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The history man

Eleanor Young

Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil, designer of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies and countless works across the Middle East, is a great traditionalist. But it isn’t the form that matters, it’s the spirit of the structure, and a ‘normal’ way of building

Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil (2009 Driehaus Prize Laureate)
Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil (2009 Driehaus Prize Laureate) Credit: courtesy driehaus prize

Out on the eastern edges of Oxford, in the sports grounds of Magdalen College, lies a ghost of a building. Its dome and minaret have been visible since 2005, its stone lined courtyards have played host to princes and heads of state but it has never been truly occupied. The Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies finally got permission in 2000 after years battling for planning. There have been escalating costs but it is the piecemeal, highly tailored gifts from Islamic countries that have meant the project continues to tick over, never quite finished.

You probably won’t remember its architect Professor Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil because, despite living in England for the last 30 years, this is his only major project here. In fact he is normally referred to as an ‘Egyptian’ architect and there are clusters of his mosques in Saudi Arabia with work across the Middle East. He is now head of the Centre of Islamic Urban Planning and Architecture at the Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies and he rests at his home port of Folkestone less often than he might like. ‘I grew up in Alexandria, I have to be near the sea,’ he says of his English home as we talk over Skype, him in Doha taking a draw on his cigarette and sipping from a flowered mug.

El-Wakil was born in Egypt and studied architecture at Ain Shams University, Cairo. He has said he struggled to study what he was most interested in. ‘I wanted to know why our architecture – the new one – was ugly,’ he said in a discussion in the US following his win of the 2009 Driehaus Prize (the Pritzker of the traditional architecture world). But El-Wakil soon aligned himself with a more sympathetic philosophy by apprenticing himself to Hassan Fathy. His mentor was famous for his work in rural Egypt going back to the materials of the land and the forms to which they lent themselves. Fathy’s attempt to put the means of production, the craft of building, back into the hands of the people who need it most still runs deep in the thinking of 70-year-old Professor El-Wakil. 

In 1980 he won an Aga Khan Award for his Halawa House in Cairo – a home that draws on vernacular archetypes. He used a windcatcher and fountain in its courtyard, just as local houses had done through the ages, to circulate cool air and for the joy of it. A burnt red brick was used to create load-bearing arches which have been an enduring form in El-Wakil’s work – as have the struggles to find and train the craftsmen to build them.

The minaret and dome of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies rising from the green pitch of Magdalen College’s grounds.
The minaret and dome of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies rising from the green pitch of Magdalen College’s grounds. Credit: (taken 2007/2008)

There are houses and there are houses. His modest house designs for Cairo stepped up a scale as he designed mansions in Saudi Arabia. But even his Suleiman Palace was small fry compared to the 15 mosques that followed.  Four are in historical sites in Medina, where the prophet Muhammad was buried, and welcome thousands of pilgrims. In New Jeddah four smaller mosques, including another Aga Khan Award winner, the Corniche Mosque, show simpler, perhaps purer forms. In 1985 Poundbury planner and classicist Leon Krier described these as the ‘undoubted crownings’ of Jeddah’s great seafront development. 

From his Kent and Clerkenwell offices El-Wakil published his ideas on the loss of identity and how modern architecture isolates the individual as destructively as the tactics of the KGB. ‘It cuts us off from ourselves and our history,’ he says. ‘Tradition nurtures the spirit.’

His ideas and buildings could hardly pass unnoticed. In the 80s he was feted as one of the new traditionalists by publisher Andreas Papadakis, and Krier. He was invited to Miami as visiting professor by new urbanist, Andres Duany of Seaside fame, where he worked on a number of commissions until he left the US in the wake of the 9/11 bombings in 2001. Introduced to the Prince of Wales, he acted as an advisor to his foundation. The Prince has continued to take an interest in El-Wakil’s work and recommended him to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, where the Prince is a patron, even visiting him in a hard hat and boots during construction. 

El-Wakil sees traditionalism and the Prince of Wales as misunderstood. ‘Many think it’s about visual effect, columns, classical facades, Greco-Roman styles,’ he laments. ‘But it is more about a return to a normal way of building.’ He considers Krier a friend but ‘we do have our arguments’. El-Wakil quotes a favourite saying:  ‘Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.’ But not in his hands. He loves to work with archetypes and that allows development not just copying.

Developing the archetype of the courtyard in Oxford.
Developing the archetype of the courtyard in Oxford. Credit: (taken 2007/2008)

‘Architecture cannot lie; it is the footprint of our culture. Because we destroyed the past we must destroy the future’

In Oxford one archetype was the courtyard. Here they are typical of both Islamic schools, madrasahs, and embedded in the way the English have used space since the middle ages. ‘Think of courtiers and courtesans’ he says. ‘The courtyard is deeply ingrained in our culture: this private bit of outdoor space, this skyscape.’ These interior outdoor spaces have been preserved in the back gardens of England and the Oxford colleges, of course. And in Oxford each college courtyard has its function; the forecourt for welcome and servicing; the front quad for socialising; the back for dining and feasting; even serenity and contemplation find their place. He has used them in similar defined ways at the Centre for Islamic Studies. 

Like much of his philosophy, his explanation draws on etymology, the writings of Ruskin and Plato, a smattering of popular culture from John Cleese to the Flintstones and a wide ranging knowledge of the Koran and Christian beliefs as well as a sense that western history before the 16th century is what’s really authentic. Above all there is sense of craft and continuity. 

Over the years he has explained repeatedly to reviewers that he is not opposed to modern technologies. His avowal of CAD, then BIM as a tool for design and – most importantly –  communication, shows this. He has even built a car showroom using reinforced concrete. But the dome and arch are perfect in brick and have been built like that for hundreds of years. So when it came to the 10m diameter dome at the Centre for Islamic Studies it had to be built in brick. The engineer advised building it in reinforced concrete. El-Wakil was outraged, this in the home of grand Victorian railway arches? Jacques Heyman, structural engineer to cathedrals, was brought in to sign off the designs, but it was another thing getting them built. Amre Aiad, a disciple of El-Wakil’s who has worked on the centre for executive architect Blampied, ended up showing the brickies how to build it. Loadbearing brick walls are a rarity for British builders now. 

Even in Saudi Arabia El-Wakil says municipal architects still question his choice not to use concrete: ‘“Why still build mosques with columns when concrete could give you a clear span?” they ask’. But pushing the technology means forgetting the real meaning of space. El-Wakil wants the psychological effect of the columns. ‘The last tables taken in a restaurant are by the door and in the open space in the centre. People like corners and alcoves,’ he says.

‘I am asked why not design in the spirit of the age? But as the Prince of Wales said, “What if there is no spirit of our age?”’ To El- Wakil, science and materials, essentially materiality, have taken over. He argues for more focus on spirit and less on pushing materials to their limits. He pictures Dubai or the raking walls of his own base at the Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies as film sets for James Bond, not real people. Archetypes drawing on traditional architecture and lessons from the past are his defence; a way to guard against material mindedness, architectural ego or the spurious novelties of commercialisation. 

And traditional ways of building through craft and local materials show him a path through our current troubles. He points to how steel became unaffordable as Dubai and China moved into a construction boom. But why use these ‘modern’ materials rather than, say, locally grown timber like they do in New Zealand or Canada? Or in Egypt the mud that Fathy preached? Degraded environments, the political revolts of Egypt and Middle East and towers of glass and steel prey on his mind. Poverty, economic downturn, and sustainability are addressed in his ideal architecture. It is a long way from what is being built now.  ‘Architecture cannot lie; it is the footprint of our culture,’ he asserts. There is more than a hint of a prophet of doom in the way he looks at the future. ‘We are driven by a river approaching the falls like in a Western film, we can’t row backwards, signs are appearing...’ What is over the edge? In a way it doesn’t really matter: like in a Western it is the edge that matters. ‘Because we destroyed the past we must destroy the future,’ he says.

I ask him how he can bear to design his own buildings. ‘I hate myself when designing,’ he answers. ‘I am always criticising myself. Or I get a friend to do it or perhaps an intelligent client.’ His ideal client has a certain world view and culture. ‘We have to look together in the same direction,’ he explains. At Oxford it is clear that relationship has soured, over cost and the pain of building.  ‘There was no cost control. It went above the budget of £45m – it is now double that.’

As the donations and gifts in kind continue to arrive one by one at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies El-Wakil is concentrating on his magnum opus, a book to trace traditional art and architecture and to somehow allow people to reconnect with their history rather than revolt. If our conversation is anything to go by it will be extremely long. It will also be learned and profound, drawing on thousands of years’ of scholarship, art and religion. He has a few smaller projects on but is resigned to thinking rather than building for the rest of his days. He sighs: ‘I am finished now.’