Interview: Cairo Heritage School on adapting architectural education programmes in Egypt

Based in the Egyptian capital, the Cairo Heritage School has developed a series of educational activities that aim at bridging the gap between civil society, experts and decision-makers.

Shortlisted for Tamayouz Excellence Award’s Mohamed Makiya Prize 2020, the Cairo Heritage School (CHS) is a collaborative educational platform in Cairo dedicated to heritage, urbanism, architecture and the built environment.

Established in 2015 by Deena El-Mahdy, Waled Shehata, Ahmed Tobgy and Ahmed Saleh, CHS works to bridge many gaps in the field of cultural heritage management in Egypt, and does so by providing a parallel education platform. Its activities in the last five years include the Adaptive Reuse of Bait el Qadi International Summer School (July-August 2016), and the Urban Design and Adaptive Reuse of Madrasa Al-Salhiya Workshop (June 2019). These summer schools were held in collaboration with governmental entities, educational institutions, fundraising agencies and heritage-expert institutions, and offered educational workshops on architectural conservation and the reuse of significant heritage sites.

CHS’s workshops also provided an opportunity to negotiate how involved civil society and experts are in management decisions taken by local authorities regarding common heritage.

Here, we speak with the founding members of CHS about their mission, impact and upcoming plans.

The founding members of CHS

Tell us about starting CHS – why did you decide to do so?
The question of who owns, understands, regulates, organises, or defines the urban space, especially the heritage sites, in Egypt has been dominated by outdated concepts or has been inconsistently answered at best. Subsequently, the landscape of power coalitions in Egypt is scattered due to overlapping scopes and different visions, which has left academia and practice in limbo trying to uncover the changes in a country that is lagging behind in transparency index and freedom of information.

These sudden shifts have left sustainable heritage management to suffer from widespread unhealthy practices in dealing with the built environment in Egypt, especially with regards to the sustainable management of our rich cultural heritage. We felt obliged to take action to fill these gaps utilising our diverse experience as a group to establish CHS as a business model for parallel collective education and a platform for negotiation, producing knowledge, and making information accessible to everyone.

Group work in the madrasa of Al-Saliheya workshop

What is CHS’ work process?
The model of our operation was, and to a large extent still is, unique in Egypt. Educational activities related to heritage usually take place in isolation from what actually occurs on ground, expert viewpoints, community priorities, and from the meeting rooms of decision-makers in the government. CHS brings together stakeholders’ discussions with workshop participants, which is an opportunity to empower young Egyptian professionals and local residents, and fosters cross-class collaboration. Partners and participants are selected based on a best-fit-model that varies per workshop’s special focus and circumstances, but all are based on the principle of equal opportunities without any discrimination.

During the summer school, participants work in groups with others from different backgrounds, as well as with members of the local community. At the end of the school’s duration, which usually takes between one to two weeks, a jury consisting of a group of experts and decision-makers is invited to evaluate all the participants’ work, conduct a constructive review, announce the winners, and make the school’s output available to a wider audience by publishing them in different mediums.

What have you achieved through CHS?
The summer schools and workshops helped develop young professionals who adopted the topics learned in their working environment. CHS built strong partnerships with government, professionals and educational institutions, and shared knowledge with a wider audience, which helped us develop a deeper understanding of the complexity of urban planning in the historical context in Egypt and to develop constructive tools for engagement. The workshop thus became a model for negotiation in a contested socio-political framework that tries to steer ideas to provide a positive impact in Egypt.

Tell us more about your summer schools – what was the idea behind launching them? How do they differ from your workshops?
The idea of the summer school crystallised to offer a simulation experience of working conditions in these sensitive contexts in order to develop a deeper understanding among students and professionals concerned with current problems. This is achieved by involving stakeholders and decision-makers in intensive joint workshops and by providing them with up-to-date information from all actors in order to develop a practical solution together and help them unleash their creativity under expert guidance. This is so they can further develop their skills and knowledge in terms of intervention strategies and ideas.

The first summer school was held in 2016, and it mainly focused on applying adaptive reuse as a strategy for the preservation of cultural heritage, enabling participants to develop schematic designs and management proposals for the case study area of Maqaad Mamay (Bayt Al-Qady) – the only remaining building of the Mamluk Palace – for Al-Ameer Mamay Al Seify. While the second summer school in 2019 had a wider urban design focus, which tried to examine areas of high value that are being neglected and are disappearing, such as Saliheya Madrasa, of which only one iwan is still intact. The results of the two summer schools were aimed at offering contemporary solutions that do not undermine the tangible and intangible heritage of Cairo.

The CHS workshop thus points to the way local heritage-making projects can chip away at entrenched social and political dynamics that extend far beyond the management of local cultural and architectural legacies.

One of CHS’ founders, Deena El-Mahdy

Tell us about your other activities in the past few years.
After its successful workshops, CHS was invited to carry out other forms of activities, such as shorter versions of workshops, ranging from a few hours to a day, as well as public lectures and other events. For example, in November 2017, CHS gave a presentation at Dubai Design District and organised a full-day workshop in Portsaid in collaboration with the Alliance Française. Also in 2017, we presented some of our findings in a funded research project called ‘Cairo Virtual Heritage’. In 2019, we presented our work at ‘Alt-shift’19 regeneration is the key’ by Ouishare Egypt. In October 2020, we were invited to give a presentation at the House of Egyptian Architecture as part of the ‘Celebrations for World Architecture Day 2020’. We also worked jointly with partners in digital documentation for heritage and historical sites using 3D-laser scanning, photogrammetry and virtual reality.

Despite the importance of these side activities, the main contribution of CHS is still to provide complete and comprehensive educational workshops over a period of several days, as confirmed by the documented feedback we received from the participants of the workshops.

What do you believe you have contributed through CHS?
We at CHS are trying to participate in the development of a corrective narrative about traditional methods of dealing with historical contexts in Egypt, whereby in various phases, important aspects of dealing with historical ensembles have been neglected. Our aim is to document the knowledge we gain from our studies and, together with our partners, to make it available to as many professionals and interested parties as possible. Also to act as a link for all relevant actors to share their knowledge and develop an inclusive urban planning agenda, and to work with government agencies and other partners to activate it as a national strategy.

Students of a workshop completing group work

What projects or programmes do you have coming up?
Currently, Cairo Heritage School is organising its third summer school, which has been delayed until 2021 due to COVID-19. It will focus on design using computer-aided design tools and environmental optimisation on-site, with the aim of exploring contemporary ideas in dealing with public spaces in the historic urban fabric.

These experiments would raise awareness among the general public, reconnect with the hopes and needs of the community and provide us with local observations of people’s behaviour in dealing with new structures.

One of the co-founder of CHS presenting the group’s work to Bond University in Australia

We are also in the process of curating an exhibition and publishing a publication that will include some of our work in collaboration with other partners, and look forward to organising a conference with local universities to discuss some of the pressing issues in heritage conservation.

Future collaborations will be built on an international level through the concept of resilience, by looking at damaged cities that have been affected by wars and other areas, to share our knowledge and collaborate on future summer schools, conferences, and research projects to address these issues.