Wooden galleries several storeys high adorn the buildings of Port Said. This unique type of architecture, characteristic of a certain era, is today at risk from a continuously increasing population, poor planning and lax implementation of building regulations.
Anybody strolling the streets of Port Said cannot help but be struck by the omnipresence of wood in the buildings. Most of them, dating back to the turn of the century, are fronted by three- or four-storey-high wooden galleries, or verandas as they were called at the time. This remarkable architecture is found nowhere else in Egypt – or anywhere else in the world, for that matter – and sadly, it is under threat. The veranda characterised ‘tropical’ architecture: it was adapted to the hot climate, protecting the building’s façade from the direct rays of the sun. It was widely disseminated in all European overseas territories (particularly the Spanish, Portuguese and French ones) beginning in the early nineteenth century, and was also very popular in the architecture of French resorts. In the 1860s, Napoleon III (French emperor from 1852 to 1870) had seven chalets with very similar wooden verandas built on his vast property in Vichy, a spa town in central France. The seaside resorts of the Norman, Basque and Mediterranean coasts also offer fine examples of fretwork decoration reminiscent of the balconies of Port Said. It is the height and the scale of the constructions of Port Said that set them apart. There are, of course, buildings with verandas in New Orleans; Saint-Louis, Senegal; Pondicherry; and the West Indies, to mention only the most well-known examples, but they are rarely more than two storeys high and their porticoes are made of cast iron for the most part.
The first wooden constructions built on the Isthmus of Suez were also characterised by their low height. There are traces of their origins in the extensive archives of the Suez Canal Company (which became the Suez Canal Authority in 1956) in Roubaix, France. In 1858, the Suez Canal Company launched an invitation to tender for the ‘provision of workers’ chalets’, meant to equip the camps along the course of the future canal. Many French firms replied to the tender. In the end, it was Victor Fréret’s firm in Fécamp, Normandy, which specialised in wooden constructions, that won.
The firm supplied most of the building-site sheds as well as more prestigious constructions, such as the chalets meant to house the managers of the Suez Canal Company, five of which were erected along the beach at Port Said. Ferdinand de Lesseps’ chalet in Ismailia is the only surviving example. It was also the Fréret firm that supplied and assembled onsite the spectacular gallery running along the permanent façade of the Suez Canal Company offices, located along the freshwater canal at Ismailia. During this first phase, the Suez Canal Company obtained its supplies from merchants in the major Mediterranean ports. The Marseille firm Rouffio et Cie was thus called upon in 1859 to ‘negotiate the best price in various markets’ for the provision of wood for the wharf of Port Said. It was also via the port of Trieste, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that pine was procured from central Europe – also mentioned in 1874. In the 1880s, the success of the canal attracted a new population of merchants and contractors, mainly from Greece, Italy, Malta and the provinces of the Austro- Hungarian and Ottoman empires, to Port Said. They purchased plots of land situated on property jointly owned by the Egyptian government and the Suez Canal Company to build investment properties that contained flats as well as offices, which were let to various shipping or trading companies connected to the activities of the port. At that time, they adopted construction techniques that combined masonry construction with the wooden architecture that had already been used in the past. In front of the main section of the building, in stone or brick masonry, a veranda was systematically added, which was the same height as the rest of the building. The scarcity of suitable land to build upon – the new city was situated on a narrow sandbar between the lake, the canal and the sea – prompted builders to construct buildings of three or four storeys, whereas buildings were rarely more than one storey high in Ismailia, where land was much cheaper.
There are, of course, buildings with verandas in New Orleans; Saint-Louis, Senegal; Pondicherry; and the West Indies, to mention only the most well-known examples, but they rarely have more than two storeys and their porticoes are made of cast iron for the most part.
A few fine examples of this type of architecture survive in the centre of Port Said: the Slavick Building, constructed in the 1880s by the Swiss architect Alberti on Palestine Quay; the Coroni Building on Ramses Street, dating to 1888; and the Virginia Arvanitopoulos Building, constructed in 1891 at the corner of al-Geish and Ahmed Shawki streets. Other buildings also contain spectacular wooden staircases: for example, the building located at the corner of al-Geish and Mohamedd Mursi streets.
In 1889, new planning laws enacted by the Egyptian state imposed the construction of arcades (on the model of the rue de Rivoli in Paris) along the main roads and limited the construction of wooden verandas, which were henceforth only authorised on streets less than fifteen metres wide. In 1921, verandas were permanently banned by order of the municipal commission of Port Said. By a strange irony of fate, verandas were denounced for their insalubrity where fifty years earlier they had been recommended for the well-being and comfort of residents.
Today, verandas still represent the rich cultural heritage of the city. The quality and infinite variety of their decoration are thanks to the talent of the artisans who crafted them and about whom little is known. The proximity of the city of Damietta, renowned for the skill of its woodworkers, was perhaps a contributing factor to the incredibly diverse forms of the angle braces, railings, balusters and lambrequins found in both the former European quarter and the Arab quarter.
The Association for the Protection of the Cultural Heritage of Port Said celebrated a victory when it managed, after a long struggle, to register 505 of the city’s most precious buildings for protection. Let’s hope that the enthusiasm and determination of the young association continues and moves up to the next level, which is to preserve and bring back life to the buildings that have suffered from decades of neglect. It’s a challenging task, but their perseverance, which has caught the attention of the whole country, gives much reason for optimism.
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Claudine Piaton Claudine Piaton is an architect working for the French Ministry of Culture. She specializes in architectural heritage and is particularly interested in European architecture around the Mediterranean. Since 2004, she has been working on a research project on the cities of the Suez Canal area. Within this framework she has been the editor of three volumes on the history and architecture of Ismailia, Port Said and Suez.