Modernist Indignation: Two architects on the forgotten legacy of Sayed Karim
On the 108th birthday of visionary Egyptian architect Sayed Karim, we publish a conversation on Karim’s legacy: his philosophy, his aesthetic, and the political context in which he worked.
 
 
 

Last September, Modernist Indignation, Egypt’s first contribution to the London Design Biennale held under the theme of “Emotional States,” received the biennale’s most prestigious award, for Best Overall Contribution. The display, which took up two rooms at the 18th century Somerset House, centered on the work of Sayed Karim (1911-2005) and Al Emara, the first Arabic-language design magazine, which he founded in 1939. By presenting the magazine’s inaugural issue, selected material from its 20-year run, and contextual political and economic events, Modernist Indignation curator Mohamed Elshahed attempted to highlight the practice of the country’s foremost modernist architect to the international design community, and to insert him and his magazine back into Egypt’s narrative of architectural modernism.

After completing an undergraduate degree in architecture at Cairo University, Karim pursued graduate studies at ETH-Zurich. He returned to Cairo in 1938, where the real estate market grew to meet the needs of a booming middle class that did not identify with the aesthetic choices of the aristocracy or peasants. He founded Al Emara with the financial backing of his father, Ibrahim Fahmy Karim Pasha, who held ministerial positions for transportation and water between 1928 and 1933. The magazine was designed to enrich the local architecture community and connect it to an international discourse on architecture. Al Emara promoted efficient, ornament-free architecture, the use of new construction techniques and building materials, as well as designs that improve quality of life through an emphasis on ventilation, hygiene and natural lighting. To such ends, Al Emara commissioned scientific and technical articles and commentary, solicited and published original designs and proposals by local architects, and translated into Arabic the latest international design theories, research and building regulations, until the magazine folded in 1959.

In parallel, Karim’s career as a practicing architect and urban planner picked up in the mid-1940s. For the next two decades, he designed iconic public and residential buildings in Cairo, including a proposal for The Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate (1946), Akhbar Al Youm (1948), Rose al-Yusuf (1952), Al-Shams Company building (1949) and the Zamalek Tower (1956). He proposed plans for Cairo’s urban expansion, namely Nasr City, which was envisioned in 1953 and implemented starting 1959 as a new administrative center. Karim also became active regionally after joining the UN as a city planning consultant in 1949. He put forth urban plans and architectural designs for Baghdad (1946), Damascus (1947), Jeddah (1949) and Riyadh (1950), and Amman (1954). These international activities earned him his nickname in the Egyptian press, “the flying architect.” In 1965 the Nasser regime put him under sequestration and house arrest — a move from which the architect never recovered, prematurely ending his career.

Despite Karim’s best efforts, Egyptian modernism — a hybrid of the International Style and local practices — did not translate into a fully developed “movement,” explains curator Elshahed, adding that it is still worth evaluating Egyptian modernism on its own terms, rather than seeing it as an offshoot of European modernism.

From Modernist Indignation

Mada Masr invited Elshahed, an architect, researcher, historian and curator who is publishing Cairo Since 1900: An Architectural Guide (AUC Press) this year, and the architect and researcher Samir El Kordy, to discuss these themes in relation to the Modernist Indignation exhibition and Karim’s practice, highlighting the spaces he negotiated for his ideas and designs amid Egypt’s rapid shift from monarchical rule to a socialist republic.

Mai Elwakil: Tell us how the London display was conceived to spotlight Karim’s work in local and international discourse on modern architecture.

Mohamed Elshahed: Modernist Indignation was envisioned as a recreation of an exhibition put up when Al Emara magazine was launched in 1939. Its aesthetics attempt to touch on how Karim might have designed a show at the time within the means and space that we have at the London Design Biennale. The exhibition designer Suzanne Gaballa incorporated materials and finishes which Karim utilized in the buildings he designed, while the graphic design by Valerie Arif drew from the magazine’s typography and colors. A commissioned video by [cinematographer and director] Ahmad Tahoun and [graphic designer] Ahmad Hammoud was filmed in Karim’s house to reflect on the biennale’s theme, Emotional States, in a different way from the museum-like display in the main room. I also chose to reflect the aesthetics of the archival work I did in my research. For example, the last wall panel in the display is a contact sheet including a grid of photos shot by Karim in his efforts to document his house in Maadi shortly after construction. In another panel there is a grid of 84 buildings by various architects, published in Al Emara with those which have been demolished crossed out. The simple symbol of a rectangle with a diagonal line appears throughout to signal that which is demolished, missing, or not yet known in terms of the story of Egypt’s modernism or that of Sayed Karim’s own contribution to it. 

From Modernist Indignation

Samir El Kordy: So it was a fictional exhibition. I think that there are ways to critically present the magazine’s launching moment, and the radical context it emerged from [internationally, countries still suffered from the Great Depression and political instability, while locally King Farouk had ascended the throne in 1936] without being nostalgic or overly celebratory. How did you try to balance that?

Elshahed: The exhibition is completely fictional. We don’t know that there was an exhibition in 1939. Most likely there wasn’t one. This form is based on a major theme of the display: the ambiguity of the history of modern design in Egypt and the ambivalence towards it. We were trying to resurrect something, building on fragments of available information while acknowledging that there are buildings as well as archival material that have been destroyed and forever lost. The magazine’s archive for instance, was partially lost when the Shawarbi Pasha building on Ramses Street in Downtown, which was the location of Karim’s office, caught fire on January 26, 1952. The Cairo Fire is noted in one of the mirrored wall panels.

That which is missing, eliminated or demolished — the unknown potential of something, a destroyed career — was signaled by the exhibition logo, a rectangle with a diagonal line across it. It was also reflected in the physical arrangement of the space: a rectangular room with the central display — a large pedestal with the complete 1939 volume of Al Emara and a zinc printing plate — placed on its diagonal. Meanwhile, mirrored panels along the walls highlighted milestones of Al Emara’s founder and editor, particularly instances where the political climate intersected with his career.

The form was fictional but the content of the show was historical, informing audiences about the magazine and its creator and acting as an entry point to architectural culture at the time. The first panel behind the central display, for instance, showed the first editorial Karim wrote in 1949, explaining why he founded the magazine a decade earlier: “It appears Egypt does not have architecture or architects — how can Egypt have an architectural culture and buildings of artistic value, and not have a single magazine to record such diversity?” His statement is relevant today with the absence of national institutions or publications focusing on design and architectural culture.

El Kordy: How do you reconcile events that happened after 1939 with your proposal to re-create a fictional show from Al Emara’s founding year?

Elshahed:  The London exhibition was a reconstruction of the context of the magazine from today’s point of view, with the hindsight of knowing how things developed. So not everything that’s included has to do with the year 1939 or only up to that point. The exhibition resurrects Karim based on very disconnected details. I wanted to hint at the fact that there’s no centralized design archive in the beginning of the exhibition statement. In fact there is no archive, period. Architecture professor Dr. Mohamed Tawfik Abdel Gawad recently told me that the [photographic] archive of his father, who was an architect and co-editor of Al Emara, which he donated to the Cairo University Library, was thrown out as garbage some time after. This is the context [we are working in]. The amount of damage happening due to everyday negligence over several decades makes it difficult to visualize a cohesive narrative about modern architecture in Egypt.

El Kordy: There’s also no network for graduate theses to act as a reference for researchers. It’s ironic that despite Karim repeatedly [writing] about the eternality of architecture, his legacy has been erased. Even when his contemporaries mention him, their approach is uncritical and fails to touch upon the complex power dynamics influencing architecture as a profession.

Elshahed: Yes, and critical research on a topic that helps us understand the history of modernism in Egypt might take decades to translate into an output that is accessible to the public, or to get the attention of key global centers where architectural history is written. This is why I did an exhibition despite receiving no support from the Egyptian state. An exhibition at an international biennale can raise Karim’s profile quite fast. We’ve already lost hundreds of modernist buildings in Egypt. We don’t have a heritage status for 20th century buildings, and the state lacks the imagination and interest to think of alternative uses for them. Most probably, we have already lost the potential for putting together a cohesive archive on Egyptian modern architecture. Photographs and documents disappear faster than the buildings, oftentimes those who are supposed to safekeep them, make them inaccessible, treating collections that should belong to the public as if they were personal collections. Others end up on the market, sold to the highest bidder, who are often Gulf collectors accumulating documents, photographs and magazines with no clear intention as to what to do with them.

“As much as I admire Karim, the goal of the exhibition was not to glorify him. He was a tool to spotlight a crisis in the field of architecture, art and design history in Egypt today.”

We could have used the nearly £30,000 exhibition budget to renovate Karim’s villa in Maadi, but nobody would have cared to give the money for that purpose. Now with international exposure, potential donors understand the significance of renovating the house, of course collaborating with the Karim family. I propose turning it into a foundation with a design library and a regular program of exhibitions and events, and adding it to the international list of iconic 20th century houses visited by architecture enthusiasts. As much as I admire Karim, the goal of the exhibition was not to glorify him. He was a tool to spotlight a crisis in the field of architecture, art and design history in Egypt today.

Karim’s house in Maadi

 

Excerpt from the film “House of the Flying Architect,” displayed as part of Modernist Indignation

El Kordy: Given that Karim was a highly influential and politically connected architect, with a major publishing platform to promote his ideas, he became a main point of reference on his discourse and context. How did you deal with the material that he wrote as a source of content in the exhibition?

Elshahed: Karim’s writing in Al Emara was the main reference for the content of the exhibition. We tried to verify his personal accounts as much as possible. He writes that he decided to establish Al Emara after attending architectural conferences in 1937 and 1938 in Czechoslovakia and Poland in the company of his Swiss professor and mentor Otto Rudolf Salvizberg. In those events, he presented documentary slides of the recent work of Egyptian architects [in the new suburbs of Cairo like Maadi and Heliopolis], but was met with skepticism because they didn’t conform to the traditional image of Egypt which European architects had. At a time when magazines were the medium to record, document, visualize and distribute architectural ideas, Karim did not have a periodical to support his presentation. He left frustrated and founded Al Emara upon returning to Cairo. This is his personal account. I’m pretty sure it’s true, but I cannot present it as a historical fact. You need other documents, letters and accounts to corroborate. I negotiated this by alluding that there is something missing in the narrative.

Elwakil: What kind of practices and discussions did local architects engage with in the years preceding the launch of Al Emara?

Elshahed: Until the late 1920s, the state invested in infrastructure rather than housing projects. European architects and contractors dominated the local real estate scene, offering ornamental architectural designs to paying clients. Egyptian students enrolled in larger numbers in the architecture school at Cairo University in the 1920s; some, like Karim, pursued graduate studies in Europe and the US. Most of them returned by the 1930s with an eye on the growing construction movement fueled by a new middle class of efandiyya. This new, monied class, borne out of the 1919 revolution, sought to represent itself through lifestyle choices as reflected in the architecture of the then-new neighborhoods of Dokki and Agouza.

These buildings wouldn’t subscribe, however, to the purist Bauhaus definition of modernist architecture. They are hybrids, like the political, economic and cultural context of Egypt at the time. Take, for example, Om Kulthoum’s house in Zamalek, which is shown in the exhibition. She was a peasant girl who became Egypt’s most important singer. How would this type of client choose to represent herself through architecture? Om Kulthoum commissioned architect Ali Labib Gabr to build a house that is modernist with some Art Deco features, and a generous garden area in the new upscale neighborhood of Zamalek.

Egyptian modernists were not obsessed with the idea of style like their Western counterparts. They were interested in using the materials and construction technologies available in Egypt and accommodating the needs of their clients, rather than applying a stylistic pattern book. This is also clear in Al Emara, where the word “modern” does not explicitly refer to a style but is used to refer to that which is new — the latest developments, building materials and amenities.

Oum Kulthoum’s house in Zamalek, designed by Ali Labib Gabr

El Kordy: Karim and his contemporaries argued for an “honest expression of building materials.” He was also against developing a unified national architectural style.

Elshahed: He wasn’t against it. At the “Reforming Egyptian Society” conference (held on April 19, 1940 at the Egyptian Geographic Society), Karim tried to explain the basis on which a unified style should be developed, providing an analysis of historical architecture that is based on materials and building techniques over time, making the point that we now live in an age where materials such as reinforced concrete and glass are available internationally, therefore they can be utilized in various national contexts to represent national modernity. Essentially, he argued that the International Style of architecture can be localized. Egyptian modernists like Charles Ayrout, for instance, used red bricks expressively in their designs, whereas Italian contractors would cover them with ornamented plaster. This is what Karim meant by architectural design being honest in terms of its use of materials.

It’s important to note, however, that Karim’s work should not be understood solely through the lens of European modernism. He was educated in Switzerland and admired Le Corbusier’s approach, but he did not simply mimic him. Le Corbusier thought it was radical to build flat roofs because it was a break from the traditional European pitched roof. Such “radical” ideas in the European context remained intellectual and niche until WWII, only realized on a small scale through a network of patrons who could afford to build an extra house in the forest or countryside. WWII was a turning point because the destruction of European cities necessitated the activation of these ideas on a different scale. Governments needed to rebuild entire cities, and traditional building techniques (and the styles associated with them) were not sufficient to absorb the need for mass housing and the need to reconstruct entire areas of devastated cities. But the flat roof or the unornamented facade were not such radical concepts in the Egyptian context, and are commonly seen across North Africa.

“The relationship of a modernist architect like Sayed Karim in Egypt with tradition is very different from his European counterparts; he doesn’t see [a rupture with tradition] as necessary… he dedicated a regular section in Al Emara to Islamic architecture.”

I am mentioning this because the relationship of a modernist architect like Sayed Karim in Egypt with tradition is very different from his European counterparts; he doesn’t see this rupture as necessary. In fact, he dedicated a regular section in Al Emara to Islamic architecture.

Covers of Al Emara magazine

El Kordy: Karim did argue against developing a unified Egyptian architectural style in his 1952 article titled “Architecture of Brazil, a Lesson and an Example” (Vol. 8-9-10). In this piece, he wrote that architectural styles vary according to history, geography, as well as the cultural and religious values of each community in Egypt; they evolve over time and hence shouldn’t be enforced top down by the state.

In addition to the Islamic architecture section in Al Emara, Karim also repeatedly referenced pharaonic architecture in his writings. In the introduction to his book The Socialist Villa (1952), he wrote that the typology of the independent house (the villa) is an [ancient] Egyptian gift to the world.

Elshahed: Karim didn’t have a problem with tradition, but I cannot say that pharaonic architecture was a major influence in his practice. Hassan Fathy claimed to have investigated tradition and used it as a basis for design. Karim never made that kind of argument. He rather inserts himself within a larger historical and global narrative [about the architect-patron relationship] that goes back thousands of years: he is the great architect, while King Farouk and his successors play the role of the Pharaoh, pushing for the development of the built environment. But there’s a difference between pharaonic culture being an influence on the discursive level, and being an actual driving force on the practical level.

El Kordy: These were pragmatic maneuvers to realize his ambitions: hailing King Farouk in Al Emara’s inaugural issue before discussing the chaos of Cairo, or dedicating a 1945 issue to Khedive Ismail’s urban legacy. But Karim also cited archaeological documents and papyra that influenced him. He also wrote in the foreword to Mohamed Hammad’s 1963 translation of American Skyline [a 1955 book by Christopher Tunnard and Henry Hope which traces the development of American cities] that part of why America exists results from ancient Egyptian civilization. In spite of being a modernist, he believed that Egyptians were the makers of civilization.

“He was greatly influenced by the models of Imhotep and Le Corbusier. Both were star architects of their times, with great ambition, power, prestige and influence… and their legacies are unmatched. They seemed to be his role models.” 

Elshahed:  It’s true that he was aware of the past and his position in the world, and he was at times chauvinistic with his nationalism, but there isn’t a single issue of Al Emara that focuses on ancient Egyptian architecture, for example.

El Kordy: Such references repeatedly showed in Karim’s discourse, however. He penned an architectural review of Mentuhotep’s tomb and mortuary temple at Deir al-Bahari in 1940 (Vol.2 no.1-2). He also occasionally published ancient Egyptian motifs on Al Emara’s cover.

Elwakil: But how was this reflected in his practice?

El Kordy: I do think it was a driving force, feeding his ambition to build and design on the scale of cities and mega projects. The number of proposals he drafted and projects he realized in the years he was active is huge. I also think he was greatly influenced by the models of Imhotep and Le Corbusier. Both were star architects of their times, with great ambition, power, prestige and influence. They were experts in various disciplines such as art and philosophy, and their legacies are unmatched. They seemed to be his role models.

Elshahed: Discourse is different from practice. For instance, Mustafa Fahmy, who designed the Saad Zaghloul mausoleum, studied ancient Egyptian architecture in an academic way. He then applied proportions and forms from his studies in a neo-classicist sense. That’s a practical application.

As for Karim’s ambition, he was an architect who wanted to work and apply the latest ideas in design and urban planning. He was pragmatic and tried to maneuver around the system to realize his projects. Hailing the king in Al Emara’s first issue and reminding him of the great builders of ancient Egypt was a tactful move pointing to the systemic relationship between architecture and power rather than to inspire an ancient Egyptian revival in architecture.

“He was pragmatic and tried to maneuver around the system to realize his projects. Hailing the king in Al Emara’s first issue… was a tactful move pointing to the systemic relationship between architecture and power.”

Sayed Karim at work

El Kordy: It is indicative of his personality, though — how he approached commissions and how he gained such power.

Elshahed: It doesn’t have to do with his personality as much as the power dynamics and how things worked in Egypt at the time. It was favorable for someone to make a magazine like this with the blessing of the king.

El Kordy: He made a similar maneuver in Al Emara’s 1952 issue, which focused on Brazilian modernism and the role of President Getúlio Vargas, dubbed “Father of the Poor.”

Elshahed: That was a pioneering issue; a third world country looking at another third world country on the colonial map on equal footing with the west. It was also, I believe, well in preparation before the 1952 transition from monarchy to republic. Brazilian architecture was already on the map, having received recognition for its pavilion at the 1939 World Fair in New York, as well as the 1943 Brazil Builds exhibition at MoMA.

El Kordy: But timing is important. The first issue after the 1952 revolution actually focused on village reform, and it was followed by the Brazil issue. Village reform, as a topic, was first addressed by Karim in a 1941 (Vol. 3 no.2) article entitled “Between the Model Village and Transition Village.” He was commissioned to design a masterplan for a village in the delta area to accommodate 200 families. His proposed solutions to tackle hygiene problems was to separate the livestock barn from peasants’ homes. He wrote that “the village reform that should be thought-provoking and which will lay the core of design should stem from ‘leadership’ rather than ‘choice’ make decisions for the farmer as faits accomplis. Impose a program for his work and domestic life which he will submissively follow.”

Elwakil: He also proposed a National Program for Village Reform through the magazine in 1952. It suggested walling existing villages and resettling peasants into newly built ones, which included multiple housing models, roads, green spaces and an administrative zone. The livestock would gradually be separated from the residential areas through an educational/awareness program targeting peasants. He probably saw relevance in pitching a version of the initial proposal to the socialist state through his magazine.

Elshahed: Village Reform [modernizing village architecture] was a topic that Karim wrote about in Al Emara. But, of course, everything was timed. He also dedicated an issue to school design in 1957. A government authority was set up to design modern schools for Nasser’s expanded education plans. It proposed 12 school models based on the size of a city, village or urban district, and the number of students, and Al Emara published these designs. Karim was obviously trying to appease someone by this move, but it’s also interesting work to feature in the magazine.

Elwakil: How did Karim engage with the problems of a metropolis with the size and complexity of Cairo? Designing efficient mass housing solutions and the necessary infrastructure was a big part of European modernist discourse, but Karim wasn’t afforded the clean slate condition brought about by WWII destruction of European cities; and, unlike his proposals for new cities in the Gulf, Cairo had an existing infrastructure and a large urban population.

Cairo Fire panel, from Modernist Indignation

“Karim was one of the few Egyptian architects, if not the only one, who advocated the notion of tabula rasa – the idea of starting again with a clean slate.”

El Kordy: Karim was one of the few Egyptian architects, if not the only one, who advocated the notion of tabula rasa – the idea of starting again with a clean slate. He was radical enough to suggest the demolition of large parts of Cairo for it to regain its “civilized” status. This was a common premise for European modernists. Le Corbusier’s 1920s’ Plan Voisin for Paris envisioned the demolition of much of Haussmann’s city center to make way for high-rise buildings, parks and elevated concrete roads. Le Corbusier seemed to suggest such destruction in a poetic sense rather than a literal notion, whereas Karim comes off more practical, as he identified seven poor neighborhoods for demolition.

In 1945, Karim published an article titled “What If Cairo Were Destroyed?” in Al-Ithnayn wa al-Dunya magazine. In the piece, he suggested that large-scale destruction would have allowed the city to be rebuilt based on the latest planning principles, asking: “If we had the opportunity to destroy Cairo and rebuild it, where would we begin and what would we do?”

On 26 February, 1952, one month after the Cairo fire, Karim gave a lecture on Cairo’s urban planning at Ewart Memorial Hall at the American University in Cairo, making no mention of the fire. He seemed to have no remorse. It was as if it never happened.

“He would repeatedly compare Cairo to a sick body that could not breathe… and whose arteries, a metaphor for roads, were blocked. It’s a way of communicating something as huge and abstract as a city to a non-specialized public.”

Elshahed: Some of Karim’s ideas were heavy-handed, targeting high-density, low-income neighborhoods from a position of relative power and socioeconomic privilege. The tabula rasa in his vision is much more targeted than Le Corbusier’s, a surgical intervention rather than large-scale demolition. I believe these proposals to be theoretical, however. He wouldn’t approve of the recent Maspero Triangle demolition, for instance.

His goals were to recognize what a city like Cairo is and analyze why it is not functional. He would repeatedly compare Cairo in his analysis to a sick body that could not breathe (due to the lack of greenery and public space), and whose arteries, a metaphor for roads, were blocked. It’s a way of communicating something as huge and abstract as a city to a non-specialized public. Karim was a populist. He wasn’t interested in speaking only to architects, statesmen and businessmen. He sought to engage a general readership with urban issues through Al Emara, as well as general interest magazines like Al Hilal and Al Musawwer.

In response to his analysis, Karim made some proposals which, in my opinion, were meant to be provocative, pushing for a discussion on potential solutions in the future. Such proposals could not move beyond the realm of theory as they required the state’s stamp of approval, and he never developed these concepts into detailed plans for implementation.

The inaugural issue of Al Emara, as displayed in Modernist Indignation

El Kordy: But his views deserve to be seen as avant garde. In 1939, he proposed re-designing downtown squares to include subterranean garages that can go as deep as eight levels to be used for car parking at times of peace and as bomb shelters during wartime. In 1952, he made the controversial proposition to turn Cairo into a closed city, with a strict screening process for migrants, the unemployed and street vendors [whom he believed fostered unhygienic and low-quality architecture]; he also suggested relocating criminals to their hometowns — all views that still find resonance today.

Elshahed: To contextualize his views, I must add that in 1945 — the same year he published his article “What if Cairo were destroyed?”— Karim focused an entire issue of Al Emara on Khedive Ismail and his patronage of art, architecture, urban planning, and monument conservation. Why? The khedive was unique in implementing major urban projects on the scale of the city. It was a message to King Farouk, capitalizing on a general interest in modernization. This was a moment when the Arab League was officially formed in Cairo. The first Arab Engineering conferences [which focused on planning projects at a national level] were held in Cairo, Alexandria and Damascus. There were discussions on how to rethink the centralization of municipal functions, on the redesign of what became Tahrir Square after demolishing the British military barracks, and on new construction projects.

Karim presented his plan for Greater Cairo, one as ambitious as Khedive Ismail’s, in the conference in Alexandria. The plan looked to upend entire districts, loosen up the dense urban fabric, insert facilities such as underground parking and green spaces throughout the city, create a series of roads, bridges, and tunnels to connect the city and avoid congestion, and to create a green belt for Cairo and mark the city’s entrances and exits clearly as well as provide new terrains for housing development.

Elwakil: A major problem in Cairo in the early 20th century was the shortage in affordable housing units due to increasing internal migration from the countryside and the 1956 Suez War which pushed residents of the canal cities to leave their houses and relocate to the capital. In response, Karim proposed building Nasr City, a new city filling the area between Downtown Cairo and the suburb of Heliopolis. This, however, entailed that the military push existing barracks near Abbasiya further out in the desert. The proposal to push the barracks was rejected by the Governorate of Cairo in 1952 for being against the values of the socialist revolutionary movement and the military’s declaration of independence. But, in 1958, after a meeting in Nasser’s house between the president, then-undersecretary of the National Assembly Anwar Sadat and Karim, the proposal was approved as a new administrative capital, socialist housing project, and a new home to Al Azhar University, which expanded its faculties to include secular and technical disciplines.

El Kordy: Karim was a master of strategy, especially when it came to presenting his ideas in a three-dimensional form that made them understandable and attractive to possible patrons. In 1958, Sadat accompanied Kuwaiti Prince Abdullah Mubarak Al Sabah on a visit to the architect, who was designing the prince’s palace in Kuwait City. There, he saw a 3D model of a city that Karim had been working on, and he asked him why he doesn’t design such projects for Egypt. Karim explained that the model was in fact part of his plan for Greater Cairo, designed for the area between Heliopolis and Downtown (the basis for what would be Nasr City). Two days after the visit, Sadat (who supported Karim to realize many projects in Egypt and the Arab world) asked Karim to present his proposal to Nasser at his rest house in the military barracks in Abbassiya, and it was there that Karim succeeded in convincing Nasser to move the barracks, based on the United Nations’ recommendations related to civilian safety. This was Karim’s second application of tabula rasa. He had also convinced King Farouk in the 1940s to demolish the British army barracks overlooking the Nile in Downtown Cairo. Karim had a master plan for that area that would have included a hotel, a building for an Arab League of Nations, an extension to the Egyptian Museum, and a Cairo municipality building, had it ever been implemented.

From Modernist Indignation

Elshahed: It was common practice for architects at the time to develop projects conceptually with the communication tools necessary, such as scale models, to make them understandable to businessmen, statesmen and the public. Many ended up being implemented elsewhere. The Mansoura Cultural Palace plan (proposed circa 1960), for instance, was built as Al Ahmadi cinema in Kuwait (1965). Architects produced such designs almost as a form of expression.

El Kordy: But few architects did that in Egypt. Like European avant-garde architects, Karim believed he was designing utopias that could solve housing problems in cities.

Elshahed: The government envisioned Nasr City as a socialist project, accessible to the masses — an expansion of Cairo into the desert with a new administrative center and affordable housing for state employees [to reduce commute time and traffic congestion]. Karim, meanwhile, saw it as an opportunity to implement the latest ideas in urban planning and mass housing, but his plans weren’t economically viable. The early stages of Nasr City in which he was involved didn’t sell well because they were more expensive than what the target residents could afford. This was an economic [not an architectural] problem. The architectural solution was not enough to solve the urban issues that were severely rooted in housing.

Labib Gabr was the only architect I came across who conducted advanced financial and economic analysis [on housing]. His 1947 lecture titled “Workers’ Housing” at Ewart Hall presented an economic proposal for housing based on case studies, detailing how much a flat should cost for workers with specific income brackets to afford, and what cost-cutting measures could be made accordingly. Karim thought at a different level. The cognitive dissidence of his socialist villa [which combined notions of private ownership with public sharing of amenities and infrastructure] reflects that he was trying to sell what he knew best in a new political reality. Karim was obsessed with duplexes because the practice of architects in the 1930s and 1940s was mostly villas, so he combined villas in residential buildings, making duplexes. But it didn’t work economically. In the end, Nasr city can be described at best as a middle to high-income project.

El Kordy:  In The Socialist Villa, Karim explained how his model could be applied in a socialist, communist, republican and monarchical system. He pushed for applying his ideas in capitalist Riyadh and socialist Egypt — a very pragmatic proposal. He was interested in combining units horizontally or vertically to create a dense, monolithic mass which he could design and shape. He made many proposals of this kind, starting with villas and flats then moving to commercial uses. He also wrote regularly since the 1940s on the chaotic nature of Cairo’s architecture, specifically criticizing the unplanned mix of commercial and residential uses. His best projects and proposals showed high complexity in stacking functions. Few of these conceptual proposals were implemented, unfortunately.

Elshahed: The superblocks he proposed in the original Nasr City plan were meant to provide all the basic amenities to residents within each block, such as schools and medical and commercial facilities. All functions were to be carefully orchestrated and given a specific place in a plan.


ElShahed speaks about Modernist Indignation. Courtesy: Medrar TV

“He had an inflated sense of ego which clashed with the way the state operated… With the amount of construction taking place, it became rare to list architects’ names on their projects… [they] were expected to operate within the machine of the state.”

Elwakil: Was the Nasr City planning the beginning of his fallout with the Nasserist regime, which led to his house arrest?

Elshahed: Despite being a key planner of Nasr City, Karim’s name didn’t make it on the project’s official brochure. My guess is that this would have been frustrating for him. He had an inflated sense of ego which clashed with the way the state operated from the 1960s onward. With the amount of construction taking place in Egypt, it became rare to list architects’ names on their projects. Architects were expected to operate within the machine of the state. Karim has projects from this period that we’re only able to credit him for because we found reference in his archive or found their brochures among his documents at home. Also, the state initiated overly ambitious projects at the time, which it couldn’t implement because the money ran out. Karim had many such projects. I think the clash was inevitable.

I used the last wall panel in the exhibition, titled Indignation, to allude to state power. The person who would have potentially become the lead figure of an Egyptian modernist movement was put under sequestration and his career was interrupted. So we shouldn’t be surprised that Egyptian modernism never matured and evolved or naturally expired to give way to a locally positioned postmodernism. For [architectural culture] to evolve, we need to fully evaluate what happened: full discourse, critique and analysis. Even in the years when Karim was active, there were few other publications to discuss and contest what the modernists were proposing through Al Emara. What we have discussed amounts to individual efforts rather than a movement.

El Kordy: There was Hassan Fathy, who received two state awards in 1959 and 1967. Fathy advocated a very different approach to urban planning and architecture. He vocalized his criticism of the modernists in his writings, and published an article about it in El Emara in 1945 (Vol. 5 no.1), titled “Some problems facing Egyptian Architects,” where he described their methodology as rapid “mass destruction” that could erase urban heritage, spatial memory and layers of experience that exist in the built environment. I think that Fathy’s ingenuity is not particularly in his architecture but in the timing of his relentless opposition to this modernist international style on all fronts. He lectured and published against it at a time when modernist architectural ideas were spreading and being applied.

Elshahed: I’ve never come across that article and I’m surprised that Karim allowed him to publish in the magazine. But one article in the Al Emara’s 20-year run doesn’t amount to a discourse. Perhaps this underdeveloped nature of discourse is another reason why this architectural culture collapsed.

El Kordy: Architects who are not similar don’t usually communicate, neither now nor in the past, and I believe this is a fatal problem. One of the extreme dilemmas in the field of architecture is that on one hand, most architects find themselves favoring a certain direction, movement, aesthetic or ideology, and they don’t bridge links to architects with other dogmas or work approaches, simply to minimize friction and tension — bridging may become very burdening, very boring or very superficial. On the other hand, architecture is fundamentally operated by collaborative work, so teaming up and bridging gaps is crucial as part of the profession.

Elshahed: Architecture is in serious crisis in Egypt today: there is no cumulative architectural culture and no active critique and discourse; architectural education is outdated and lacks basic elements such as architectural history, theory and criticism; there is no awareness of the local history of modernism and no accessible archives, magazines or exhibitions. Professional practice is fully absorbed into facadism and shallow notions of identity reduced to mere representation. The state is building a new administrative capital (as Nasr City was once envisioned) and the amount of construction is unprecedented, yet there isn’t a single household name architect or a clear architectural vision.

In this context, Sayed Karim presents a challenge: he is a figure that looked to create an architectural culture through publishing, building, writing, speaking and teaching, all during a short span of time before his career was interrupted. Piecing together his story from the fragments of information that are available is a powerful tool to engage with the present of Egyptian architecture critically, not merely to wallow in the past or to create icons who are immune to critique, as people have already done with the figure of Hassan Fathy.

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Mai Elwakil