#Archifocus: Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil buildings in Egypt and Saudi Arabia

Born in 1943 in Cairo, Egyptian architect Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil is highly regarded for his extensive portfolio of Islamic architecture projects, which includes over 15 mosques in Saudi Arabia and a handful of Arabian-style homes across North Africa, the GCC and the Mediterranean. Once a fervent student of iconic architect Hassan Fathy, El-Wakil’s work, which has been referenced in publications like ‘A Vision of Britain’ by the Prince of Wales, has won him numerous prestigious prizes including the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1980 for the Halawa House in Egypt and again in 1989 for the Corniche Mosque in Jeddah.

A representative of ‘new classical architecture’, El-Wakil’s career took off in 1960 when he was appointed a lecturer position in the architecture department of Ain Shams University in Cairo. Though at the time he was approaching his projects through a modernist lens – particularly with the three apartment buildings he had recently completed – his creative focus began shifting to traditional building methods and tools after meeting Fathy, and ultimately, leaving his position at Ain Shams University for an apprenticeship with him.

It was Fathy’s quest for indigenous North African architecture that stirred El-Wakil during the late 1960s and 70s, and possibly even today. Applying Fathy’s ‘architecture for the poor’, El-Wakil  built the Halawa House along the beach of Agamy near Alexandria – for which he later received the Aga Khan Award.

With Gamal Abdel Nasser’s socialist regime and the economic fallout of the Six-Day War of 1967, Egypt’s political climate was ripe for artistic creation. With modern building materials scarce and expensive, El-Wakil built the Halawa House in Agamy with limestone – a material that was often used in indigenous Egyptian architecture as it was a locally-abundant source. He later built two more houses: the Hamdy and Chourbagy houses, both located on the outskirts of Cairo with the towering pyramids of Giza sitting in the distance.

By the early 1970s, many of El-Wakil’s commissions began coming from Saudi Arabia, where he designed private mansions and more than 15 mosques. Now working under his own private practice, his work merged his education from Fathy with his once deep passion for modernist architecture. Most notable was Al-Suleiman Palace, located in Jeddah, as it combined contemporary architecture with traditional Arab design concepts.

His work in Saudi Arabia led to a 10-year opus, during which El Wakil worked with Saudi’s Ministry of Pilgrimage and Endowment to build over 15 mosques. Designing each one single-handedly, El-Wakil was able to develop innovative building techniques that produced bold minarets and vaulted and domed structures. Continuing to use local materials, his beautiful mosques were revivalist structures – all drawing heavily on various historical prototypes belonging to the architectural heritage of the Middle East.

His 15 mosques share similarities with regards to material selection and construction technology. Built of hollow baked bricks held together with mortor, the brick surfaces would later be covered with white plaster, and sometimes granite.

Though four mosques designed and built by El-Wakil were smaller than his later works, they remain staples of his portfolio and include the Island Mosque, the Corniche Mosque, the Ruwais Mosque and the Abraj Mosque.

Today, El-Wakil continues to work with his private practice. Recently, he has signed on to develop and design a city quarter in Qatar, to design the restoration of the old Al-‘Udhaibat farm in Diriyah, Riyadh, and to develop an experimental social housing project made of mud brick in Senegal.

“One of the rare qualities I have in my work is that I’ve really studied sacred art and sacred architecture,” he once said. “It’s amazing that the nobility and the knowledge once transmitted through sacred architecture today is lost. The cathedrals, the temples in Egypt – they all have a message to give.”

In continuation of  our #Archifocus series, we dedicate this week to El-Wakil – to his homes and his serene places of worship.

Halawa House, Egypt

Built in 1975, the Halawa House by El-Wakil sits on Egypt’s northern shores of Agamy, near Alexandria. “The house was a long awaited opportunity to realise the study and research I was undertaking in vernacular architecture,” he said of the project, “showing the external aspects and inner significance of traditional architectural heritage and its use in contemporary design.”

The Halawa House is inspired by traditional Islamic prototypes, and includes a courtyard, fountain, wind catch, alcoves, masonry benches and a belvedere. The house’s design suits Egypt’s warm and humid climate, as the walls and roof provide insulation and mashrabiya-patterned screens filter sunlight. The courtyard draws fresh sea air and tunnels it through the wind catch. Except for the master mason, plasterer and carpenter, the construction labour was performed by local Bedouins.

The Halawa House won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1980.

Images courtesy of the Aga Khan Development Network. 

Al-Sulaiman Palace, Saudi Arabia

Located in the old harbour of Jeddah, along the Red Sea, Al-Sulaiman Palace was a practice in reviving the multi-storied coral and teak buildings that consist of louvered wooden windows and balconies once common to the region.

The palace contains private sleeping quarters grouped around the west atrium, public areas located in the centre of the site (which serve as transition zones between public and private spaces), a guesthouse, vaulted driveway and a service wing on the northern, rear edge of the site – to separate the swimming pool from the parking area.

Images courtesy of the Aga Khan Development Network. 

Corniche Mosque, Saudi Arabia

One of El-Wakil’s little mosques, the Corniche Mosque was the architect’s second Aga Khan win, which took place during the 1987-1989 cycle. Located in Jeddah, the 1,200m2 mosque faces the Red Sea and follows a classical Islamic architecture style.

The entire structure consists of brick coated with plaster, except for the dome interior, in which the bricks are exposed and painted in a dark bronze colour.

According to the Aga Khan foundation, the jury commended El-Wakil “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.”

Images courtesy of the Aga Khan Development Network. 

Other Mosques of Note by Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil

Binladen Mosque, Saudi Arabia

Ruwais Mosque, Saudi Arabia

Harithy Mosque, Saudi Arabia

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One Response to #Archifocus: Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil buildings in Egypt and Saudi Arabia

  1. Samira Fahim says:

    Abdel Walid El Wakil works influenced by Hassan Fathi is obvious but on the other hand handled in a very creative manner.He is the type of person we would love to work with him in landscaping as this is our specialisation to create out of the box projects.

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