Walking up the street from Mesaha Square in Dokki to take a tour of the Goethe Institut’s new Egyptian headquarters with a member of staff, I found a large number of people standing in a frenzied queue outside. It seemed like an embassy entrance with a chaotic display of Egyptians attempting to obtain visas, but my companion quickly explained that it was registration day for the German language examination. The people crowding the new building’s entrance were students simply trying to ensure themselves a seat at the next exam.
We entered the building through its second, unobstructed entrance just a few meters further down Hussein Wassef Street. The first thing that struck me about the new three-storey building is how white it is — especially in contrast to the omnipresent greyish beige of its surroundings. The second striking element is the lawn and palm tree garden that is surrounded by the U-shaped building, one wing of which is a historic villa that has been stripped down and renovated true to its original architecture.
The view upon entering the German cultural center’s new building is reflective of Cairo’s urban landscape — or more precisely, what many of us would like it to look like. It feels like a quiet and airy oasis in the middle of the city’s angst — one that’s “open” but with security at the door asking where you might be going, as is often the case with semi-public spaces. There is a contrast of old and new, as well as a mass of young people trying to create opportunities for themselves.
The building was designed by German architecture firm Worschech Architects starting in 2003, and construction by Egyptian company Al-Habashi General Contracting began in the summer of 2012. Its neat simplicity reflects contemporary European design, while the refurbished adjacent villa, the courtyard garden and the modern take on mashrabia window screens (using the Goethe logo as the pattern) hark back to Arabic architectural heritage. The new building hosts language classrooms, a library, an events hall and staff offices, while the adjacent villa contains a cafeteria and more offices.
Elke Kaschl Mohni, Goethe Egypt’s director and the institute’s new regional director, speaks of “an organic combination of German and Arabic contemporary style” and points to how historic elements of Arab architecture have been given a modern functionality.
Since opening in 1958 the Goethe Institut in Egypt, like its counterparts all over the world, has been the main cultural and linguistic gateway to Germany for locals. Offering language courses, a German-centric library, cultural programming and support for the local art scene, it plays an active role in Egypt’s cultural life.
Until now Goethe housed its administration, culture department and library in its downtown villa on Bustan Street adjacent to the Egyptian Museum. The “White Villa” on Mesaha Square, which functioned as the GDR’s embassy before German reunification in 1990 and is currently being renovated, hosted its language department and classes.
The new building is a close neighbour of the White Villa — they are only separated by another beautiful villa, though not owned by Goethe — and will be inaugurated with a 36-hour art program titled Changing Spaces, Broadening Perspectives which runs continuously from noon Thursday until midnight Friday.
“This is where we really open up, giving everyone the possibility to pass by,” says Johanna Keller, head of Goethe’s culture department. “Whether they want to see a concert, see a film, go clubbing, or bring their children in the morning, we wanted to create a chance for everyone to come no matter their interests or schedule.”
The beautiful glass-walled library (shown in the top photo) is a particular highlight of the building. It houses a variety of books on German culture and language, as well as current issues of German magazines and newspapers which you can either read at the library or borrow to take home. Open from 1 to 7 pm, it will be a wonderful workspace for freelancers to work as it has a coffee and tea station, various types of seating, good wifi, and an abundance of natural light. There are also plans for the library to host film screenings and talks, board-game nights, literary discussions and daytime storytelling sessions for children.
One main drawback of the Bustan Street space was that the size and acoustic challenges of the events hall limited the events it was able to host, so their onsite arts programing largely focused on film, visual art and discussion, rather than music and performance. The new events hall, located on the institute’s ground floor, is much larger and designed to act as concert venue, cinema and stage. It even has translation booths for conferences and large workshops.
“In terms of programing, Goethe Institut has always also perceived itself as a platform for others. We give our space to Egyptian initiatives,” Keller stated, outlining that while Goethe will have its own program featuring German and Egyptian artists, it is also open to proposals from local artists who would like to use the space. She went on to say “the hall is going to be one of Egypt’s state-of-the-art halls. We are ready to accommodate, but we still have to work on our curatorial concept.”
Staff are also happy that the new building brings together the culture and language departments. “We’re really happy to be in the same building together because there is a joint aspect between the language work and the culture work, but so far the audiences have been quite separate,” Keller says. “The opening is really a kick-off for us mixing the audiences more to show the language students how interesting the library actually is, and how much they can gain from it. It shows them how interesting culture can be.”
“And maybe it will inspire one of our [cultural] programing partners to learn German,” Kaschl Mohni interjects.
Space-wise, the coming two years will be a transitional period for the Goethe Institut. The administration and culture staff will continue to work at the Bustan Street premises while the White Villa on Mesaha Square is renovated. This villa will then become the office of Goethe’s staff and the old downtown premises will be vacated.
While the move will open up new opportunities and connections, many are wondering about the fate of Goethe’s remarkable downtown villa which, much like the new premises, is owned by the German government. Called Villa Ahmed Mazloum Basha, the large, impeccably maintained and very central building was constructed in 1920 by a French architect, rented to Goethe in 1957, and bought in 1961.
Kaschl Mohni tells me the move was conceived with the idea that once it is complete, the downtown villa will be sold. The regional director expresses sorrow to see it go, as she has fond memories of the building and considers it an important part of Cairo’s architectural history. But for the German government, the cost of running an unused building would be an unjustifiable expense.
“I have a hope that maybe within the coming two years another use can be found for the villa, as a cultural place or something,” she says. “Maybe there is an organization or partner who has a vision for the building and could talk to us. We can’t promise anything, because it’s up to the German government. Any plan for the building has to be economically viable and a good concept. Then we could start talking to people in the German government about having another vision for the building, rather than selling it in a few years.”