|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
12 - 18 April 2001
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Building to elevate the human spirit -- but where does the kitchen go?
Profile by Pascale Ghazalehphoto: Mohamed Mos'ad
The blurb does not make it into the top ten list of most convincing things I've ever read: "Tarek Naga's architecture resists being pigeonholed, just as it resists being dictated by any kind of external order. Rather, it is intended as something open and available to all its varied forms of potential, be they topological or architectonic, symbolic or metaphorical." Well, very nice, but what exactly does that mean? An architect designs buildings, right? Openness and potentialities are certainly inspiring concepts, but ultimately what you get is walls, windows and doors -- elements you can walk through, or into, depending on preference -- elements that protect humans from the elements; not necessarily chicken coops or dovecotes, but buildings, at the end of the day. Right?
Wrong, as it turns out. Tarek Naga does not take kindly to the idea that an architect's job is to build, or even to design buildings. "Building and architecture are two different things, absolutely. Building is just the act of satisfying the need for housing, schooling, office space... It's just an absolute pragmatic need for square footage." And architecture? "Architecture as a discipline engages a much wider range of topics that concern society in a certain evolutionary process, like philosophy, the arts, the sciences... Architecture sits at the crossroads of all these disciplines. It's always a thermometer of developments at a particular moment in the history of a civilisation. Building is something every single human being is engaged with. You need a wall, you need a house, you go out and build a house, without having to engage with the theoretical, philosophical discourse. Building is a simple, simple process, while architects must understand the many forces impacting upon a particular moment in the history of their culture."
If anyone can build a house, and an architect is, clearly, not just anyone, maybe an architect's job is to not build, then -- to dream, and muse, and ponder. Maybe they are the philosophical grasshoppers of this world, free to soar while the ants are busy putting away supplies for the winter. Naga's CV could be read as suggesting precisely that. Much of his work consists of projects or competition entries: the McMillan house in Silver Lake, Los Angeles; the Nara Cultural Complex in Japan; the Taba tourist resort; the Egyptian Pavilion at the 2000 Venice Biennale -- wait, the Egyptian Pavilion? But Naga has lived in the United States since 1979. What qualifies him to represent Egypt? He is hardly an outspoken advocate of vernacular architecture -- quite the contrary. Avoiding the traditional, in fact, is "a conscious choice," and even "the main choice." If anything, he is looking for "an architecture that would transcend the traditional historical evolution of architectural 'style,' which is becoming, really, increasingly irrelevant." No Hassan Fathi here; no architecture for the poor, at least not just yet. No domes, no mud brick, no rustic whitewashed walls.
In an interview with Marilou Knode, senior curator at the University of Wisconsin's Institute of Visual Arts, Naga went so far as to exclaim: "Must one make ethnicity the driving force of his or her work? Being Egyptian alone does not define one's vision. Obviously it plays a major part in who I am, but I also believe in the universality of mankind. I believe artists and architects should not be myopic in their vision..." (medina magazine, July/August 2000) Such a statement could ruffle a few feathers, no? Is Naga not slitting the sacred cow's jugular vein by belittling, however implicitly, the current revival of folklore, the newly discovered pride in "our heritage" (no matter how utopian -- or apocalyptic -- holiday villages that deceptive blanket phrase may be stretched to cover)?
The idea of it is interesting, anyway: an Egyptian, in the US, who is not banking on his Egyptianness, in a cutthroat field where ethnicity -- his indigenous value, as it were -- could well be the only thing that sets him apart. Nor is this a recent conversion, prompted by the declining market value of cultural authenticity: it was Naga's feeling that "something was missing" that drove him out of Egypt in the first place. Growing up and going to school, then university (Ain Shams) in Egypt, he was trained in the Beaux-Arts tradition: classical or neo-classical, Islamic or neo-Islamic. It was not satisfactory. "I wanted to get out of this box, look for other possibilities -- something much more substantial than just a continuation of the same kind of style, variations and abstractions of certain variations, Eastern or Western, Islamic or not, Mies van der Rohe or whoever was trendiest..."
Feeling "isolated and alone," Naga seems to have rattled around for a while: "I felt there was something else going on. I was looking for something that would take my work in a whole new direction. I knew I wasn't satisfied, but I couldn't explain." One particular irritant was the tendency to equate architecture with, yes, building. In 1975, a new graduate, Naga found himself in a country undergoing rapid change. "It was just about building, building, building -- to satisfy the need for housing." The dislocation between his concerns and those of the market was too sharp to tolerate, that much seems obvious. It would have been possible to design low-income housing (or high-rise office buildings), and even to believe he was following the implications of Adolph Loos's revolutionary condemnation of "ornament as crime" -- difficult, but possible. Leaving Egypt, after all, was to leave a comfortable place where he could be "the best of the best very easily, a big fish in a small pond."
The departure, when it came, was almost fortuitous. The year was 1979, and Naga had been working and teaching for four years. He was on automatic pilot, studying for his master's degree, but still "always the odd man out, telling the students crazy things," and wondering where to go from there. Going to the US for a PhD was becoming a possibility because the political situation was changing, and one day the piece of paper that was to change his life landed in the department. Three young professionals were to be sent to the US in the context of an endeavour to create closer human ties between the two countries. Naga's interview with the American cultural attaché was no cause for optimism, however. "It was terrible. They were looking for Egypt's young, bright minds, and the first thing he asked me was, 'so, Mr Naga, what is it that makes you want to go to the US so anxiously?' or something like that, with such arrogance. I said 'you sent for me, here I am: I don't want to go that badly'." Convinced he had blown it, Naga was outraged rather than rueful: "What an arrogant question!" Three days later, he received word that he had been selected.
'Architecture is ultimately about creating a good, happy environment for us to work and live in. It's about your humanity -- who you are'
above, model of the Yokohama International Pier Terminal (Japan); left, computer image of the central information and orientation structure for the Sharm Al-Sheikh Safari Gate project
The ensuing six weeks were the best time of his life, he says with that charming smile. For the first time, he realised that it was possible to be free from the constraints of both academic achievement and professional success -- possible to enjoy "a certain freedom from all restrictions, from society." In the country he was leaving, "it was all about 'there's work to be done, let's build it,' that's it." The luxury of intellectual space was unavailable and that luxury, he still believes, is imperative if one seeks "to engage with the discourse of Architecture with a capital A."
In a brief, thrilling tour of 20 states, Naga visited universities and top firms, met prominent architects and drank it all in. At the end of this concentrated period of exposure, he was offered a teaching job at the University of Minnesota, and just stayed. Three years later, he had finished his master's degree, and moved to the University of Pennsylvania, where he worked on a doctoral dissertation from 1982 to 1985. The topic -- the socio-cultural phenomena that trigger avant-garde movements -- was close to his preoccupations. Remembering his research now, he could be visualising the defence committee, so passionately does he expose the main strands of the problematic: "When and why does a certain group of architects decide there is a need for a major leap? Where does it come from, where does it lead us to? If you follow advances in architecture, they immediately precede or follow something substantial that's happening to a particular civilisation or culture. In Europe between the wars, many forces were carving away at the way society expressed itself in its built environment... Suddenly you had a group of architects saying 'this is it, that's what we're supposed to be doing,' and a major shift occurred."
The dissertation, however, never saw the light of day. Naga realised there was no need for it, although he loved to teach, and even the research itself was fulfilling. Those three years of voracious reading and reflection allowed him to find his "new voice" and his place in "a movement that would change the face of architecture, rethink the way we do architecture."
A job in Boston at the Architects' Collaborative followed, but Naga felt stifled; the East Coast, he found, was a victim to the same traditionalism he had fled so adamantly in his migration to the north. "That was one of the biggest problems I had in Egypt: that tradition was so heavy you could not liberate yourself from it." And liberation, through movement, is what it is all about, is it not? At an AUC lecture posing the provocative question "is architecture getting more intelligent?", Naga shows a slide of Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase and waxes lyrical about the elision of substance: "Someone like Duchamp said it's no longer about the nude descending the staircase, it's about the act of, the moment of descending, the intention that's within an object or a human being. That was a major shift -- the first time that architecture began to be looked at as something that's not necessarily made of stone."
One begins to understand why his buildings are not built, why he firmly believes that architecture is a spiritual exercise, and why his designs (the prototypes for the Sharm Al-Sheikh Safari Gate project, for instance) resemble fantastic space-age insects more than they do habitable spaces. "Architecture is no longer about plans and elevations and beauty," he exhales; "that's old hat." The downside is that one of his designs for a private residence so terrified the client that an agreement to drop the project was reached. "She wanted to add columns," says Naga, shaking his head in amused disbelief. "I mean: columns? No. I won't do just anything." Another seems to have been more to his liking but, as he describes it, Charlie Brown springs unbidden to mind: "Good grief!" It's just a house, after all... But no -- it's a house designed with someone specific in mind, someone who happens to have been a professional water-polo player, and now installs satellite dishes besides dabbling in film. These three concerns were translated, architecturally, into "three types of suspension: in water, in space, of disbelief."
And his description of Phoenix Rising, the entry for the 2000 Venice Biennale, is nothing short of inspiring, whether or not one takes issue with its premise. The question posed, he explains, was: "What is Egypt?" The answer, he decided, was "a phenomenon in history whose essence is continuity, survival." This idea of constant rebirth, and the transformation of a closed, autarchic element, was expressed in undulating sheets of lead, continuously folding and unfolding, wrinkling and pulsating. "Lead," muses Naga, "wants to be liquid; but it is one of the heaviest metals. This inherent contradiction is also at work in Egypt: it appears to behave in a certain way, but from the inside there is a different sense of being."
He is applying similar principles in what could be literally his biggest challenge to date: the master plan and design for the preservation of the Giza Plateau. The project entails rethinking the infrastructure, removing all the structures put in place over the past two centuries, and "preserving the site's sanctity," an item Naga lists as if metaphysical goals were tantamount to determining access and exist points -- or vice versa. Concretely, he plans to ban cars and buses from the area in favour of electrical vehicles, and remove the asphalt roads that wind their way up and across the plateau. "The Pyramids are the largest, most abstract, most impressive tectonic structures on earth," he explains, "at the edge of the largest space on earth -- the Sahara. You can't just say 'let's put a building here. You have to go way up... The Nile is one of the most powerful rivers in the world, Cairo one of the largest cities. This is an encounter of extremes. You don't build anything here, because it's bound to fail." Eschewing competition with the Pyramids, he feels the architecture must disappear into the sands: most of his work, then, will be subterranean, "non-architecture," created by incorporating structures into the existing topology.
The niggling question remains, then, particularly pertinent in light of the neo-colonial policies currently in force on said Giza Plateau: do these noble plans have anything to do with people? "Do we stop thinking about the most amazing secrets of our universe because a man a few doors down the street is hungry?" demands Naga impatiently. "If the answer to that is yes, then our civilisation would have stopped evolving a long time ago. This is really a big question, and humanity faces it constantly. We'll always have to say 'yes, I know, this may seem irrelevant to this person who just wants a two-room apartment and a family. What do they care for architecture?' The answer is, we have to continue, no matter what. Ultimately it will trickle down, because architecture is ultimately about creating a good, happy environment for us to work and live in. It's about your humanity -- who you are." And at last -- at last! -- he admits it: "The intention has to be to build; but not just anything. I will build what I believe in.
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