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A journey through an Egyptian’s new modern architecture

CAIRO: Ahmad Hamid remembers being a young boy watching his mother and her friends gather for their weekly tea and sewing get together at his family’s house on Sunday mornings. He recalls the ladies sipping tea, chatting and working on their clothes while sitting at the family’s rather large dining table with room to drape …


CAIRO: Ahmad Hamid remembers being a young boy watching his mother and her friends gather for their weekly tea and sewing get together at his family’s house on Sunday mornings.

He recalls the ladies sipping tea, chatting and working on their clothes while sitting at the family’s rather large dining table with room to drape their fabric everywhere.

“I think the first ideas of constructing something from raw materials came from my observing my mother and her friends every Sunday morning,” Hamid recalls.

In addition to his experience at home, he also recollects his first sculpture class at school using clay to mold and create something.

He was ecstatic about his first sculpture, an ashtray that ended up in his parents’ living room, because he had finally made something.

“From my childhood onwards, I looked forward to the world of constructing and making or designing; bringing something intangible into existence that was not there a moment ago. This had a relation in my decision to become an architect,” he said.

Even while playing games as a child, such as hide and seek, he always found pleasure in finding intimate spaces that were hidden as well as those spaces overtly existing, but non-observant.

These experiences further confirmed his interest in spaces and construction that led him on the path to architecture and interior design.

Born in 1956, Hamid, named after his grandfather who was the first professor to inherit the microbiology and pathology labs from the English at what is now Cairo University, grew up in the Dokki/Mohandiseen area of Cairo in a traditional Egyptian family.

“I come from a long line of well educated people in my family that includes the first medical doctors, high ranking military officers, and law judges,” Hamid says, adding that he can proudly trace his lineage all the way back to the Prophet Mohamed.

Growing up, he attended English language schools and entered Cairo University’s Engineering Faculty Department of Architecture at the young age of 15.

In his university classes, he studied the works of Skidmore, Owings and Merill, but never thought he’d be working with them.

“Suddenly there was a project in Cairo, which is the World Trade Center as we know it today, and Skidmore Owings and Merill were here forming a consortium of architects and different other disciplines and I gladly joined this team,” he said.

“Up until today, I’m very grateful that I was part of this forceful engineering and architecture firm at such an early stage in my professional career because it has given me such a direction and orientation for detail and precision of how architectural drawings are produced and a building is executed.”

After working with Skidmore Owings and Merill and their Egyptian co-partners, Hamid was invited to work on designing Sadat City.

During this time, he created a professional relationship with his mentor Hassan Fathy, a world-renowned architect, whom he met by chance in a TV interview about a year before he was set to graduate from university.

“I started a full companionship with Fathy and stayed with him for about eight years until I started my own practice with his permission,” he said.

His practice was started in 1985 and also included a branch in Saudi Arabia for a few years before deciding to close that office in 1990 at what he calls “the right time before the financial crash of the early 90s.”

Throughout his career thus far, Hamid has built and designed in Egypt as well as England, Switzerland, Germany, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

He considers his portfolio to be tremendously diversified with his work including commercial, residential, touristic, entertainment projects and everything in between.

Aside from architecture, he also started a career in furniture and interior design that up until today has not yet completely ended. This path in his life was explored upon his mother’s request to design his sister’s home before her marriage.

This led to Hamid creating limited edition furniture collections being manufactured in very low quantities, which he claims was possible financially due to it being in Egypt, but would not have been if he was in the West.

“My pieces were very modern, remarkably beautiful and yet still Egyptian somehow, to the extent that some of my visitors to the collections back in 1986 to 1988 accused me of smuggling furniture into the country because importation of nice furniture was forbidden,” he said.

Throughout his collections, he says he’ll never forget the enormous support he received from the foreign community, such as the wives of the German and Danish ambassadors.

“They told me I was breaking grounds and doing something remarkable. They gave me support, but more so they gave me confidence that I’m doing something good as well.”

He describes his style as very avant garde and is a self-proclaimed modernist, but a new modern with all his work being done with no particular style and each piece different from the next.

“Modernity is about the intelligent and optimal solution, whether born in Europe, South America, the Middle East or wherever; this is the modernity we all do seek,” he explained.

“My inspiration comes from everything and all over; there were Japanese influences in my first collection, but just a nuance. Design is about abstraction and reinvention, never strict imitation.”

His fabrics were sold at a prestigious interior design store, Fox House in Zurich, Switzerland as well as a request from Ralph Lauren to provide Ralph Lauren Home Stores with his collection, but decided against expanding at that time.

Hamid partially attributes not being able to find the right partner for his decision to not expand and turn down his offers and discontinue his collections.

Hamid’s next endeavor saw him taking a break from his work to focus on writing his book, “Hassan Fathy and Continuity in Islamic Arts and Architecture: The Birth of a New Modern.”

The book, funded solely by himself and published by the American University in Cairo Press, covered everything from his mentor to his professional experiences as well his view on modernity influenced by his vast library of books he has read in addition to his work.

His book has been described as a study on not only the aesthetic, but also the psychosomatic, environmental and socioeconomic components and effects of Islamic architecture and its ability to coexist with innovation rather than collide.

“A book is a huge enterprise and I took four years on my private expense to write it, with some compromise on my practice, but now I want to enjoy having my clients back once more and to enjoy our mutual presence and my expertise that would be in their favor as well,” he said.

In terms of his future, he hopes to rebuild his practice after taking his short hiatus that would include associates and affiliates.

He would like to be able to work on a university at some point in his career in addition to wanting to create a private institute teaching curriculum architecture and design.

“Architecture is not accessorial and it is very much in the lifeline of the national economy with all the money that goes into building and designing everything from roads to houses and so forth,” he added.

Hamid would love nothing more than to see Egyptian architecture on the rise after its dip that started in the late 1960s until now and see well designed and well executed construction.

He would also like nothing more than to give his country a sense of pride through his architectural work.

“I have enjoyed all my projects thus far and enjoy my work tremendously. It’s a big blessing to be working within the confines and abilities and potential talents that Allah has given me.”

“I have been lucky to realize the positive aspects that exist in Egypt; not to always see the negative, not the empty side of the cup, but instead the optimist full half of the cup.”

For more about Ahmad Hamid, please visit www.ahmadhamid.com

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An apartment building designed by Ahmad Hamid. (Photo courtesy of Ahmad Hamid)

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A house designed by Ahmad Hamid. (Photo courtesy of Ahmad Hamid)

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