5 Groundbreaking Companies Reclaiming Historic Buildings in the Heart of Cairo
These five companies are tapping into Cairo's past, reclaiming historically unique spaces to help create and inspire the future innovations.
Egypt cannot be seen as anything less than an architectural marvel. Two of the world’s seven wonders were built here in ancient times – not to mention the world's first water dam. Contrary to popular belief, the architectural ingenuity didn’t end with the Pharaohs, but rather continued with Coptic monasteries, Fatimid mosques, and into the late 19th to early 20th century when Khedive Ismail introduced modern European architecture to Cairo and Alexandria, in particular. The districts of Zamalek, Garden City and Downtown Cairo are rife with Italian, French and English-style buildings, with an immortal oriental touch.
However, sometime in the last century, more so in recent decades, the architecture of Cairo lost its charm – surrounding the grandeur of Fatimid Cairo and Khedive Ismail's European project, are entire districts blanketed with tall, square, and featureless buildings to cater to our expanding population. To escape the congestion, many companies have moved out of town into commercial-only spaces like The Smart Village, or 6th of October City. But, luckily we found five companies that are still drawn to the allure of downtown Cairo and choose to reuse spaces of the past – maintaining their historical value while looking into the future.
On the island of Zamalek, the staff at the real estate company Marakez enjoy working from a gorgeous villa, with old-fashioned lanterns on each side of the gate and spectacular casement windows. If it wasn’t for their modern-font sign, you’d think it was a scene from the 1940s. Marakez, a word that literally translates to centres, denotes the importance of centrality being at the core of real estate development. Basil Ramzy, Chief Operating Officer of Marakez, tells us, “Pre-war buildings are beautiful to look at, with their detailed exteriors, and the high ceilings inside that allow for a generous space, making it inspiring to work from.”
Marakez's myriad projects focus largely on mixed-use developments, and the company reflects in large on both the aesthetic and functionality of Cairo’s original city centres “We are inspired by the human interactivity that takes place in the public spaces of active and walkable communities, such as Zamalek," Ramzy explains. For decades, Egyptians have lived in areas that have vibrant public spaces like Zamalek, but in the newer developments like the 6th of October and Katameya, this has not been the case. “Essentially, Marakez's projects aim to use retail commerce as a spark to create engaging and dynamic public spaces – to encourage human interactions and foster a sense of belonging in the community.
By rethinking the traditional American or Gulf-style shopping malls, they are attempting to create spaces that better suit the Egyptian consumer, introducing more services such as learning centres, work lounges, convenience services, and massive public parks. If successful, they suspect that in 100 years, Marakez's projects may be to our descendants what Zamalek is to Egyptians today.
We stood before one of the oldest buildings in Zamalek, taken away by the glorious details and architecture outside. The inside was equally captivating; high ceilings that illuminate the space with rustic wooden floors.
When we spoke to Dina Khashab, one of the owners of the renowned design company, she told us that being in this space is essential to producing work, "It's an acknowledgement of your history and the imprint it leaves on your identity." Meanwhile, another significance of this workspace is that it's also great for the environment, "It's way better than building something from scratch. In this building, not only can you admire the pure stone building, but having our company here sustains the environment. It's important to reuse and recycle the past in as many ways possible."
This isn't the only way they recycle the past, as Khashab mentioned that they do use efficient, old techniques in manufacturing and building by local skilled carpenters and craftsmen. She concluded, "It's vital that we recognise the world around us and make use of it."
A partially gated building with a garden, an old stone monolith from the original structure, one-half embraced by the old Zamalek, and the other by the new and modern office of New Developments. There we met with Sherif Khalifa, who we suspect may be a Zamalek historian, as he possessed a lot of knowledge about Zamalek's architecture and its history. Khalifa welcomed us with a rundown using one of their projects as an example.
He let us know that their projects aim to maintain the historical value of neighbourhoods, which he believes is getting lost, "It's a modern building, with many facilities on the inside, but it still upholds the art-deco architecture style of the island and adapts to its surroundings. We even have one side for the air conditioners so that they don't clash with the authentic view." Khalifa, who grew up in Zamalek, and grew enamoured by it, reflected on the reasons Zamalek's beauty gets buried, one of them being the old rent control, not obliging people to spend on exterior renovation, as well as the expansion of newer buildings that don't align with the area's original structures.
As he took us around, we couldn't help but notice his keenness on his office being a space of creativity, modernity and practicality, complemented by his passion for all that's antique-ish and ornamental.
We thought this place looked quite familiar and confirmed our suspicions when we were told by management that old Egyptian films were filmed here. The grand white mansion upon the Nile witnessed a lot of Egypt's modern history; it was owned by Nabil Bek Bakkous before the '52 revolution, and later distributed as apartments, where famous army generals like Kamal Hussein resided. We're not entirely sure you know who these people are, but we can assure you that a variety of people lived inside this multifaceted building.
Inside, you'll find a variety of unique spaces as well, most of them possessing contemporary choices for decor. But, the Pharos' management insisted we should see the breathtaking roof. The present-day offices sat under a gorgeous Islamic ceiling, facing arabesque windows and carved wooden doors.
One of the managers told us, “I believe the owners here really appreciate and value art, and that's why fixing this place preserved the exquisite architecture and decor. When clients come in, they get taken away by the harmonious combination of the outside and inside.” Though Pharos offers financial services, their loyalty to art and beauty is no less than design companies – we all need the grace of Egypt's past to carry into the future.
The GrEEk Campus
This plot of land was part of Egypt’s multicultural history, part of its academic history, and its recent political history. Though it was abandoned for some years, today, it’s keen on continuing to make history. Reinvented as a centre for several startups and companies, the GrEEk Campus, according to Emily Renny – Project Coordinator – serves as a hub for thriving creativity and technological advancement, “We rent office space and event space to a whole variety of creative entrepreneurial sectors.”
Running for almost three years now, The GrEEk Campus was relaunch was started by Ahmed El Alfi and Tarek Ali who were inspired by its unique environment. “The mixture of old and new is an inspiration to all who work here. It's located in a fast-paced space like downtown, yet it’s still rich with history and a strong identity. This is how creativity happens; through reclaiming an identity and being inspired by the space, which is essential to any creative industry,” clarified Renny.
As part of the campus, we at MO4 Network agree with all of the above. To work in the city centre means we have the privilege of seeing small everyday changes happening in Egypt while keeping us updated with its rises and falls, as well as spurring inspiration and innovation thanks in large part to its myriad of historically unique spaces.