Modernist Indignation


5 September 2018

The Egyptian pavilion at the London Design Biennale, which opened earlier this week, has been awarded the Biennale's medal for the most outstanding overall contribution. Curated by the architectural historian Mohamed Elshahed, the display centres around Egypt's longest-running 20th-century architecture journal, El Amara (1939-59) and its founder, the architect Sayed Karim.

Titled Modernist Indignation, the display deftly zigzags between the journal's architectural philosophy, Karim's life and career, and Egypt's turbulent 20th-century history. It is a nuanced picture that emerges: one in which modernism's Eurocentric narrative is thoroughly upended, and architecture is understood to be entirely enmeshed with politics past and present.

Disegno sat down with Elshahed to speak about the ideas presented in the display, their contemporary relevance, and how the pavilion which ended up winning the main award at the London Design Biennale almost did not happen.

Am I right in assuming the display came out of your own research?

Yes. My topic is modernism in Egypt and its relationship to politics. Within the Egyptian context, there's a perception that architecture that is modernist by international definition – meaning it lacks embellishment, has straight lines and white facades – has been associated with the Nasser period, the regime that came immediately after the overthrow of the king in 1952. Nasser's was a heavy-handed regime, and it ended with a great defeat – the entire military of the country was lost in 1967. And so, for about two decades after that, everything that was associated with the Nasser period was looked down upon. Architecture was one of those things. One of the misconceptions was that modernist architecture came post-1952, and that pre-1952 architecture [was characterised by] Belle Epoque, European influences. What I found through my research is that, actually, the modernist aesthetic was widely embraced much earlier, and Egyptian cities were very much shaped by it, and it had nothing to do with the Nasser period. Much of it was built in the Nasser period, but it was very much drawing on previous pre-1952 [developments in Egyptian architecture].

How did you go about researching something that is largely absent in historical accounts of the period?

The starting point for me was to identify the architects who were active in the period. Al Emara, the magazine that is the focus of this display came to the foreground immediately. Basically, it was the only long-lasting architecture magazine that reported much of this architecture [from 1939-59]. What's important to mention here is that Egypt [did not and] does not have a design institute, or an archive. There's a national archive and a national library, which has periodicals, but it's overarching and not focused on design, architecture, or art history. Most researchers like myself end up building their own archives by finding the families, asking for documents, finding second-hand booksellers. It's a very uneven and complicated process.

Before you take me around the display, can you tell me how the exhibition came about in practical terms?

It was quite a challenge. When the invitation [from Zein Khalifa, the commissioner] came I was thrilled, but also slightly put-off by the financial burden that comes with exhibiting. Design is a form of diplomacy, which accounts for the presence of all the diplomats here. And London is doing [this form of diplomacy] quite actively: one of the messages of this kind of event is really to bring the world to London to emphasise its central position in design culture. The London Design Biennale appears as a provided platform for countries to show design work and history, but what happens behind the scenes is that we're paying for it. I failed, in the beginning, to raise funds. The lack of an active architecture and design culture in Egypt meant that the proposed display was really off the map for potential funding bodies.

How did you manage to raise the funds in the end?

In the fall, I actually pulled out because of the high participation fees. We couldn't raise the money and I didn't want to put myself in the position of committing to raising money that would barely cover the expense of being here. But pulling out allowed for a negotiation to take place with the Biennale team, and we settled on a reduced participation fee. I felt that negotiation was important to make a point. Because as much as we want to be here, and as much as the Biennale wants this broad representation, money gets in the way. I thought somebody has to budge, so I said we'll raise money but you also have to reduce the fee.

And now you've been awarded the prize.

Yes. But it was difficult to anticipate that a year ago! Of course now, it's more than worth it. Now that the win has been achieved, people in Egypt are saying "Egypt won!" and thinking it could've been supported by the state. But in some ways, I'm actually pleased that [Zein and I] have done it as private individuals. For several reasons: if you look at how these design platforms and events have been utilised by various states, it's really about branding and showing the country in a new light so that it looks trendy and design-conscious. It also puts on certain limitations on some kinds of expression, and really freedom of speech. This being done privately allows us to tell a story that's integral to the design history of Egypt, but also really important to the international understanding of the history of modernist design.

The cover of the inaugural edition of Al Emara, 1939. IMAGE courtesy of Mohamed Elshahed.

Let's return to the display itself. You've chosen to introduce it with a copy of the inaugural edition of Al Emara from 1939.

I have a lot of affinity with Sayed Karim. My struggle was his struggle: I studied in the US, and ended up working on the history of modernism, which actually shaped my own understanding of space and architecture as a child in Egypt. But it was entirely omitted in the canon of art and architectural history in the West that we were all taught. Sayed Karim [also studied in the West] and traveled to different conferences in Europe. He specifically cites a conference in Czechoslovakia in 1937, where his presentation was met with indifference. They audience were like, "Well, what's Egyptian about this?" Magazine culture was really rich in the 20s and 30s, with tons of magazines flourishing with experimental graphic design and so on. But there wasn't one to show [architectural culture] in Egypt, so that's why Sayed Karim founded Al Emara. There was an awareness of being made invisible in relation to where the metropole is, and Egypt being in the periphery on the colonial map of the world.

Do you think those perceptions of metropole and periphery have changed at all since Sayed Karim was active?

It hasn't really changed that much, and it continues to shape architecture education around the world. Many countries in the global south inherit art history that was written in the West. Egyptian students don't learn about Sayed Karim and Al Emara either. Besides makers, art, architecture and design require institutions and historians. And historians need funding, an office space, and to attach themselves to an institution like the Cooper Hewitt in the US or the V&A in the United Kingdom. These institutions are fundamental for the evolvement of a cumulative design history. We're not afforded this. What ends up happening is that every generation starts over unaware of what happened before.

Singer Umm Kulthum's villa, built 1934-36 and featured in the first edition of Al Emara in 1939. The building has since been demolished. IMAGE courtesy of Mohamed Elshahed.

We're looking at a spread from the first issue of Al Emara, which shows a modernist villa from the mid-1930s.

This was the house of Umm Kulthum, the most famous singer and diva of 20th-century Egypt. It's been demolished, despite the fact that the dean of architecture at the University of Cairo was the architect, and that it was the house of the biggest female singer in the country. Neither the architecture nor the personality attached to it was enough. You have to imagine that entire districts of Cairo and Alexandria as well as smaller provincial cities had this kind of architecture. In the mid-1930s, as Europe was entering a massive war, this kind of architecture was considered niche, intellectual, and something that did not have widespread appeal. This was not the case in Egypt. Already from the late 20s and early 30s, modernist architecture was commercialised and widely built. Unfortunately all of this gets demolished because the land value appreciates, and because of the lack of recognition of 20th-century architecture.

There's a stylistic hybridity to a lot of the buildings featured in the magazine.

What's really interesting is there's almost no reference to style in Al Emara. Which is very different from European discourse on architecture. Egypt is in another part of the world map, where many cultures intermingle. Even the legal system was not singular: if you were Greek, you went to one court, if you were Italian, you went to another, and if you were Egyptian, you went to yet another court. This just gives you an idea that it's something that was pervasive in other aspects of the culture. Since the 19th century, architecture in Egypt never subscribed to a clear style. There was always a mix of styles, with architects borrowing comfortably from different elements. Even what I'm describing here as modernist buildings feature many confusing elements for a purist. This is exactly the reason why this kind of architecture has been dismissed.

If Al Emara's writers did not discuss style, what were they interested in?

Materials. The way Sayed Karim read architectural history, even ancient history, was that it was driven by materials and available technologies. Unlike a lot of architectural magazines you'd see in other places, you will find adverts in El Amara for construction companies. In his philosophical text "What is Architecture?" [from the 1939 edition], he says about the International Style: "The world is moving in this direction, because we all have access to the same materials, so it's no wonder that the architecture is looking more and more the same". [His point was] it doesn't make it inauthentic to a national context. It's the same today. We see steel and glass buildings all over the world because we all have access to steel and glass! It doesn't mean a steel and glass building in Dubai is an American implant.

The house Sayed Karim built for himself in 1948. IMAGE courtesy of Mohamed Elshahed.
A neon lighting strip is coiled and suspended in the central stairwell of Sayed Karim's home. IMAGE courtesy of Mohamed Elshahed.

Sayed Karim's home features in an exhibition panel and a specially commissioned video next door. Can you tell me about it?

It was his own private house that he built in 1948, and this is how Sayed Karim sought to represent himself in his own setting architecturally. It's still owned by the family but they don't live in it. One of the things I hope to do with this exhibition is to bring attention to this house. The family is willing to transform it into an architectural foundation, which is precisely what's missing in Egypt. Actually, the money that we raised to put the Biennale display on would've covered a nice refurbishment of the house! But sometimes it's important to do this kind of thing in order to bring attention to it [in the first place].

The display is beautifully presented, and I see now that it draws on elements from Sayed Karim's own house.

The elements in Sayed Karim's house were ones I tried to highlight in the exhibition design. Polished metal, which is present throughout. Neon light, suspended from the ceiling of the spiral staircase. These, together with the presence of plants, have been important textures.

The perimeter panels in Modernist Indignation detail flashing points when architecture and politics intersected, such as the 1952 Cairo Fire. IMAGE Ed Reeve.

The panels lining the walls of the exhibition highlight three specific events that demonstrate the intersection between architecture and political history.

Yes. In 1952, there was an incident in a small city on the Suez canal, where 50 Egyptian policemen were killed by British troops in a fight. The news got to Cairo the following morning, and 400 buildings were torched in rebellion. They were mostly British-owned businesses, banks and shops in the centre of town. One of the buildings that was torched housed the offices of Al Emara, and most of the archive was lost. After this incident, there's a coup d'etat and the military took over and established a military presidential republic [under Nasser]. There was a new government, and Sayed Karim and other aspiring architects had many plans that they were waiting for patrons to adopt. Sayed Karim took this opportunity to approach the new figures of power in this newly formed state. So I highlight one of those examples from 1959, where he had produced middle-income apartments based on an earlier plan for an urban extension north-east of Cairo. This is one of the moments where Sayed Karim's alliance with the state was actually productive. Not very long after, the alliance soured. In 1962, something happened and by 1964, Sayed Karim was banned from traveling, his assets were taken away, his architectural office was confiscated, and the projects that were pending were taken away from him. Some of them continued to be implemented but by other people. Like Nasser City, one of the most hated parts of Cairo today. It wasn't built according to plan but transformed into a real estate development. It's very high density and crowded with cars. Basically Sayed Karim's career stopped in 1964, although he went on to live until 2005.

And when did the magazine fold?

In 1959. The last issue is from 1957, but the magazine did other activities, like host talks until it formally stopped.

Have you been able to identify why he fell out of favour with the regime?

It seems that it was a clash of egos between the architect and whoever he was dealing with. He had produced a lot of housing and something called cultural palaces. It was a Soviet model where the state would build facilities in the provinces for the centre or the capital of the country to disseminate its idea of culture to the masses. That programme was adopted in Egypt in the 1950s and Sayed Karim designed some of the palaces. In the 1960s, when the war economy kicked in – Egypt was at war with Israel in 1967 – all the money was directed elsewhere. Architecture was not a priority and all these programmes fell back. And the person who could've potentially led them was not politically favoured anymore. It's not because he subscribed to any particular politics. He was an architect. He subscribed to being commissioned.