Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil

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.

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.

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.


Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil receiving the Richard H. Driehaus Prize. Screenshot from the video 2009 Richard H. Driehaus Prize Colloquium.

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.