Finalists for the Mohamed Makiya Prize 2019, Islam El Mashtooly and Mouaz Abouzaid discuss their joint venture, Arabesque.
Q&A with Arabesque
Dubai-based Egyptian architects Islam El Mashtooly and Mouaz Abouzaid, founders of Arabesque, have long worked together. United over shared principles, which guide their work ethic and research efforts, the two officially established their partnership in 2016. Here they share what Arabesque aims to achieve and how they hope it will contribute to the field of architecture.
When did you start Arabesque and why?
Our collaborative relationship has gone on for more than 15 years, which has overlapped with our individual professional experiences at some of the UAE’s best architecture firms. We have found that when we come together as a dyad, the result is truly integrated moments.
We officially started Arabesque in 2016, after we both individually won Middle East Architect’s Young Architect of the Year Award (in different cycles). We felt that after receiving this recognition, we had more responsibility and a moral obligation to society to use our platform and profession to realise the true needs of people across the Middle East and North Africa.
What’s behind the name, and how does it reflect your work?
Arabesque takes its name from a traditional form of artistic decoration, which emphasises interlocking forms. It reflects collaboration and a strong, vibrant structure. It’s about connectivity and integration. Arabesque designs are still used in contemporary art, and we are faithful to the traditional aesthetic.
Arabesque also refers to our ability to balance each other’s strengths – Islam is intuitive, passionate and a driven designer. He spends all of his time designing, at work and afterwards. Mouaz on the other hand is technologically adventurous and intellectually driven. We are distinctly different, but we are united by our sense of social consciousness in design and our pride in Arab culture.
What are Arabesque’s different services?
Arabesque’s approach is atypical – it is not like most architecture and design firms. Rather than receiving work from clients, Arabesque takes a proactive approach to finding areas of possible development. This approach results in a wide variety of project types and locations.
The Arab world is going through a number of conflicts, with issues like displacement, poverty and education opportunities outside driving people to move elsewhere. Architecture must confront these challenges and touch society in a positive way.
Arabesque’s work is determined on a project-by-project basis, but it is driven by our shared principles: humanity over statement architecture; teamwork over individual ego. We share an overriding commitment to the well-being of the individual. It is our social and moral obligation, as architects, to work tirelessly towards best practice, both in design and academia.
Do you work on separate projects under Arabesque, or is everything done together?
We work jointly and separately depending on the project, but even when we are not working together, our output exhibits aligned intellectual and social values. For example, our previous projects, such as Islam’s Uptown Makkah, which won a WAF Award in 2016 and contemplated an open modular system for housing Syrian refugees and Mouaz’s recently celebrated work on the Sheltainer project, which explores social housing and also won the WAFx Award for Ethics and Value, both reflect a commitment to accessible housing for vulnerable communities.
Do you hope to grow the Arabesque team or keep it to just you two?
Since the beginning of this venture, we have attracted a diverse range of talent from more than 20 nations. Each person has added to the overall collaboration of our projects. This ever-evolving team fluctuates based on a project’s location and scale. Teamwork is the key to the success of all of our projects.
What are you working on now as Arabesque?
We are working on several projects and competitions, which include exhibitions and pavilions, workshops, lectures, public realm development projects in Cairo, enhancing informal marketplaces in Egypt, and an urban regeneration scheme for valuable heritage areas in Cairo.
What do you want people to know about Arabesque?
Our work emphasises humanity through creating projects that bear positive social impact for the communities they serve, while remaining respectful of the traditions of the past. We hope that through our work, we create humanscale spaces and aesthetics that beautify the urban environment.
Our Meet the Finalists series is a compilation of interviews with those who have been shortlisted for our awards. Arabesque is a finalist for Tamayouz’s Middle Eastern Architectural Personality of the Year, also known as the Mohamed Makiya Prize. This architecture award recognizes individuals and organisations that work to advance the field of architecture in the Middle East and North Africa.