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Tuesday29 July 2014

Building a Library 44: The Monuments of Historic Cairo

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Robert Harbison picks 50 books that should feature in any architectural library

The Monuments of Historic Cairo
By Nicholas Warner, 2005

This is a book for poring over, not reading in any particular order. Its core is a map of old Cairo inspired by Nolli’s of 18th century Rome. It uses a similar figure-ground system for separating the monuments from the surrounding urban texture. The surrounding texture is wonderfully present, though, in outline-shapes of buildings closely hatched in grey. Between them run those perplexing dead-end lanes that Cairo is full of. In fact the most mesmerising pages are ones with practically no monuments, where the magical grain of the city stands out more starkly.

I haven’t mentioned the most appealing feature: Nicholas Warner drew all the plans by hand. He drew them at 1:500 and reproduces them at 1:1250. With a good magnifying glass you can recover the original scale and see the quiver of the hand in dotted lines for features above floor level, in dashes for demolished buildings and vanished streets, and most incredibly, in constant modulations in all those miles of hatching. These deviations from strict regularity are only beautiful because they don’t advertise themselves: you could easily miss them.

The maps are wordless. This keeps them pure, but sends you flipping back to find the missing names of buildings, many of them cockeyed to the loose grid of streets, and cockeyed at slightly different angles. Warner makes much of these inconsistencies: they’re all supposed to be turned toward Mecca, which hasn’t changed its position. But maybe scientific accuracy was never intended.

Anyway, buildings are numbered, according to an arcane list compiled in 1947. Warner’s descriptions of every one of his 600 structures are masterful clarifications.

He illustrates vividly how the fabric of Cairo has changed, partly under misguided theories of what you do with monuments, partly under the pressure of all those lives that made the pattern of the city in the first place.

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