Our Paper Cities

         One summer day she told us that we’re going to do a ‘project’. The word was very much unfamiliar to me but she explained no further. Instead, my mother took us to the nearby stationery shop and we bought some colored sticker paper, markers and a cardboard box. She cut the box open and flattened it. Then, she cut stripes of black sticker paper and stuck it into the middle axis of the cardboard base and later surrounded it by green paper. She then went to the kitchen and got some empty plastic bottles and cardboard boxes and turned them upside down. She told us to bring our toy cars and drive them through the roads. She built us a paper city.

     A couple of years later my brother and I would jump out every morning of our bunk bed to the other side of the room where it took almost half of the room’s floor. 
We’d ask ourselves on which side should the overpopulating city expand? Is it from the side where the roads end in a severe dead end? Or the other side where the park lies with no parking spots? Does the city need more buildings or green spaces? Or more parking spots?
     After a short high-pitched argument we’d tear a fresh page out of our least used school copybooks and tape it along the decided edge. With our pencils and crayons as our tools, we’d lengthen the roads, draw new building plot limits, sidewalks with innovative patterns and garden spaces. We’d measure with our toy cars the street lanes and the parking plots. We’d roll small pieces of paper and glue them to the road to create humps. We’d make paper street signals and paper trees. We’d fold other fresh pages of our least used school copybooks into four parts and draw windows and balconies then glue it to the building plots.
And that’s how we spent our days for years.
Fifteen years later, my brother and I are in an architecture school. Now, with fancy modelling tools and computer renderings.

16 Steps to Build the Ideal Egyptian City.

This manual is for anyone who wants to live in Egypt but wants to escape all the noise, pollution, street vendors, and the horrible traffic. By following the steps below you can make your very own ideal city.

  1. Choose a foreign name. Try something Italian or French. Or maybe combine any two English words and create a name. Such as Blue Ocean.
  2. Choose a Location. The perfect spot would be a couple of kilometers away from Cairo, on the top of a mountain in the middle of Cairo, or along one of the many coasts in Egypt.
  3. Build a wall around your city. Remember how in Medieval times most cities had city walls around them to prevent attacks from enemies? You might want to do the same. This time use reinforced concrete. A great idea to decorate the walls would be placing ‘classical’ Roman/Greek (No one here knows the difference anyways) columns randomly on your walls.
  4. If you’re building a wall you’d definitely need gates. Many gates. Remember to spend a lot of time and effort in designing the gates. You need them to be very special for your ideal city. Something like the entrance of a Roman temple is a great idea.
  5. And Passport control checkpoints. You need to be able to kick out intruders.
  6. And of course, lots and Lots of Security. The last thing you’ll need is poor immigrants getting into your city illegally.
  7. Build The Great Mall. This is your main economic ‘income’. You might also need to organize a couple of concerts to attract prospective citizens into your new city.
  8. Build LOTS and LOTS of coffee shops. Egyptians love coffee shops. Try having the very expensive ones too. Also, make sure to have a variety of clubs in your city.
  9. The next step would be the housing. Don’t waste your time on designing a great apartment. Just use the blocks you have in the office.
  10. Don’t forget some very colorful renderings. Those babies sell themselves.
  11. Give a ridiculously high price for your units. Because people would buy anyways.
  12. For advertising, make ads in every newspaper in the country. Whole pages in the paper would definitely make it.  Don’t forget the billboards along The Ring Road, 6th of October Bridge and El Mehwar. Facebook is also a great marketing medium.
  13. Even if the country is facing water scarcity, you would still want to make a golf course, since it is a very popular sport in Egypt.
  14. Don’t forget to build a sports club inside your city. This facility needs a wall too. And some more gates. And security. And LOTS of greenery.
  15. Make all signs inside the city in English. Because how can an ideal city be any ideal if its people didn’t speak fluent English?
  16. When you’re done, you can start a new city. Make sure this one is bigger, more expensive and has a higher reputation.

Abu Dhabi: A Question of Architectural Heritage


When my aunt came in 1985 , Abu Dhabi was nothing but a small town with modest architecture and an incomplete grid plan. The only places to go out were the government-owned hypermarket ‘Co-op’, a couple of gardens, and of course, the Corniche.  Long after she’s gone in 1990, my family moved to the very same city in 2000. The first shopping malls opened up a couple of years later and the Corniche was entirely rebuilt a couple of times since then.

“They’ve demolished the city and rebuild it again.” was the expression of my Aunt when she came to Abu Dhabi in summer 2013.

Indeed, a building here would last for a  maximum of twenty years. Then, it’s already too old for the ever-changing city.


A building awaiting its fate in Khalidiya neighborhood.

Ten-story cladded buildings and interesting architectural details particularly inspired by Islamic architectural elements (Arches, Mashrabiyas..etc.) are being torn down and replaced with, of course, glossy skyscrapers piercing the sky.

The site of a building being torn down is quiet common in this city.

John Henzell, a journalist in the National, the English speaking newspaper of the Abu Dhabi government, explained the Phenomenon, “In a growing city like Abu Dhabi, what makes a building worth keeping?” :

 “..the modern heritage faces an additional threat represented in the usual demand for modernisation in order to keep up with the latest, cleanest and smartest designs and tastes.”

The real threat of Modern Heritage in Abu Dhabi, he argues, is the lack of awareness and appreciation. Many people get to see some of the older buildings as a disease that must be got rid of.

ibrahimi building

Iconic round building in Zayed Street.

One of the recent examples is the ADNOC corporate headquarters on the corniche, were three interlocked curved buildings dating from the 1990s once stood. Today, One of them is demolished and replaced with a 340-metre tower.

Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH) which later merged with the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority and the Tourism Development Investment Corporation to form Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi) identified the complex as ‘heritage buildings worth preserving’.


ADNOC connected buildings before demolishing one of them.

Some of the other iconic buildings of the post-oil era are the Abu Dhabi Bus station which has a unique architectural form painted in mint green. Along with Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Zayed’s Sports City, the Bateen Mall, Maqta Bridge, the Armed Forces Officers’ Club, the Intercontinental, Le Meridien and Hilton hotels.

On a bright side, 2011 saw the launching of  the Modern Heritage Preservation Initiative which was concerned with the protection of modern buildings heritage and understanding the architectural heritage in Abu Dhabi in the post-oil era.

I am worried about the identity of this city. This city which I have spent ten years of my life, and three years as a regular visitor. I am afraid I would come later, like my aunt, and not recognize the city.