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View From Cairo, Egypt

As Egypt advances towards democracy, opportunities open up for a more environmentally responsive architecture

‘Bread, freedom and social justice’ was the slogan of Egyptʼs recent and still ongoing uprising. While freedom and justice are easily understood, bread is a big mystery. It not only implies the provision of daily sustenance, but also decent shelter, which many Egyptians still do not have. This is because there is nothing in national building codes and nothing in architectural practice that requires clients and architects to take environmental issues seriously.

Typically, external brick walls are 100mm thick with no insulation; glass panels are large and single-glazed; window frames are not airtight; and traditional wooden shutters that used to act as a protective layer on facades are no longer employed. So while a decent standard of living is first on the protesters’ wish list, few professionals know how to achieve it.

Mamdouh Hamza, a leading engineer and a prominent activist in the uprising, has led the way in pushing for more environmentally responsive practice. This can be seen in the design of a new headquarters in Smart Village, Cairo, in which solar panels cool the building during seven months of the year. The system depends on water heated to 90°C by 2,000 square metres of solar panels on the roof.

Hot water passes through absorption chillers in the basement, reducing its temperature to 7°C through chemical reaction. Chilled water is then pumped to all the floors to cool the interior. Double-glazed cladding panels with a low-emissivity coating and argon gas filler will reduce solar gain by 40 per cent compared with normal glass. Such measures, familiar enough in Europe, make the building a benchmark in Egyptian sustainable design.

Less dependent on high technology and more inspired by vernacular building techniques is Block 36 in Westown, Cairo, by Shahira Fahmy, another architect taking a stand against mediocre Egyptian architecture. The block is not the usual cramped condominium with flats stacked like sardines in a tin can. Instead, duplex apartments are arranged in an interlocking plan that creates interstitial terraces with dual aspects over the central courtyard and streets.

During summer, the open terraces encourage air to penetrate the flats, reducing humidity and heat build-up. Rather than being mindlessly repetitive, facades are a variable sequence of solids and voids, making the building more responsive to climate and context. Outer walls are 400mm thick with extensions to neighbouring voids in the form of wooden screens to filter indirect light and protect privacy.

Emad Farid and Ramez Azmi are part of another group of architects who aim to reconceptualise traditional methods and materials for the modern age. Commissioned to design a hotel in the 800-year-old settlement of Shali in Siwa Oasis on the edge of the Sahara Desert, they renovated five historic houses to create 14 rooms round a courtyard.

Methods and forms of construction replicate those of the surrounding citadel, and the Albabenshal Hotel has become a major tourist attraction because of its sense of authenticity and connectedness to place. Such integration encourages wider economic and social regeneration as local inhabitants set about renovating previously abandoned houses into cafés and shops for the tourist trade.

Successful examples of adaptive reuse encourage engagement with vernacular principles and underscore their unparalleled ecological and economic benefits. Yet when all this started by implanting a boutique hotel in a ruined historic cityscape, nobody imagined it could have a wider cultural resonance.

Clearly Egypt’s uprising is still in the making, but it presents the opportunity to transform built form and urban environments. However, it will require rebellious architects not just to protest in Tahrir Square but to set examples for the community to see, understand and then follow.

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