Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil is one of the leading voices in contemporary Islamic architecture and a practitioner known worldwide for his design of the Oxford University Centre for Islamic Studies. His use of traditional form and technique won him the 2009 Richard H. Driehaus Prize administered by the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture. The prize is awarded annually to an outstanding architect whose work applies the principles of classicism, including sensitivity to the historic continuum, the fostering of community, and consideration of the impact to the built and natural environment. Over the past four decades, El-Wakil has built mosques, public buildings and private residences throughout the Middle East, maintaining balance between continuance and change. The following article presents a coverage about the work and career of Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil and stresses the triumph of the Islamic architectural style in his designs.
Prepared for FSTC by The El Sayed Foundation*
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Born on August 7, 1943, in Cairo, Egypt, Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil is an Egyptian architect, most well known for his awe-inspiring mosques in Saudi Arabia and beyond. He is considered to be one of the foremost contemporary authorities on Islamic architecture.
Figure 1: Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil talking at the Notre Dame School of Architecture: 2009 Richard H. Driehaus Prize Colloquium
Educated in Egypt, at Victoria College and the English School—both British schools—El-Wakil obtained his GCE in 1960, graduating with distinction in Applied Mathematics, Art, Physics, and Chemistry. This would ultimately lay the groundwork for El-Wakil’s university studies. In 1960, after obtaining his GCE, El-Wakil joined Ain Shams University, working towards a degree in Architecture, which he received in 1965 when he graduated with Distinction and a First Honors Bachelor of Science.
Figure 2: Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil receiving the Richard H. Driehaus Prize. Screenshot from the video 2009 Richard H. Driehaus Prize Colloquium.
From 1965 to 1970, El-Wakil was appointed to the position of Instructor and Lecturer at Ain Shams University in the department of Architecture under the Faculty of Engineering. Two years later, El-Wakil would experience a profound shift in architectural thought when he met the legendary Professor Hassan Fathy (1900-1989). An Egyptian architect himself, Fathy was born in Alexandria, and, as an architect, pioneered the import of building tools in Egypt. He also worked to create an indigenous environment at a minimal cost, and improve the economy and the standard of living in rural areas.
El-Wakil’s work with Fathy had a profound impact on the architect, who would decide, upon meeting Fathy, to give up his former Modern Style architecture and become an apprentice to the innovative architect. Prior to becoming Fathy’s apprentice, El-Wakil had already built three of his own apartment buildings in the Modern Style. Modern Style architecture is a style with similar characteristics—specifically “the simplification of form and creation of ornament from the structure and theme of the building .”
The first examples of the Modern Style were conceived early in the 20th century. This architectural style had gained popularity after World War II, and became the dominant architectural style for institutional and corporate buildings for three decades. During the 1960s, Modern Style was the most popular and accepted style of architecture. Architects like Fathy, who hearkened back to the ancient times with his use of traditional building methods and tools, pushed the metaphorical architectural envelope, and were unwelcome in some universities, like Ain Shams.
Because of Fathy’s unpopularity, El-Wakil soon left his position at the university to pursue his apprenticeship with the renowned architect. Following Fathy in his search for traditional, ancient, and indigenous architecture, El-Wakil witnessed an upsurge in Fathy’s popularity after the post-war crisis of the Second World War.
Because of the global economic crisis faced after World War II, a shortage of industrial construction materials made architecture a difficult field. Fathy, after researching Nubian building methods in Upper Egypt, decided to bring this traditional style of simplicity but utility, back to architecture. Fascinated with the Nubian tradition of building houses out of mud—a construction technique belonging to the Pharaohs–, Fathy began developing designs based on the techniques of roofing and tiling in the style of Nubians.
El-Wakil apprenticed with Fathy during the period of increased popularity, and learned the ingenious techniques of “constructing roofs in bricks without centering by constructing catenary vaults and domes, eliminat[ing] the need for scarce and expensive tensile materials .” El-Wakil adopted these techniques of simplicity and tradition and the profound impact that his apprenticeship had on his career is evident throughout his works.
After five years of apprenticeship with Hassan Fathy, El-Wakil was given the unique opportunity to build a beach house on the beach of Agamy, near Alexandria, Egypt. This was an interesting opportunity for El-Wakil not only because it was his chance to break away from Fathy and start out on his own, but also because it gave him the opportunity to reinterpret all that he had learned with Fathy.
During 1967, Egypt underwent a crushing blow to its economy with the disastrous consequences of the Six Day War. Just as with the Second World War, Egypt was left with very few industrial materials, but a lot of natural, indigenous materials. In 1975, El-Wakil completed the Halawa House at Agamy beach, using a large amount of limestone (indigenous to the area), and blending traditional Egyptian architecture with that of the French Riviera. El-Wakil’s design was stunning, and in 1980 won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.
Figure 3: The Halawa House, Agamy Beach, 1975.
Drawing upon traditional Islamic and Egyptian prototypes, El-Wakil maintains an indigenous feel to a luxury home. The house has a courtyard and a fountain, a loggia (a gallery or room with one or more open sides, especially one that forms part of a house and has one side open to the garden), wind catch, alcoves, masonry benches, and a belvedere (a summerhouse or open-sided gallery, commanding a fine view). El-Wakil also managed to employ a majority of local unskilled Bedouins, along with the master mason, plasterer and carpenter, who were skilled craftsman.
El-Wakil’s first piece included all the elements of traditional Egyptian architecture. Keeping Fathy’s adherence to the traditional, El-Wakil included some unique Egyptian structures. “The walls and roof are designed to provide good insulation, sunlight filters through mashrabiyyas, and the courtyard — which is in shade throughout the day — draws fresh sea air down through the wind catch. The paving materials also play their part; the marble in the living areas is cool, and the Muqattam stone used outdoors gives a surface that can be walked on with bare feet even at the height of summer. The design and construction, in the words of the [Aga Khan Award for Architecture] jury, ‘represent a dedicated search for identity with traditional forms. The courtyard plan, the use of domes, vaults and arches, the articulation of space and sensitive use of light combine to produce a house, which fully satisfies contemporary needs. This imaginative handling of traditional vocabulary is also enhanced by the consistent use of traditional methods of construction and the careful attention to details and craftsmanship .'”
In 1971, El-Wakil began his own private practice of architecture, and it was from this point onward that El-Wakil’s career would blossom. After the success of the Halawa House at Agamy beach, El-Wakil designed the Hamdy house—a small weekend house located in Giza, Egypt, near the pyramids. The house “contains a domed living room next to which lies an alcove fireplace, a dining area and small kitchen, and an enclosed courtyard. An upper level loft contains the sleeping area and bathroom. The courtyard accommodates outdoor living and sleeping requirements; it contains a small fountain in its center. The peripheral walls are punctured on three sides; wooden mashrabiyas provide privacy while promoting cross-ventilation .”
After designing a few houses, El-Wakil undertook a number of large mansion designs in Saudi Arabia. Due to the influx of oil wealth Saudi Arabia experienced during the early 70’s, the country was a lucrative source for El-Wakil. He began by designing the Zahran mansion, followed by the Suleiman Palace in Jeddah, then the Alireza mansion in Riyadh, and the Kandiel house in Jeddah.
Figure 4: The Suleiman Palace, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 1979.
Built in 1979, the Suleiman Palace combines concepts of traditional Arab construction with that of more modern or contemporary designs. But what El-Wakil is most famous for is his series of mosques constructed using his signature blend of the traditional and the contemporary. In 1979, just after the completion of the Suleiman Palace, the mayor of Jeddah, Sheikh Said Farsi, appointed El-Wakil, as advisor. With this new position, El-Wakil was able to maneuver a number of partnerships within the Saudi government, and developed a program for the architecture and design of a number of new mosques and the infusion of traditional architecture into the skylines of Saudi Arabia.
Through collaboration with the Ministry of Pilgrimage and Endowment, El-Wakil enabled the construction of a number of mosques made without concrete, something unique to the time period. Over a period of ten years, El-Wakil worked with the Ministry of Pilgrimage and Endowment in order to bring the traditional Arab architecture, using indigenous materials, through the building of fifteen beautiful mosques. El-Wakil was the sole designer of each of the fifteen mosques.
Figure 5: The Ruwais Mosque.
Undoubtedly, this singular opportunity was an important moment in his career—this opportunity gave El-Wakil the outlet to evolve his own design concepts and building techniques. “They can all be referred to as revivalist structures. All draw heavily, and often very directly, on various historical prototypes belonging to the architectural heritage of the Islamic world. All these mosques share strong similarities in the use of materials and construction technologies. Their construction is based on the utilization of load bearing brick walls, vaults and domes. Therefore, these structures are built of hollow baked bricks held together with mortar. Most of the brick surfaces are covered with white plaster, and in some cases, with granite. However, the interior of the vaults and domes are generally left exposed, and are only coated with a layer of brown paint. As for reinforced concrete, its use is limited to specific elements, which include the foundations, lintels, and flat ceiling .”
Figure 6: The Corniche Mosque.
Four mosques designed and built by El-Wakil were considerably smaller than his later works. Nevertheless, each mosque was unique and awe-inspiring, using only the indigenous materials. The above mosques (the Island mosque, the Corniche mosque, the Ruwais mosque, and the Abraj mosque) were paid for as part of a beautification program of New Jeddah. The following is written about the Corniche mosque: “Technologically, this building reflects the architect’s extensive research in the methods whereby Egyptian mosques of the traditional high culture were built. The entire structure is of brick coated with plaster except for the dome interior in which the bricks are exposed and painted a dark bronze color .”
Figure 7: The Island Mosque.
El-Wakil also built another five mosques for the city of Jeddah: the Suleiman mosque, the Harithy mosque, the Azizeyah mosque, the Jufalli mosque, and the King Saud mosque. Much larger than the previous four, these mosques were amongst some of the biggest of El-Wakil’s work. Unlike the previous four mosques, these mosques were built with brick. The King Saud mosque is a monumental structure, with a brick dome having the diameter of 20 meters and a highest point of 40 meters.
Figure 8: King Saud Mosque.
Figure 9: Azizeyah Mosque.
El-Wakil’s mosques in Jeddah not only brightened coastlines and cityscapes, but were also built in areas that have a large amount of religious meaning and history. Five mosques were commissioned in Medina, in Saudi Arabia. The Qubbah mosque was built on the site of the first mosque in Islam. The first Islamic mosque was built in Medina, after the Prophet Muhammad made his Hijrah from Mecca to Medina. El-Wakil was initially commissioned to build a larger mosque in the first mosque’s place. At first, El-Wakil attempted to add on to the already-existing mosque by blending styles and themes. However, the client who commissioned El-Wakil decided to eventually tear down the old mosque completely, and have El-Wakil erect a completely new design. The new mosque features four minarets.
Figure 10: The Qubbah Mosque, Medina, Saudi Arabia, 1989.
The second mosque built by El-Wakil on a historical site is the Qiblatain mosque. The Qiblatain mosque was the built in 1992 in the location where it is believed that the first worshippers changed their direction of prayer from Jerusalem towards Mecca.
Figure 11: The Qiblatain mosque, Medina, Saudi Arabia, 1992.
El-Wakil also re-designed and constructed the Friday mosque, which is the mosque where it is believed the first Friday prayers were conducted. Finally, the Miqaat Al-Medina mosque complex was designed and built in 1987 so that pilgrims entering the city of Medina could perform their ablutions and purification rites. The complex is an impressive array of necessary stops for those performing the religious pilgrimage to Medina. It can hold approximately 5,000 people, and includes shops and walkways for guests.
Figure 12: Miqaat Al-Medina mosque, Medina, Saudi Arabia, 1987.
Further, El-Wakil designed two mosques for the city of Mecca, the Bilal mosque and the Hafayer mosque. The Bilal mosque was never built, and the Hafayer mosque was recently completed in Ramadan of 2008.
Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil’s work is not confined to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, though. He has, in fact, designed and constructed a number of buildings elsewhere in the region and abroad. He designed the Kerk Street mosque in downtown Johannesburg, South Africa, the Houghton Mosque and community centre on the outskirts of Johannesburg, and the Yateem Mosque in Bahrain. He designed and constructed the mosque in Brunei, in the style of traditional Malay architecture, and the Muslim Community Center in Miami.
In 1991, El-Wakil was invited to University of Miami as a visiting Professor, and remained there until just after the events of September 11, 2001. El-Wakil has since been commissioned to design Oxford University’s Center for Islamic Studies.
Currently, El-Wakil divides his time between a number of major Middle Eastern cities, and continues to work within the style of traditional but contemporary architecture. He has received a number of awards including two Aga Khan Awards for Architecture (1980 and 1989), the King Fahd Award for Research in Islamic Architecture (1985), an award and trophy for his achievements in the city of the Medina (1994), and the Richard H. Driehaus Prize for his contributions to classical architecture (2009).
Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil has also been a member of a number jury panels and an advisor to a number of large-scale, international projects. El-Wakil has served as Member of the Board of Trustees of the International Heritage Trust, a member of the Academic Board of the Prince of Wales School of Architecture, an advisor to Astronaut Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Adulaziz Al Saud High Commissioner of Tourism and of the Saudi Heritage Trust, President of the jury for the reconstruction of the Old Souks of Beirut, a member of the jury and think tank for the Aga Khan Prize for Architecture, advisor to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization for the development of a village to relocate the Bdul tribe in Petra, Jordan, and a member of the King Fahd award for the International Youth of the World Competition for Islamic Architecture.
El-Wakil continues to remain a constant source of innovation in architecture. He has undertaken the development and design of a city quarter in Qatar, integrating the best contemporary low-energy planning practice with climate-tempered Islamic building form. With Prince Sultan of Saudi Arabia, he has worked on the development and restoration of the old Al-‘Udhaibat traditional farm in Wadi Hanifa in Diriyah on the western outskirts of Riyadh, and in, recently, during a trip to visit the President of Senegal, El-Wakil was commission to develop an experimental social housing project out of mud brick.
El-Wakil’s strong career as advocate for the use and appreciation of the land and the heritage of Islamic culture permeated throughout this work. Throughout his career, El-Wakil has remained loyal to that which connotes a nobler time—a more traditional time. In an interview for Huffington Post author Victoria Lautman , El-Wakil says this, “One of the rare qualities I have in my work is that I’ve really studied sacred art and sacred architecture. It’s amazing that the nobility and the knowledge once transmitted through sacred architecture today is lost. The cathedrals, the temples in Egypt – they all have a message to give. That is what I attempt in my work. And I do believe it is the lack of sacred attitude that’s causing so many problems today. I’m not talking about fanaticism, but something universal.” El-Wakil’s desire to encourage the world to revere the sacred is evident in his exaltation of indigenous resources and traditional structures. In homage to the past with a twist of the present, El-Wakil manages to remind the world of the warmth and humbleness of the past.
As one of the original voices advocating for the use of indigenous materials and remaining loyal to the traditional methods of building, El-Wakil has been able to blend the beauty, ingenious, and preciousness of traditional Islamic architecture with that of contemporary modern designs. His extensive work in the Islamic world and beyond has established him as one of the foremost authorities on reviving the traditional Islamic architectural style in our world.
Facey, William, Al-‘Udhaibat, building on the past, Saudi Aramco World, July/August 1999, pp. 32-45.
Keegan, Edward, Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil Wins 2009 Driehaus Prize, Architect Magazine, 10 Nov 2008.
Edwin, Heathcote, “No Place Like Dome,” The Financial Times Magazine, 9 March 2007.
[Video], Notre Dame School of Architecture: 2009 Richard H. Driehaus Prize Colloquium (2009). Retrieved October 11, 2009.
* The El Sayed Foundation is a not-for-profit organization established in the United Kingdom, seeking to contribute to positive social change through the promotion of economically empowering and educational initiatives that are both sustainable and innovative. Among its partners, 1001 Inventions Global non-profit educational initiative aiming to raise awareness of the Muslim contribution to modern civilization. For more information, visit El Sayed Foundation.