Egyptian architect Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil is in Sri Lanka to deliver the Geoffrey Bawa Memorial Lecture talks to Renuka Sadanandan
On Thursday, July 26 at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute the architect who took the podium was one whose singular creativity has been recognised not just in the Arab world, but globally. Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil is regarded as one of the foremost exponents of contemporary Islamic architecture and a new traditionalist.
El-Wakil met Bawa just once in 1989 when he was receiving his second Aga Khan Award in Cairo – he had won his first in 1980. “I was really happy to meet him,” he says, adding that he is here in Colombo out of respect for the great man’s memory, even though he doesn’t travel much any more, weary of the ‘nasty’ airport checks and the tedium of long flights. Before he met Bawa, he had been called the Geoffrey Bawa of the Middle East, in the Aga Khan circles, he smiles. He fell in love with Bawa’s work after seeing a book on him- the serene courtyard houses, sensitivity of design and his beautiful architectural drawings.
There is another great son of this country of a different era whom El-Wakil reveres and whose name he frequently mentions ‘as one of my great teachers’ in lectures to university students – Ananda Coomaraswamy, ‘a man of amazing genius’.
At the SLFI, his talk is on ‘Architecture, art and traditional civilizations’ and it is a wide-ranging, no-holds barred one. Architecture is the footprint of a culture; literature can lie, poetry can praise but architecture always reflects the true history of a culture, he says decrying the current trend towards constructing so-called ‘iconic’ buildings. These buildings are not made by architects but by frustrated sculptors, he tells a startled audience, going on to debunk several reputed names contrasting purity of form with embellished innovations, skyscrapers drawing scathing comments.
Housing, food, clothing are basic problems that concern any government in sustaining the people, he says, talking of the global need to use sustainable methods. In his first Aga Khan award winning design, the Halawa House on Egypt’s northern coast, the limestone abundant in the area was his main material.
He says he sees now that Fathy was attacked because he wanted to build the whole of the Egyptian countryside through a system of self-help, people using local materials, not employing big firms. I think any country that does not build its own buildings is doomed at the end, he says. If you take the Muslim world from Iran to Morocco to Saudi Arabia, you would never have enough steel to house them. When Dubai and China started their building boom, the price of cement and steel became unaffordable for people. Then why not use materials that are abundant – stone and earth for instance, he says, conceding though there are social issues and perceptions that need to be addressed. Earth is considered as used only by the poor but in New Mexico it is only the rich who can afford mud-brick architecture, he points out.
The big problem, in our societies is social status, he believes -where something foreign is always valued more than the local. “Hassan Fathy used to say ‘if they bottle mud in cans like Coca Cola, the Egyptians are going to build in mud!’”
Back at the lecture, he returns to the words of Hassan Fathy in summation: “…When the full power of human imagination is backed by the weight of a living tradition, the resulting work of art is much greater than any that an artist can achieve when he has no tradition in which to work or when he wilfully abandons his tradition”.