Egyptian architect, academic and actress, Shahira Fahmy finds architecture and acting to be the same: they’re both “frames we inhabit”. Here, she shares more about herself, her accomplishments and her goals moving forward, as well as what we can expect from her in the coming years.
Tell us about starting your practice.
I began my studio in 1999 from home – I had just had my daughter, and I feared that I would stop practicing architecture. My first commission was to build the Ahmed Bahaa Eldin Culture Center in Assyuit, Egypt, which was very dear to me, as I love the writer’s work.
The context of the building is in a remote village south of the Assyuit Governorate. During my first site visit, the car ride alone from the airport was a journey in itself. The building houses a library, as well as a theatre, cinema, dance centre, computer lab and a workshop space. It also holds an annual competition for literature and other forms of writing.
This project was a collaboration with Dar Al-Handasah, which served as the board member of the Ahmed Bahaa Eldin Association. I had the luck and pleasure of working with the Dar Group on it until it opened in 2013.
How do you hope to contribute to Egypt’s built environment?
I have many hopes for Egypt’s built environment, and I feel that it all starts with one small contribution, or one small project. Something that I’m currently concerned with is building a school and dormitory for students of disability in primary school up through high school. The idea came to me after I came across Al Nour Wal Amal Association, founded in 1954, which needs to have its own building. I hope to contribute to this dream.
How do you think your work locally and international reflects your architectural thinking?
The hardest thing, I find, is to look at someone’s work and try to define what they are doing and why.
For me, as I produce and work, I try to maintain my process of doing things – not the outcome. If I trust the process, I trust the outcome, even if it defies everything I thought when I started the project. I love to be surprised, and architecture for me is a never-ending process. Thank God for deadlines.
I think it’s important to maintain the start and trust the process, while staying alert and loyal to it. Also, I always try to remain present and in the moment, rather than predict and respond to the future. Looking backwards or forwards, for me, is cheating – it cheats myself and the project
You’ve worked on projects outside of Egypt and the MENA region – can you tell us about these?
When the revolution and Arab Spring started, all of my work in the region was put to a halt and I had to find work elsewhere. I remember my first attempt was in February 2011, in the 18 days before Mubarak stepped down. I was reading Architectural Record, and I came across an advertisement for a competition for the last phase of masterplanning Andermatt in Switzerland. I felt that I needed to go for it and see what happens – we had the time and the team.
A few months later, we were shortlisted, chosen from a pool of 48 offices, and we went into the second phase of the competition. Ultimately, we came out as the third-place finalist.
It was a great feeling to know that we were capable of a masterplan particularly in a country with as rigorous of regulations as Switzerland.
The following year, in 2012, we were invited among 20 offices from the Middle East to collaborate on a competition for the Delfina Foundation expansion in Westminster, England. We won this architectural competition in collaboration with UK studio Octopi. The Defina Foundation opened its doors to the public in January 2014.
Then, between 2014 and 2016, we worked on the renovation of the Wooster Group Theatre in New York. It’s a 40-year-old reputable, experimental theatre in Soho.
Currently, I’m in the UK, working on affordable housing projects in Cornwall (2020) and Egypt (2020).
You’re a professional of many talents. Can you share the different roles you’ve taken on?
Architecture, and the practice of it, has been my main priority since university, and I thought that would be the only role I would be passionate about and the only role I am capable of doing. Yet, upon graduating, and to my surprise, I found myself selected and appointed to teach at Cairo University, as a valedictorian of my class in 1997. So I began in academia, and I enjoy it – it challenges me and fuels me.
In parallel, I started my practice at the same time. Through the years, both roles feel inseparable to me. They feed into one another and keep me on the edge as I question where one ends and the other begins. Each allows me space to breath from the other, and time to review what I’m doing in both roles.
Acting came later, and it was instigated by a project brief that came to my office, which was to design the set for a feature film in 2011. Reading my first film script – I needed to in order to design the set – sparked a curiosity in acting.
I was always interested in the cinematic world – narrative structures have often been used to mould and inform architectural production. Architecture is a spatial construct and film captures an image. The way I see it, architecture and cinema are both “frames we inhabit”, as Pascal Schonning said. In both, there is always a narrative, a journey between real and fiction.
Some might criticise your balancing of acting and architecture, while others might praise it. How do you explain it – if you think there is anything to explain?
I understand the criticism and the praise, and appreciate both. For me architecture and acting are both different forms of ‘watching’ – watching people, behaviours, space and the environment. Both are forms of expression of this watching.
Through the practice of both, I have come to learn that it all boils down to my interest in people, and the choices they make, the behaviour they display and the paths they take.
Since my early years of studying architecture at Cairo University, one of the subjects that I have been interested in is the space syntax – voids, fields and the relationships between spatial layout and movement patterns. What makes cities liveable? What makes a space liveable? I feel I have carried this with me since, and it has led me to have a closer look at the human being – their body and face, what forms it, marks it and shapes it.
What are you working on now?
In addition to the affordable housing projects in the UK and Egypt, I am working on a bakery shop in London and a few installations and exhibitions which will take place this year in London, Europe and Egypt.
What can we expect from you in the next few year?
You can expect to see more projects across the region and Europe – public projects that are shared and used, as well as a museum.
Our Meet the Finalists series is a compilation of interviews with those who have been shortlisted for our awards. Shahira Fahmy is a finalist for Tamayouz’s award for women in architecture and construction, which awards female architects from the Middle East and North Africa.