Public Lecture Series on Cultural Heritage and Urbanism

Within the scope of COSIMENA (Clusters of Scientific Innovation in the Middle East and North Africa), the DAAD Regional Office Cairo collaborated with four German and Egyptian universities in fostering the academic content of the international student workshop “City, Community and Heritage” through a series of public lectures in Alexandria from 2 to 3 November 2018.

The workshop “City, Community and Heritage” was organised in collaboration between the University of Kassel, Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, Technische Universität Berlin, Campus El Gouna and Alexandria University. Experts from the four universities as well as professional and community stakeholders came together to discuss current challenges in the Egyptian heritage preservation sector with students from the areas of heritage preservation and architecture (Weimar and Alexandria) as well as urban planning and development (El Gouna and Kassel). Thus, the workshop not only aimed at deepening the knowledge about heritage preservation but also focused on the gaps between heritage preservation and urban development strategies in Egypt. During the workshop, two case studies were conducted, each of them representing the conflict between rapid urbanisation and various attempts to protect Egypt’s built heritage. The first half of the workshop was dedicated to the study of a historical tramway repair shop at the Mahmoudiya Water Canal in the old city centre of Alexandria, whereas the second half focused on the historical city centre of Al-Qusair. Together with the experts, the students examined how uncontrolled informal adaptations in both areas threatened the historical monuments and developed possible intervention strategies.

The public lecture series organised by COSIMENA provided the theoretical background needed for the workshop participants and allowed other students from architecture and urbanism programmes to gain deeper insight into some of the important current research topics in their fields. Since heritage preservation is also strongly connected to tourism development in Egypt’s urban centres, the alumni of the COSIMENA Summer School 2018, which focused on climate change adaptation and sustainable mobility and tourism in the MENA region, were invited to join the event.

The first day started with a lecture on “Urban Challenges in Egypt” by Prof. Dr. Hebatallah Aboulfadl, Professor for Architecture at Alexandria University and the Academic Coordinator of the Revitalisation of Historic City Districts Master’s Programme (RHCD), a DAAD-funded double degree programme in collaboration between the Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus-Senftenberg in Germany, Cairo University and Alexandria University. Aboulfadl first gave an overview about the social and socio-economic challenges that Egypt is facing nowadays due to intense urbanisation in recent decades. Especially in metropolitan areas like Cairo and Alexandria, urban planning and management, infrastructure and public services have not been able to keep pace with the rapid population growth. This has had a direct impact on Egypt’s urban heritage, which is increasingly threatened by a continuous state of neglect and insufficient maintenance. Aboulfadl stated that the current legal and political framework regarding protection of historical buildings has further aggravated the situation. The legal definition of heritage privileges Pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic buildings over architectural monuments of modern times; furthermore, responsibilities are scattered among various state entities and the country is lacking an institution exclusively responsible for the rehabilitation of heritage buildings. In the case of Alexandria, this has led to a gradual loss of the city’s heritage due to the demolition of numerous historical villas. These issues were further exacerbated by the political instability after the Egyptian revolution of 2011 when rural migration, economic downfall and the legal vacuum contributed to the spread of informal settlements. Nowadays, many heritage sites are either being demolished or are surrounded by illegal construction.

Given the status quo, Aboulfadl then went on to discuss what could be done to raise public and political awareness about heritage destruction. She said that despite the negative consequences mentioned above, the events of 2011 have also resulted in an increased intellectual and public participation in heritage activism, which coincides with the spirit of civic engagement and the new articulation of a public “right to the city”. Aboulfadl showed some examples of historical buildings that are currently in danger of being destroyed and discussed how they could be reused, which role architects should play in cooperation with the local residents of informal settlements and how the reused buildings should be connected with their surrounding areas. This correlates with the contemporary perception of heritage preservation as a tool for social and cultural development instead of an act of mere beautification of a city’s image.

In the following lecture, Dr. Hassan ElMouelhi, a post-doctoral researcher in the department of urban development at Technische Universität Berlin, Campus El Gouna, took a closer look at urban informality in Egypt. He stated that the physical interrelation and proximity between heritage sites and informal areas required greater attention from stakeholders involved in heritage protection. Previous research on informal urban development has often not paid enough attention to the role of the residents as the main actors; though understanding the residents’ cultural identity provides better understanding of the complexity of informal settlements, which is crucial to the success of development projects.

ElMouelhi explained how cultural factors interrelate with urban physical characteristics and use patterns of urban space and power relations in informal settlements. Various case studies in Cairo, where an estimated 60–70% of the population is living in so-called Ashwa’eyat (meaning “randomly built areas”), revealed some characteristics of informal settlements. For example, a high level of homogeneity and cooperation has been found between residents that can be traced back to their origin, since inhabitants of a specific area often migrated from the same (Upper Egyptian) village and/or belong to the same family. Community members also collaborate to overcome a certain problem, for example through the installation of shading tents over a street or illegal lighting for a building. As far as their relation to the surrounding urban economy and society is concerned, Ashwa’eyat residents are marginalised in different ways: neglect by the government and the lack of basic needs (e. g. health care, infrastructure, water supply, income) result in mutual mistrust further deepened by corruption. Moreover, stigmatisation by inhabitants of formal areas reinforces their self-perception as “informal” which in turn may influence patterns of behaviour. At the end of his lecture, ElMouelhi said that empirical observations like these show that development projects in informal settlements including heritage rehabilitation require communication between stakeholders at different levels and deliver information about the potential for community participation.

The first lecture on the second day was held by Magdy Fouad, Project Architect at Sigma Properties, a property management company specialising in the development and reutilisation of heritage buildings. Sigma Properties is currently operating in Alexandria and Cairo, where they acquire historical buildings of architectural value with the aim of renovating these buildings and integrating them into different communities. Fouad explained the process of acquisition and development of heritage buildings whereby the company is also constantly facing the challenge of economic sustainability. At the end of his lecture, he introduced one of the latest projects of Sigma Properties, an old warehouse in Gomhoreya Street in Cairo, and asked the students to start thinking about possible scenarios for its redevelopment in relation to the surrounding area. The event itself took part in a historical building recently acquired by Sigma Properties, the Cordahi Complex adjacent to the Alexandria Opera House and currently in use as a workshop hub.

The programme concluded with a lecture by Mirhan Damir, a doctoral candidate at the Faculty for Architecture and Urbanism at Bauhaus-Universität Weimar and a German Egyptian Research Long-Term Scholarship (GERLS) holder, who gave an introduction into the first case study of the workshop, and the site visit on the following day. She started her lecture by pointing out that governmental strategies concerning heritage conservation and urban planning are often limited to either the management of the informalities or the protection of historical sites. However, in areas where historical sites and informal settlements are juxtaposed, they should rather be viewed as a unit and thus perceived accordingly. She then went on to present the historical tramway repair shop located in Karmouz, a marginalised western district of Alexandria. The case study aimed at examining ways in which informal establishments affect the perception of the historical building and its surroundings and potential intervention strategies contributing to a new recognition of the historical value and further economic and social development in the area.

Each lecture was followed by a networking session providing an interdisciplinary discussion platform with the aim of further deepening existing cooperation as well as stimulating further projects between experts and young scientists from Germany and the MENA region in the cultural heritage and urbanism sector.

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