Our industry must look to places like Cairo as an example of how ambition can shape the built environment.
As a writer who focuses on the AEC industry, I have gotten the opportunity to research, learn, and write about projects all over the world. However, despite so much of my time being spent writing about projects – examining the processes and outcomes of our decisions as the designers of the built environment – opportunities to travel have been extremely limited and my work was almost entirely digital. This changed recently when I was invited by Ashok Duttah and Hill International to see some of their work firsthand in Cairo.
I had been writing about momentous projects in Egypt for several years, but this was my first professional opportunity to visit the projects I was writing about. I was familiar with the aspects of design, construction, and scale for these projects, but I wanted to understand what these projects meant in the context of the space and time they occupy – to understand what these projects mean for the present and future of a place that is so often engaged with and studied for its past. For me, this was a new experience in a new place, and, on a professional level, I was keen to learn more about how the AEC industry functions in such a unique location.
I gazed excitedly out of the window as we were descending to our final destination, eager to get my first glimpses of a new place. The first signs of humanity I could distinguish were dozens of container ships – small as ants from this perspective – lining up to pass through the Suez Canal. We soon landed in Cairo, just after the sun had set, and we decided to make our way to the hotel. After shaking the weariness of travel, we set out to visit the Cairo Monorail, which is quickly taking shape as the longest driverless monorail system in the world. I have been writing about the Cairo Monorail for several years, and, after spending countless hours interviewing and researching, I was eager to see its progress with my own eyes. We drove along the monorail’s concrete guideway to the east, passing by the bee hives of activity that were the monorail’s stations and final spans.
Along this central corridor, the concrete guideway rises high to occupy a defining position amidst the landscape of the eastern Cairo Governorate and seems to stretch indefinitely forward into the desert. After driving for what seemed like hours, we arrived at the monorail’s depot for the East of Nile line. Standing atop the platform looking out to the west, the modern city of Cairo is a verdant space on the horizon, ceding the foreground to places like the New Administrative Capital which stands neat and orderly in pristine symmetry. The moment and the view were fleeting as we had to keep moving on our tour, but it provided a moment of clarity. Having researched and written about the project, I understood its scale and importance, but in this moment I realized that this project stretched a great distance through time as well as physical distance – connecting the newest parts of the city with the most ancient.
While so much of what I was seeing in Cairo was completely foreign to my personal experience, there are certain things that can seemingly be translated across all cultures and places. As humans, our brains are wired to recognize familiar smells, and, in recognizing that similarity, we experience something akin to a sense of euphoria or nostalgia. On the third day of our trip, I had this experience firsthand as we sat down for lunch in full view of the Giza Pyramids. I had spent countless hours in my childhood (and admittedly my adulthood) looking at pictures of these structures and reading about their history, but this felt like a dream. Instead of thinking about my lunch order, I could only stare with my mouth slightly agape at the magnificence of these structures. Cutting through this fog of admiration was a sudden, familiar smell – that of fresh baking bread. Glancing around, I noticed a small stone oven in the far corner of the restaurant where a woman was working delicately to produce small loaves of bread for serving. The smell and my recognition of it marked the moment into my conscious thought, and I could feel myself easing into the comfort like a welcomed guest in a magnificent home.
This welcoming experience provided a unique capstone to our earlier visit to the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), which is nearing completion as the largest museum in the world. Although it is not yet open to the public, we were able to spend some time exploring one of the GEM’s massive exhibition spaces, which houses thousands of ancient Egyptian artifacts from throughout its long and rich history. Walking through the stepped marble terrace, the chatter of voices bounces and scatters off the endless stone antiquities. Unique for its interactive layout, visitors to the exhibition halls at the GEM are able to walk amongst the countless artifacts in several curated patterns. This has a thrilling effect on the inevitable conversations that arise, and after a short while it feels as though the statues are themselves silent contributors. Over two decades in the making, construction works on the GEM are expected to finish by the end of this year, and the museum will likely be open to the public sometime in early 2024.
As we boarded our flight back to Dubai and eventually the United States, I couldn’t help but reflect on the moments of beauty that filled our time in Cairo. These moments – projects large in scale and importance – tell the story of not only a rich culture and unparalleled history, but also one that is meeting the modern age with the same ambition as befits that history. I couldn’t help but think of my time spent in the GEM, and of the rippling impacts of such a massive, culturally-important project. There is very little about the GEM’s construction process that wouldn’t be considered ambitious, and the cost of this ambition has been paid over the course of a two-decade design and construction process. Flexibility has allowed the process to move forward, and aspects of the museum, such as the facilities for restoring artifacts, are already operating ahead of its opening.
For projects like the Grand Egyptian Museum, this ambition will have resounding effects – both financial and cultural – as the massive museum will draw visitors from around the world, and the restoration facilities will make it possible to keep more Egyptian artifacts in Egypt. But the GEM is just one example of how this ambition is starting to pay dividends. On the Cairo Monorail, further progress has spurred development along the column, and when completed will provide direct access to the New Administrative Capital. As we left, my last thoughts were about the AEC industry and our role in shaping the future. As the designers of the built environment, we have a responsibility to the communities we serve, and part of this responsibility is understanding and planning for the future. In thinking about how we as an industry will respond to the challenges the future may hold, our goals and plans should hold on to a sense of ambition and use places like Cairo as a positive anecdote of what ambition can lead to in the built environment.
Luke Carothers is Zweig Group’s senior content manager and editor for Civil+Structural Engineer Magazine. His writing focuses primarily on the projects, people, and processes that influence the past, present, and future of the built environment. He welcomes those interested in collaborating on an article to reach out to him at email@example.com.