In our first article about “Bayt Yakan: went for architecture but found a community!” we talked about the story behind it, its message, and how the local community involvement was the true treasure of this experience. But this time we’re going to explore another part of the treasure, the architectural one. We were lucky to have this valuable information from our interview with Dr.Alaa El-Habashi, who is the restorer of “Bayt Yakan” and one of its owners.
“Bayt Yakan” witnessed different eras of Egypt’s history, and its owners weren’t only different, but in fact, they were rivals! Which made the architecture of “Bayt Yakan” a very unique one.
The Mamluk Design and Features
The house -Bayt Yakan- mostly goes back to the 1760s during the Ottoman ruling of Egypt. So we need first to know about the Egyptian architectural status during that time period.
At that time there was no unified architectural style all over the country, but at least two design styles going in parallel to each other, according to the political and social status of the building’s owner. We had the Ottoman style which the governors and their families used in their mosques and houses. And the Mamluk style, which was common among Egyptians before the Ottomans came.
So, although the house was built during the Ottoman period, it actually followed the Mamluk style that was closer to the people.
We can clearly see that in the following features:
The internal spaces arrangement followed the traditional morphology of a Mamluk-designed house. Starting with the bent entrance “AL-Majaz” which acts as a transition between the house and its surrounding context and gives it privacy. Then it leads us to the court with the fountain, which regulated the temperature of the house during the hot summer days. Also, the design of all the other spaces in the house focuses on the court as their center, enhancing the house’s privacy.
Structure Systems and Materials
When we look at the structural system of the house we find it typical to the Mamluk traditional design style.
Such as the use of a bearing wall system with thick walls, and cross vaults on the ground floor.
We can also see these environmental considerations in the orientation of the spaces towards the north-east. Be it the “Meqaad” with its three arches -later blocked and replaced with openings and a projected wooden balcony-, or the openings on the first floor.
Although most of the features following the Mamluk design suffered from sabotage -as we’re going to explain next- we can still find some surviving elements here and there. Such as an ornamented column in one of the ground floor halls, some traditional wooden doors, The use of “Mashrabeya”, and Mamluk-designed ceilings.
Moreover, we are sure that all the other spaces which the Mamluk design has – “Salamlek”, “Haramlek”, etc..- must have existed. But we don’t know much about them. That’s because the building that we have is just a small portion of a larger one that was once there. So it’s very hard to estimate the exact original composition of the whole house.
The Baroque Architecture
When the ownership moved to the “Yakans” family, Muhammed Ali’s army leaders and thus enemies of the “Mamluks”, all the Mamluk-designed features were defaced, covered, or demolished, and were replaced with Baroque style features, which was the common style during Muhamed Ali’s time.
“Al-Meqaad”- The Balcony
“Al-Meqaad” for example, which was an open balcony facing the North-East, was blocked and replaced by five windows, removing the columns which were the main structural elements with total disregard. This then led to the collapse of the third floor. Also, there was reddish plaster over all the Mamluk decorations of the arches before their discovery. The restoration of the structural integrity of “Al-Meqaad” arches took place by blocking two of the five openings and reintegrating compatible columns to safely transmit the loads to the ground.
The library hall is another example. It has two ceilings, a Mamluk-designed –internal- ceiling, concealed behind a Baroque ceiling which is now visible. And this pattern repeats in multiple spaces of the house.
The first thing we’re going to discuss concerning the modern interventions is the restoration process, as the house was in terrible condition because of many factors.
Firstly, throughout the years, the owners made many modifications, most of them with disregard for structural stability.
Secondly, the earthquakes that happened in 1992 and 2005 led to the collapse of many parts.
Thirdly, with years of negligence, the deterioration became even worse, and the house wasn’t safe anymore. In fact, the government marked it as eminent for collapse, and it took a while to abolish this decision and issue a conservation permit.
The restoration started with re-establishing the structural integration to make the house safe, by studying the load distribution. In addition to that, there is an ancient network of subterranean sewerage conduits beneath the house. The team restored 120 meters of conduits and used them for the MEP –mechanical, electrical, plumbing systems- extensions.
One of the major interventions was the removal of an unstable staircase on the North-West court wall, shifting its position. Then building rooms for researchers in its original place.
Showing The Layers of History
The restoration team performed the process in a way that shows each historical layer, stabilize the structure, and make use of the spaces in the most innovative ways. For instance, if you look at the “Meqaad” balcony now, you’ll see the five window openings, the Mamluk-designed arches decorations, and newly added columns at the original place of the columns that supported the structure.
This includes adding solar cells on the roof to turn the house into an environmentally friendly facility. Also rebuilding the third floor with light structures, and using the ground floor halls for community activities and as exhibitions.
Other Historic Elements
Also as a part of the modern interventions, the team saved some architectural elements from other demolished historic buildings and integrated them sensibly and meaningfully in the house, such as the remains of the gate of “Shaykh Hassan Qura’a” and an old spiral steel staircase.
“Bayt Yakan” is a one of a kind unique experience, on both levels, the architectural and the communal one. It shows us how believing in a cause can bring beauty to our urban and social environment as well, and bring life to a treasure that was going to be lost forever.
If you’re interested in knowing more about Old Cairo’s historic buildings, Then Check our article about The Gem of The Mamluk Architecture: The Palace Of Prince Taz, Here on Linesmag!