Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil: A Contemporary Traditionalist Architect

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Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil embarked on using pure Egyptian traditional vocabularies and began to integrate tradition and modernity in both a revivalist and an eclectic manner. El-Wakil borrowed his vocabulary from a wide range of traditions, including those of

Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil (b.1943) is an Egyptian architect, who graduated from Ain-Shams University, Cairo in 1960. El-Wakil is the recipient of two Aga Khan Awards for Architecture as well as the prestigious 2009 Driehaus Prize. El-Wakil, was described by Prince Charles as one of the late Hassan Fathy’s “most gifted students” for his commitment to revive the traditional architecture of Egypt. The sensitive relationship of new and old buildings has been a matter of great importance to El-Wakil. However, his main intention was to create architecture by integrating local tradition and modern technology. El-Wakil took pride in the purity of his intuitive methods of design and achieved buildings which descended from his country’s regional architecture.

Image credit: El-Wakil recieves the prestigious 2009 Driehaus Prize

Although, El-Wakil embarked on using pure Egyptian traditional vocabularies, he began to integrate tradition and modernity in both a revivalist and an eclectic manner. El-Wakil borrowed his vocabulary from a wide range of traditions, including those of the Mamluk in Egypt, the Saljug in Iran, the Ottoman in Turkey and the Rasulid in Yemen. In his buildings, El-Wakil skilfully combined elements of these diverse historical vocabularies into “a disciplined, aesthetically unified, and harmonious whole”. In her ‘Architecture After Modernism’, Diane Ghirardo argued that El-Wakil’s way of deploying indigenous Islamic forms on a palatial scale “liberated local Islamic building traditions from their associations with poverty and the lower classes, a strategy not so different from that of Andrea Palladio with vernacular architecture for his designs of villas in the Veneto”.

Throughout his life, Abdel-Wahid El-Wakil remained dedicated to the course of vernacular architecture and traditional building techniques. El-Wakil believed that “it is the role of art, and above all of architecture, to safeguard the environment in which the tradition can survive”. El-Wakil’s Halawa house (1972-1975) in Al-Agamy, near Alexandria, exhibited the architect’s awareness of the traditional building forms such as dome, vault, loggia, malqaf (wind-catch) and mashrabiyyhhs (wooden lattice work) as well as the traditional building techniques. For El-Wakil, the Halawa house was “a long awaited opportunity to realise the study and research [he] was undertaking in vernacular architecture”. In 1980, El-Wakil’s Halawa house received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

Image credit: Halawa house (1972-1975) in Al-Agamy, near Alexandria, Egypt

El-Wakil’s traditional approach has also begun to flourish in mosque architecture, where he built more than eleven mosques in Saudi Arabia. Of note, the Corniche mosque, Jeddah, built in 1986, demonstrates the extent of traditional architecture on El-Wakil. Although built in Saudi Arabia, El-Wakil combined elements of Islamic architecture and the Egyptian vernacular. The Corniche mosque featured traditional forms such as the squinched-dome and the vault. El-Wakil also used local materials as well as employing the traditional method of construction. Although the Corniche mosque is a small-scale building, the way its elements are tied together and the form of its minaret take “the concept of the minimal mosque to the absolute limit”. Chris Abel believes that the mosque externally and internally “possesses a three-dimensional quality and authority that belies its minute size”. The Corniche mosque was awarded the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1986. The jury citation stated that El-Wakil should be cited as a proponent for innovative sitting, for rethinking classical methods of building, and for the effort to compose formal elements in ways that bespeak the present and at the same time reflect the luminous past of Islamic societies.

Image credit: The Corniche mosque, Jeddah, built in 1986

Undoubtedly, El-Wakil’ provided some of the essential bridges between the architectural culture of the past and that of the late twentieth century. In fact, the work of El-Wakil has indicated that an individual was neither capable of discovering new forms nor of simply imitating past styles, but that the creation of new forms is the result of a continuum of multi-generational collective work. For El-Wakil, the essence of architecture was not to reveal genius, but rather to achieve knowledge and mastery of craft and construction.

References:

1. Charles, Prince of Wales, A Vision of Britain: A Personal View of Architecture. London, 1989, p. 11.

2. Al-Asad, Mohammad, The Mosques of Abdel Wahed El-Wakil. Mimar: Architecture in Development, v.12, no.42, March 1992, p. 34.

3. Diane Ghirardo, Architecture After Modernism. London, 1996, p. 141.

4. Lucien Steil, Tradition & Architecture. Architectural Design, v. 57, no. 5 / 6, 1987, p. 53.

5. Holod, Renata and Darl Rastorfer, Architecture and Community: Building in the Islamic World Today. New York, 1983. pp. 58, 113-117.

Chris Abel, Work of El-Wakil. The Architectural Review, November 1986, p. 55.

Serageldin, Ismail, and James Steele, Architecture of The Contemporary Mosque. London, 1996, p. 51.

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