The “White City” and Egypt’s modernist heritage

In 2003 UNESCO added Tel Aviv’s “White City” to its list of world heritage sites. The “White City” consists of three zones (central White City, Lev Hair and Rothschild Avenue, and the Bialik Area) containing around 4,000 buildings built from the 1930s to the 1950s in various interpretations of the modernist style. Tel Aviv was initially founded in 1909 in Ottoman Palestine. The city later developed following the urban plans of Scottish architect Sir Patrick Geddes (1925-27) during the Mandatory Palestine period.

Aerial view of Tel Aviv’s White City.

According to the UNESCO, the area was included in its heritage list for two criterion:”Criterion (ii): The White City of Tel Aviv is a synthesis of outstanding significance of the various trends of the Modern Movement in architecture and town planning in the early part of the 20th century. Such influences were adapted to the cultural and climatic conditions of the place, as well as being integrated with local traditions.
Criterion (iv): The White City of Tel Aviv is an outstanding example of new town planning and architecture in the early 20th century, adapted to the requirements of a particular cultural and geographic context.”

“Authenticity” of the architecture and the “integrity” of the area are cited as additional reasons for inclusion. With its new status the area can now enjoy conservation efforts to maintain its 20th century stark modernity, along with the rise of its real estate value and its maintenance along strict guidelines to ensure the preservation of this now world heritage site. Here is a bit more of the site’s description:
“The three zones have a consistent representation of Modern Movement architecture, although they differ in character. Zone B was built in the early 1930s, and zone A mainly from the 1930s to the early 1940s. Zone C, the Bialik district, represents local architecture from the 1920s on, with examples of Art Deco and eclecticism, but also a strong presence of ‘white architecture.’ This small area represents a selection of buildings that became landmarks in the development of the regional language of Tel Aviv’s modernism. The buildings reflect influences from the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier and Erich Mendelsohn. The buildings are characterized by the implementation of the Modernist ideas into the local conditions. The large glazed surfaces of European buildings are reduced to relatively small and strip window openings, more suitable for the hot weather. Many buildings have pilotis, as in Le Corbusier’s design, allowing the sea breeze to come through. Other elements include the brise-soleil to cut direct sunlight; the deep balconies served the same purpose, giving shade, as well as adding to the plasticity of the architecture. The flat roofs were paved and could be used for social purposes. A characteristic feature is the use of curbed corners and balconies, expressive of Mendelsohn’s architecture. The buildings also include a certain amount of local elements, such as cupolas. The most common building material was reinforced concrete; it had been used since 1912, being suitable for less-skilled workers. Other materials were also introduced, such as stone cladding for the external surfaces, and metal. There was some use of decorative plasters, although decoration became a matter of carefully detailed functional elements, such as balcony balustrades, flower boxes and canopies.”

Detail from the Gamalian building in downtown Cairo designed by Kamal Ismail 1939-41.

The inclusion of the site also notes that although this is the work of European architects who either emigrated to or were commissioned to do work in Mandate Palestine, “their work in Tel Aviv, they represented the plurality of the creative trends of modernism, but they also took into account the local, cultural quality of the site.” Moreover, “none of the European or North-Africa realizations exhibit such a synthesis of the modernistic picture nor are they at the same scale.”

So why is this important or relevant to Cairo’s or Egypt’s urban heritage? The statement quoted above in bold argues that one of the reasons this particular urban site (encompassing 4,000 buildings) is important is because it is unparalleled not only in Europe but also in North-Africa. In affirming its modernity, the Tel Aviv application for heritage recognition denies the availability of modernist heritage of its kind and scale in the supposed source of modernism-Europe, and in its geographical vicinity-North Africa.
Egypt and Morocco (and Lebanon) had extensive experiences in the production and realization of modernist architecture. In both cases modernist architecture was the product of an awareness of international discourses on architecture. Modernist architecture in Egypt was also the product of the re-imagination of the national self. Modernist architecture was perceived by architects as the language of the time but also of the place. Despite many architects being educated in places as diverse as Liverpool, Zurich and Paris, they all returned to Egypt and engaged in a discourse that emphasized that their architecture was responsive to both time and place, a kind of localization of an international movement with references to various schools of modernist design.

Egypt’s case offers a particularly interesting counterpoint to Tel Aviv’s. The architects practicing in Egypt using this 1930s onward style were Egyptian or first/second generation Egyptians (of Syrian, Lebanese or other origin who have settled in Egypt). This is one stark difference with the Israeli case where the practitioners, according to the official story, were themselves escaping Europe or visiting architects. The second point that makes Egypt’s modernist legacy interesting is that those architects were Egyptian educated until university, then traveled abroad where schools of architecture offered Masters and PhD degrees in architecture, then returned to Egypt. They went to a variety of schools that had their own schools of thought regarding the development of modern architecture, yet they all returned to practice side by side in Egypt producing a melange of variations of modernist design. Furthermore, from the 1930s modernist design was seen as a nationalist response to the previous three decades of ornamental architecture introduced in middle and upper class dwellings by European architects (as opposed to the visually modern 19th century stripped down middle and upper class Egyptian house, whose facade was already void of aristocratic references). While  Western observers today dismiss the authenticity of Egypt’s modernist episode, Egyptian architects at the time saw their work as an embrace of the moment’s architectural language but also the simple forms, plain facades and flat roofs were reminiscent of Egypt’s architecture from the not-so-distant past.

Modernist design was widely accepted and had become popular among the business elite, the upper and middle classes who built new apartments, banks, offices and villas. The Egyptian government’s 1940s experiments in workers and village housing were in the minimal modernist style. It was so pervasive that it didn’t have the “avant garde” status attached to modernist design in Europe (where the idea of a flat roof was considered controversial aesthetically but also functionally. The flat roof and modernism’s cubic forms were after-a
ll inspired by North African
dwellings from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.) And thus Cairo, Alexandria, smaller cities and even villages were places where modernist design was seen.

Important to note is the contrast between Europe and Egypt regarding the development, significance and uses of modernist design. While In Europe the modern movement’s development was directly linked to questions of affordability, socialism, revolution and worker housing, in Egypt the design practice embracing modernism was paired with grand apartments, aristocratic villas and the clients were the wealthy capitalist elite. This means that the kind of modernist design found in Egypt was combined with particular standards of comfort and luxury reflected in the square-footage of Egypt’s modernist apartments, and their finishing materials and fixtures. Modernist design developed in Europe during a time of economic hardship while Egypt was experiencing relative economic prosperity.

Egypt’s experience with modernist architecture spanned the mid-1930s into the 1960s. Yet there has been a deep reluctance by western scholars to consider Egyptian contributions or iterations of modernism. Similarly, this wealth of architectural discourse and practice has been forgotten within Egypt with only minimal research done on the material. Western observers claim that 20th century architectural modernism was purely a European and later American project that was then exported and copied in other locations. Similar arguments have been made about 19th century modernity (specifically modern urbanism) and in fact about modernity in general. Following this Eurocentric perspective some Egyptians have also adopted this narrative, seeing no importance in uncovering Egypt’s experience of modernist architecture. The central argument by the naysayers is that this modernist aesthetic was not an authentic representation of Egyptian architecture and that it was mere mimicry (despite numerous texts, publications and lectures by those architects stating exactly the opposite). It is in this context that the World Heritage inclusion of the “White City” has deep political implications.

Page from a 1942 Egyptian journal showing an article “Architecture in Arab Lands” with a picture and site plan of Haifa government hospital in Palestine designed by Erich Mendelsohn in 1938.

In the case of the “White City,” the majority of the participating architects were admittedly imported, European transplants. Furthermore, much of the work celebrated in the “White City” was from the 1920s-1940s when the state this World Heritage site belongs to did not yet exist. Following the current narrative, the work of Egyptian/Arab architects Ali Labib Gabr, Charles Ayrout, Antoine Selim Nahas and others in Egypt isn’t representative of Egyptian architectural identity while the work of Mendelsohn and other European architects is an authentic expression of Israeli modernity! The “white” in “White City,” it seems, doesn’t only refer to the modernist buildings but also to the builders. Modernism, it seems, is a white enterprise and everyone else is simply a copycat.

In 1950s and ’60s Egypt the Egyptian state allowed some architects who were active in the 1930s and ’40s to practice their modern design at an unprecedented scale. The state fully embraced modernist design as an expression of national progress, in what I argue is continuity rather then a rupture from pre-1952 Egypt. However, by 1970 when Sadat took office Modernism had died and Egypt was nearly bankrupt. Egypt’s modernist heritage from the previous decades was not seen as worthy of protection and its proliferation made it mundane and taken for granted. In the course of the forty years of Sadat and Mubarak Egypt lost much of the modernist heritage that accumulated over the previous forty years.

The 2003 inclusion of the “White City” has provided a physical and architectural proof of one of Israel’s founding myths that it is “the only Modern country in the region.” This contrasts with the emphasis on Egypt as an ancient country by the Sadat and Mubarak regimes (at the expense of Egypt’s modern heritage). Following Nadia Abu El Haj, who focuses on Israel’s manipulation of archeology and ancient heritage, I argue that the “White City” is also being used to provide “facts on the ground” to legitimize a certain myth or narrative about the state as a white modern haven amidst a brown and unmodern Middle East.

In the meantime, here in Egypt, since 1970 there has been near systematic erasure of modernist heritage coupled with a reluctance by the state to embrace modern heritage in general as evidence of Egypt’s advances in the last two hundred years. The result, despite the fact that Egypt had an extensive, locally designed and elaborated version of modernist design, is what remains is the melancholy of black and white nostalgic images pieced together from the scattered archive in personal collections, used book dealers and sidewalk vendors. State institutions including the so-called ministry of culture are the culprits. Egypt may never have a UNESCO World Heritage site from the 20th century but it is never too late for Egyptians to rediscover what was so common not too long ago.

*Addendum: The purpose of this post is to highlight how the reasoning for one site’s inclusion (by UNESCO and international observers) as worthy of preservation and heritage status are nearly the same reasons for excluding Egypt’s contribution from the same period. Equally important is to highlight the failures of Egypt’s heritage and cultural institutions to recognize and protect Egypt’s modernist heritage.

Apartments for Mme Khairat Bek in Zamalek, 1938.

Apartments for Qershi Pasha in Asyout by architect Albert Abbasi 1946.

Villa for Mme Valadji in Heliopolis by architect Charles Ayrout 1938-39.

Apartments for Ahmed Kamel Pasha in downtown Cairo by architect Ali Labib Gabr, 1939.

Villa for Kamel Bek Abdel Rehim in Heliopolis by architect Charles Ayrout 1932.

This story is republished from our partner Cairobserver.



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