Part of our series that introduces our finalists, Egyptian architect Waleed Arafa speaks on his research and design practice, and the role architecture can play in empowering societies.
Q&A with Waleed Arafa
Egyptian architect and researcher, Waleed Arafa, founder and principal of his practice Dar Arafa Architecture, speaks to Tamayouz about reviving traditional forms of architecture with modern expressions and the role architecture could play in empowering the people of the Middle East.
Tell us about starting your practice.
After graduating in 2001, I joined Naga Studio Architecture, where principal Tarek Naga ran me through a full reformatting process. My participation in projects like the World Trade Center Memorial Competition in New York, the Giza Pyramids’ Plateau Masterplan and Dubai’s OQYANA left me anew but with a great deal of questions about architecture and its priorities in our world today. I wondered about architecture’s potential role in helping the people of the Middle East better understand themselves and the world, and if it could offer the first step for them to rise and contribute to the prosperity of humanity at large.
The resulting questions compelled me to search for answers in different places, and that’s when I discovered Al-Azhar Mosque’s free courses, which cover logic, Islamic philosophy and other interesting topics. By 2006, my research necessitated that I go out on my own, and Dar Arafa Architecture was born.
As a research, design and build practice, Dar Arafa Architecture’s main aim is to understand the essence of Islamic architecture, which I believe can inspire new approaches. My approach is based on finding ways to continue the discontinued architectural past of countries with an established legacy in the architecture of Islam, especially Egypt, while also looking at how to spark new architecture(s) of Islam in completely new contexts.
I wondered about architecture’s potential role in helping the people of the Middle East better understand themselves and the world, and if it could offer the first step for them to rise and contribute to the prosperity of humanity at large.” – Waleed Arafa
Indeed – Basuna Mosque was a landmark project for me in many ways, from the typology to the location, client, timing, and the outcome and direction it brought forth. The feedback I’ve received from people in and outside of architecture often focuses on a few points: the ‘Egyptian-ness’ of the building’s expression, which it achieves without being historicist; its structural innovation, its environmental performance, its response to context, the level of its execution, and its ambience, which is brought about by the synergy between natural lighting, acoustic performance and proportional system and symbolism.
What was the design process for the mosque? What were your main considerations when approaching the project?
I visited and studied the site, and met and listened to members of the community in order to identify their concerns and aspirations. I then studied the architecture, building materials and construction techniques of the village of Basuna and Upper Egypt in general by driving 450km from Cairo to Basuna, and from Luxor to Basuna. I then went back to my drawing table in London and started sketching, drawing manually and playing with Lego blocks until a general direction materialised, and CAD and CAM precision was introduced. Months later, we started construction, but certain design processes were still being explored. For as long as the actual elements were not built yet, evolution remained a possibility.
Basuna is a hot and arid village. The site sits amid a noisy, dusty and densely constructed area with encroaching residential buildings, a cemetery, cattle frequently moving back and forth on the road and a weekly makeshift market that sits right outside the main entrance of the mosque. So I mainly wanted to incorporate low-cost and low-maintenance techniques that would control climate, noise, dust and odours, while identifying and reviving the original architectural and aesthetic character of the village as it would be applied today.
My other concerns were related to sensitively introducing an element of inclusivity, making it the first mosque in the village to welcome women and entertain other activities for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. I was also very concerned with achieving a balance between originality and innovation, and introducing a dignified building that is not imposing.
Can you discuss some of your other projects?
My first solo project was Dar Arafa Residence, a multi-unit residence designed in 2003 and built between 2005 and 2007 for an academic and his family in New Cairo, Egypt. My concern then was to explore ways of breaking the environmental and aesthetic taboos surrounding skeletal concrete in Egypt. I scanned the market for new materials and found a light weight block that helped me reduce the weight of the building by at least 65 percent and improve thermal and acoustic insulation. Also, by virtue of its unusual dimensions, this block allowed for certain aesthetic maneuvers that characterised the building and allowed me to pursue questions related to the identity of contemporary architecture in Egypt. Selecting every participant in the construction process, supervising them closely and sometimes building with my own hands taught me very valuable lessons. I designed the furniture of one of the units too. The project and the recognition it has received – which included a nomination for an Aga Khan Award in 2010 – reconfirmed my faith in the research, design and build approach.
Another project is Dar Al-Latteef Residence, a single-unit villa designed and built in 2011, also in New Cairo, Egypt. Its proximity to the Police Academy imposed a permanent restriction on the maximum building height. The load-bearing-wall system presented itself as the economically viable construction method. I seized the opportunity to explore and expand the potential of traditional Egyptian brick arches, domes and vaults. This was my second load-bearing building, but my first was just a single floor roof top. Dar Al-Latteef consists of a basement, two floors and a roof. The economic turmoil, following the events of 25 January, suspended the project before completion and that is why it stands unfinished till now. It is unfortunate on one count, yet quite fortunate for architecture schools and their students whom we invite for field visits, to explain first-hand architectural lessons on a 1:1 real architectural model.
These lectures revolve around my architectural, theoretical and hands-on research, design approach and construction findings. I often address topics such as designing contemporary mosques; my ideas concerning the architecture of the future, in Egypt, the Middle East and the world at large; Egyptian identity in architecture; the revival of Islamic architecture; conservation; structural innovation and its integration within architecture; material innovation; construction techniques and sustainability.
Are you working on any new projects?
I am happy to announce that my teammates from SAM Architecture, as well as other French experts, and I have just won a fierce international competition against 59 other teams to design and supervise the construction of the Maison d’Egypte, Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris in Paris, France. The location of this new project is across the football field of the renowned Le Corbusier building, the Pavilion Suisse, as well as his other famous dormitory, The House of Brazil. This project is slated for completion in 2023.
We are also in the final construction stages of a remodelling project, which consists of two floors (750sqm each) in a 1980s residential building in Cairo, which will host a research institute.
Also on the drawing boards are three other projects: the remodelling and landscape design of a luxury private residence, a new mosque, and a studio and workshop space for an artist in a rural area.
Are you working on anything outside of architecture?
I translate texts from English to Arabic and vice versa. I choose texts that interest me personally. The latest is an Arabic-to-English translation of ‘The Manifest Truth: A refutation of those that manipulate Islam’, authored by the renowned Azhari scholar Dr Usama Al-Azhari who is my best friend, mentor and also the patron of the Basuna Mosque. This translation has been nominated for a prestigious international award. I am also preparing for the translation of Schwaller De Lubicz’s ‘The Temple of Man’, but this is currently pending finance.
Read more about our finalists for the Mohamed Makiya Prize for Architecture 2019 here.
Meet our other finalists: Eric Broug, Syrbanism, Ali Al-Lawati, Arabesque, Benna Habitat, World Monuments Fund, IJIA & Taghlib Abdulhady Al-Waily.
Our Meet the Finalists series is a compilation of interviews with those who have been shortlisted for our awards. Waleed Arafa 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.