A leading architect unearths the history and scrutinizes the design of Cairo's new civic gem, Al-Azhar Park - 2005-03-24
Until recently, the only vantage point from which to view Cairo's historic skyline of minarets and domes up close was the Citadel. Thanks to the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), Cairo now boasts a 30-hectare park uniquely situated among some of the city's most historically significant Islamic monuments that provides breathtaking panoramic views of the Islamic skyline. What many visitors to Al-Azhar Park don't realize, however, is that the park was constructed on top of mounds of debris that date back to Fatimid Cairo. The site, sandwiched between Darb Al-Ahmar to the west and Salah Salem to the east, was a dumping ground for the city's rubbish for centuries and was one of the last remaining undeveloped plots in the middle of the historic district.
The Aga Khan, head of AKTC, is the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Shiites and can claim lineage to the Fatimids, the founders of Al-Qahira. He is even better known as a philanthropist who champions the cause of Islamic architecture worldwide.
The Al-Azhar Park project has been many years in the making; the AKTC first made a decision to donate a park east of Darb Al-Ahmar to the people of Cairo back in 1984. In the course of preparing the site, excavations unearthed an unexpected but welcome fringe benefit: an extension of the fortification wall of Cairo, approximately 1.3 kilometers long at the western edge of the park that forms the threshold between the park and Darb Al-Ahmar.
This archaeological find, which dates back to Ayyubid-era Cairo (late 12th century AD), is significant in its own right. In addressing restoration requirements, it became clear to AKTC that a revitalization of the areas flanking the wall would add to the historic significance of the area as a destination and improve the quality of life for residents. Indeed, many of the craftsmen in Darb Al-Ahmar were employed in the building of the park structures.
The park project hit another bump that stalled it for a number of years when three large municipal underground water tanks, each measuring 80 meters in diameter, had to be incorporated into the park design as part of the city's water storage system commissioned by USAID. This unforeseen development required engaging the interests and support of several governmental and private concerns for funding, including USAID, the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the Ford Foundation. The AKTC coordinated all these activities. Now that the park has been completed, entrance fees are expected to keep it self-sustaining one only hopes that the park remains in its current condition after it transfers management from AKTC to municipal authorities.
The landscape of the park was a collaborative effort between Sasaki Associates, an international architecture and landscape design firm in Boston, and Sites International, a Cairo-based firm led by principal Maher Stino. In their design, a wide, tiled path lined by royal palms that stretches from north to south forms the central axis of the park, with a dominating view of the Citadel towards the south. It is organized into a sequence of geometrically designed spaces along a water canal, where at various intervals winding paths lead to other areas of the park including a cornice overlooking Islamic Cairo, a fragrant fruit orchard and the many terraces on an incline to the Ayyubid wall.
Individual areas and structures within the park were put out for a limited design competition to a short list of designers recognized by the AKTC for their work on similar traditional restorations or interpretations of traditional themes. Together, the winning designs produce a successful blend of styles and a harmonious experience with something for everyone dining, informal seating, strolling areas and a children's play area.
Rami El-Dahan and Soheir Farid, well known for their resort designs in the Red Sea, designed a restaurant that commands one of the scenic heights and forms the culmination of the central park spine to the north. One enters it through a sequence of terraced ceremonial rooms terminating in a central domed rotunda surrounded by various exhibition and dining areas. The views from the structure are all spectacular and the design has been well executed. The structure, materials, and methods of construction, most notably visible in the dome construction, are based on the traditional architecture of Islamic Cairo.
During the design of the park, it was determined that due to the high demand for planting, supply from city nurseries would not be sufficient. An off-site nursery was set up on land supplied by the American University in Cairo to grow indigenous plants for use at the park. Plants were then laid out in the park in colorful flowerbeds, aromatic herbal gardens and a fruit orchard. All plants are carefully identified, providing visitors with an opportunity to learn about the flora.
The balance of the landscape the planted terraces leading from the park down to the wall, the planted areas outside the main park axis, and the hardscape (the tiled areas along the main axis of the park) is successful. However, as a designer and a park visitor, I found an unfortunate number of asphalted roads that run throughout the park. Considering that a park is meant primarily for pedestrians, one wonders why so many roads have been paved. Fewer roads would have been more appropriate and paver tiles could have been used for surfacing.
At the end of my tour after sunset, I took a seat in a lagoon-side cafe and admired the night view of the skyline. The city came alive with echoes of the muezzins that came from the minarets lit up across the horizon.
Rejuvenated, I left the park and drove into the cacophony of the city streets, a smile on my face. I was not bothered by the surrounding chaos. This was a unique experience in Cairo: a view, a stroll, a meal and time to reflect on the historic metropolis.
Hisham I. Youssef
? Business Today Egypt 2005