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Sustainability and development in stark contrast at Cairo conference

Hattie Hartman
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Hattie Hartman reports from Re-materializing Construction, the 6th International LafargeHolcim Forum for Sustainable Construction, which took place in April in Cairo

When the power went out 15 minutes into his recent address at the American University in Cairo, Norman Foster was mobbed for selfies by Egyptian students. He had just presented Apple Park, the Bloomberg Building and the practice’s prototypes for 3D-printed lunar habitations to an audience of 1,400 gathered for Re-materializing Construction, a LafargeHolcim Foundation conference on sustainable materials. 

F19 foster selfies 247

F19 foster selfies 247

Foster’s talk directly followed a rapid-fire presentation by Khaled Abbas, Egypt’s deputy minister of housing for national projects, who shared the ministry’s ambitious projects pipeline: a new capital city of gleaming glass skyscrapers 45km east of Cairo, 20 new cities, 1.1 million units of housing by 2022, and 8km of roads. Apple Park contains 8km of curved glass in 15m x 3m sheets. The contrast was stark.

A deep and thought-provoking irony between the conference content and the Egyptian context permeated the three-day affair. Thought-leaders in sustainability gathered from around the globe – with a hefty representation from ETH Zurich – to exchange views about more ecological ways to build. Yet the urban planning trajectory promoted by the Egyptian government that we observed during site visits is far from sustainable and was a sobering reality check.

Egypt’s new capital (to date nameless and referred to as the New Administrative Capital – NAC) is under way. We saw the first buildings inaugurated earlier this year, including an 8,000-capacity Coptic Cathedral and a vast mosque, the second-largest in the Middle East. An enormous crane marks the site of the 385m-tall Iconic Tower, due to complete next year as Africa’s tallest. Alejandro Aravena lambasted it as ‘the largest greenhouse effect generator in Africa’.

The Egyptians like giganticism. Equally ambitious and overscaled with soaring glazed galleries and an 800m-long translucent wall, the Grand Egyptian Museum, won in competition by Heneghan Peng in 2003, was initially scheduled to open in 2012. If one believes the latest announcement by the Egyptian government, it is 88 per cent complete and will open next year.

Having visited Luxor and Karnak just before the conference, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the shadow of its extraordinary ancient civilisations could partially explain contemporary Egypt’s pharaonic ambitions which seem oblivious to the fact that over a quarter of Egyptians live below the poverty line. Meanwhile our Luxor guide pointed out a complex of six-storey social housing blocks completed over two years ago that stand empty, explaining that locals refuse to live there due to the lack of provision for keeping animals. These empty units must number amongst the deputy minister’s housing delivery count. How many other such complexes are empty?

Equally disturbing is the residential dream being sold to middle-class Egyptians and promoted on countless billboards on the multi-lane motorways that bisect and encircle greater Cairo. Their Neoclassical vernacular aside, these gated communities of two to four-storey villas, often incomplete shells, would not be out of place in suburban Dallas. They blithely ignore any consideration of climate. Our lunch stop the day we toured the desert cities was the Madinaty Sporting Club, an airy facility at the heart of a gated community of well-tended villas and apartment blocks surrounded by irrigated green lawns.

The conference itself took place in New Cairo, another far-flung area marooned 20 miles east of central Cairo, which is home to the new campus of the American University of Cairo, originally on Tahir Square. With the AV power back on, Foster showed several projects more attuned to building in the desert: Kuwait International Airport, Masdar in Abu Dhabi and his Droneport prototype (developed with LafargeHolcim) at the Venice Biennale.

Lafarge holcim f19 foster 196

Lafarge holcim f19 foster 196

Next up, Lacaton and Vassal’s French social housing refurbishments were a refreshingly modest contrast. In a talk on the theme of ‘Make do’, Anna Lacaton invited architects to use ‘existing situations as the new materials for our projects’, an approach which seems more relevant to what starchitects could bring to Egypt.

It was Aravena who articulated the difficult question that was on everyone’s mind, asking whether Egypt’s paradigm of urban sprawl could be altered. ‘How can we get clients aligned?’ he asked. Foster was quick to reply that it’s all about political will. ‘Architects are only as good as their advocacy,’ he said.

On this point of advocacy, Foster’s Cairo keynote speech took place the same week that The Tulip received planning permission in the City of London. Challenged about the Tulip in the context of the issues facing Cairo, Foster readily replied, ‘The Tulip will go through a democratic process and the people will decide. That is how cities grow and change.’ 

Surely Britain’s – or perhaps the world’s – leading starchitect, mobbed for selfies as far afield as Cairo, could deploy his advocacy back home to persuade clients to contribute positively to London’s skyline – or simply say no.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Excellent comment - but I wonder if, viewed from the Middle East, the latest Foster product to be imposed on London might seem to have more in common with a rocket propelled grenade launcher than with a tulip.

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