The Volkoff Album: panorama of the public and private architecture of Cairo during the first half of the 20th century
The architecture of 20th century Cairo was photographed far less than its historical monuments. An album assembled in the early 1930s provides a rare anthology of productions that were then considered to be eminent.
Coming from the department of State Buildings of the Egyptian Ministry of Public Works, this collection of 48 photographs provides a panorama of the architecture of the time. Despite its title, all the constructions were situated in Cairo, with the exception of the Collège Saint-Marc in Alexandria, the work of the French architects Léon Azéma, Max Edrei and Jacques Hardy, built in 1928 (n° 17). The album is undated but it must have been put together in the early 1930s. Several of the illustrated buildings were completed in 1931 or 1932, even if some older edifices are also included, such as the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, the Musée Arabe (now the Museum of Islamic Art) or else the Egyptian government’s reception pavilion for prestigious guests, which were all finished in 1902. Furthermore, in 1931 a different department of the same ministry had prepared a similar document: the “map of the progressive development of the city of Cairo from the year 1800 to our time”, to show the evolution of its urbanisation.
Captioned in Arabic and English, the photographs were perhaps meant to appear in an exhibition, for example the 14th Agricultural and Industrial Fair in Cairo in 1931, or its 15th edition, held in 1936.
Above all, the prints present some of the major productions of the department that commissioned the album, which was in charge of the construction and upkeep of public buildings. In particular, they include the Parliament, the symbol of Egyptian sovereignty ever since 1922, when Britain put an end to its protectorate over Egypt, as well as the literature department of the young University of Cairo, the seed bed of the country’s cultural renaissance (Nahda). The collection also allotted pride of place to the monument erected to the memory of the nationalist leader Saad Zaghloul between 1928 and 1931, once more by the same department. The syncretic aesthetic mausoleum (n° 6-9), mixing Egyptian references (in its decor) and Islamic references (in its architectural typology), raised a certain controversy, because of the paganism associated with the religion of the Ancient Egyptians. It was the work of Mustafa Fahmy, a French-trained Egyptian architect who, as of 1928, took on the function of chief architect of state buildings and is considered to be the father of the profession of Egyptian architects. Some of his other productions, in a neo-Islamic style and this time for private clients, are also illustrated in the album (n° 38, 39-41, 43). In general, productions of an historicist nature are heavily represented, reflecting the importance accorded to the question of a national style in architecture, while the Egyptian independence movement was growing. Built in 1924-1927, the head office of the Misr Bank (n° 4) (Misr meaning Egypt) is another, more classicising example of neo-Islamic architecture with a political symbolism, illustrating the growing power of Egyptian capitalism in the service of the development of the national economy, the raison d’être of the banking establishment and of the industrial group to which this orientation gave birth. Finally, there are places of worship, both of them Christian, including the Saint Gregory the Illuminator Church, built in 1924-1927 by the architect Léon Nafilyan for Egypt’s apostolic Armenian community.
The other theme of the album is private construction. Several large residencies, once more in a neo-Islamic style, are documented: that of the Count of Zogheb (n° 21), built in 1898, or a house built in Heliopolis, in the suburbs of Cairo, by the architect Alexandre Marcel in 1908 for the future sultan Hussein Kamel. More unexpectedly, the collection of photos also includes scenes of interiors. These feature several eclectic villas, including both the reception rooms and more intimate salons of the home of the magistrate Mugib Fathy Bey. The decoration of the rooms would not have been out of place in the bourgeois decoration catalogues of the time: cast-iron grates, floral screens, stencilled fleur-de-lys, Chinese knickknacks and hanging rugs. Local colour is supplied by the “Arab salon” (n° 32), which was generally used as a smoking room or boudoir, and which any good home had to have. All these decors were produced by the Egyptian architect Aly Labib Gabr (1898-1966), another pioneer figure, who trained in England, and left his mark on his numerous students at the École Polytechnique of Cairo, where he taught after 1924.