Egypt is planning Sisi-City, a new city to take the heat off the overcrowded, polluted Cairo
From Baghdad in 752 to the 19th-century idea that became Canberra in 1927, to Naypyidaw in the 21st century, via Abuja, Astana, Brasilia, Christiania, Dodoma, and on through Islamabad to Washington, there is a degree of fantasy-making about each purpose-built capital city, each new Versailles. Before PPU and Kutai Kartanegara, Egypt was the latest in a long line of countries that had decided to start again. The pharaohs had several capitals, including Thebes and Memphis, the heart of Greco-Roman Egypt was Alexandria, while Cairo dates from 969AD when the Fatimid conquerors commissioned a wall to mark their triumph. The once ‘city victorious’ as it was known has today become an overcrowded sprawl of 20 million people that’s set to grow to 35 million by 2050, a place where congestion and pollution seem as constant as the waters of the Nile. Something had to be done to ease the pressure.
The citadel and tombs in Cairo in the late 1880s
The new capital of Egypt is dubbed Sisi-City by most people since the replacement for Cairo is the lovechild and would-be legacy project of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Bigger, better, newer and doubtless more vulgar than any other sprawling megacity on the planet, this megalopolis is a behemoth development of gargantuan proportion. Such places are playthings for dictators. Percy Bysshe Shelley knew exactly how to sum it up: ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.’
Daily life in Cairo. In a city without traffic lights or street signs, just crossing the road can be a matter of life or death. Image credit: Andy Serrano / Deviant Art.
The pretensions to greatness start with a presidential palace eight times the size of the White House. Sisi-City will also include a new parliament, 34 government ministries, central bank, an airport larger than Heathrow, a financial district, and a number of the biggest and tallest, including the tallest tower in Africa, the tallest minaret in Egypt, the region’s largest cathedral, and a theme park bigger than Disneyland, not to mention 10,000km of streets, five million homes, 2,000 schools and colleges, and 600 healthcare facilities. The list goes on: 700 kindergartens, 40,000 hotel rooms, 21 residential districts for seven million people, 1,250 places of worship, and 4,200,000 sq m of shopping malls. Oh yes, and a park significantly larger than Central Park in New York.
The initial framework, core principles of a sustainable new city, and the vision for the new capital, is a product of collaboration between the Egyptian Ministry of Housing, Capital City Partners (a private fund of global investors) and SOM. Image credit: SOM.
A desert dream that will apparently be a mixture of Pharaonic and Islamic architectural styles, this will be a new city as medium for political and national grandstanding. It will extend across 700 sq km, about the size of Singapore, and to satisfy the yearning for a new Egypt this new capital for a new people is to be built in just five to seven years. The Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy called the project ‘chasing mirages in the desert’. No-one appears to know how it will be paid for.
On 11 February 2011 Egyptians of all faiths and ages, united in a desire for freedom, assembled in a huge gathering in Tahrir Square, Cairo, to celebrate the end of 30 years of tyranny. The outpouring of joy that followed the resignation of Hosni Mubarak was palpable. Egypt would be free. Barack Obama said: ‘The people of Egypt have spoken. They have made it clear that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day.’ Within two years that dream turned into nightmare. Consensus became impossible as the solidarity that marked those celebrations disintegrated. The old regime, the political parties, the army and the people wanted to move the country in different directions. Mubarak’s successor, President Morsi, declared himself above the constitutional court, a military coup by General Sisi followed, and the Arab Spring came to an end. Now a new capital city 49km east of Cairo will cement Sisi’s rule. If Cairenes wish to confront their government in future they will have to travel.
Foreign embassies are not keen to move into what will effectively be an army command centre, with Sisi warning that in the future his country will not secure embassies remaining in Cairo.
The tallest structure in Egypt for the past 50 years, the 187m high Cairo Tower designed by Naoum Shebib, will be eclipsed by the new tallest tower in Africa when the new capital is built. At 385m high that project will be at the heart of a new central business district. Image credit: Ahmed Santos.
With a modest first phase of the city expected to open this year, the bigger question is whether Egyptians themselves will move to the successor to ‘the city of a thousand minarets’, which began with just four when the Fattah al-Aleem mosque was completed in January, although as no-one lives there yet, students from Cairo University had to be bussed in for Friday prayers.
Parliament, however, is due to move, with 50,000 civil servants following soon after, or less than 1% of Egypt’s public sector workforce. With 2.1 million bureaucrats alone just in Cairo, the country’s bureaucracy can seem as enduring as the pyramids, but few will be able to afford to move, despite the pledge to construct 285,000 low-cost housing units, because on average, apartments will cost more than 11,000 Egyptian pounds per square metre. State employees may get a discount, but their average pay is 1,247 Egyptian pounds a week – around $70. As well as being grandiose and tightly controlled, the city could also be a very empty place.
Having been launched in front of heads of state and leaders from around the world as a $80bn project in March 2015 to be completed over just 12 years, by the autumn negotiations had broken down with the new city’s original backers. The project suddenly acquired a price tag of $45bn and the China State Construction Engineering Corporation (CSCEC) came on board. Chinese investment has been on and off and on again ever since. ‘The vision’ was partly underwritten by CSCEC when it secured a $3bn loan and signed an agreement for the construction of government offices.
But within two years the housing ministry announced that the ambitious scheme would instead be ‘built by Egyptian hands’. In the meantime, China Fortune Land Development (CFLD) had agreed to fund a later phase of the project to the tune of $20bn. A year after that agreement had been reached it had not been signed off.
By the end of 2017 CSCEC was back in after signing a new deal to build the central business district, including 12 separate complexes, two hotels, and the continent’s tallest building at 345m. In March 2018, Chinese banks agreed to fund 85% of the first stage of construction by way of a 10-year loan, and in November CSCEC had agreed to train 10,000 Egyptians to work on the site of the ‘new administrative centre’.
Meanwhile, despite the project having moved on, the official website still shows some of the work of the original master planners, US architectural, urban planning, and engineering firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), which has also had on-off relationship with the project until the government decided that a large foreign company should not be delivering the city. SOM, however, continues to work in the area (see ‘SOM - past and present’).
Looking along the expressway towards Egypt’s new capital. Image credit: SOM
Such a scheme has been tried before in Egypt. Planned as an alternative administrative capital, Sadat City was the most ambitious, conceived in 1978 to spearhead the then-emerging national urbanisation policy, symbolic of President Anwar al-Sadat’s attempt ‘to redraw the map of Egypt’. Designed by Marcel Breuer, it was built between Cairo and Alexandria. Today, surrounded by a green belt, it is one of the country’s largest industrial centres, a city of 200,000 people, but far from the country’s top 20 largest urban centres.
Established in 2000, New Cairo was another project. It was set to house five million people, but fewer than half a million moved there due to the lack of jobs. Such places have become enclaves for rich people getting away from the congestion and pollution of the original city.
The reasons behind the development of new urban centres include saving money, redressing regional imbalances in the economy, improving the lives of civil servants and those who live in the capital, and dispersing the risk of natural disasters or even terrorist attacks that might potentially cripple a country, as was the case when anti-colonial sentiment was on the rise in India. Calcutta became the centre of political and religious unrest at the end of the 19th century as a number of government officials were assassinated, so the British Raj acquired land beside the city of Delhi in order to create a small and distinct district to serve as the capital and seat of all three branches of Indian government. Designed by Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker the imperial capital of New Delhi was built from 1911 over the next 20 years as a symbol of British power and supremacy.
Staying in India, one of the very few planned cities to have truly succeeded in terms of architecture is Chandigarh, the capital of both Haryana state and the truncated state of Punjab, and developed following the partition of British India in 1947. Designed and built in the early 1950s – by a team that included Le Corbusier as ‘architectural advisor’, Pierre Jeanneret, Eulie Chowdhury, Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, on the basis of plans originally drawn up by Maciej Nowicki and Albert Mayer – the city was a small but significant element of the country’s Five Year Plan inaugurated in 1951 as part of a courageous and effective reply to the disaster and misfortune of the opening years of independence, hard as it may be to believe that such a plan could be conceived in that welter of bloodshed. In 1952, at the Chandigarh Rest House on the Delhi-Simla road, the plans were hammered out, and they included the visual climax to the city: the four major institutions of the state government that would become the largest number of Corbusier’s major buildings in one place, and the only site where it is possible to see his work on a grand scale.
Seen from the air, the ‘paperless city’ that was to be at the end of a ‘multimedia corridor’ complete with an ‘intellectual property park’, Putrajaya was once set to be the new capital of Malaysia
The creation of new centres of bureaucracy does not always entail the building of an entirely new city, though. For example, the President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is intent on spreading government departments to each of the country’s 30 states. Elsewhere, the Netherlands moved government jobs away from The Hague in the 1960s, Norway has shifted civil servants out of Oslo, South Korea has moved two-thirds of its government agencies away from Seoul, many to the new Sejong City, and Augusto Pinochet moved the Chilean congress from Santiago to his hometown of Valparaíso, where it remains. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Andes, Argentina planned to move from Buenos Aires to Patagonia until a change of president stopped the project, Shinzo Abe is proposing wholesale moves away from Tokyo, and Mahathir Mohamad had plans to shift the capital of Malaysia away from Kuala Lumpur to Putrajaya. A supposed digital wonderland, Putrajaya was planned to be a ‘paperless city’ set at the end of a ‘multimedia corridor’, complete with its own ‘multimedia university’ and ‘intellectual property park’. The idea only worked on paper. The problem was timing – the requirement of $8bn coincided with the collapse of the country’s currency, the ringgit. Nevertheless, what has materialised over the years since is a cohesive, well-planned, green environment – a little soulless but nonetheless an attractive place that works well. Reaching back further in time, even Peter the Great forced his court and businessmen to move: to a barren, swampy, remote, indefensible Saint Petersburg, only to be almost drowned himself during a flash flood on the Nevsky Prospekt in 1706 – despite being over 2m tall.New capital cities can take time to realise – a long, long time. Brazil’s Brasilia, for instance, was envisaged in 1789, and the name suggested in 1822, although the country went through three new constitutions, each of which enshrined the idea of a new capital before construction eventually began in 1956. But once started it became the only purpose-built capital city to have been completed on time. Canberra in Australia took 17 years – the time it took for only the first four phases of Abuja in Nigeria to rise out of the ground, and the costs incurred there brought on a financial crisis that led to a military coup, while in the US, the National Cathedral in Washington DC appeared on the original 18th-century plan of the city and was only completed in 1991. As for Canberra, the American architect Walter Burley Griffin resigned in protest when the Australian government cut the size of its capital in half due to the costs incurred in joining the UK to fight in the First World War, although once completed a reporter for Punch said of the capital: ‘Londoners may be all too aware of the disadvantages of living in a city without a plan, but these cannot be compared with the rival disadvantages of living in a plan without a city.’
Which takes us back to Egypt, and the new city under construction halfway between the existing capital and the Suez Canal. Everything seems enormous and out of scale. Beyond the plazas in the formal vistas of ornamental gardens, solitary pedestrians move like Bedouin separated from one another by Saharas of empty space comprising nothing more than brown flowerbeds and drying macadam, vast parade grounds without a parade. Vehicles perform their evolutions in the sunshine, almost lost in the great distances. Birds flutter, settle and strut about the central provinces of the asphalt plain, and beyond it walls of great new buildings rise like a remote range of mountains. At the edge of these wastelands groups of people linger. Sisi-City might have been a wonder of the world to match the ancients – instead, it will almost certainly be yet another monstrous monument that inflated the ego of a despot for a while, until the winds of change effect a change for the better.
The Report of the Senate Park Commission in 1902, generally referred to as the McMillan Plan, was a comprehensive plan for the development of the monumental core of Washington, which included proposals for the construction of major memorials, a series of neoclassical cultural buildings and offices, together with an extensive system of parkland. Its status as the official development plan for the District of Columbia was reinforced with the establishment of the National Capital Park and Planning Commission in 1926, which was formally charged with its implementation. Its updated plan of 1928 is shown here
SOM – past and present
Today it is Cairo’s Nile Ritz Carlton, but back in 1958 when Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) designed what was then Conrad Hilton’s Nile Hilton Hotel, it was the first international hotel built after the Second World War in the Middle East and Hilton’s second international venture after Istanbul.
Overscaled, overspecified and over here, in the 1950s and 1960s Hilton dangled the American dream in front of the natives – all crew-cut lawns, direct-dial telephones, iced water, balconies, and superior expressions of rationality and order in a dazzling standardisation of air-conditioned, corporate, modern, style, touched off with indigenous crafts deployed to provide interiors with regional authenticity and sold in the hotel’s mini mall – a Hilton innovation that spared the tourist the disorienting experience of the local bazaar and the disempowering trial of haggling, though at considerable cost. It was a world of low ceilings and plate glass; the clean lines of Danish-American furniture made in England; the thematised abstraction of the decorative panels in the guest rooms; the non-figurative sculpture of well-known local artists; glazed-wall lobbies with views out over historic sites. As Hilton himself revealed in his autobiography, they were constructed not only to earn shareholders a profit, but also to make a political impact on host countries. The clarity and transparency of the building, its efficient plan and manifest structure gave spatial utterance to the supple forms of American entrepreneurial expansion.
New National Cancer Institute in Giza by SOM. Image credit: SOM / KX–L.
Unrecognisable today, the hotel outside Cairo is covered in plaster mouldings, ornamental swags, and mahogany ionic columns in a renovation designed by Frank Nicholson, ‘retaining many of the original features, and featuring Egyptian influences’, which may or may not be everyone’s taste.
Meanwhile, less than half an hour away beyond the Pyramids, in an entirely separate development away from city planning and hotels, SOM is responsible for the planning, architecture, structural and civil engineering, and interior design of the 837,000 sq m National Cancer Institute being built at Giza, the largest comprehensive cancer centre in Africa or the Middle East. Coupled with a thousand-bed teaching hospital, the campus includes research, training, faculty, and conference facilities, a specialised nursing institute, together with a hotel and housing for residents and visitors.