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Building Islamic Tradition

Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil has designed more than 15 mosques and many other traditional buildings that celebrate Islamic culture, earning him the 2009 Driehaus Prize.
By Kim A. O'Connell

In the historic and holy city of Medina in western Saudi Arabia, where the Islamic prophet Muhammad is buried, an architect was in charge of renovating a mosque, which had been clad in a stone plaster material. Despite its widespread use in the Western world, using an imitation stone to renovate such a significant building was plain wrong, according to a Middle Eastern architect who had a particular interest in the subject. That architect, considered by many to be the world's foremost authority on Islamic architecture, was Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil.

After observing the work at the mosque, El-Wakil had an audience with the prince of Medina and told him that using imitation stone was unacceptable. "The whole idea of Islamic art is not to imitate nature, but to copy its mode of operation – how it works," he says. "Nature works with geometry, so all of the Islamic patterns are based on geometry and thousands of different interlacing patterns….The architecture was very true. There was nothing forced." The prince wondered, however, what they were to do if it proved too expensive to restore the mosque with marble or stone. "I said, 'Do it in earth – mud brick,'" El-Wakil recalls. "Poverty is not a shame in religion. Material poverty is not a shame. It is spiritual poverty that is a shame, so why be false?"

El-Wakil's commitment to architectural honesty, beauty and tradition has informed much of his work for the past 40 years. The Egyptian-born architect has designed more than 15 mosques in Saudi Arabia alone, as well as mosques in South Africa, Brunei and Bahrain and other buildings in the West, including the United States. His work has earned numerous awards and recognition, including the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and an honorary fellowship into the American Institute of Architects.

Last March, El-Wakil was named the winner of the 2009 Driehaus Prize at the University of Notre Dame, a $200,000 award that is considered the most significant recognition for Classicism in the contemporary built environment. As the new Driehaus Prize laureate, El-Wakil joins a celebrated roster of past recipients, including Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Andrés Duany, Demetri Porphyrios and Léon Krier. After receiving the prize, El-Wakil participated in a series of interviews at the university, including discussions with The New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger and Notre Dame professors Richard Economakis and Douglas Duany. (El-Wakil's quotations in this article come from those discussions.) "This year, the prize expands its horizons beyond the Western tradition – that's the particular additional significance this time," Goldberger said at the award ceremony. "It's a reminder that the issues the Driehaus Prize addresses are not only ones relevant to Europe and America but also all the way around the world in cultures that, if anything, may have even more at stake in this issue than we do here."

Forging a Philosophy
In the mid-1960s, El-Wakil was, like so many other young architects of his time, an unapologetic Modernist. He had earned a Bachelor of Science degree in architecture (with honors) from Ain Shams University in Cairo, the city where he was born in 1943. At university, El-Wakil was trained to copy buildings and fashions that were published in magazines and were considered the most innovative. When he was offered a post on the university faculty after earning his degree, however, he realized that Egypt's capital city had lost much of its architectural tradition in its quest to follow the Modernist mode of Europe and America.

"When I wanted to do my thesis, I had problems with the teachers at my university," El-Wakil says. "[They wanted] all megalomaniac projects…nuclear stations, airports…and nobody was interested in anything else. I wanted to know why our architecture – the new one – was ugly."

Around this time, El-Wakil met a man who would become his mentor and completely change the course of his career. Hassan Fathy was an Egyptian architect who pioneered the reintroduction of traditional materials and building techniques into the built environment of Egypt, particularly the use of mud brick. Among other accomplishments, Fathy had authored an acclaimed book called (in English) Architecture for the Poor, which celebrated the use of indigenous materials.

The architect believes, as his mentor did, that the solution to many urban problems – pollution, overcrowding and a homogenous building culture – lies in the countryside, in the undeveloped areas, which he sees as neglected. "The national character [of a place] remained in the countryside," El-Wakil says. "The village life, the country life, is always abundant, generous, producing. They are feeding the city. The city is a parasite….Hassan Fathy did nothing for urban planning; he cared about villages.…[People always asked me,] 'Why doesn't he do something in Cairo?' And I said, 'Because he's looking at the problem at the source.' He said, 'If I can solve the problem in the country, I would have solved at least 50 percent of the problem in the city, by eliminating migration. So it's going to the root of the problem.'"

Fathy's teachings had a profound impact on El-Wakil. At the time, El-Wakil had wanted to work in America, but Fathy encouraged him to stay in the Middle East. As Fathy's apprentice, El-Wakil toured the suburbs and slums of Egypt and India and realized that the poor were not being served by Modernist thinking and building. "He was like a treasure house of knowledge, this man born in 1900, from the old generation, with a vast knowledge about architecture, about life, about philosophy," El-Wakil says. "I think I spent five years with him day and night."

El-Wakil received an important early commission during this period. The Six-Day War of 1967 had led to a major economic recession in Egypt, with many building materials becoming expensive and difficult to acquire. The timing was perfect, therefore, for El-Wakil to demonstrate the cultural and economic benefits of designing and building with locally available materials.

Asked to design a house near Agamy beach in Alexandria, Egypt, El-Wakil used the limestone that was abundant in the area and designed the house in a traditional Egyptian style that was far different from the French Riviera style for which the resort area had previously been known. In the 1970s, El-Wakil went on to design several larger mansions in Saudi Arabia, which applied traditional Arab design concepts such as interior spaces like atriums and courtyards, as well as building techniques such as load-bearing brick construction.

"I grew up with [this modern] mentality – that in '69 we went to the moon," El-Wakil says. "And this [idea] was, if man went to the moon, then that is going to solve all of the problems because people won't have housing problems. But it was all a big bluff, because in the Arab world today, in the Middle East, if you are to house people and you see the amount of houses needed, there are millions of houses needed. And if you are to house them with cement and steel, there will not be enough cement on the globe to cover that. So the only way to sort the problem of housing in the Third World is to use the local materials and the most abundant – earth and stone."

In Pursuit of Truth
When designing a mosque in Medina, one is working in the footsteps of no less an eminent presence than the prophet Muhammad. Muslims revere Muhammad as a messenger from God who escaped religious persecution in Mecca by migrating to Medina, where he began to unite his followers through Islamic teachings. There, it is believed that Muhammad called for the construction of the first mosque of the Islamic world, laying the stones himself. Known as the Quba Mosque, that first historic structure no longer exists, and neither does another building that replaced it in the mid-18th-century. When the Saudi Arabian government – and specifically its Ministry of Pilgrimage and Endowment – launched a comprehensive, long-term effort to build new mosques in the country and refurbish its existing ones, it called on El-Wakil. For more than 25 years, El-Wakil has been engaged in the design and construction of more than 15 mosques in the region, ranging from the largest and most historically significant, such as the Quba Mosque, to much smaller places of worship.

El-Wakil's design for the new Quba Mosque features a rectangular prayer hall topped with six large domes. The prayer hall opens to a courtyard that is lined with domed arcades on three sides, and four minarets mark the corners of the hall, each with decorated octagonal shafts. Load-bearing brick was used throughout the structure, except for a reinforced concrete sub-basement. Yet modern concerns are accounted for through the use of a retractable tent-like covering for the courtyard, which extends the usable space of the prayer hall depending on the event or size of the congregation.

In a similar vein, El-Wakil's design for the Qiblatain Mosque in Medina – said to be the site where Muslim worshippers first changed their prayer orientation from Jerusalem to Mecca – also features a main prayer hall and courtyard, as well as twin minarets and twin domes. Interior spaces and axes are marked by a series of barrel vaults. The architect's design for the King Saud Mosque in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, also exhibits his commitment to traditional craftsmanship. Here a rectangular prayer hall is topped with one large dome made of indigenous brick, which is flanked on both sides by smaller domes and a three-tiered minaret.

El-Wakil says that he was drawn to doing sacred architecture not because of any particular religious calling but because he was, quite simply, fed up with his clients. "I was not interested in having a client decide whether he has to have a pink toilet or a white basin or a brown basin or this type of door," he says. "But with a mosque, I think it is good to have God as your client. It was very clear – you have the direction to Mecca and [places where] people would pray, and so I didn't have to waste time with anything but trying to develop the crafts to revitalize those dying crafts and knowledge."

El-Wakil has also designed smaller mosques as part of a beautification scheme for Jeddah – the Corniche, Ruwais and Abraj mosques – as well as other mosques such as the Kerk Street Mosque in Johannesburg, South Africa, which used five prayer levels to accommodate the site's tight footprint. The architect is now engaged in three projects in Beirut, Lebanon, including a master planning project in Qatar that combines energy-efficient planning with Islamic designs. El-Wakil has also brought his sense of tradition to the Western world. In the early 1990s, Andrés Duany invited El-Wakil to become a visiting professor at the University of Miami, where he also worked with Duany on a design charrette for the development of South Beach. During this period, El-Wakil also designed a new residence for the developer Thomas Kramer. In the United Kingdom, El-Wakil has served as a consultant for the Prince of Wales School of Architecture. There, he designed the Oxford University Centre for Islamic Studies, which exhibits an ingenious blending of Oxford's traditional architecture with Islamic elements.

When he considers what can be done to influence future generations of architects, craftsmen and builders, El-Wakil recalls the writings of the 19th-century English critic John Ruskin, who celebrated the patina of age in his landmark book, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, in which he decried restoration as "a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed." El-Wakil calls for others in his profession to end the pervasive culture of falseness in building, in which different styles or materials are slapped on a building without consideration of its purpose, locally available materials or the appropriateness of the design.

"The only legacy one can keep telling generations is to seek the truth," El-Wakil says. "I think we're losing our relationship with truth. Ruskin wrote the most beautiful chapter [in The Seven Lamps], called 'The Lamp of Truth.'….We have to make an ark like Noah, but not put in the animals. We should do an ark for our cities to preserve all the culture, the whole culture, and the knowledge." TB

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