Renewal of a forgotten heritage

18 October 1996

IN THE late 1980s, a group of Egyptian and Saudi Arabian businessmen established a company in Cairo with the specific purpose of creating a monument to the building skills of 20th century Egypt. The past millennia had seen monuments being constructed in Egypt that were to become the wonders of the world.

In the middle of this century. however, architectural and building skills sank to an all-time low. Once beautiful districts of Cairo and other Egyptian cities were callously destroyed to make way for utilitarian buildings that lacked any beauty or charm.

Quality was sacrificed for quantity.

The First Residence company decided that the final years of this decade would see the creation of a monument to show the world that the old building skills of Egypt had not been destroyed altogether. It hopes to encourage others to follow the example and even to start a renaissance of Egyptian architecture and construction. Although some international help, equipment and materials would inevitably be needed, the complex should be built for Egyptians, by Egyptians, and using Egyptian materials wherever possible.

SPACE, an Egyptian architectural group, was appointed to design the building and the UK consultant Ove Arup was selected as the structural design engineer. In a radical move to ensure that international standards were maintained by all parties and to ensure an orderly transition from construction to occupation, International Bechtel was confirmed as project manager.

Shortly afterwards, and with great interest from international contractors, 10 companies were chosen to prequalify for the construction project. The final award went to a joint venture of John Laing International of the UK and the local Construction & Reconstruction Company (CRC Hassan Dorra).

The $190 million building was designed as a mixed use complex containing apartments, a shopping mall and a luxury hotel.

Special finishes were to be used to give it a feeling of opulence and splendour. Materials would be imported from many parts of the world to bring the architect's ambitious drawings to life. The smallest apartments with an area of 400 square metres would be dwarfed by the largest duplexes with their own swimming pool and an area of 1,600 square metres. Some would even have their own lift from the basement car park - 27 lifts were required.

These were to be apartments and shops for wealthy people. Indeed, so enthusiastic were the developers in selling these features that it wasn't long before exaggerated rumours started to circulate in Cairo. It was said that special lifts would be installed to deliver cars to the apartments, and that the cost of the apartments was expressed in dollars instead of the more familiar figures in Egyptian pounds to disguise their real cost.

The local press tried to make political capital out of the project and attempts were made to stop it.

There was no doubt that the building would be luxurious. The apartments would be expensive but perhaps no more so than other accommodation on prime sites in Cairo.

At least they would be built to the highest international standards by the best contractors, engineers and consultants that the international construction industry could offer.

The rigorous standards and sophisticated techniques were already adopted by major hotel groups and it was the intention to use them as a basis for private accommodation.

Within the first few months of the start of the project several local problems had to be overcome. Main sewers were found to cross the site and local communication systems were disrupted. A severe earthquake struck Egypt, making it necessary to recheck the design against UBC standards for seismic design. Construction of the steel and reinforced concrete structure was straightforward but the logistics and co-ordination of the specialist subcontractors and suppliers, together with the enforcement of standards, proved to be the most demanding aspect of the project.

From a contractual point of view, there have undoubtedly been unusual issues and prejudices to overcome. On the one hand, there was a wealthy client determined to show that Egypt was capable of producing the finest quality of modern construction.

On the other, a local contractor with international consultants and partners had to work with local materials and skills to produce this monument to excellence.

Bechtel presided as umpire to ensure that the quality demanded could be delivered to the satisfaction of all parties.

Although the buyers of the apartments have requested changes to finishes and layouts, the inevitable delays have been minimised.

The apartments in the first tower are due to be handed over early next year. The second tower is to become the first Four Seasons hotel in the Middle East.

International retailers are being sought to occupy the shops. While the region watches with interest to see if the First Residence experiment is a success, there can be little doubt that other prestige projects are already being planned.

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