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Erasing History: Why demolishing the NDP building is a mistake

As I type this article, I can see the bulldozers start to tear apart the building which once paid host to the National Democratic Party (NDP,) much to the joy of many Egyptians. I may be too late in writing this, and efforts in saving this architectural gem may be in vain.

My grandfather, Mahmoud Riad, has been named by many scholars, architects, government organizations and world leaders to be one of the pioneers of modern Egyptian and pan-Arab architecture, he also designed what has become known as the NDP building.

His projects as an architect in Egypt include the former Nile Hilton, the Arab League Headquarters, the Nile Hotel (which is now the downtown Kempinski,) the Russian Embassy and the infamous Cairo Municipality Building or the NDP building.

In the past few years, I have been watching helplessly as many of my grandfather’s architectural and urban contributions to the country are erased, neglected, forgotten, and destroyed.

There have been many rumors and criticisms circulating the media in recent years about the former NDP building and I will attempt to address common arguments for demolition before moving on to why I feel it is necessary to adapt and repurpose this building rather than to demolish it.

The National Democratic Party headquarters was built in the late 50s to house the newly created municipality of Cairo. At that point, the municipality was temporarily stationed in the royal guard barracks by Abdeen Palace (ironically, they are still located at this “temporary” location.)

These new headquarters were to be a symbol of the new republic of Egypt after the 1952 revolution. Shortly after its completion, the Socialist Union established its headquarters in the building.

Upon Abdel Nasser’s death, the building was converted into an office building housing many organizations including the National Journalist Assembly and the National Women’s Assembly and eventually the NDP party headquarters. Contrary to popular belief, the NDP party only occupied a small portion of the building.

The general public associates the building as belonging to the NDP, and due to that it has unfortunately become a perceived symbol of corruption, which is why many want to see it destroyed.

But what would better symbolize the triumph over corruption: erasing its so-called icon to attempt to forget its existence or finding a way to rebrand the entire complex so that within a short amount of time it can come to symbolize something entirely different?

This building, as a burnt ruin, does not symbolize corruption as much as it represents the nation’s revolt against it during the 2011 revolution. By eradicating the complex,  you are allowing the collective conscious to forget that these events ever took place, but by repurposing the building one can see how the building now belongs to the public. If the building is to be demolished and a skyscraper is to take its place (as the current rumor mill seem to suggest) it would basically represent the same establishment via a different form. Taking over the building and allowing at least portions of it to be open to the public, sends a much stronger social message.

Let me address the museum issue. There were reports circulating in the media that the Egyptian museum wanted would to use the entire plot as an open garden. While there is a major deficiency in both garden and open space, I would argue that placing a garden in that particular spot would be a mistake for a number of reasons.

First of all, the corniche architecturally needs a strong urban front, and placing an open site in that particular spot would break the strong urban wall currently lining the corniche.

Furthermore, the Tahrir Trio (the “NDP” building, the Nile Hilton, and the Arab League) provides a strong edge to Tahrir square, giving it its unique spatial characteristic. Without this strong edge, the square becomes a rather amorphous shape, as the other side has no defined edge to it.

Another concern is that the museum’s plan for the “garden” is not a garden but an enclosed souk (market) with an open courtyard in the middle that solely serves the museum. This means that the new space will not be accessible or even seen from the outside, and all that will be seen by the public would be a large wall.

The structural stability of the “NDP”building after the fire is a very valid concern that many have, including our architectural office. The reality is, there are reports out there that suggest that the building is in danger of collapse at any given moment and other reports that suggest that the damage of the fire is largely cosmetic in nature.

There should be the opportunity to conduct independent studies and allow our structural engineers and consultants to visit the site to conduct their own surveys. The building is, however, is currently sealed off from the public and it is impossible to get permission from the government to do so.

NDP building Shutterstock.jpg

NDP headquarters and Egyptian Museum, Shutterstock

The building is often labeled as “ugly” or an “eyesore”. When commenting on the aesthetic value of an object, artifact, or building, as an architect, I use words like “hierarchy”, “composition”, “rhythm”, “datum”, “proportion” and “harmony.” Each of these words has specific criteria that give one the tools to objectively argue whether or not something is beautiful or not.

Of course, opinions differ, but in the end one can objectively elaborate and articulate why they think the way they do, which breeds a much more fruitful conversation and understanding. I have noticed that many of the reasons why many see something as not aesthetically pleasing is due to the general upkeep of the building.

Critics call the large number of air-conditioning units that have appeared on the façade’s surface acne. Elements like the dirt from the car exhausts, the lack of maintenance on the surface render or paint and how the building occupiers have each changed their balconies to fit their own needs without coordinating with their neighbors interfere with the architect’s vision of form. The interplay of shade and shadow and the hierarchy of lines within the composition is gone and what is left is chaos.

If one is to remove all these different aspects of the building and observe the building’s façade, then one can start to understand and appreciate the architect’s vision and realize that the problem is not of the design itself.

If these external factors are what make the façade “ugly” then an easy solution is to facilitate better coordination between the building’s residents, instead of ignoring how this building is a hidden jem and tearing it down.

In terms of the “NDP” building, I invite you to take another look at the early images and drawings of the building, prior to the wall that surrounded the entire complex and the 6th of October bridge the blocked the main view.

Do not look at the repetitive windows on their own, but in context to the grand entrance and the surrounding podium building and the relationship between the window openings to the surrounding solid border that gives the building a strong powerful composition, which personified the Nasserist vision.

This building was designated a cultural heritage icon by the Ministry of Culture, knowing that, wouldn’t it be better to save our cultural heritage sites and find ways to repurpose them rather than blindly tearing them down?

Wouldn’t it be more lucrative for future investors to utilize and capitalize on the “NDP” building’s historical narrative, rather than tear it down to build another bland skyscraper that will drastically alter the character of Tahrir square?

I urgently request the government to stop this demolition process and open up a dialogue with the public, because this building belongs to the public and an informed public would better guide its future.

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Mahmoud MM Riad