Architect Waleed Arafa Reflects on the Dilemma Facing Architecture Education
The Egyptian architect Waleed Arafa is gaining international attention for designs that both respect tradition and embrace contemporary technology. His latest project, the “House of Egypt”, or Maison D’Egypte, in Paris, is no exception.
In his design for the 200-room student residence, located on the campus of the International University City of Paris (Cité internationale universitaire de Paris), Arafa seeks to present purely Egyptian elements in a manner consistent with the building’s neighbors and the context of the Montparnasse section of the French capital in general.
In an interview with Al-Fanar Media, Arafa talked about how his firm, Dar Arafa, won the international competition to design the building, following the media momentum he achieved with his design of the Basuna Mosque in Sohag Governorate, in Upper Egypt.
He also talked about his own educational and career journey, and his vision for making architectural education in Egypt more interactive going forward.
The House of Egypt
Arafa, who is 43, was born in the United States to an Egyptian family from Sohag and studied engineering at Ain Shams University, in Cairo. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree in architecture, he moved to London to do a master’s degree focused on the preservation of historic mosques in Britain. He is currently working on research to obtain a similar degree from the American University in Cairo.
“When we talk about prominent architects, we mention names of those whose work stopped 50 years ago. … Now, we have mere individual figures, not currents, due to the lack of institutional interaction.”Waleed Arafa
He will soon head to Paris to follow up on progress in carrying out his design for the House of Egypt.
Dar Arafa competed with 60 architectural firms to win the Paris competition, Arafa said. He chose one of the smallest French architectural firms, Sam Architecture, as a partner on the project because “it matches his ambition to be different,” he said.
Arafa devoted himself completely for a month and a half to sketching the winning design. One challenge he faced was how to create a design “capable of making a dialogue with the designs of the neighboring buildings” by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, one of the most prominent Modernist architects. (These include the Swiss Pavilion and the House of Brazil.)
“I thought a lot before taking on this adventure, to create a design that can interact with the nearby buildings with a lot of confidence and as a peer,” Arafa said.
The philosophy behind his design was to express a frank Egyptian identity, reflecting the culture of its residents. At the same time, it had to be in harmony with its surroundings, taking into account the students’ comfort and need for learning opportunities.
Part of an ‘International University City’
The project also needed to promote dialogue, since the International University City’s administration requires the project to be inhabited by students of different backgrounds.
The International University City was established in 1925 to provide housing for international students at the universities of Paris. The campus has 43 houses that accommodate 12,000 students, researchers and artists of 150 nationalities each year.
Gallery: A House for Students and a Prize-Winning Mosque
In the 1960s, a plot on the campus was allocated to Egypt to build a residence for its students in France.
In his design for the house, Arafa chose elements evocative of Egypt, using mostly stone building materials and inscribing ancient Egyptian texts on the façade. The texts, in hieroglyphs, focus on the etiquette of seeking knowledge. The architect chose them after consulting expert Egyptologists at the American University in Cairo. Translations in different languages will be displayed on a panel on the façade.
Arafa wanted the design to allow the largest amount of natural light distributed with the path of the sun. To achieve that, he placed glass on the roof, and created passages between the rooms, respecting the privacy of students and connecting them to the courtyard to enjoy the view of its public garden.
The design also preserved a 100-year-old purple beech tree on the site.
Modernising Islamic Architecture
Arafa’s design of the Basuna Mosque in Sohag, completed in 2019, was recently chosen as one of seven winners of the Abdullatif Al Fozan Award for Mosque Architecture. The competition aims at developing and revitalising mosque architecture worldwide, while also encouraging innovations in planning, design and technology.
“The crises that afflict architecture in Islamic cities reflect the dilemma of modernising religious discourse itself. The majority of the representatives of this modernising debate are unable to represent it visually.”Waleed Arafa
Arafa was also honoured by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the Arab and African Youth Forum, held in Aswan in March 2019
Dar Arafa’s Basuna Mosque design also won a Marmomac Stone Award at an exposition in Italy the same year. The awards jury said the design “celebrates traditional and contemporary forms, opening up possibilities for future models in Islamic architecture.” It commented that the “stone is manipulated through varying geometries to celebrate the essential characteristics of Islamic culture.”
Arafa thinks that “the crises that afflict architecture in Islamic cities reflect the dilemma of modernising religious discourse itself. The majority of the representatives of this modernising debate are unable to represent it visually,” he said, “and some of them even promote ugliness and do not have a genuine understanding of the religion they claim to defend.”
Teaching Architecture in Egypt
Even with his achievements so far, Arafa wants to continue studying to deepen his theoretical knowledge and earn scientific degrees. His ambition is to establish a new architectural school in line with his vision.
The study of architecture at Egypt’s universities currently faces a “big predicament,” he says.
“When we talk about prominent architects, we mention names of those whose work stopped 50 years ago, like Hassan Fathy, Ramses Wissa Wassef, and Naoum Shebib. This means there are gaps in our memory and the names that emerged after those famous figures seem like flashes in a dark space,” he said.
“Now, we have mere individual figures, not currents, due to the lack of institutional interaction.”
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Through his architecture firm, Arafa offers scholarships to recent architecture graduates for advanced training. Over the past two years, Dar Arafa has more than 20 trainees, and it currently receives requests from around the world.
“We do not operate entirely commercially, and academic obsession governs our work,” Arafa said. “We always prefer working with fresh graduates who are not spoiled by the competitive market.”
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