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A letter from Egypt: optimism after the turmoil

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Cairo-based architect Glenn Patten believes Egypt’s future is bright following the departure of the country’s president, Hosni Mubarak

Egypt is back to work. Many businesses opened on the eighth day of the uprising, a surreal contrast of normality against the uprising playing out in front of fixed camera positions.

Banks are open, factories have returned to production and on the surface it appears to be business as usual, minus the tourists. However the Stock Exchange remains closed [until later today].

Locally-financed projects are facing short-term difficulty due to disruption and restrictions in local banking, while some internationally financed projects, such as the new Metro, face delays due to the flight of expatriate staff. 

The horrific images from Tahrir square highlighted the vulnerability of the old Egyptian Museum, which will hopefully serve to hasten completion of the new Giza Museum scheduled for 2013 [designed by Heneghan Peng]. The first two phases of support buildings are nearing completion and I understand that construction work on the main building will start very soon. Then there is  Zaha Hadid Architects’ iconic Cairo Expo City (pictured) for the General Organisation for International Exhibitions and Fairs and whether it will survive a new government’s shift in priorities.

Our own work continues largely unaffected at the moment and, surprisingly, we have just been asked to design a 15,000m² administration building for a Pharmaceutical company. Interior design for General Electric and Nestle headquarters is in progress and there is no indication at the moment of these projects being suspended. Indeed they represent the sectors where massive investment and job creation is needed. Design and construction for a private hospital is also continuing and we are committed to HSBC’s retail branch expansion and refit programmes. We have just completed a 21,000m² Gold LEED rated Global Resource Centre for HSBC on the outskirts of Cairo, which suggests there has been growing confidence in Egypt’s policy reforms, economic growth and regional status. I would expect this confidence to continue and deepen after a pause for the dust to settle.

There is uncertainty over how democracy will unfold, but also widespread optimism

Of course there is concern and uncertainty over how democracy will unfold but also widespread optimism. A new attitude to the urban fabric has emerged as witnessed by volunteer cleaning of Tahrir Square and many neighbourhoods.

Social network groups are chattering excitedly about tackling  wide ranging social issues and this national awakening should help accelerate regeneration projects and set off major development programmes in education, health and low-cost housing. Dealing with informal communities and providing for a very young population will hopefully attract international funding for new settlements, community facilities and skill centres to support the new national job-creation programme. Expectations are high that a new government will create opportunities and I expect this to translate into a much more open economy with streamlined paths for FDI and major growth in the production and manufacturing sectors.

My barometer of change will be the student graduation project presented at job interviews. Over the last few years, graduation projects focused on grand designs for conference centres, airports and the like, have been influenced by the physical contortions and gymnastics of Arabian Gulf architecture with students outsourcing to a burgeoning 3DMax community.  

Indeed many of the younger architects left Egypt for the Gulf only to return recently following the onset of recession. Their contemporaries have been the driving force in the revolution so hopefully this pool of expertise will grasp the opportunity to a make a meaningful contribution to regenerating the urban fabric and communities of Egypt.

I have lived and worked in Egypt for the term duration of the last regime and my staff are Egyptian. There are concerns among them and many others I speak to, but these are more than matched by excitement, optimism and a sense of opportunity. Political reform will need administrative reform and quality buildings to attract young professionals to public service and quality buildings from which to operate. With the British profession’s expertise in government, education, health and community projects, there is much for British firms to contribute.

Perhaps the fact that David Cameron was the first of the foreign leaders to visit indicates opportunities for Brits in Egypt.

Meanwhile weekly newspaper Al Ahram is reporting on discussions between Samir Radwan, Egypt’s Minister of Finance and British trade and investment Minister Lord Stephen Green and an accompanying delegation of 15 businessmen from economic, education and management sectors. Radwan requested the British business community to increase its investments in the Egyptian market. In reply, Lord Green stressed the attraction of Egypt’s skilled labourforce and indicated British companies and investment were seriously considering expanding operations in Egypt as soon as conditions stabilise.

I recall Lord Green’s confidence in the Egyptian economy during a speech here when inaugurating our HSBC headquarters and laying out HSBC’s plans for considerable expansion. I certainly hope the British business and professional community get behind this early initiative.

Glenn Patten studied at the Bartlett UCL, qualified in January 1980 and worked for Seifert Architects in London. He moved to Cairo as Seifert’s Resident Architect for the Banque Misr headquarters building in downtown Cairo before co-founding Archimid in 1994.

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