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Suburban feats
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 12 - 05 - 2005

Lessons in urban planning and precautions against the ravages of time: Gihan Shahine strolls through Heliopolis
Imagine Baron Empain sauntering through the streets of Heliopolis today -- a far-fetched reunion with his by now century-old brainchild. Emerging out of his crypt at the Basilica, the Belgian entrepreneur will be expecting the desert oasis he once fell in love with; what he will encounter, instead, is a buzzing, polluted environment. And choked, frenzied, he may well mourn the European eclecticism of his original design: tree-lined boulevards turned into traffic and pedestrian battlefields, greenery swallowed by asphalt, chrome and beige art deco architecture greyed, dwarfed by ill-considered high- rises and glaring billboards, shop windows and façades. No doubt he will want some rest in his Hindu-inspired residence -- the now state-owned Baron's Palace -- but with workers still engaged in the interminable task of clearing the building of bats and stray dogs, cleaning and refurbishing it, he is likely to end up at the metro station for a 15-minute journey to the city centre. No such luck: the Baron will discover that the vehicles are in such a state they cannot make the journey in less than an hour...
"Every time I visit Heliopolis," reports Sawsan Nuweir, urban studies professor at the Ecole d'Archetecture de Versailles and researcher at the Institut de Recherche pour le Developpement (IRD), Cairo, "a villa has been torn down, its garden razed, and a high-rise taking its place. It feels like part of my memory is being wrenched away from me -- terribly frustrating." A resident of France for the last 30 years, Nuweir spent her childhood and early adulthood in Heliopolis, and her reminiscences about "summer nights spent strolling the boulevards, the pure cool breeze and the scent of jasmine rising from the gardens of beautiful villas that flanked the streets of a predominantly green environment" sound more in line with the Baron's idea of the greatest project of his life. For Nuweir and others, open-air movie theatres were "a special treat", so were Merryland picnics and Groppi ice-cream -- family pastimes seldom available elsewhere in Cairo. By these and other signs, the neighbourhood's status was quickly established through the first half of the 20th century; and in fact it was meant to be different from the day it was conceived. A sprawling plot of land 10km northeast of Cairo, Baron Empain envisaged Heliopolis as a self-contained, cosmopolitan "garden city" with a low population density; he sought to build it up with the help of the Heliopolis Oasis Company, and to connect it to the metropolis using the new Cairo Electric Railway.
Work commenced in 1905, governed by strict aesthetic rules: buildings could only be so tall; only a sixth of the area (that fraction increased to a fourth in 1907) was to be built on; and the architecture should incorporate European and Islamic styles in a seamless mix, with the Paris- and Brussels-inspired squares and arches making room for domes and minarets -- "a prototype of the satellite city in the desert, of which Cairo would produce many examples (Nasr City and other New cities)", in the words of Andree Raymond in a book entitled Cairo : "Heliopolis was of great interest as an experiment aimed at solving the problems Cairo was starting to face in housing its rapidly increasing population." Initially conceptualised as "a garden city", according to Nuweir, Heliopolis was originally designed as two separate enclosures: one for luxury, the other for economy housing, with a cathedral and a mosque servicing each respective community. As demand rose for housing, however, and in answer to the economic crisis of WWII, the first enclosure was expanded to include middle-class residences as well, and the street network evolved in such a way as to accommodate growing traffic. In itself, Nuweir adds, this flexibility is a lesson in urban planning: "Initial plans [for satellite cities] should adapt to demographic and economic changes, answering market conditions as they come up -- a concept hardly ever applied, which is why new satellite cities are not serving their purpose of actually solving Cairo's problems."
But this is not the only lesson Heliopolis stands to provide. Urban planner Abdallah Abdel-Aziz points out that Baron Empain was careful to make available all the necessary elements of infrastructure, including transportation, before building -- something, once again, that seldom happens today. Prior to the emergence of the neighbourhood, the Heliopolis Oasis Company had supplied all the necessary amenities -- lighting, clean water, sewerage and garbage removal -- as well as a hotel complex to "make Heliopolis a centre of rest and recreation", as Raymond put it. One metro and two tram lines, also built by the company, had been operating since 1906; by 1925, they were carrying over 10 million passengers a year. Heliopolis had its own cinema, the Roxy, its funfair, Luna Park and a racetrack (opened in 1910) as well as a sports club with a British- designed golf course. No wonder that, in the decade 1920-30, over 20,000 people moved into the new suburb -- a figure that rose to 28,544 in 1930 and 50,000 in 1947. In the meantime Cairo's urban fabric was steadily spreading north and east -- so much so that, by mid-century, it had filled the enormous space separating Heliopolis from the capital. Yet within Heliopolis buildings still conformed to Empain's original plans, and most of the neighbourhood was still covered in greenery.
"Despite the mix of styles and the doubtful taste of some of the constructions, Heliopolis presents a unity that is deeper than what might derive from the rules of urban development," Raymond wrote. "The recurrence in the decoration of pseudo- Muslim motifs (often borrowed from mosques) gives the city a certain charm. Heliopolis definitely has a style of its own." This particular characteristic of the satellite city, so precisely encapsulated here, was often reflected in its social fabric, for, as Raymond goes on to say, it also "has a great deal to teach us about resolving the problems of a population that is highly diverse in religion, nationality and socio-economic level." Though a stronghold of minority groups, the city never experienced sectarian tension -- a fact corroborated by Nuweir's reminiscences of how the neighbourhood "had at least nine places of worship, servicing a range of ethnicities [Armenians, Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians and Turks as well as Copts, Muslims and Jews], but everybody lived in harmony and peace". It was the July Revolution -- Gamal Abdel- Nasser's decision to prioritise low-income housing, with little attention to architectural beauty, and the gradual homogenisation his policies gave rise to -- that Heliopolis began to shed its distinct grandeur. With Anwar El-Sadat's open-door policy, and the rise of a new class of the nouveaux riches, on the other hand, began the construction of high-rises at the expense of old palaces and villas, many of which were demolished in the process.
According to Mercedece Volait, a Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) scholar, indeed, about one quarter of Heliopolis's historical buildings are gone: "Here as elsewhere in Egypt, villas and early apartment buildings suffered either demolition or insensitive rebuilding -- the addition of extra floors, a common practice in Heliopolis since its earliest beginnings that was nonetheless subject to strict aesthetic rules until the 1970s. Still, apart of Luna Park and the Pavillon des Courses (the race-course pavilion, later transformed into the Merryland), Volait insists that "most of the original landmarks of Heliopolis have survived to this day". After the Belgian company that built the neighbourhood was nationalised, many architects feel, Heliopolis administrators tended to shoot themselves in the foot by paying more attention to fast profit than to the preservation of a well-defined architectural code, especially after the company became affiliated with the ministry of housing. "As land prices rose the Heliopolis company and district council were eager to encourage real-estate investors," Abdel- Aziz explains, "so they allowed landlords to build on 100 per cent of the land, they let shops encroach on greenery and in so doing turned Heliopolis into yet another cement jungle." It is this that has filled the Heliopolis skyline with eyesores, with many building façades left in a state of negligence as well as ugly juxtapositions; the random installation of air-conditioners, the closing in of balconies and contemporary, often downright repulsive (shop) window decorations could only make matters worse. Yet Volait thinks officials "are concerned with what's going on. The point," she insists, "is that there are a lot of loopholes in the law, which permit violations..."
As a phenomenon urban disharmony is, after all, hardly unique to Heliopolis, and Nuweir's point is that the problem lies in applying the same laws to neighbourhoods throughout the country, regardless of their antiquity or style: "Each district has its own urban characteristics and should therefore have its own architectural codes. Codes that apply to a historical area like Fatimid Cairo, for instance, cannot be applied to Heliopolis, even less to a newer district like Nasr City." Yet Volait insists that some laws have helped indirectly preserve old buildings in Heliopolis, whether through rent control (which made real estate business unattractive to potential investors) or banning the demolition of villas: "Since 1996, legal efforts have been made to stop demolishing buildings in Heliopolis and elsewhere in Egypt; a lot of thinking has concerned itself with the means to effective implementation of the laws in question. In 1998 then prime minister Kamal El-Ganzouri issued military decree 7/1998, banning the demolition of old palaces and villas as well as other edifices of historical and architectural value, making violators subject to a minimum of one year in prison.
"Several demolition plans were halted forever by the governorate," Volait explains. "But sadly, at the same time, realising it would be harder and harder to do in the future, the relevant parties went ahead with what demolition they were allowed as fast and furiously as possible." Needless to say, in such situations, the original owners of the historical buildings (and hence the land they occupy) stand to gain millions -- an added factor in the fight for preservation, since it becomes difficult to place historical-architectural value over profit -- so much so that temporary abrogation of the 1998 decree in 2000 resulted in the damage of at least six villas in Heliopolis in the space of a single week. Today, Volait insists, however, "there is more restoration work being conducted in Heliopolis than demolition."
Working under the patronage of Mrs Suzanne Mubarak, the Heliopolis Development Association recently launched a development project with the aim of restoring the beauty of the neighbourhood. It provides for refurbishing the façades of buildings overlooking the main streets in the area from Roxy Square to the Al-Thawra and Al-Orouba intersection, through Al-Korba, as well as paving roads, re-planning crossroads and removing unsightly billboards. Although "a bit kitsch at times", as Volait puts it, "it's good to see so much restoration being done". Indeed "things seem to be moving in the right direction, at least at the level of the government. Community awareness is growing and so is the activity that goes hand in hand with it -- and this has proven crucial everywhere regarding the preservation of heritage". Yet Abdel-Aziz, among others, is concerned about the standard of restoration -- buildings painted in "glaring yellow -- a far cry from the original beige that made you feel in harmony with the surroundings". For Nuweir, too, there is far more to restoration than repainting: "Preservation should take into account the urban characteristics of the district: it is meaningless to restore a villa whose garden is now occupied by a modern high-rise. Nor will repainting amount to much if there is no water inside, if the stairs are broken and the walls cracked. That would be polishing a diamond but leaving it in a trash heap."
Heliopolis Day
TOMORROW, Heliopolis will celebrate its centenary by staging a colourful carnival where residents, including children will join in the razzmatazz.
The Heliopolis carnival is part of an eight-week series of events which will include several seminars commemorating the historical highlights of the northeastern Cairene suburb. The seminars will also feature debates on the future of Heliopolis. Other events include photo galleries and drawing contests for the children of the schools of Heliopolis.
Celebrations marking the Heliopolis centenary were launched on Thursday 5 May, in a sumptuous gala hosted by Mrs Suzanne Mubarak.
In her keynote address, Mrs Mubarak suggested that 5 May be marked as Heliopolis Day and turned into an annual event. Mrs Mubarak suggested that the residents of Heliopolis should commemorate the founding of their suburb by conjuring up ways and means of preserving the uniqueness and beauty of their suburb.
The attractiveness of Heliopolis, Mrs Mubarak noted, must not be put down simply to the beautiful architecture that characterises its old quarters. She pointed out that the suburb, built in 1905, was home to some of Egypt's most prominent literary figures who were born and raised, lived and worked in Heliopolis.
Mrs Mubarak, who chairs the Heliopolis Development Society and who has been chairing several architecture reservation campaigns, promised continued commitment to maintain the "unique style" of Heliopolis.


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