New building Goethe-Institut Cairo Safe Space

The new Goethe-Institut Kairo.
The new Goethe-Institut Kairo. Photo: Nadia Monuir | Photo: Nadia Monuir

The Goethe-Institut is opening a new building in Cairo, signalling a dialogue with the country.

The climate in Cairo sometimes gives you the feeling you are slowly suffocating. It’s not just the smog in the metropolitan area of 25 million inhabitants, but the tense security apparatus. Independent cultural initiatives are increasingly under pressure; theatres and art galleries are being closed, satirists and writers imprisoned. Everything that is young, creative and different is regarded as suspicious by the militarily dominated regime. That needs to be said in order to interpret what it means that the Goethe-Institut is opening its new building in Egypt’s capital this Thursday, twelve years after the start of planning.

A white house amidst grey and brown, a space for cultural exchange, as protected as it can be in a country where no one knows what is still tolerated, in which the only certainty is that the borders are becoming ever tighter. This constitutes the importance of an open place, accessible to all interested parties, where dialogue and encounter still take place and not just language teaching. But demand is so great that the new building became necessary. Last year alone, the Cairo institute had 5,100 students, this year 5,400, with an upward trend. It’s a learning opportunity that is also economically viable.

  • The new Goethe-Institut Kairo. © Worschecharchitects © Worschecharchitects
    The new Goethe-Institut Kairo.
  • Photo: Worschecharchitects Photo: Worschecharchitects
    Photo: Worschecharchitects
  • Photo: Worschecharchitects Photo: Worschecharchitects
    Photo: Worschecharchitects
  • Photo: Worschecharchitects Photo: Worschecharchitects
    Photo: Worschecharchitects
  • Photo: Worschecharchitects Photo: Worschecharchitects
    Photo: Worschecharchitects
  • Photo: Worschecharchitects Photo: Worschecharchitects
    Photo: Worschecharchitects
  • Photo: Worschecharchitects Photo: Worschecharchitects
    Photo: Worschecharchitects
  • Photo: Worschecharchitects Photo: Worschecharchitects
    Photo: Worschecharchitects
  • Photo: Worschecharchitects Photo: Worschecharchitects
    Photo: Worschecharchitects
Out of the line of fire but not off the mark

Yes, it’s true. The Goethe-Institut is giving up its very central location in the immediate vicinity of Tahrir Square, where it was close to the hot spot in the turmoil of the revolution. The new building is located in Doqqi, administratively not even in Cairo, but in Giza, on the western bank of the Nile. But of what value is a site in the city centre if the authorities mummify it with yellow paint, making it an open-air museum dedicated to the glorified 1950s? The independent cafés are being taken prisoner by the power of the state, as are the remaining activists.

The director of the Goethe-Institut Kairo Elke Kaschl-Mohni, Secretary-General Johannes Ebert and Heidrun Tempel, Federal Foreign Office. The director of the Goethe-Institut Kairo Elke Kaschl-Mohni, Secretary-General Johannes Ebert and Heidrun Tempel, Federal Foreign Office. | Photo: Goethe-Institut Kairo/Roger Anis The Goethe-Institut is moving a bit out of the line of fire, but will not be off the mark. In its new building it has one of Cairo’s most modern event spaces, reports Elke Kaschl-Mohni. After four years at the head office in Munich, most recently as the head of the strategy department, she took up responsibility for coordinating Goethe’s work in the Arab world a few months ago. “We now have far more possibilities,” she says, “the technology in the new event space works; the acoustics are so good we can hold concerts here.”

The aim, she explains, is a “well curated events programme with music, theatre, performance, dance, film and discussion formats.” The great demand for it was obvious at the old location. Often events had to be relayed to the foyer, because not all interested parties found a seat.

The library: a meeting place

In addition to this, the second central element of the new building is a library, which is not designed solely as storage space for books but could, thanks to a central area with seating arrangements and generous opening hours, become a meeting place for intellectuals long into the evening. There is also a large garden full of old palm trees and a cafeteria. One of the hopes placed in the new building is to “also attract new people.”

The library as a place for discussions. The library as a place for discussions. | Photo: Goethe-Institut Kairo/Roger Anis The work of the institute is supported by its dialogue with local partners, some of whom are rarely able to find opportunities to evolve outside this refuge. At the same time, the work must remain relevant, says Kaschl-Mohni, therefore the problems cannot be overlooked. “The arts still are a bit easier,” she says. The political foundations have already been largely pushed out of the country.

This is another reason why it is important for the institute to be transparent and cooperative with the government. Egypt appreciates cooperation with the Ministry of Education in teacher training and other areas. New programmes from the arts and creative industries could help break through the lack of perspectives that is propelling many young creative Egyptians abroad.

“A German institution that knows it is in Cairo”

The architecture, designed by Büro Worschech from Erfurt, also exudes dialogue with the environs and the nation. The new building has become an open, transparent house, inspired by classical modernism. “A German institution that knows that it is in Cairo,” says architect Marcus Johannson. Large windows offer a view into the classrooms and library. Perforated metal beams, reminiscent of mashrabiya, decorative wooden lattices used in Arabic architecture, provide shade. The elevations and flat roofs are re-imports that the Cubists borrowed in Arabia. A listed villa was rebuilt and integrated in the complex.

The Goethe Building was opened with a 36-hour cultural program. The Goethe Building was opened with a 36-hour cultural program. | Photo: Goethe-Institut Kairo/Roger Anis Johannson positioned the building at the edge of the grounds, reminiscent of Arabic courtyards. The goal was to preserve the garden that once belonged to the GDR embassy, a gem in a part of Cairo where the once-prevalent mansions and their gardens had to give way to faceless concrete high-rises. It is separated from the street only by a fence; here, too everything is visible from the outside and open.

The institute will present itself at the opening with 36 hours of cultural programming. Alaa al-Aswany, author of the book The Yacoubian Building, which outlined many grievances that became the driving forces behind the revolution of 2011, talks about what culture can achieve in the context of global crises and social upheaval. There could hardly be a more suitable place for it than the new Goethe-Institut Cairo.



By Paul-Anton Krüger

The article was first published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. © All rights reserved.