Tuesday, February 22, 2011

For the People of Egypt

When I saw the New York Times headline staring at me from the computer screen the morning of Saturday the 12th, my heart was immediately filled with joy. Partly, I think, it was because Mubarak's response only a day earlier was so incredibly frustrating and disappointing that his sudden reversal was all the more remarkable. At the same time, I'm not Egyptian, nor have I had the pleasure to visit your country (yet). These events are unlikely to affect my life in any direct way. So I was somewhat confused as to why I would be so deeply affected by the news that he had finally obeyed the wishes of the Egyptian people.

I believe I can explain it in a few different ways. On some universal human level, your bravery, perseverance, and passion was incredibly inspiring. I thank you for that. I also know how it feels--to a much lesser degree, to be sure--to despise the person running my country without my consent and seemingly without any power to change it (the one before Obama). Maybe most importantly, my country was founded on a revolution that freed us from our tyrants. Perhaps as an American, I have a somehow ingrained reverence for revolution. I'm filled with joy at the idea that ordinary women and men like myself might triumph in such a righteous and promising victory because of their strength of character. Cairo is named just right: "Victorious." My warmest congratulations to you.

Clearly, I wasn't the only one to be inspired by these events. They've had repercussions in countries across the globe. Let's hope the military does right by the citizens it's charged with protecting.

In your honor, I'd like talk a bit about the architecture of Egypt. I think more than enough lip service has been paid to the great monuments over the years. It would almost seem redundant to bother. What more could I say about the pyramids that hasn't already been said or that archeologists with four PhDs and decades spent studying them are still searching to say? This is a moment in history about the future of Egypt. Uncovering noteworthy newer buildings from all the rivers of information about Egypt's ancient past proved somewhat difficult. I did seek out the assistance of some of Cairo's prominent professors of architecture who might be able to give me some advice, but unfortunately I got no responses. Perhaps this post will invite some comments with other great new buildings.

The first one exists and though not in Cairo, is entirely deserving of praise. I still remember reading about it when it first opened in 2002 and I think it remains a remarkable building, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina by Snøhetta.
Photo courtesy TripShake.
This and following photo courtesy Aga Khan Award.
What makes this such a great building is that it does employ interesting symbolism for a monument to education and learning, but it never descends into obvious clichés. It makes due nods to ancient history, but without resort to insipid decorative frills.
The inside of the main reading room is truly spectacular. Complex and fascinating geometries frame a great expanse of tiers. While an indubitably modern structure, it has every bit of the sense of monumentality that this building deserves.

More recently are two buildings on the American University of Cairo campus that I think are remarkable: first, the University Library by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer (2008, the firm has since split in three, by the way).

Even more impressive, I think, is the Campus Center by Legorreta + Legorreta (2009) right next door.

Photo courtesy xinecj.

Both of these projects would appear to mesh nicely into the architectural fabric of Cairo, but without really copying anything specific, which would feel cheap. This is great new architecture in my opinion. Perhaps it's a bit of cheating for an American (me) to praise the American University. These projects were clearly inspired, contextually appropriately, by the regional architecture where they stand. The real compliment then, in my view, is that Egypt's architectural character has the power to inspire even great new, modern work.

For me, the most exciting things are the two projects proposed by Zaha Hadid. Let it be known that the USA has only one building by this genius, and my city, New York, has nothing. Granted, we do have two Gehry buildings, one by Thom Mayne of Morphosis, and of course many of the masters of twentieth-century modernism, but Hadid has alluded us so far. I suspect that New York is too difficult a place these days to build really astonishing buildings, counter to what you might think (hence the infuriating opposition faced by Jean Nouvel on 53rd Street). But you, Cairo, may potentially get two of them. I'll have to admit, I'm very, very jealous.

The first is Stone Towers.
Image courtesy Bustler.

This is not just the future of Egypt or the future of architecture, this is the future of human culture. On the one hand, the fact that she is a fellow Arab is a testament to the greatness of your culture, not only in ages past, but in the ages to come. The fact that she is a woman, I believe (as a Feminist) proves that the freedom earned by all Egyptians that day in Tahrir Square--by and for males and females alike--could usher in a new era, a cultural revolution to match the political one you've achieved.

Even more exciting for me is Expo City. Hadid outdid herself. It's entirely astonishing work.

The world had never seen anything like the Pyramids before or since. The world will stand in awe of this, also, its beauty, its technology, its artistry, its futurism, its innovation, its impeccable style.
Image courtesy Future is Now.

We've entered the era where computer technology has freed architecture once and for all from the confines of rigid rectilinearity. To an extent never possible before, architects can explore a personal, sculptural expression with considerably less of the restrictions of engineering and construction technologies once thought insurmountable. Hadid, more than most, has used these new tools to create great works of art and creativity. I think it's an apt metaphor for what Egypt might accomplish culturally, freed of the confines of a corrupt and tyrannical leader. I'm sure many considered that insurmountable, but we all saw that it was not. Tomorrow is a new day and with it comes hope and promise. We should all be thankful and make the most of it.

Ryan Witte