Cairo is a city that is an architectural and urban design disaster. If the sentence is true that “all Egyptians want to be designers”, as one professor of the applied arts tells me, then it is a pity that this was not the case at least 30 years ago. Cairo is the city of the block, the slab, the monolith. It reflects the nimbus of construction in the country, whose first industrial champion was Arab Contractors, a state corporation that privatized and is now tantamount to a state itself. Having built the Assuan Dam it branched out. And was soon followed by the cement industry, which was in turn followed by the light breeze-brick industry. The slabs are often only two apartment boxes wide, with a single utility shaft for the elevator, stairs and piping. The sides of the building are left bare, no money shelled out for plasterwork – the desert dust will sandblast the red bricks beige soon enough.

Meaning that unless a tenant decides to paint the façade around the balcony, all buildings look alike in terms of dingy color tone, and their shapes differ only depending on whether they are cylindrical (next to the Nile) or a greater or lesser grid of boxes. And each sand-colored building is topped in the same inimitable way: by a crown of satellite dishes, all aligned in the same direction such that if you buzzed the city with a small plane the impression looking down would probably be similar to gazing across an extensive field of mussels all standing in rows reaching up into the water – from the sandy seabed below. Even at 25 storeys in height, it is a matter of 25 layers of identicalness. Difference is a matter of the interiors or the street life at ground level, or the proximity of gardens or parks, of which there are many – despite the excessive price of land that has prompted all these buildings to rush upwards, clamoring for space.


In the hallways and lobbies there is a constant fight going on to repel the dust, to wash down the tiles or marble floors and wall panels. It is an undertaking that recurs everyday with the regularity of the sun, but not as bright. As often these public sections of buildings are as under-illuminated as they are under-cooled, as landlords seek no doubt to keep operating costs low. This is particularly the case in ministries, where the cabling is often not concealed now doubt out of a wish to facilitate repair work without breaking walls open. The stairwells are often illuminated only by shafts left open to the sky that run parallel to them. In this respect the presence or absence of light is a defining rhythm to urban life here. For some that life is always dingy – in the elevators in the ministry buildings there is inevitably a lift boy. In the Ministry of Higher Education, he is possibly aged 60 and is diminutive in stature, probably chosen for the job for that reason. He has a small seat made of bent tubular aluminum and plastic belting, which he offers to an old lady. Next to it, balanced precariously beneath his telephone and the top of the faux-formica panel stands his coffee cup, the smell of cardamoms bringing the outside world into this little under-lit office of his, prison cell that moves up and down all day, albeit not smoothly. The fact that outside the building the traffic is sheer pandemonium, the decibels rising and falling by the meters gained seems as good as implausible, a rumor but not a reality.


The gridlock reality which prompts people to leave for meetings hours in advance has led to the foundation of new housing and office estates between downtown Cairo and the satellite cities the planners strung like so many pearls along the outer ring road. These new towns sometimes have names or simply borrow from the names of the adjacent district, such as all the sprawl round Gomnia on the road to the airport, where the line of apartment blocks is brought to an abrupt halt by the outer perimeter fence. They fill the gap left to the satellites, such as New Cairo, and in some cases have become more glitzy than these, boasting ultramodern office blocks or complexes thereof, already bursting at the seams with tenants eager to have escaped the gridlock. Albeit only for such a time as it takes for developers to fill in remaining gaps, bringing in more people, and thus more traffic.


This trend is de-urbanization in a sense and re-suburbanization, whereby the residential belts are often between the new commercial districts and the rapidly decaying or emptying downtown. Downtown is now often a matter of old buildings half empty – here, brownfield is not the word, which should be beigefield. And by old I do not mean 100 years back, with an ornately carved frontage on a three- or four-storey building. I mean the 1970s or 1980s blocks that are much higher, were the sentinels of Nasserian or Sadatian progress. Under Mubarak all that expanded were the barracks…