented the disfigurement of the original stone aggregate plaster, the most robust and resilient facade coating that Egyptian architecture of the first half of the 20th century knew. Stone aggregate plaster is characterised by durable, thick components that only require superficial maintenance or cleaning to remove the dust or any residue, for it to be rejuvenated and go back to its original colour and look. So how could this rich robust material be given a coat of cheap paint that would rapidly decline and crack by weathering? This is exactly what happened following the first attempts to beautify the Downtown Cairo buildings. Yet it was nothing short of a fully-fledged architectural crime that came out of haste and ignorance; incidentally, it matched another gross aesthetic crime: that of giving the four bronze lions that grace the entrances of the 1930s Qasr al-Nile Bridge a coat of black paint.
Fortunately, Downtown Cairo recently underwent a well-planned reformation move that reflects true zeal and understanding of the architectural and aesthetic styles of its buildings. This move involved refurbishing the facades of the buildings and accentuating their architectural elements as well as the different materials that were used in their construction, highlighting elements such as cornices, gargoyles, ornamentation, and metal work. These arduous efforts at salvaging the Downtown Cairo buildings have given a facelift to the area.
Another famous Egyptian saying goes: “Beauty is never complete”. I concluded the previous paragraph with the word “facelift”, because the outstanding work on the Downtown buildings was just that: a facelift that did not extend to the interior. The inside of the buildings and their utilities, which had been left to rot for some six decades, underwent no maintenance. As an architect myself and a regular visitor to Cairo’s Downtown buildings, I am well aware of their current dire state. I in no way belittle the efforts to beautify them, nor allege any shortcoming; I know very well the work was done on a budget that only allowed face lifting the facades. Interiors had to be left for later.
But is there any hope for “later” to come? This constitutes a serious problem put on hold for a very long time, that of the rental values of old residential units. If our lawmakers give this file due attention, long overdue justice would be regained, and adequate resources would open up to help save the interiors of the Cairo Downtown buildings. This would restore their youthful souls, not just their looks.
2 April 2021