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Between Gorizia, Alexandria and Cairo


Rafut Vila, Nova Gorica, Slovenia, built 1912-1914, rebulit 1928-1929


Anton Lašcak, an architect of Slovene origin, created most of his many architectural works in Alexandria and Cairo. Indeed, the only one of his projects carried out in Slovenia is the Rafut Villa in Nova Gorica, one of the rare neo-Islamic architectural structures in Europe.

Until the start of the new millennium, the architect Anton Lašcak (1856–1946) went rather unnoticed in Slovenia, with his name appearing for the first time in in the appendix to the 2002 edition of the Encyclopaedia of Slovenia. There are hardly any records of his work in the reference literature, with the exception of the catalogue for the exhibition entitled Slovenia – architecture, the masters and the scene, staged in 2008 in Vienna, in the gallery of the Vienna Insurance Group commercial building. On the Italian side of the border, however, interest in studying Lašcak’s legacy was first spurred by research in the field of orientalism in the 1980’s – although this interest was limited only to that architecture which demonstrated an Arabic influence. Lašcak’s Italian projects were further highlighted in a monograph by Marco Chiozza, Antonio Lasciac – Tra echi secessionisti e suggestioni orientali, published in 2006. That same year an exhibition of photographs and drawings of his architectural works from the Roman Alinari Museum of Photography was shown in the Attems Petzenstein Palace, which falls under the auspices of the Land Museums of Gorizia. More recently his early works have been attracting a growing amount of attention.

There are many reasons why the Slovenian architectural profession has ignored Lašcak’s legacy for more than half a century, one of them being the
lack of documentary evidence, which remains dispersed in numerous foreign public and private archives (such as the collection of Mercedes Volait, a
professor in Paris), and libraries, especially those in Rome and Cairo. But the most important reason is undoubtedly Lašcak’s open declaration of national identity. The architect was born in Gorizia, in a multi-ethnic community where di±erent groups lived side by side: Italians, Slovenes, Friulians and Austrians. All of Lašcak’s ancestors were Slovenes from the Isonzo valley4, but despite his Slavic origins he considered himself Friulian. During his studies at the Vienna Polytechnic, he already clearly announced
his irredentist tendencies to the circle of young intellectuals. Of course, these tendencies were against the Habsburg Monarchy, which made him fall out of favour with clients in Gorizia, loyal to the Austrian crown.5 Until the most recent systematic overview of the material kept in the archive of the Gorizia municipality and covering the years between 1876 and 1883, the prevailing opinion was that Lašcak had emigrated to Egypt due to the conflicts in his working environment.6 However, the results of new research, in which as many as 25 construction works signed by Lašcak have been discovered, shows that he was one of the most active young architects in Gorizia, even though he mainly worked on smaller adaptations where he would perform the function of a supervisor or construction manager.

The reason for Lašcak’s move to Egypt was therefore not only his political and philosophical beliefs, but the ambition of a young architect who was aware of his professional expertise.

After completing a period of time with the Gorizia Construction Bureau (1876), and after a few years of independent architectural work, Lašcak
moved to Alexandria in 1883, where he took part in the reconstruction of the city, severely damaged a year earlier by the British cannons that had been used to suppress the uprising of Egyptian nationalists. The comprehensive reconstruction of the city attracted young architects, builders and businessmen from all over Europe. This important Mediterranean port was thus transformed into a city with European architecture of many historic styles.

After only a few years, Lašcak established himself as one of the most promising young architects in Alexandria. Up to 1888 he would design a number of representative structures, including the apartment building on the main street, Rue Sherif Pasha (1883–1888), the Ramleh Railway Station (1883) which was later rebuilt, the commercial gallery Menasce (1885–1887), and monumental palaces for rich bourgeois families. The original photos, kept at the Alinari Museum of photography in Rome, show that Lašcak first endorsed a neo-Renaissance style which displayed the influence of the Vienna School and Professor Heinrich von Ferstel. With the buildings from the late 1880’s, however, such as the Aghion Palace (1887), the neo-Renaissance architectural elements started to give space to a neo-Baroque style which was visually more representative and remained typical of his later Cairo period.

After having spent six years in Alexandria, Lašcak returned to Rome only to settle in Cairo in 1895. During his absence from Egypt, Abbas Hilmi II (1892) came to power, a Vienna-educated khedive, or viceroy, who became very familiar with European culture during his studies in the Austrian capital.

The new ruler wanted to abolish the influence of Great Britain (which controlled the Suez Canal, among other areas of strategic importance), that is why he replaced all his British advisors with German and Austrian experts. Among them was Anton Lašcak, who was appointed the chief architect of royal palaces in 1907, and received the title of beg (Sir). As the royal architect he also participated in the Committee for the Protection of Monuments of Arabic Art, which enabled him to become thoroughly acquainted with Islamic architecture.

Lašcak built his reputation as an outstanding architect in Cairo with a number of magnificent villas and palaces built at the turn of the century, which represented a certain novelty in terms of style. The concept of aristocratic residences was based on the intertwining of the (European) neo-Baroque style in combination with modern Secessionist elements, which mostly featured in the ornamental decoration of window and door openings, along with the interior furniture and staircases. He used Secessionist furniture in the parlour of Said Halim Pasha’s residence (1896– 1899), and made the Secessionist decoration particularly visible on the exterior of the Zafaran Palace in Cairo (1901–1902), and on the façade of the recently
renovated summer residence of the queen mother in Istanbul (1900–1901), which has, among other features, an elegant interior staircase with original
undulating, plant-derived motives. Lašcak used the most advanced construction techniques, such as reinforced concrete (following the Hennebique system), which enabled him to design spacious parlours. The refined stucco decorations of the interior and the furniture were produced by the most renowned French, German, Belgian and Italian craftsmen.

The neo-Baroque style that Lašcak applied to such breath-taking palaces mainly followed the ideas of Egyptian nobility, who sought to emulate the
European aristocracy, while in designs for commercial buildings he was closer to Modern Viennese architecture, as promoted by the Wagner School. An example of this is the façade of the Stein Department Store in Cairo (1904), reduced to large glazed shopping windows, interrupted only by shallow pilasters.

After Lašcak assumed the duties of the chief royal architect, his style again underwent another change, visible above all in the revocation of the Islamic style. Lašcak developed his personal architectural language, based on an eclectic merging of historical styles, Islamic architectural forms and  decorations (arabesques, mauresques, and calligraphic ornaments) and Secessionist elements. He was aware that his style, with which people could identify, played an important role in forming of the national identity.12 While Lašcak continued to design magnificent palaces in historic styles following the example of the Italian architecture of the 16th century for his wealthy clients from among the Cairo nobility who had been educated in European capitals, his commercial buildings from that period, such as that for the Generali Insurance Company in Cairo (1911), are the result of intertwining both European styles and traditional Islamic motifs.

Lašcak applied the neo-Islamic style to his own villa in Rafut, along the pilgrimage path to Kostanjevica which he started to build in 1909 and finished just before the beginning of World War I. The thirteen preserved design plans, bearing three diŽerent dates (13 Nov 1908, 17 May 1909, 20
Nov 1910), archived in the Historic Archives of the Gorizia Municipality (Archivio Storico del Comune di Gorizia), show that architect Girolamo Luzzato was signed as the head of construction, which was an established practice at that time – the design project was not signed by the architect, but by the person responsible for supervising the construction. But there is no doubt that the drawings and the plans were made by Lašcak, for the plans for the façade of the villa and the entrance feature detailed drawings of both the individual construction elements (bricks, stones, pillars), as well as the decorative building ornamentation – details that we can later trace on the preserved drawings for the palaces in Cairo and the funerary chapel. A very interesting detail is the coloured sketch of the complete project for the estate, its park and access road, which proves that Lašcak was also an extremely talented draftsman.

In its original state, testified only by some rare photographs, the villa in Rafut was a model example of Lašcak’s original architectural style, which can only be defined as an eclectic combination of the Western tradition of villas, merged with oriental architectural details and decorations taken from the Mamluk style. The most representative part of the building made of reinforced concrete is most certainly the octagonal tower with a covered wooden corridor and a semi-circular concrete cupola, shaped as a minaret  on the western façade. The entrance to the villa is embellished with a Moorish stone portal with a magnificent stalactite arch. Our attention is drawn to the horse-shoe biforas, but we can also see a trifora with halved lateral lights. The balconies on the eastern and southern façades rest on consoles, and were covered with perforated wooden panels in Arabic style. The Arabic influence is further emphasised by the decorative wooden roof eaves and rich ornaments taken from the local Egyptian tradition: chimneys with motifs from Mamluk tombs and arabesques on concrete balustrades of the balconies, on architraves, window lintels and the cupola. Worth noting is the massive corner pillar which supports a two-story balcony with a wooden balustrade on the corner of the building.

Similar Islamic elements can be seen on the entrance lodge – a brick building with a Moorish arch which partly emulates the structure of the salamlik for the Omar Sultan Palace (1907–1908) – the  first building where Lašcak experimented by mixing Arab architecture and modern elements. The lodge is also decorated with ornamental motifs, where the most interesting ones are the names of Lašcak and his wife written in a Kufic script; this structure forms a comprehensive, stylistically coherent whole together with the villa and the park in which Lašcak planted a number of exotic plants and introduced many built elements.

The villa was heavily damaged during World War I. Moreover, since the renovation committee of the Gorizia municipality only approved the payment of a very meagre compensation, on the grounds that this was a luxury building, the villa never regained its former glory – even though it was renovated following the original plans, as testified by a photo from 1934. A few original architectural pieces with decorative ornaments which were not used in the reconstruction can still be seen lying around the park.

Following the outbreak of World War I, when Abbas Hilmi II was ousted, Lašcak – a convinced Italian yet nevertheless a subject of the Austrian crown, found himself in a di¥cult situation. The British expelled him to Malta, and he soon emigrated to Rome where he started to devote his attention to the reconstruction of a heavily demolished Gorizia. The preserved architectural plans show, however, that he already started to solve individual architectural tasks while still residing in Egypt. Before leaving for Alexandria, for instance, he designed the reconstruction of the Church of the Holy Heart, which started to be built according to his design and was later finished by Max Fabiani. Lašcak also designed the renovation of the oldest, medieval part of Gorizia (Borgo San Rocco) located directly  underneath the castle, but the whole area was entirely demolished in the 1930’s. He foresaw the adaptation of the church facade of St. Rocco, in front of which he placed a fountain – a refined combination of a classical form, an old-Egyptian element (an obelisk) and plant-derived Secessionist details, which is one of the rare works in Gorizia that was realised before World War I. Lašcak prepared several urban development plans to regulate certain areas of Gorizia, such as the plan for the renovation of the area along the Transalpina Railway Station (1905). In 1917 he also made a regulation plan for the post-war renovation of the city, but the renovation committee of Gorizia and of the Gorizia region rejected this, even though its basic structure was adopted in 1921 by Max Fabiani, Lašcak’s younger contemporary.

After the rejection of his urban development reconstruction plan, Lašcak again received commissions from the Egyptian royal court and moved to Cairo where he created, in the 1930’s, some of his best projects. Worth mentioning it the Misr Bank building (1922–1927), which is perhaps the most beautiful example of the architect’s knowledge and use of Islamic decorative art, and his mastery in combining di–erent ornamental styles, as demonstrated by the decorative patterns on the marble floor and the expertly crafted wooden ceilings.

Lašcak received a prestigious award from the Roman Academy of St. Lucca in 1927 for his achievements. Even in his later years his life and work were
divided between Egypt and Gorizia: in Alexandria he won the competition for the railway station (1946), while in Gorizia he designed the layout for the main city square of Piazza Vittoria/Travnik (1938). Although Lašcak used to spend his summers in Gorizia, he  never really lived in the villa. What is more, he ceded the building to the Generali Insurance Company in Trieste, and received a life annuity in return. He died and was buried in Cairo in 1946.

Even though Lašcak’s body of work shows traces of modern European architectural movements, which he undoubtedly knew well, his work never went beyond the framework of historic eclecticism. His mastery of his profession is displayed above all in the technical excellence and well-considered merging of di–erent architectural styles stemming from the western and eastern traditions, producing a comprehensive, harmonious whole. The preserved works, however, his original drawings, as well as the construction and decorative elements of the villa in Rafut, also testify to his meticulous attention to detail.