Cairo Modern, a new exhibition at the Center for Architecture in New York, features 20 demolished, extant, and proposed projects in Cairo dating from the 1930s to the 1970s and also shines a light on the wrecking ball-threatening Modern architecture here and elsewhere.
The exhibition is curated by Alexandria, Egypt-born, Mexico City-based independent curator Mohamed Elshahed, author of Cairo Since 1900: An Architectural Guide, the first comprehensive survey of the city’s modern constructions, featuring 226 buildings built from 1900 to the present. The book was published by the American University in Cairo Press in spring 2020; the exhibition based on it was originally supposed to open in March 2020 but was postponed because of the pandemic. The exhibition reopened at the center last month and will be on display through January 22, 2022.
“[It’s] as if the whiteness of the buildings was somehow linked to the whiteness of the architects known to European and American historians, who had no idea what was going on beyond their circle of architect friends.” -- Mohamed Elshahed, curator.
Though known primarily for ancient Egyptian monuments and thousands of minarets, Cairo is also a city of eclectic Modern buildings, concrete expressionism, and turn-of-the-century revivalism, all reflecting aspirations of the bourgeoisie that formed after Egypt’s 1919 Revolution. The 20 projects featured 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 never-built Egyptian Pavilion for the 1939 New York World’s Fair; a timeline discussing important political, cultural, and architectural events in Egypt and abroad; and covers of Al Emara Magazine (1939-59). Believed to be the first Arabic-language magazine on contemporary architecture, both local and international, Al Emara was the primary record of Egyptian architectural production during its years of publication.
Elshahed told Metropolis that Egypt’s Modern heritage has been threatened on many fronts for many years, particularly among Western architects and architectural historians, many of whom he believes are responsible for the “racialization of Modernism as a white architecture, as if the whiteness of the buildings was somehow linked to the whiteness of architects known to European and American historians, who had no idea what was going on beyond their circle of architect friends.”
According to Elshahed, demolition of Modern buildings in Cairo began in the 1970s, “with the pace increasing progressively in the 1990s and monstrously in the 2010s. Architects who have protested have been sidelined for decades... a side effect of dictatorship. It has been a steady, downhill spiral since the presidency of Sadat in terms of urban affairs.”
He also said he and others have tried to set up an Egypt chapter of Docomomo International, but so far have failed.
After undergraduate studies at the College of Architecture and Design at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Elshahed earned his master’s degree from MIT’s Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture and a Ph.D. from NYU’s Department of Middle Eastern Studies. He is the curator of the British Museum’s Modern Egypt Project and Egypt’s winning pavilion, Modernist Indignation, at the 2018 London Design Biennale. In 2019, Apollo Magazine named him among the 40 under 40 influential thinkers and artists in the Middle East.
The center’s exhibition was designed by New York-based SOM architect Rami Abu-Khalil and Cairo-based graphic designer Ahmed Hammoud, who also designed Elshahed’s book.
This article was originally published in Metropolis.