|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
13 - 19 December 2001
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photos: Sherif Sonbol
Taking the cake
Museums don't thrill him: he builds for the living
Profile by Fayza Hassan
A very busy street in one of Cairo's once fashionable suburbs; an unremarkable, post-1952 building with, surprisingly, a friendly bawwab and an elevator in working order. The offices and dwelling of architect Gamal Bakry are situated on the third floor. The plaque over the door confirms that this is where one will find Gamal Bakry and Associates, Consulting Group.
The front door is ajar, ringing the bell a mere formality. Inside reigns the atmosphere of a beehive with music providing a festive background to the intense activity. Posters are stacked everywhere, sketches cover the tables and representations of buildings mingle with modern Egyptian art on the walls. A man carries a plastic model of what looks like a shopping centre across the office. "This is perfect, bless your hands," says a voice that I recognise as that of Dalila El-Kerdany, Gamal's wife. The great man is not far away. He strides into his office with a wide smile. "Look at the mess," he complains. "They gave us 20 days to organise the exhibition. Fancy a lifetime of work compressed in 20 days!" It is quite obvious that he loves every minute of the madcap preparations.
To mark Gamal's 70th birthday, the couple's associates have organised an exhibition at El- Hanager, the Opera House's "young" art centre. It will encompass a panorama of all his architectural work as well as a few of his paintings. "I don't want too many paintings to detract from the essential," says Dalila, with obvious pride in her husband's achievements. The exhibition will be opened by Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, "the best Egyptian abstract artist alive," says Gamal. "You are decisively a modernist," I venture, hoping to draw Bakry into a heated argument. "I am a man of my time," he counters, "which doesn't mean that I have forsaken my ties to the past. Listen." On the impressive hi-fi system, an old Abdel-Wahab number is playing. "I love the authentic old singers, I love our music; its harmony moves me deeply, but I have learned to play both Arabic and Western classical music on the violin. Having roots in one's past is no reason not to look further, mixing the old and the new, finding solutions to ancient problems with modern means. You can and should respect the spirit of your heritage, but you needn't reproduce it ad infinitum. Architecture is for the living and should therefore express our times and the progress accomplished in design and materials not only here but all over the world."
The basis of our architectural culture is easy to summarise, continues Bakry, warming to the subject; its essence is enclosed in a few immutable principles: "We are peasants attached to our land, so the foundations of our buildings must be strongly rooted. We pray to God on high, and therefore need to raise our edifices toward the sky. At the same time, we are huddled close to the Nile and thus by nature favour an introverted architecture, looking in rather than out. It is as simple as that. The rest is icing on the cake."
Clockwise from left: Al-Fatiha, graphic design by Bakry; photography buff; computer construction showcasing the holistic approach (Bakry's, in the middle) as opposed to fragmentary ordinary modern architecture
Bakry thinks that his birthplace, Port Said, and the family to which he was born made all the difference in his outlook. His grandfather was an enlightened man who sent his daughters to the French Lycée at a time when women were deprived of education altogether. He also was the first Egyptian to build his family house in the European district of Port Said. Bakry was born in this house and from early childhood had a chance to assimilate both Eastern and Western cultures. "I walked on the edge separating the old from the new, the traditional from the modern," he says. He and his siblings (two brothers, a sister) had a liberal education and were encouraged to ask questions. He thinks now that he must have taxed his mother's patience, "but she wanted me to learn, and was willing to be drawn into my endless arguments. 'You should take after your father's family; they are intellectuals,' she often told me." Bakry showed from early on that he was a gifted child, and a relative on his father's side, Ismail Qabbani, then minister of education, encouraged him to satiate his curiosity.
His parents were aware that this son, the second of their children, was rather special. His teachers noticed his drawings when he was in primary school, and his talent for geometry was duly recognised. "There was never any question about my future career," he says. "It was understood from the beginning that I would be an architect."
Even before enrolling at Cairo University, he had acquainted himself with the works of Egyptian and international architects and developed an eye for the harmony of a building akin to his ear for music. His mother insisted that he went along when the family had an important purchase to make, "because Gamal has natural good taste," she used to say.
In Cairo, he lived in the students' hostel. His awareness of Egypt's problems was heightened by the experience. He wanted to find solutions. He read and read: architecture and technical books, but also history, philosophy, psychology, religion -- an attempt to absorb the quintessence of the world's knowledge. In the course of this reading marathon, he began to feel confusion. He became unsure of what he believed in. He had set out to find enlightenment, and chaos had taken over his mind instead. There followed a whole year of deep depression. "I was 33 then and could not find my way out," he says, shaking his head at the memory. "No one can understand how I felt unless they themselves have been through a similar experience." Eventually he emerged stronger from the ordeal. "I have learned since that this often happens to offspring from families where the mother is dominant. They usually develop artistic tendencies and a propensity toward depression."
Bakry was jolted out of his personal woes by the 1967 defeat. "It was such a shock," he admits. "We had believed Abdel-Nasser's every word and were convinced that we had become a world power to be reckoned with. Suddenly, without warning, our dreams vanished. Maybe this was the turning point in my life," he muses. "Since then, I have become extremely tolerant of people's beliefs and attitudes. I think that I am now a very forgiving person, one reason why I am always teetering on the verge of bankruptcy," he adds with a laugh. "Through all our financial difficulties I kept the office going, paying my young architects as if I had a million in the bank. Yet I have no savings and I can tell you honestly that 80 per cent of the firm's clients owe us money. I don't even bother to ask for it. They will pay if they want to. I am not the type of person to take my clients to court, so what can I do but wait?"
Bakry is up against patrons who request designs then content themselves with the first symbolic down payment. "Once they have the blueprints and hand them over to the contractor, they think they don't need me anymore and often refuse to come up with the rest of the money. I am often surprised and pained at the way contractors deal with my drawings, cutting corners and altering whatever requires more work or expensive materials. How else would they make the huge profits that they have come to expect from any project? I tell myself, maybe if I had been born in their world, I would have become like them and I forgive them," he says, shrugging. "I won't die of hunger, so I just let it be. He confesses that this attitude has caused him no end of trouble. "If Dalila did not rescue us whenever we needed her, maybe this whole set-up would have stopped existing," he concludes, looking with deep affection at his wife, who is fussing because he has not buttoned up his coat for the photo.
During his 40-year career, Bakry has clung to his belief in the right way to build. His proudest achievements are his students at the university, "all of them successful, here or in other countries," he points out. "I have placed all my hope in the young generation of architects who have understood the message and know that architecture is a vocation, not a business."
Dalila was one of his students, and he revels in her success although a little smile plays on his lips when I mention her struggle to save our architectural heritage. He won't comment, however, and never reveals whether it is the venture itself or simply the way its advocates are going about solving the problem that he finds amusing.
Nahla, Bakry's daughter from his first marriage, walks briskly into the office, her arms loaded with papers. She speaks a few words to her father, then rushes out. "She is very positive, very dedicated," he says proudly. "She and her husband lived overseas for ten years but they are back now with new ideas. We really need the input of the new generation, you know; they are much less encumbered with our taboos and can act more decisively."
Bakry has definite ideas about children's education. He thinks they should be left free to develop while parents and schools present them with opportunities to ask questions and try to find their own answers. Their solutions, when they are left to work them out, are often more ingenious and original than our traditional options. Once they are capable of taking care of themselves, one should set them free. They are more liable to find a comfortable place in the world if not guided step by step to fulfil their parents' dreams.
Erich Fromm, one of his favourite psychoanalysts, has stated that only 30 per cent of cocooned children grow up to be successful, as opposed to 50 per cent of those who found no care at all in the family environment, Bakry says. Of course, he adds, if they are lucky enough to have two caring parents who do things right, then the proportion rises to 80 per cent. Bakry is also in favour of teaching children early about architecture, which he advocates in one of his recent books. After all, we spend most of our lives in the built environment, he reflects. Doesn't it stand to reason that we begin learning about it when the mind is young enough to absorb knowledge and improve on it? Very young children are fascinated with building: blocks and Lego are still popular toys in the West. Here children find plenty of mud for their edifices and when they live in the countryside they can observe the building process first hand and emulate it. Why not capitalise on this instinctive desire to create something from basic elements?
Dalila comes in to interrupt us. She is not happy with the background for Gamal's photo. "Let us go to our apartment," she decides, after playing with the shades and the lighting. "This is no good."
The apartment is on the same floor but, unlike the two offices, it is set at the back of the building and one suddenly realises how overpowering the sound of the street was. The windows of the living room open onto the sports field of the German School where a few young boys are playing basketball. Their clear voices reach us faintly. Bakry fiddles with the hi-fi and the sweet tones of a young Abdel- Wahab fill the room. "He is trying to show you that he is not a modernist and loves traditional Arabic songs," laughs Dalila. He could have fooled me: the living room is furnished in steel and leather, the work of the most avant-garde European designers. Everything was brought from Berlin. But the Arab heritage is present too, in the Syrian shawls thrown over the severe coffee table and angular chairs; Egyptian art covers the walls.
Gamal is in the adjoining kitchenette (also modern), making percolated coffee. His voice reaches us over the hissing of the coffee machine. "There is a difference between tiraz (style) and turath (heritage), which few people have managed to grasp. I am a deconstructionist. I do not copy Islamic or Pharaonic styles blindly, but rather attempt to isolate the elements of the heritage and combine them in a new creation, which is deeply rooted in our traditions, yet remains an original specimen, informed with all the elements of the new technology that can improve on the design. As I told you, I am not into building museums: I build for the living."
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