Antique dealing and creative reuse in Cairo and Damascus
ANTIQUE DEALING AND CREATIVE REUSE IN CAIRO AND DAMASCUS
As an architectural historian interested in the working of modernity in pre-Nasserist Egypt, in the early 1990s I was fortuitously given access to an unprecedented resource on the making of Khedivial Cairo: the private papers of French architect Ambroise Baudry (1838–1906), who had been active in the city from 1871 to 1886.
For the first time ever, the architectural fashioning of modern Cairo could be viewed and experienced through primary sources, instead of secondary, and mostly indirect, ones.
Baudry’s carefully kept archive, then in his descendants’ hands, consisted of an extensive collection of correspondence (about 800 letters to family, friends, mentors and clients); an accounts’ ledger detailing commissions, costs, collaborators and contractors on an almost year-by-year basis; and sets of photographs and architectural drawings, a number of which were acquired in 2000 by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.1
The archive also contained documentation on his art collections: Baudry was an early enthusiast and proud owner of valuable Islamic objects from Egypt and Syria, among other high “curiosities,” the then-current shorthand term for non-Western artworks.
A selection of his Iznik tiles and Mamluk woodwork is now housed in the Musée du Louvre in Paris; while the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York holds carved and inlaid woodwork from his collection too. Most remaining pieces were dispersed in 1999 and 2000.2
The papers revealed a fine artist who gave birth to one of the most original and alluring form of Mamluk-inspired architecture conceived during Egypt’s modern era.3
Many other architects, such as the Slovenian Anton Lasciac (1856–1946), did also explore the possibilities of Mamluk tangible heritage for modern design and came up with appealing formulas at the turn of the twentieth century.4
But Baudry’s work not only came at an early stage, it indeed uncovered an aspect of modern design practice on Egyptian soil that came as a complete novelty: the large-scale reuse of historic architectural salvage in new suburban domestic architecture.
The notion of salvage in modern Europe is typically embedded in post-revolutionary France when eccentric amateurs [art lovers] endeavoured to transport to safety any fragment rescued from confiscated church property at risk of destruction or dilapidation;5
it infused museum display with the idea of the period room, and inspired historicist architecture for decades afterwards, particularly in France.6
In other words, salvage designates elements retrieved from damaged buildings or structures in the course of demolition, in order to ensure their survival. Repurposing them in modern residences in France and elsewhere