"Critical Exchange: Over-exposed Modernities" - Manar Moursi
Chapter in Modern Architecture Kuwait 1949-1989 (Interviews and Essays) edited by Roberto Fabbri, Sara Saragoca Soares and Ricardo Camacho, Niggli Zurich, 2017. Below, an excerpt:
The primary goal of this magazine - the first of its kind in Egypt – is to serve the art of architecture...by opening up a door and setting up a forum for the exchange of honest opinions and ideas...With this work alone, we soon will be able to proudly assert that Egyptian architecture is on the right track, with a distinctive voice, built on strong foundations.
Sayed Karim, 1939, Opening to the inaugural issue of the first Arabic language architectural journal al-Emara
Egypt, which was previously considered the regional role mode in its architecture, and which contributed so much to the development of neighboring Arab cities through its architects, lost its canonical position and stature. Instead, those very cities which had looked up to Egypt and its architects have now become the embodiment of what Egyptian architecture should have and could have been during that period of time. Sayed Karim, 1989, Egyptian Architecture in the Twentieth Century: Its Past, Its Present, Its Future. Preface to the book: Twentieth Century Architecture in Egypt
A discourse on the state of Egyptian architecture was never more present than between the years 1939 and 1959 through the pages of the first Arabic language architectural journal al-Emara established by Egyptian modernist architect Sayed Karim. If the magazine was, as Karim described it, “the forum for the exchange of honest opinion and ideas”, then the newly formed independent states of the Arab world were the terrain in which these ideas were tested, circulated and shared. Fifty years after the launch of al-Emara, in the 1989 preface to the book Twentieth Century Architecture in Egypt, Karim laments the loss of Egypt’s center stage position in the arena of architectural and urban development in the region. Reflecting on those fifty years however, one cannot deny the formative role which Egypt played in the development of the urban fabric of the cities of the Arab World.
Urban history is often told through the lens of what remains of its built landscape, but the drawing board and the building sites were not the only spaces in which Egyptian architects effectively disseminated their ideas. Magazines, conferences, education and institution building were other avenues through which they etched their presence in the built environment of the region.
Taking Kuwait as a case in point, this article seeks to shed a light on the often overlooked contribution of Egyptian architects in the city from the 1950s to the 1990s. Though it might be but a minor chapter in the history of Kuwait’s modernism, it serves nevertheless, as a counterpoint to the predominant narrative of a singular first-world influence on Kuwait’s twentieth century architectural and urban development. This chapter links Egypt and Kuwait in the last fifty years of the twentieth century via two key Egyptian figures of modernist architecture and urbanism - Sayed Karim and Mahmoud Riad – and the more recognized Hasan Fathy, as well as lesser-known practitioners such as Said Abd el-Moneim, credited with the design of public and private buildings dotted throughout the city.
Disaggregating Kuwait and Egypt’s urban and architectural relationship involves unpacking first the layers of the Egyptian cultural and political regional influence and assessing its reach in Kuwait. In the political realm, Egypt’s fight for independence no doubt had strong reverberations in the region. The Suez Canal Crisis nurtured the Kuwaiti desire for independence. During the crisis, support for Nasser was rallied with strikes and a boycott of French and British products. Looking up to Egypt, the Kuwaitis aspired to take full control of their resources. This can be gleaned from a series of entanglements in the immediate aftermath of the Canal crisis, where the then British controlled Kuwait Oil Company (KOC) was repeatedly and publicly attacked in the Kuwaiti press for “stealing” Kuwait’s oil and resources. The al-Itihad newspaper, published by the Kuwait Students in Egypt Association, demanded the KOC to openly reveal to the public, the quantities of oil they produced, their cost and sale price so that “the Imperialist Company cannot play with the people’s destiny and openly steal their resources” (qtd. in Alissa 81). A strong wind of empowerment, rebellion and incitement was therefore blowing from Egypt. It is no coincidence that just five years after the Suez crisis, Kuwait was already requesting its official independence from Britain.
Though officially, the Kuwaiti position steered away from the Arab nationalist stance, on the street, Egypt’s president, Gamal Abd el-Nasser had a strong popular base. An event which illustrates Nasser’s popularity, was a gala dinner permitted by the Kuwaiti authorities in celebration of the union of Egypt and Syria in 1958. In the lead-up to the dinner, crowds gathered on the streets chanting slogans including “awake from your sleep” (Joyce 41). Speeches held in a public square included Kuwaiti Jassim al Qatami’s who claimed that it was time to dissolve the current regime’s tribal rule in the growing tides of Arab nationalism. Though his passport was torn into pieces by the authorities afterwards, this event somehow demonstrates the reach and appeal of Arab Nationalist discourse in Kuwait at the time (Joyce 41).
On 25 June 1961, immediately following Britain's relinquishing authority in Kuwait, Iraqi president of the time, Abdul Karim Qasim announced that Kuwait would be incorporated into Iraq. The military threat was seen, by Britain and Kuwait, as imminent. The subsequent British and Egyptian military interventions on behalf of Kuwait to stave off any attack, strengthened the political bond between Egypt and Kuwait (Jones 137).
On the media front, Kuwait’s press, newly established by Kuwaitis educated in Egypt was reported to be “copying articles directly” from Egyptian counterparts (Jankowski 56). Egypt’s public radio station “Voice of the Arabs” was the most popular station of the time (Jankowski 56). Cinema, literature, music and theater were other manifestations of the reach of Egypt’s soft power in the region. The first cinematic projection and opera had taken place in Egypt almost a century before any other Arab country, with the celebrations for the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. In the Cairo of the 1950s, theater professionals returning from educational missions abroad, were already experimenting with new forms such as realism, melodrama and the absurd. They would later help in establishing theater companies in other Arab countries. In Kuwait, Egyptian dramatist Zaki Tulaymat formed “The Arab Theater Troupe” in 1961, the mission of which would be, in Tulaymat’s words “a revival of Arab glories” (Sadek 180). Meanwhile, young Egyptian-educated Kuwaiti thespians returned to Kuwait writing and directing the first plays and activating the theater space.
Education and institution building, not just in the realm of theater, were the primary conduits for the transmission of Egyptian values and ideologies in Kuwait. By the mid-1950s, sensing this threat, the KOC’s British managing director advised that “it was most desirable that more students be educated away from the Egyptian influence” (Alissa 80). The Egyptians however maintained their dominance of the educational bastion with special missions sending teachers and specialists to form, along with the Palestinians, Kuwait’s nascent educational system, including the establishment of Kuwait University in 1965, while Kuwaitis were being sent to Egypt to study in Egyptian universities.
In the architecture field, Egypt’s university system, though fairly young, was one of the more established in the region. Founded in 1887, the Muhandiskhana, or engineering school was built following the models of European-style higher technical schools. Architecture was a branch of this engineering school and was seen as an essential cog in the machine of modernization.
Already by 1887, Egypt’s urban landscapes had undergone a radical transformation. The inauguration of the Suez Canal, and a visit by the Khedive Ismail to Paris’ Universal Exposition were catalysts for this desire to modernize the cities of Egypt. For the inauguration of the Canal, entertainment was to be provided to the international honorary guests in the form of theaters, gardens and hotels which needed to be designed and built. For this task, the Khedive invited European engineers and professionals to “Haussmanize” the city (Volait, “Making Cairo Modern” 21). A vast market for engineering and design professionals thus materialized, attracting flocks of foreign architects.
The urban transformations, which Cairo, Alexandria and the canal cities underwent at the time, spurred a recognition for the need to secure and train local skills. The engineering school was therefore set up in 1887, followed very shortly by the school of fine arts in 1909, which also included an architecture department. Young graduates of these universities were sent abroad at the government expense for further training in prominent European schools in Paris, Liverpool and Zurich. Others went at their own private expense including most notably the father of Egyptian architects Mustafa Fahmy. The University of Liverpool was chosen as a destination due to the British occupation’s influence and because it offered the only academic course on Urban Civic Design at the time. The French Beaux Arts School was in some ways a natural extension to the prevalent classical architectural and urban styles already existing in Cairo. The Swiss Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) on the other hand, with its focus on engineering, science and technology, was considered a zone of openness to innovation and freedom from the classics, as described by Architect Yehia el Zeiny in a 1947 issue of al-Emara.
The first graduates of the missions returned to Cairo in the early 1920s shortly after the 1919 revolution and independence from the British in 1922. The independence did not necessarily entail full immediate autonomy from British interference. Nevertheless, an impact was felt, whereby, rather than occupying the usual subordinate ranks in the Egyptian civil service, Egyptians where now occupying governmental elite positions “particularly in technical offices such as those attached to the Ministry of Public Works, where local officials were soon to replace foreign experts in all upper ranks” (Volait, “Architectes et architectures de l’Egypte moderne” 448-450). This was the case with Mahmoud Sabri Mahboub, who a few years after joining the service, was already heading the Tanzîm Department at the Ministry of Public Works. This department had been the central authority in charge of most of Cairo’s municipal affairs and civic activities. As director of the Tanzim office, English-trained Mahboub undertook the task of a “comprehensive survey” of the city and proposed a general town plan for Cairo’s improvement and extension (Volait, “Town Planning Schemes for Cairo” 87).
Other graduates followed in Mahboub’s footsteps, amongst them, Liverpool trained Mahmoud Riad who joined the Ministry of Endowments (Wakf) in 1932. After seven years of service, Riad was appointed as Head of the Architecture and Engineering Department within the Ministry. He held this position until future appointments as Director General of the Popular Housing Division at the Ministry of Social Affairs in 1949 and Director General of The Cairo Municipality from 1954-1965 (Volait, “Town Planning Schemes for Cairo” 96).
Riad’s approach to town planning can be gleaned in his final thesis project for the Diploma course of Town Planning at Liverpool (Riad 1932). Entitled The City of Cairo, Proposed Development Scheme for the Central Area, it recommended a rebuilding of the downtown area. “Examining his scheme one might suspect that what Cairo was probably lacking more, in his opinion, was monumentality, for the plan concentrated mainly on this aspect.” Riad proposed the opening up of three new large avenues, to be lined with monuments, plazas and gardens. This grand design approach to town planning with “axial compositions, perspectives and large parkways” is also evident in Riad’s later proposal for Mohandiseen, a new residential neighborhood for emerging middle class professionals on the West bank of the Nile (Volait, “Town Planning Schemes for Cairo” 96). In addition to his work in town planning, Riad ran his own private architectural practice with a diverse portfolio including iconic civic and Modernist buildings in Cairo, like the Arab League Headquarters and the recently demolished National Democratic Party building originally intended to house Cairo’s municipality.
As the representative of Cairo’s municipality, Riad was invited in 1961 to the United Nations Expert meeting on metropolitan planning held in Stockholm. It was this participation in an international forum that perhaps catapulted the second part of his career as Technical Advisor to the Ministry of Public Works in Kuwait. Already, Riad was facing political opposition to his proposals and plans in Cairo, tensions and pressures which eventually culminated in his resignation from his position as director of the municipality in 1965. In that same year, Riad was invited along with a fellow Egyptian Architect Omar Azzam and Dutch Jacques P. Thijsse, Professor of Comprehensive Planning at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, to go to Kuwait for a consultancy on the new development plan for the city. He was also invited to propose a design for the Kuwait Sports Center in Kifan.
At the time, the Municipality of Kuwait was already acknowledging problems of urban sprawl, low density, lack of infrastructure and an unrealistic land and property market. Those problems were to be addressed in a new development plan. However what was proposed neither dealt with demographic and detailed traffic studies nor with the city center expansion challenges. If anything, “it intensified the problems of low density, urban sprawl, and extension of roads and services outside the center”, despite the original objectives (Al-Mosully 103). Realizing that, the government felt a more comprehensive planning effort was required and therefore requested further advice from the U.N. A committee of three advisors, including Mahmoud Riad, was formed to make recommendations on the management and control of the rapid development. The text of the Municipality’s invitation letter to Riad conveys this mood of un-certainty towards a new plan: “Before adoption of the Master-plan in question, we would like to invite your considered opinions on the subject…”
The landscape of the world post world-war II was a fertile terrain for the growth of new institutions under the umbrella of the United Nations. In a more utopic and idealistic world view - thirsty for the maintenance of international peace, these U.N. bodies were seen as instrumental institutions that would protect, unify, and encourage cooperation as well as social and economic development. More critically however, a post-development perspective argues that the concept of development was constructed as a mechanism to control “third world” countries and was merely an extension of the colonial and cultural imperialism project. The most prolific of post-development theorists, Arturo Escobar, a Colombian-American anthropologist argued in his 1995 book Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World that the “development era” was a product of Harry Truman’s foreign policy ideas rather than true philanthropy. By referring to South America, Africa, and Asia as "underdeveloped" and in need of structural change to achieve progress, Truman “set in motion a reorganization of bureaucracy around thinking and acting to systematically change the "third world”. Escobar contends that the establishment of the development apparatus functioned to support the consolidation of American hegemony. The U.N. with its various arms was the vehicle with which western economic structures and ideas on society could spread as universal models for others to emulate.
From this perspective, the U.N. consultants on modern town planning sent to underdeveloped countries to help shape their cities were knowing or unknowingly agents of this apparatus. Lucia Allais’ work on preservation in the modern period and its relationship to international institutions and global practices asserts that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization “acted as an agent of a type of urban planning that Lewis Mumford would call "the highway and the city" by replacing the Beaux-Arts of the immediate postwar with more strictly "functionalist" ideas drawing from a modernist palette, including zoning, tunneling, and parks” (Allais 306).
From the perspective on the ground, consultants like Riad, who themselves came from an underdeveloped and anti-colonial context, were certainly unaware of this undertone to their U.N. missions. In fact, Riad’s relationship to the Kuwaitis, which developed further with a more permanent assignment as a technical advisor to the Ministry of Public Works, was more of the relationship of a confidant, big brother and role model from a neighboring Arab nation who could be trusted to liaise and mediate between the Kuwaitis and the Western influx of architects and professionals operating on their city. By the time Riad entered the scene in Kuwait, Kuwait did not yet have a class of engineers and architects who could negotiate the terms of construction with the foreign consultants brought in to work for them. This is the niche where Riad would fit in perfectly.
In an interview with Abdulrahman Makhlouf, an Egyptian town planner who worked in Abu Dhabi in the late ‘60s, Makhlouf explains that coming to Abu Dhabi to replace Japanese Katsuhiko Takahashi, “Sheikh Zayed had decided he wanted someone to help him who didn’t always need a translator. So when a representative from the United Nations Program for Technical Assistance came through the Gulf, Sheikh Zayed asked him if he could find him an Arab planner” (Makhlouf). Not only was Riad’s extensive portfolio and experience reason enough to recruit him for the position of technical director of the planning board, but the idea of a translator and mediator who understood the language, culture, religion and politics of Kuwait must have certainly added to his appeal at the moment of his recruitment.
One of Riad’s first assignments in office were the supervision of the design of Kuwait’s International Airport Terminal and Kuwait Sports Center, projects of a scale he knew all too well through his previous experiences in Cairo, where he had just overseen the development of Cairo’s International Airport and International Stadium Projects. Riad’s role in the technical department can be understood best as somewhere between a client representative, commissioner or curator of the city. Bar the Kuwait Sports Center which he designed in 1965, rather than implementing and designing projects himself, he wrote the briefs, managed and oversaw the architects’ work, as well as negotiated the terms with which the projects were executed. His role can be deciphered between the lines of the letters and exchanges he had with figures such as Kenzo Tange, Reima & Raili Pietila and VBB & Sune Lindstrom who discussed with him specific amends and suggestions he had made to their projects, or seemed in other correspondences to be pitching their services. Coming from the repressive context of 1960s Cairo where he was essentially pushed out of office due to interference in his projects by governmental bureaucrats, probably made Riad all the more aware of the significant role a mediator can play in shaping the form of a city and its discourse – a role perhaps even more significant than the influential yet stunted part architects and planners can play.
Kuwait and Cairo’s intimately bound relationship in planning and architecture had already begun almost a decade before Riad’s arrival through the architect and urban planner Dr. Sayed Karim. Karim was the son of Egypt’s Minister of Public Works under King Fouad, Ibrahim Karim Pasha, who was friendly with the Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Abdullah al-Salem al-Subah. According to Karim, in an interview conducted with him in Kuwaiti magazine Al Yaqaza, the Emir called Karim’s father to personally invite his son whom he had heard was an engineering expert, to consult on some of the buildings built by the British which were experiencing structural damage. Karim elaborates on how upon arriving to Kuwait, he examined the cracks in the concrete and conducted some experiments on the affected buildings. Upon further research, the source of the problem was identified to be a flaw in the elements of the cement mix used by the British. Impressed by Karim’s discovery, the Emir decided to commission a series of building projects to him.
It is not clear whether it was through his work with the U.N. as a planning consultant on the neighboring cities of Baghdad (1946), Jeddah (1949), Riyadh (1950), Mecca and Medina (1952), or whether it was through the circulation of his magazine and discourse in the conferences for Arab Engineers which he organized, that Karim originally became known to the Emir. As a prolific visionary, Karim had studied Cairo and published proposed plans for its expansion which were never implemented. It was those plans and studies that gave him recognition with the U.N. Invited consultants from the U.N. to Cairo’s municipality, researched the city and encountered his body of work. Impressed with Karim’s comprehensive survey of the city and proposals for its development, they invited him to join the U.N. as a city planning consultant, a position which he held from 1949 onward. This position with the U.N. opened up new doors and allowed him to transition from local projects in Egypt to planning cities and building extensively throughout the region (Karim, “The Genius No One Knows”).
Other avenues for the circulation of Karim’s discourse and ideas were the magazine he established and the conferences he organized. With the increasing numbers of engineering graduates, a society for Egyptian Architects was established in 1919. This was followed by a larger syndicate for Engineers in 1946. Both sought to enhance the exposure of the fields of engineering and architecture and to set rules and legislation which would govern how the profession was practiced. Meanwhile, conferences for Arab Engineering and the magazine al-Emara, conceived by Karim were further propellers for the professionalization of architecture in the region.
The first Arab Engineering Conference was held in Alexandria from the 15th-19th of March 1945 exactly three days before the Arab League was officially formed in Cairo on the 22nd of March 1945. Though the alignment of their dates was probably coincidental, it is still telling of a momentum which was building up in the Arab world towards nationalism and unity. It illustrates the desire for regional integration and development, which could confront, more easily, the imperialist’s projects in the region. In the opening speech for the session, Engineer Sayed Mortada beckons in “a new era in the history of engineering in Egypt and the East for it is the first time engineers from this region gather to exchange opinions on issues of concern to the general public…The reality is, that we now more than ever, are in dire need for a dialogue on different aspects of our practice. We need, together, to work on developing our civic resources as well as increasing the standard of life for all citizens” (Mortada 7).
The conference was a platform for Arab engineers to share experiences, forge collaborations and enhance their networks. Housing, water, transportation, were running themes discussed and presented at these conferences. The focus was usually on planning projects at the national level. In the Alexandria conference, after the opening remarks, Karim took to the stage to present to the audience what he coined as a project for “Fouad’s Cairo” – a plan which would follow Khedive Ismail’s plan for Cairo in ambition (Karim, “The Engineering Conference and Post-War Projects” 10). He also outlined other proposals he had been working on and which would be presented throughout the course of the conference by his colleagues and collaborators. These included plans to ameliorate the standards of education through civic architecture, housing in poor neighborhoods, healthcare, tourism and historic preservation. Other than presenting visionary plans and policy proposals, Karim and his collaborator Tawfiq Abd el-Gawwad, also advanced the main tenants of their manifesto on Modern Architecture, a discourse they had recurrently introduced to their readers via the pages of the magazine al Emara. The Kuwaitis first attendance to these conferences was in 1960.
Like the conferences, al-Emara was an even earlier attempt to establish a space for discussion on current architectural projects and trends as well as urban policies and planning. According to Sayed Karim who tells the story of his magazine in its tenth year anniversary issue, the publication was established after much prodding from architectural colleagues whom he met at international Modernist Architecture conferences, as well as his mentor and professor Salvizberg who promised to attend the magazine launch from Zurich. Indeed, fulfilling his promise, professor Salvizberg bought a ticket to Cairo in 1939 to celebrate the first issue of the magazine. In Karim’s account of the founding of the magazine, he likens not having an architectural magazine while having an active space of architectural production, to a country that knows how to read and write but has no printing press (Karim,“al-Emara:1939-1949” 6).
Karim’s magazine developed and contextualized the modernist ideology he had absorbed through his time in Switzerland. It also served to circulate and disseminate his projects to a wider public, in an attempt to educate potential clients and collaborators on his practice. The opening salvo to his magazine’s sixth issue in 1940 posed the question: could national identity be expressed in built form? The history of pre-revolutionary Egypt which pre-dated the magazine’s founding, clearly lays out the debates between several factions of society on what exactly constituted the national Egyptian identity. As Egyptians struggled to free themselves from British occupation, Pharaonism, derived from Egypt’s ancient past, homogenous ethnicity and territory, had gained currency as an understanding of identity. Other opposing visions emerged post-independence including secular liberalism, Arab nationalism, as well as reform and traditional Islamism. In architecture, these contending visions often manifest themselves in one building, which could include a Pharaonic scale with Islamic detailing for example. The Beaux Arts educated classicists embraced the ideas of Pharaonism or Islamic expression in their work, most notably Hassan Fathy and Mustafa Fahmy. Meanwhile, Swiss educated Karim, aware of these contrasting visions articulated in his first issue of al-Emara a clear orientation towards an international modernist voice in architecture which juxtaposed itself to a secular modernist perspective of Egyptian identity:
Architecture is no longer an ornamented beautiful object…nor an external outfit…nor a borrowed dress which distinguishes its owner from the rest based on class and privilege…The modern car has replaced the jewel studded carriage supported on arms and shoulders…
Architecture is no longer a canvas with strict symmetries and proportions…
Architecture has begun to be liberated from the past and is headed with all its prowess towards science and innovation, supported in its development by research, industrial production, and intellectual effort…
Architecture has started to move towards the spirit of the time with an articulation of the social and economic requirements and needs of its occupants…it is just like any modern machine in its adaptability to function and the service of humanity…
Architecture is starting to develop a common language across borders and is moving towards an international style as nations become inextricably linked on a global scale...
It is our role as architects to move towards this modern future built on science. We need to join the world stage in developing and applying research adapted to our climate and social conditions. The concept of holding on to old traditions is wrong, and so is advocating for the maintenance of old styles because they are part of our national identity…Maintaining tradition is regressive; had our forefathers maintained tradition, we would still be living in caves…
Architecture is an art, its beauty measured by its honesty and functionality…it is built on industry and science with modern materials to accommodate modern comfort and lifestyles (Karim, “What is Architecture” 10-11).
With those words, Karim delineated his radically modernist dictum which is further elaborated upon in future issues of the magazine by his partner and collaborator Tawfiq Abd el-Gawwad. Abdelgawad’s presentation in the 1950 fourth edition of the Arab Conference of Engineers published in Al-Emara articulated the contours of three conflicting positions that were then already prevalent in the architectural field. These positions could be summarized as an orientation towards holding on to past traditions in architecture, be they Pharaonic, Islamic or Arab, a second position which attempts to amalgamate traditional forms with modernism, and a third archetype which is the school which embodied Abd el-Gawwad and Karim’s forward visions of a modernist architecture, materiality and language. Abd el-Gawwad clearly conveys his message regarding what was then already emerging as the major alternate discourse:
They speak today of a revival of old traditions and we are in the age of the machine. They support their claims by saying that the religion of our nation is Islam so our Arab buildings must be a symbol of Islam. They do not realize that Islam is not restricted to Egypt only or to the Arab East, but is an international, not national religion. As Islam is the Sharia of each age and time, a Sharia free of stagnation, free of restriction and complication, free of imitation, so must our buildings be honest and correct in their articulation of their meaning and significance, representing the modern times in which they were built. This makes me want to pose a further question: Does Islam have a particular dress-code to which it is restricted? The answer is no. Because we took off those old outfits. So have modern buildings, they have rid themselves of the old materiality in favor of new materials and construction methods as well as new industrial programs…There is a revolution in all of the arts today including architecture. Surely we feel some sadness and pain leaving behind all that is old, but we have embrace the future with some courage, confidence and faith (Abd el-Gawwad, “Architecture in the East” 67-68).
This gravitas and conviction to the international modernist discourse is evident in Karim’s built works. No hints of Islamic architecture can be seen in his aesthetics, bar the distant relative of the mashrabiya – the brise-soleil – though Karim did not even acknowledge the genotype of this sun-screen and its distant Islamic relative. In Kuwait, in addition to being commissioned two palaces for Sheikh Abdallah al Salem and Abdallah al Mubarak, he was also given the task of designing three schools – al-Mubarakiya, as well as a middle school for boys and a mixed primary school. It is no surprise that Karim, as an Egyptian is assigned the task of designing some of the earliest schools built in Kuwait, after the first schools designed by Tripe and Wakeham. As key contributors to the development of the educational system it follows that the Emir would entrust this task to an Egyptian architect. The al-Mubarkiya School was the first to be built in Kuwait in 1911. It was housed in a traditional building on a much smaller scale until Karim was brought in for its expansion in 1957.
By this time, Egypt had already been using reinforced concrete in construction. The first use of concrete in Cairo can be traced back to as early as 1863, introduced then by the French contractor Nicola Marciani. Francois Coignet, who is considered among the first pioneers to pour reinforced concrete in the world, was responsible for the construction of the buildings for the Suez Canal Company in 1892-95, in Port-Tewfik and Port-Said. (El-Habashi 10)
In 1951, foam concrete – an experimental porous cement material invented in 1944 by French Engineer Rene Fays - was also used in constructions in Cairo. (Volait, “Egypt (1914-1954): Global Architecture before Globalization” 6)
Local cement industries and contractors were already producing cement in Cairo and perhaps Karim brought these contractors with him to Kuwait. In Karim’s magazine, advertisements were mainly through those providing complementary amenities to enhance a modern living experience – air conditioners, electronic appliances - as well as contractors seeking collaboration with architects and others providing materials and services in the construction field. One of these advertisers which repeatedly appears from the earliest issues onwards, stands out as the potential partner in the Kuwait projects, the Misr Concrete Development Company. In addition to setting up his own office in Kuwait therefore bringing in the first set of Egyptian architects to the scene in Kuwait, Karim can also be credited for bringing in Egyptian contractors. Tawfiq Abd el-Gawwad in his seminal book on Egypt’s twentieth century architecture, reinforces this position: “al-Emara magazine opened doors for both architects, engineering firms and construction companies to extend their practices to the Arab World and to replace foreign companies. It paved the way for large contractors to set up offices outside of Egypt” (Abd el Gawwad, Egyptian Architecture in the 20th Century 23). Other potential contractor partners in Kuwait could be Osman Ahmed Osman founder of the colossal Arab Contractors, who according to Karim’s son, worked in Karim’s office and was introduced to both the Saudis and Kuwaitis through Karim and was therefore able to start up his contracting practice through these projects in Kuwait and the Gulf.
Karim’s buildings almost exclusively relied on concrete. His architecture was functional, materialist and industrialist. On the pages of his magazine he advocated the use of concrete and experimentation with it. In Kuwait, Karim introduced the brise-soleil through both the al-Mubarkiya school and the al-Andalus cinema projects both built roughly at the same time at around 1957. From the ‘30s to the ‘50s, before the widespread use of mechanical HVAC systems, the brise-soleil operated as a mediator between the building and the external climate, shading openings, and avoiding heat loads and reflection caused by glazed surfaces. The brise-soleil were designed to be attractive from the street level, while from the inside their effect was to create a sense of enclosure and peace by establishing a distance between the exterior and the interior. There is no longer just a thin layer of glass between outside and inside; instead a thickness is provided by the brise-soleil’s fixed concrete slats and sun protection grids.
To maximize natural lighting and increase cross-ventilation in the classrooms, a long and narrow plan was implemented by Karim for al-Mubarakiya. The building is slightly curved indicating how he integrated the fact that the automobile was the only means of reaching school. The whole building plan follows this slightly curved form to allow an easier and safer drop-off zone.
In his design for al-Mubarakiya, Karim’s building appears to be in conversation with the work of the Brazilian modernists Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, as well as giving a nod to Le Corbusier’s later work, namely the Ministry of Education in Rio De Janeiro (1936–43), the Unité d’Habitation at Marseilles (1947-1952), as well as the Secretariat in Chandigarh (1953-1959). Five years prior to the al-Mubarakiya commission, Karim’s 1952 issue of al-Emara had devoted itself entirely to highlighting the projects of Brazilian modernism. A 1953 issue of the magazine, had also featured Le Corbusier’s Unité d'Habitation housing project in Marseille, the first project Le Corbusier built after the Second World War. Aesthetically, the Unité marked a radical break in Le Corbusier’s architectural style. The abstract plane, the smooth surfaces and the slender columns of his purist style were abandoned in favor of brutalist, muscular and sculptural forms.
Le Corbusier in collaboration with Costa, Niemeyer and a team of Brazilian architects had already experimented and built the first brise-soleil wall in the Ministry of Education in Rio. Le Corbusier continued these experiments on the facades of the Unité and in Chandigarh. Searching for universal solutions to warmer climes, a structural system which he called “respiration exacte” intended to produce “one single building for all nations and climates.” Le Corbusier’s inspiration for the brise-soleil system came from his study of North African and Arab vernacular architecture. Though the first built manifestation of it was in Brazil, already, in 1933, he had developed its concept for the unbuilt designs of the Durand in Algiers (Mostafavi and Leatherbarrow 93). He had seen that screens could be arranged “to provide a ‘valve’ capable of allowing sun to enter in the winter, while providing shade in the summer (Kamal 20). The brise-soleil system was based on the wooden screen mashrabiya of Arab buildings and the brick louvered claustra seen in Morocco and Iran. He was attracted to the effectiveness of those vernacular devices to provide shading, reduce the glare and facilitate natural ventilation. Thus, he sought to interpret these shading systems using modern materials with equivalent performance.
Meanwhile, in Alexandria, Auguste Perret had also been developing a pre-cast brise-soleil system and introduced it to the upper parts of windows for a villa and a building he designed in 1922 and 1938 respectively, “but he would have probably dismissed as irrational and contradictory the practice of making entire walls of plate glass and then masking the whole façade with a screen of permanent concrete ribs” which is more what Le Corbusier can be credited for (Collins 218). Surely Karim, in addition to following the work of Le Corbusier and the Brazilians had also been exposed to the home-grown example and precedent of Perret’s work in Alexandria.
For the al-Andalus cinema, Karim used an entirely different system of brise-soleil than the one he had designed for the al-Mubarkiya school. This time, there was no egg-crate system with depth and thickness but instead an amorphous outer covering to the main facade which created a harmony with the street viewer through its patterned effect. This can possibly be explained by the fact that unlike the school, the cinema as a program required less sunlight and less shading.
On getting the cinema commissions, Karim revealed in an interview with al-Yaqatha that each night after dining with the Emir, they would watch a movie projection in the palace’s cinema hall. One night, Karim told the Emir “the people of Kuwait have complained to me that in order for them to go to the cinema, they have to travel to Egypt or Lebanon. They are asking why they can’t have in their capital which is destined to be a global capital, their own theaters where they can watch movie and theater productions.” According to Karim, it was from this point onward that the Emir commissioned the construction of the four cinemas to him, which he worked on between 1957 and 1965. The cinema al-Sharqiya had already been open since 1954, but it was just an open space with a projector, nothing like the fully programmed cinemas of Karim, which often included outdoor and indoor halls, and other semi-public spaces such as cafeterias and shops attached to their ground floors.
Coming from Egypt, Karim was aware of the powerful role a cinema could have in spreading lifestyles and ideas but also in broadcasting his portfolio to the public. As Ifdal Elsaket points out in her thesis Projecting Modernism, by the late 1930s, the cinema had become one of the most significant and ubiquitous cultural institutions in Egypt (Elsaket 91). It was the urban space par excellence located in bustling settings, particularly downtown Cairo surrounded by department stores, casinos and cafes. The Cinema signified a space of sociability and modernity, but was also a space where social and political tensions were played out. Other than its influence through the cinematic production that was projected on its screens, the cinema was also an active space of protest and politics. “Scattered through the British Foreign Office records are references to the use of cinemas as venues for worker and student union meetings during the interwar period” (Elsaket 87).
In a way, Karim must have wanted to reinvent this space of vitality in the more tabula rasa condition of Kuwait. He intended to achieve this through the mixing of all programs – shopping, casino, café, theater and cinema - in one complex. Further, Karim’s Swiss education probably exposed him to the work of Swiss architectural theorist Sigfried Gideon whom he must have followed. In 1943 Gideon coauthored a manifesto entitled “Nine Points on Monumentality” and an essay on “The Need for a New Monumentality” which called for the construction of civic centers “symbolizing the idea of ‘community’ in which all the visual arts would collaborate” (Colquhoun 213). On these ideas of new monumentality, Elizabeth Mock, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York wrote in 1944: “There must be occasional buildings which raise the everyday casualness of living to a higher and more ceremonial plane, buildings which give dignified and coherent form to that interdependence of the individual and the social group…” (qtd in Colquhoun 213). Karim’s subscription to this school of thought is evident not only in his cinemas which acted as monumental institutions for the community of people in Kuwait, but also in Egypt, where he initiated projects for civic centers in peripheral cities such as Mansoura, Asyut and Aswan.
The monumental scale which Karim introduced in Kuwait through the cinemas he designed, can also be traced back to the Neo-Pharaonic architectural expression that had taken shape in Cairo decades before Karim’s arrival to Kuwait. The apotheosis of this scale of design is evident in the Egyptian Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair published in the third issue of al-Emara with a description by the architect of the pavilion himself, Mustafa Fahmy. Fahmy was one of the first graduates of the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and the classicism which the school imbued him with is evident in his oeuvre. Fahmy was concerned with Pharoanic revival and combined the monumentality of Pharaonic architecture with elements from Art Deco and Islamic Architecture using modern materials. This is also evident in his design of the mausoleum for Saad Zaghloul in Mounira (Abd el-Gawwad,Twentieth Century Architecture in Egypt, 418). Since Fahmy taught Karim at Cairo University, Karim must have been familiar with his professor’s theories and work. Finally, the monumentality in Karim’s design could also be attributed to the monolithic capacities that concrete afforded architecturally where architecture was no longer a sum of “parts”. In the Cinema al-Hamra, Karim was able to use for the first time, a pre-stressed concrete beam designed by Greek structural engineer George Stamatos which enabled large spans.
Formally, other than the monumental language of Karim’s cinemas, Karim’s architectural vocabulary repeatedly exhibited a layered treatment of intersecting volumes which composed the entirety of his built programs. A car drop-off and entrance vestibule are always highlighted. Often the buildings volumes are lifted off the ground on pilotis and interior courtyards are carved to split the spaces between the “winter” outdoor theater and “summer” indoor theater as in the al-Ferdaws Cinema. In the al-Ahmadi Cinema, Karim’s Modernist ethos of transparency and honesty in architecture are expressed with the cinema hall’s form following the sectional diagonal of the theater seating. His design for the al-Andalus cinema seems intentionally or unintentionally to mimic the form of a giant TV screen with the brise-soleil façade simulating the pixilation of a screen. Though Karim expressed his concern for environmental issues in his buildings through his measured use of openings in the facades, his designs often seem not to be context specific. The al-Ahmadi cinema’s design in fact was the exact replica of a civic center designed by Karim in Mansoura, Egypt.
Unlike other foreign architects who would later flood the scene in Kuwait, Karim’s work displayed an enthusiasm and zest. Uninhibited by requirements to justify “Islamic” or “Arab” architecture or to Orientalize himself, Karim’s work was emblematic of a generation of daring and experimental Egyptian architects. The cinemas and the al-Mubarkiya School were the most iconic of Karim’s buildings in Kuwait. He also designed the Emir’s private residences, the printing press, military hospital and two other schools.
It is not known why Karim stopped practicing in Kuwait after 1965. In an interview with his son, Ibrahim Karim, I was informed that due to conflicts with the Nasserist regime over the planning of Nasr City, Karim was put under house arrest, with all of his assets frozen. It is perhaps this political handicap that hindered his movements. Other reasons could be that Karim’s modernist, industrialist aesthetics did not go well with the zeitgeist of Kuwait in the late 60s and early 70s, where winds from the past had strongly established an atmosphere of nostalgia. This mood is evident in an article published in Sawt el Khaleej in 1965 and titled: “The Kuwaiti Family: Living between Two Worlds” (Al-Ragam 4). The article lamented Kuwait’s then-current state of indiscriminate adaptation of modern configurations in everyday life without taking into account traditional family values. Karim’s architecture with its programmatic implications and brutally modernist style embodied this criticized new modern era cinema-going, educated Kuwaiti.
The search for an architectural language which could express this longing for the past was a propitious setting for the work of Hasan Fathy to appear in Kuwait. In his discourse, Fathy too had agonized intensely about the region’s “rapid cultural transformations, a product of decolonization and “the accompanying agendas of modernity and nation-building”. In the 1945 issue of al-Emara, Fathy’s scathing critique of adapting Western models of architecture calls upon “connecting what we have disconnected with from our rich heritage and past…we’ve reached a point where we’ve been eating the leftovers from others’ tables.” The leftovers and the “other” are clearly a reference to the colonizers.