On Ending Demolitions to Alexandria’s Antique Buildings

Monday, 24th April 2017

Contractors and developers have been tearing down Alexandria’s architectural heritage, robbing the city off its vintage buildings. Invest-Gate looks into Save Alex initiative to protect what is left of the city’s identity.

An Alexandrian initiative, Save Alex, aims to protect the city’s urban heritage and enhance its built environment. Founder Ahmed Hassan Moustafa says that the issue is not newly arisen. The demolishing of old buildings has been taking place since the early 2000s. However, the post-revolutionary situation paved the way for accelerating the pace of demolitions due to the absence of security, according to Moustafa’s observation.

The initiative has proposed a solution to help society overcome this phenomenon, which they deem disastrous; namely, the adaptive reuse of heritage buildings in Alexandria. Save Alex believes that offering these antique architectural spaces for rent for any social activity would prevent monuments from being destructed by developers and contractors, aiming to replace them with residential or commercial properties. Save Alex’s idea has been, in a way, going on in a number of places across the capital. Cairenes have seen events being held at the Baron Palace for example, ranging from wedding ceremonies to festivals.

That is also what head of the Egyptian Association for the Real Estate Heritage Dr Hussein Gomaa proposed several years ago. “I proposed that the multiple properties under the presidential palace’s patronage be open for events, conferences, or as venues for film-shooting,” Gomaa tells Invest-Gate.

“Take the El Qobbah Palace for example; it is full of employees and vehicles. What is the government using it for?! I would rather it be opened for tourist expeditions or showrooms,” he wonders.

However, the urban activists at Save Alex argue that heritage buildings be potentially used for activities other than tourism. “There are people who only think of heritage buildings as museums; but we at Save Alex believe otherwise. Having these buildings serve as a platform for any social activity harmonious with the building’s added value would both preserve the buildings and bring them closer to the locals’ hearts,” Moustafa tells Invest-Gate.

He gives the example of the German parliament following the union of West and East Germany, which made Berlin the federal republic’s capital. The parliament’s dome above the assembly hall was replaced with a glass dome, inviting the city’s residents to move around the circular room under the glass dome and observe Berlin’s cityline. The parliamentary garden became a public park.

“The main goal behind this was not to make the Germans look at these buildings as ones owned by the state; thus be intimidated by them,” he explains.

Save Alex is promoting the idea of the adaptive reuse of heritage buildings in the activities that would suit each building. “The important thing is to document these buildings to know how to figure out the exact value of that building in terms of design or activities it used to host. Therefore, these documentations would help us make a suitability analysis,” Moustafa explains.

Save Alex’s founder, who is also an assistant lecturer at the University of Alexandria’s Faculty of Architecture, believes that it is not a sustainable idea to leave old buildings as open museums as vacant buildings that people would walk into to observe walls and archaic bricks. “We suggest that it be reopened and reused in the same manner that it was in the past. With documentation done, it would also serve as to tell us what kind of interventions we could implement and to what extent so as not to harm the value of this place,” he further explains.

In contradiction with this proposed solution, the first wedding ceremony took place in the 15th-century Qaitbay Citadel in Alexandria back in May 2016. The event was met with nationwide cyber outrage on social media. The National Center for Combating Corruption as well as the Rotary Club of Alexandria East denounced the act, considering it an insult to Alexandrian heritage.

Standing with this rebuttal, Gomaa argues that events should be restricted to a certain standard harmoniously with the nobility of the monument. He clarifies that events held at such venues should be garnished  with a certain type of music, costumes, and decorations, all suiting the rapport. “People can not go on celebrating by playing with knives and drinking beer; for example, they should respect themselves and the place they are at,” Gomaa goes on. He believes if that was implemented with organization and class, the idea would attract Europeans, who would come and rent the venue for their own wedding ceremonies.

On the contrary, Moustafa and his fellow urban activists at Save Alex oppose the other aspect of physical impact rather than the symbolic impact that Gomaa mainly tackle in his aforementioned argument. They also object to the fact that the Ministry of Antiquities was only after the revenues since it does not take a share from the government’s budget.

“Therefore, our main objection was on the absence of a conservation plan that would organize the frequency rate of hosting such ceremonies in a place as old as Qaitbay Citadel and guaranteeing that the sound and light would not harm the building as archaic monuments are very vulnerable to sound, light, and breath,” Moustafa says.

On how these buildings could be used efficiently and sustainably to produce revenues for the ministry and resolve its financial issues, Gommaa determines, “The government should hit two birds with one stone and invest in these landmarks by turning them into venues for advertisements, music videos, and film production,” recalling  one of Egypt’s popstars Amr Diab shooting one of his music videos at Aswan’s Philae Temple. “By doing that, we would restore and protect these places from destruction, as well as, establish a good environment for tourism,” he explains.

This can not be done through reliance on civil society and nonprofit organizations, Gomaa notes that it can only be through the state as restoration is a costly process. “Civil society has no power other than word of mouth–that is all it can do,” he argues. “I would have loved to take a trip to the minarets of old mosques to clean and restore but it would cost me millions of pounds to do so.”

The fate of this series of demolitions across the coastal city is almost identical. A former historical space is transformed to a multi-disciplinary building, featuring a mall on the first few floors with residential and administrative units on top; and activists expect the same to happen to Villa Aghion.

The attempt to destroy Villa Gustave Aghion dates back to 2009. Save Alex had launched an event in June 2012 to protect the landmark from destruction. In January  2016, residents of the Wabour El-Maya district witnessed the final destruction of the late Aghion Villa remains.

The property had been constructed in the 1920s by leading neo-classical architect Auguste Perret and later housed the Aghion family until the French native, born in Alexandria, passed away in 1957. Some of Perret’s work was claimed as World Heritage Sites by the UNESCO. The Aghion Villa is now an empty land plot, labelled with a big sign stating that a development project has yet to be constructed in place of the villa featuring a mall, as well as, residential, and administrative units.

“Villa Cicurel is expected to meet the same fate, it is now 90% demolished,” Moustafa states. In October 2015, Villa Cicurel experienced a demolition campaign started by a mechanical engineer ,who was later sued and found guilty for illegally practicing demolition. However, it was too late since there was nearly nothing left to be restored. In 1930, Villa Cicurel as a home for David Cicurel, one of the three sons of the famous Moreno Cicurel, who immigrated from Turkey in 1870. Cicurel and his sons created a grand business of textiles in Alexandria and Cairo.   

Corruption seems to link a number of the ongoing violations, according to Moustafa. “There was a villa that was illegitimately demolished in front of the Jewelry Palace in Ahmed Yehia Street, as well as, in front of the mayor’s office. After it was demolished, the mayor announced that the contractors will be referred to prosecution. Ironically, the building replacing it, is now in its seventh floor…So the problem was never about the punishment,” he says, claiming that developers often reimburse contractors with a good deal of money once their time in prison is done.

On the bright side, back in November 2016, with the effort of lawyers from the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, the Administrative Court upheld the right to heritage and rejected the lawsuit to remove Aziza Fahmy Palace from the list of heritage properties. The palace was built in 1927 by an Italian architect and is considered one of the first properties to be constructed on the corniche.

In the dark tunnel of heritage violations, a candle is lit in hopes to get the state’s legislative arms to pull off a number of loophole-free laws protecting architectural heritage. In the very end, Gomaa concludes, it all revolves around the set of rules and regulations the state provides.

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