CAIRO is a melange of architectural styles. The original Fatimid city built in the 10th-12th centuries under the Mokattam hills on the city’s eastern flank contains most of the city’s great historical buildings. The downtown commercial district built during the 19th century by Mohamed Ali and his Ottoman successors shows traces of a European-style grandeur through its present day shabbiness. Heliopolis, to the northeast, has some fine examples of art deco eccentricity, and some of the modern hotels along the Nile’s banks have achieved grace and distinction. However, there is no building or district from the modern era that can be held up as embodying the spirit of the age.

A group of prominent Egyptian businessmen are now seeking to change that. They have come up with a plan to build a new financial centre to the east of Old Cairo, a project that in its scope and ambition dwarfs anything seen in the city since the time of the Khedive Ismail. However, whereas Ismail’s grand projects ended up bankrupting Egypt, the new project aims at equipping Cairo to become a regional and international financial centre and laying the foundations for a prosperous future. ‘It is the kind of project Egypt needs,’ says Jon Gibson of Bechtel, the project managers.

The scheme is the brainchild of Mohamed Nosseir, whose Alkan Establishment is one of Egypt’s leading diversified business groups. Founded in 1974, it has interests in computers – Nosseir started his career at IBM – motors, textiles, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications and soft drinks, as part of the group that bought the state bottler of Pepsi Cola. Alkan’s most recent success has been in winning the first private mobile phone licence, in partnership with Vodafone of the UK and AirTouch Communications of the US.

Old quarry

Nosseir some years ago bought a disused quarry at the foot of the Mokattam hills, separated from the ancient Cairo citadel by Salah Salem avenue, one of the main north-south arteries of the city. The 70,000-square-metre site is now used as a vehicle service centre. But if Nosseir’s plans are approved, it will become the base of a giant dome-like structure, split into four segments to allow light to stream into the interior. The level below ground will be given over to a stock exchange, which will have an open trading floor overlooked by a public gallery. Nosseir has proposed to donate the stock exchange to the government, an offer that has been officially accepted, subject to the findings of an environmental impact study.

There will be 24 levels above ground: two floors of retail space, 18 floors for offices and a four-floor hotel at the top. ‘We are creating a new financial district,’ says Nosseir.

To design the building, Nosseir engaged the services of New York architect Rafael Vinoly, whose previous commissions include the Tokyo International Forum, said to be one of the most expensive buildings in the world. ‘Vinoly tried to draw on the tradition of Cairo’s historical buildings, and was looking to recreate the internal space of mosques,’ says Gibson of the Bechtel project team. ‘The dome is interesting in relief of the Mohamed Ali mosque in the Citadel and has been designed to reflect its location in this historic site.’

The scheme will be carried out by the Cairo Financial Centre Company, set up with £E 500 million ($147 million) capital by Nosseir, Raouf Ghabbour – a leading vehicle manufacturer – and the investment fund of the American University in Cairo.

The International Finance Corporation and a number of Cairo banks have said they are interested in joining the project as investors once it has been given the final go-ahead.

The models of the building and its surroundings were presented to government officials in February, and elicited a rapturous response. Culture Minister Farouk Hosny was quoted by a local newspaper as exclaiming in English: ‘It’s so beautiful!’

Critical location

Nevertheless the scheme does have its critics. The main issue is the location. Nosseir maintains that the new building will be in the geographical centre of Cairo, and is ideally placed at a nexus of major thoroughfares.

The airport is only a 15-minute drive away, and the project’s studies claim that it takes only 10 minutes to drive from the site to some of the main Nileside hotels. Salah Salem avenue connects to the southern loop of the Greater Cairo ringroad, and will eventually be linked to central Cairo by two new road tunnels.

However, some critics say they are concerned about the desertion of the traditional commercial heart of Cairo. Others are uneasy about the proximity of this large and distinctive edifice to the historic sites of Old Cairo. Another issue of concern is the government’s plans for slum clearance in the Mokattam area, which, if not handled sensitively could cast the new project in an adverse light.

The developers clearly hope that the positive aspects of the project will shine through. If the new centre is built it will add a new dimension to the city and provide a powerful symbol of Egypt’s new-found financial confidence.