CAIRO — This evening, around 6:15pm local time, Townhouse Gallery’s lawyer confirmed that a committee of engineers has deemed a demolition order, issued on Saturday, unnecessary. The decision needs to be ratified by a judge tomorrow morning, but gallery staff are hopeful that this will be a formality. The news was welcomed as a victory by tenants of the building, who had feared the worst since last week’s partial collapse.
Last Wednesday, a portion of the 19th-century Khedival building at 10 Nabrawy Street that Townhouse has operated out of for 16 years collapsed. The building houses the gallery as well as workshops, an art studio, six families, and several small businesses. As Townhouse had already commissioned a comprehensive survey of the building and knew of the risk to this portion of the space, all the residents had already been evacuated at the time of the partial collapse.
Afterward, the shock to Cairo’s art community was considerable, but by Saturday the staff of Townhouse had been informed by the police that the undamaged majority of the building — which still contained one of the gallery’s exhibition spaces, its archives, offices, kitchen, and a library — had been condemned and would be demolished within 24 hours. In spite of this, none of the tenants removed their belongings from the building. Townhouse, armed with its own survey that had not found major structural problems in the rest of the building, contested the idea that it could not be saved.
Mido Sadek, an ex-employee of Townhouse with strong ties to the area, witnessed the visit of the government architect on Saturday, who “just went in the door and stayed for no longer than 15 minutes,” he said. “They didn’t even enter all the rooms. They came back out, and issued the paper.” Townhouse’s survey, on the other hand, had been conducted by a firm that is usually hired by the European Union to assess Egyptian heritage buildings.
On Saturday morning, a barricaded standoff ensued outside the building between the local community and police. It was only by late afternoon, after the area had gone ominously quiet, that gallery staff decided to move out of what remained of the building.
Spurred by social media, members of the local art community volunteered throughout Saturday evening to transfer the building’s contents to the Factory space that Townhouse rents on the other side of the lane. The Factory, which normally houses large-scale exhibitions and community workshops, now also stores some of the belongings of the households that had been made homeless by the condemnation of the building. Furniture and families spilled out into the street with little prospect of shelter or compensation from the state.
While the art community, ant-like, ferried Townhouse’s materials into the Factory, the gallery’s executive director William Wells was attempting to marshall the influence of the National Organization for Urban Harmony (NOUH), the main government body for heritage. By Sunday morning, the director of NOUH, Soheir Hawas, had personally overseen Townhouse’s application for heritage status, staving off an immediate demolition until further notice.
“There was a great sense that we had achieved something,” said Wells.
The relief was short lived. Disregarding the heritage review, on Monday morning armed police arrived. Townhouse staff said the police laughed at and insulted the evacuated families as workers entered the building and proceeded to remove window shutters and destroy flooring.
A unique community was in a state of mourning as it awaited the demolition. Townhouse forms the center of a universe in which the concerns of contemporary art are combined with and interrupted by the life of a perplexing and deliriously real city. Aside from those who lived and worked inside the building itself, there are also the businesses “interwoven in the belly of the building,” as Wells put it, referring to the craft shop, mechanics, carpenter, car parts shop, prayer and storage space, and ahwa (street cafe) that operate in the building’s shadow.
When demolition seemed inevitable, Mohamed Fouad, an employee at the ahwa, wondered where he would go next. “These are the last few days of the cafe,” he said. “This community is like a family, if you need anything from [Townhouse staff] or a favor or whatever, we are always there for each other.”
The Townhouse building is the property of an elderly woman known to tenants as Madam Camelia. She has always been supportive of Townhouse’s activities and was not contacted by the authorities when her property was condemned. The governorate of Cairo was planning to charge her 100,000 Egyptian pounds (~$11,250) for the demolition.
These events have taken place in the wake of a series of raids on numerous cultural spaces in Cairo in late 2015 and early 2016, one of which forced Townhouse’s temporary closure. Typically, raids are executed on the basis of legal pretexts, but they are widely interpreted within the cultural scene as attempts to curtail cultural freedoms and close down civil society.
After Townhouse was raided on December 29, 2015, the gallery was required to obtain a new operational license from the governorate of Cairo. Egypt’s artistic licensing system is a barely navigable labyrinth of gray areas and bureaucratic contradictions, and Townhouse, like other arts organizations, had only previously been required to obtain licenses from the Ministry of Culture. According to Wells, the obligation to get this new license entailed a hold on construction or building preservation work until it was granted. “We wanted to fix that part of the building up as soon as we knew of structural problems, but we needed this license to do that,” said Wells. “We couldn’t understand why it was being delayed.”
The license application was still open the day of the partial building collapse. It was also the very same day that Wells had arranged a meeting with the surveyors and the local community to preserve the building. That day, the community had essentially been standing cash in hand to collectively support the building.
On Monday, in the vast Factory space, a new Townhouse Gallery was beginning to emerge out of the hurriedly evacuated memories of an institution. Wifi was up and running, and stacks of books waited for the wobbling library shelves to be hammered back together. Someone had installed silver plastic electric socket covers over the power outlets and a series of tables formed an office-like U shape. Pregnant street cats slalomed between the legs of stacked chairs, but there was also a working photocopier. Staff and visitors were quietly beginning to reenvision the organization.
When it comes to civil liberties, nothing is 100% certain in present-day Egypt. Numerous questions remain as to what intentions and machinations were in play in this latest threat to Egyptian culture. But residents, workers, and gallery staff are as assured as they can be that, along with the saving of a stack of 19th century bricks and mortar, an irreplaceable community survives.