Exploring the philosophy of one of Egypt’s most admired living architects: Dr Abdelhalim Ibrahim Abdelhalim

The 2020 laureate of Tamayouz’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Dr Abdelhalim Ibrahim Abdelhalim has long sought to understand the social and cultural complexities of communities around the world, thus creating an architecture for the people, by the people.

In early August, Tamayouz Excellence Award announced the 2020 laureate of its Lifetime Achievement Award: the Egyptian architect and academic Dr Abdelhalim Ibrahim Abdelhalim. Admired for adopting traditional designs, methods and systems into his architecture, with community-driven projects all over the world from North Africa to North America, Abdelhalim’s approach, and established school of thought, has largely been credited as pioneering. In response to the announcement, people all over the Middle East, and particularly in Egypt, celebrated the news: a local architect who had built a career upon supporting local communities, and who had inspired generations of architects after him, was once again illustrating the lasting impact of dutiful work.

Although Abdelhalim’s professional career started a little over 40 years ago in 1978, when he founded his own Cairo-based studio Caravan, later to be renamed Community Design Collaborative – CDC, the perimeters of his thinking and outward perspective began forming during his childhood. Born in 1941 in Sornaga, a manufacturing estate-village located along the Nile River around 70 miles south of Cairo, Abdelhalim was raised within a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, agricultural and highly productive community. The village, which had a population of around 1500 people at the time, was self-sufficient, and managed itself, including its built environment complete with brickwork, tiling, ceramics and porcelain creation, as well as its sanitation system. Abdelhalim’s entire extended family worked across the different areas of the village’s production wheel, from crafts to the management and supervision of the affairs of Sornaga.

Abdelhalim studied architecture and engineering at Cairo University, from which he graduated with honours in 1963. Afterwards, in 1967, he completed a graduate diploma in housing and building technology, and though he was well on his way to starting a career in architecture, the regional politics of the time caused a turning point in Abdelhalim’s life, and triggered an internal dilemma for the young graduate, leaving him with multiple conundrums.  

“The great defeat of the Arab armies in front of Israel marked the beginning of an awareness of the roots of the defeat, not only in our political and military reality, but also in the Arab architectural and creative work as a whole,” Abdelhalim told Mashary Abdelnaeem in an interview for Alam Al.Bnaa.

The defeat, for Abdelhalim, sparked many questions related to the nature of geopolitical relationships – particularly those between Egypt (and the Arab countries in general) and the West, as well as the subsequent impact of this relationship on academic studies. He questioned if such relationships were good, or if they were confrontations and collisions. He also questioned why the cognitive concepts and principles that were presented at university failed to explain the defeat in the war.

In 1968, Abdelhalim travelled to Nigeria, where he lived for a short period of time and studied the frameworks of the country’s integrated community systems, from the rituals to the ceremonies. He also explored the “independent system of knowledge” that not only affected the form of local social life, but was embedded in all things, including construction. He drew connections from what he witnessed in Nigeria to what he had recently endured in Cairo: “There is a connection and convergence at the source, not the appearance, between the scene of building a small hut in [Nigeria] and what I lived through in Cairo on the 9th of June, 1967,” he continued in his interview with Abdelnaeem. “This is the strength and spontaneity of the popular social cohesion between man and building.”

Following his stay in Nigeria, Abdelhalim moved to the US and received his Master’s in architecture in 1970 from the University of Oregon. His research, titled Environmental and Societal Components of Architectural Work, presented a message of popular societal work, rather than academic, and was exemplified through a number of proposals and projects that provided a methodological and practical alternative to architecture based on the popular and societal energy of a building. This research would provide the groundwork for his subsequent studies as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, which he completed in 1978.

Abdelhalim’s PhD thesis proposed that in all human societies, ancient and modern, there is a set of important events that represent the possibility of a connection between the life of the community, its culture and its built environment, such as the rituals of the “Egyptian peasant performed during the construction of his simple home”. The technical and symbolic dimension, purports the research, appears even in the basic features of a building and its urban texture.

Studying at Berkeley had multiple positive effects on Abdelhalim. In addition to his studies (although largely connected to them), he met and worked with Christopher Alexander, a widely influential British-American architect and design theorist, whose own theories about the nature of human-centred design are well documented.

“I am convinced that it is not possible to produce a built environment related to our life and to life in general without paying attention to this dimension,” Abdelhalim said in Alam Al.Bnaa. “It is not a requirement that it be carried out in the same traditional way and it is not a requirement that it be implemented through the local community or through traditional rituals, but the important thing is to understand the vital dimension of these events and their role in construction.”

According to architectural historian James Steele, who wrote Abdelhalim Ibrahim Abdelhalim: An Architecture of Collective Memory (2019), Abdelhalim started to feel that the true testing ground of his ideas and principles, which had been forming since 1967, was Egypt itself. And he was determined to make a genuine contribution to his country, as he felt that he had a better chance to do so in a place with which he shared its cultural traditions and collective memory.

Community Design Collaborative and the Children’s Cultural Park

In 1978, Abdelhalim established his own studio, which he first called Caravan and later renamed it to Community Design Collaborative – CDC. Based in Cairo, the young office was, from the start, involved in a series of small projects both in Egypt and the US. By 1993, Abdelhalim’s work gained international recognition for a project in Cairo, known as the Children’s Cultural Park, in the form of an Aga Khan Award. Originally put forward as a competition organised by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture in 1987, Abdelhalim recognised that the project had the potential to be the perfect forum for expressing the principles he had been developing over the last few decades, and replied enthusiastically to the call for entries.

“For me, the basic thesis of the idea of building ceremonies and all the long experiences that I have had on the relevance of construction to liberation and otherwise were as preparation for the Cultural Park project in the Sayyida Zeinab district,” he said.

The Children’s Cultural Park

The park is located in a formerly abandoned area in the middle of a distinct Cairene neighbourhood called Sayyida Zeinab. The original name of the site was al-Houd al-Marsoud, or ‘the enchanted pond’. There was a natural basin there that was part of a chain of residual bodies of water located between al-Khalif al-Masri (a canal) and the Nile. This provided one of the most important theoretical starting points for the project’s design.

According to the project’s paper, the site also stands on a main thoroughfare, which leads to the Mosque of Ibn Tulun. This allows for a clear view from the site to the signature, spiralling form of the mosque’s Samarra-style minaret – a significant monument in Cairo and the Islamic world. This connection provided the second most critical influence for the design of the project originally submitted by Abdelhalim and CDC.

The project features a form that draws its architecture from the minaret of the nearby mosque, representing growth as a unifying element between children and gardens. As explained in the project’s paper, this spiral form symbolises the idea of the never-ending growth of children, as well as the never-ending fertility of gardens, and this form is transposed into a horizontal matrix spreading across the site in an interlocking movement, inviting children to run through the spaces of the helix. The existing palm trees further informed the project’s modularity, with each tree marking a ‘point in the matrix’. Structurally, the wall-bearing system utilised many arches, vaults and domes, allowing for freedom and vibrancy in the general order of the garden’s architecture.

For the construction, CDC used stone, drawing from many Tulunid, Mamluk and Ottoman buildings in the neighbourhood. For Abdelhalim, stone represented a meeting point for the carpenters and surveyors of typical Egyptian general contracting, as well as the traditional craftsmen who might still be found in the community. The material choice and the local labour further allowed for adjustment and adaptation to be made more easily, granting flexibility to the architect and spontaneity in decision-making.

Of all the projects that Abdelhalim has been involved in over his long career, both in and outside of Egypt, the Children’s Cultural Park perhaps best exemplifies his belief in the traditional wisdom of the people and their ability to direct the architect by revealing their well-established patterns and rituals  through a participatory, communal design process. Furthermore, the project is a clear example of the ritual of regeneration – the site had been renewed, despite once being derelict and abandoned.

Reflecting the local context       

Throughout Abdelhalim’s work, a need to incorporate the local context, rituals and customs is evident. Projects like the Imam Muhammad bin Saud Mosque in al-Dir’iya, KSA (1996) and the Egyptian Consulate in Jeddah, KSA are further examples of this. The former was commissioned to CDC to develop both short and long-term plans to restore the original character of the city of al-Dir’iyah, the ancestral home of the Al Sa’ud family. The site is divided into three distinct areas separated from each other by walls or buildings, and includes a mosque, plaza, residential area, parking, large garden, library and multi-purpose hall. The mosque is designed in a traditional local style and contains a small courtyard.

Located right at the entrance to the city, a portion of the old wall remains in the form of the mosque. Furthermore, the two minarets have exposed stairs, echoing the traditional Najd minarets as well as the neo-traditional minarets in the diplomatic quarter. 

According to Alam Al.Bnaa, CDC did on-site testing to determine how to both control the amount of light penetrating into the interior and to maximise it for full effect where needed to induce a sacred feeling of piety, or taqwa, especially concentrating on the mihrab.

The latter project, the Egyptian Consulate in Jeddah, is an expression of constant and common cultural and architectural values in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Internal orientation and a sense of ‘the heart of spaces’ define this project, such as the square fountain at the eastern entrance. Such design elements are constants in the architecture and urbanism of both Egypt and the Hijaz, particularly in their examples of Islamic architecture.

Abdelhalim’s philosophical and professional ideas were always related to the local community, its traditions and rituals, and a series of important events influenced the formulation of these ideas since the beginning of his professional journey. Perhaps one of the most important projects for Abdelhalim was a district planning project in the Philippines in 1976, when he was at Berkeley. It was the first time the architect presented an integrated architectural proposal based largely on the traditions of a local community.

The project’s site was a marshland for fishing, and Abdelhalim developed a plan to rehabilitate the area with the participation of the people and within the framework of their traditions. This was to be achieved through real coexistence, and an educational exploration into the livelihood of the fishermen in the region. This method, for Abdelhalim, turned into a method for the replanning of the area and rehabilitation of it for housing.

“This is the true concept of architecture as I see it,” said Abdelhalim in Alam Al.Bnaa. “It is the building of man as well. That is why I say that our work in this field is not only buildings, but also building a society.”

Establishing a school of thought, a legacy

While CDC’s work speaks for itself, and offers an intricate lesson in the importance of listening to the people, Abdelhalim has further promoted his ideas through lectures and academic work at several leading universities in the US, Europe, Asia and Egypt, where he taught as a professor of architectural design and theory. A common thread of his lectures was the design and construction of society, and the identification of its own traditions and rituals, which are not always related to the process of building.

Over his 40-year career, Abdelhalim and his colleagues have designed over 300 projects in Egypt, the US, and the Arab and Islamic worlds. His projects span from institutional to educational, urban planning to public. And in the past few years, his focus was on writing his book with James Steele, and documenting his philosophical and professional ideas.

“My purpose has been to understand how community building ceremonies can be a source of creative action,” he said. “This question is important because the majority of the world’s population lives in communities where rituals and traditions are the only available organising forces.”