Architecture & Spirituality

The Path Less Traveled: My Spiritual Connection to Machu Picchu

“Walking purposefully from A to B is felt as leaving so many steps behind and as having much more ground ahead to cover. Change the environment by introducing band music and, objectively, one still marches from A to B with seeming deliberation. Subjectively, however, space and time have lost their directional thrust under the influence of rhythmic sound. Each step is no longer just another move along the narrow path to a destination; rather it is striding into open an undifferentiated space. The idea of a precisely located goal loses relevance.”- Yi-Fu Tuan

On the 30th of May, 2017, we asked our friends on our social media platforms to share their stories regarding their spiritual connections to places on Earth (Facebook post here) – this is our story.

I am just going to tell a story this week; a small anecdote that perhaps would relate to the question at hand. I was an eager Graduate student at the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at the University of Maryland during the beginning of 2008. I was hungry to learn and jumped in any opportunity to expand my horizons (which often lead me to bite off much more than I can chew at times). The summer earlier, I had traveled and spent a semester in Italy with the architecture program, and this winter break, the school had put out a study abroad course in Peru to study Incan architecture and civilization. I was extremely excited at the prospect of traveling to Peru, since I had never set foot in South America before, and I believe I was among the first to sign up. The professor who lead the course was Professor Lindsay Vann who I had previously taken Ancient Greek Architecture with to satisfy one of my History core electives.

Side story: My very first midterm during my Masters program was for said Ancient Greek Architecture and I studied my ass off! For the first time ever, I wrote everything on cue cards and would kept studying as much as I can, even bringing in these cue cards to the shower (I don’t remember how I stopped them from getting wet). The course was rather difficult for me, as a lot of the information was quite new (I found out later that most other students had a brief introduction to Ancient Greek Architecture during one of the intro to architecture courses they had to take to enter the program), and I struggled to memorize all the names of the Greek Temples. I got a 50% score on the test, which was a relief to hear in the first ten seconds upon receiving my test score (50% was passing grade back in Cairo), until I realized that this translated into a big fat “F”. Needless to say I was rather de-motivated and terrified; I tried to reach professor Vann to try to negotiate some kind of makeup, and he brushed me aside saying that I should have studied harder (ouch). A week later, I get an email from him asking me to meet him at his office; I apparently scored the lowest test score but the highest paper grade in class, so he wanted to know what gives. I made up some BS about still trying to understand the ropes and how the education system was not what I was used to (when I think about that now, my previous education system would have made me ace the test and flunk the paper, not vice versa). He said he will be watching my progress, and if I continue to deliver work to him like I did in the paper, he would allow me to make up for the midterm grade. I got an A- as my final grade – and a beautiful student / professor relationship emerged (I took his Peru study abroad trip, we organized a study abroad trip to Egypt together – where I took over logistics in Egypt – and he was an integral member of my thesis committee) … but I digress.

My first steps off the plane in Lima was a bit of a disappointment: the immigration officers had trouble remember that Egypt was a country and proceeded to try and peel off my visa from off my passport to prove that it was fake; the ride from the airport to downtown MiraFlores was creepily similar to the drive from Salah Salem street to Downtown Cairo; and the hotel was stayed in overlooked a main square in Lima that looked too much like Tahrir Square. I thought I was hoping for something a little more magical to usher me into the new continent that I had never been before, but what I got looked too much like Cairo. It wasn’t until a few days later when we arrived at Cusco that I began to really appreciate the country and get to experience my first South American experience. All the architecture and place we had visited prior to Cusco were all from the colonial periods, which I found to be boring, I’ve experienced enough imperial colonial imposition in all the cities and towns that I have visited (and had very little patience to observe the subtle nuances that differentiates Peruvian colonial architecture that adapts Incan character in all its motifs). It is actually quite interesting what my mind chooses to remember and forget, as the first few days seemed to be completely erased from my memory, while the Cusco days seemed etched in, and I remember those moments rather vividly as if it was just last winter!

When we arrived to pedestrian friendly Cusco, we traveled about to the nearest Incan complexes like Ollantaytambo and Saksaywaman and hiked up to reach the sanctuaries. Our hikes ranged from between 30 to 45 minutes, often walking on slightly dangerous cliff-side conditions. The uphill trails were often very narrow, and included steps that seem to be flying in the air with no guardrail; one misstep and you could find yourself falling off the edge of the cliff. At the end of our journey, we were often greeted by a spectacular view as we looked over the entire sanctuary, and the fruits of our physical labor seemed to be reward by a strong sense of accomplishment. It wasn’t the destination that mattered much, but the journey towards it that made the terminus to feel all the much more important and beautiful than it perhaps actually was.

But it wasn’t until our ventures in Machu Picchu that we were truly tested, which has had been voted one of the new seven wonders of the world a year earlier. For the readers who haven’t actually been to the historical site, I ask you to recall the poster image in your head; the ruins of the estate on the cliff is where most tourists enter. While it is indeed on an elevated cliff, most tours arrive on site via buses which are parked in front of a visitors center which overlooks the estate. It is both peaks that flank the state that require more of a hike to get to: on one side there is the temple of the sun, which is relatively easy to hike up to, and on the other is Wayna Picchu (Huayna Picchu), which is not. The class was spending a few days at Machu Picchu, so a brave few of us decided to wake up early the next day and hike up to Wayna Picchu.

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Trail of the Temple of the Sun – Photo Taken by MMM Riad

We woke up at 4 am, about an hour before sunrise (I always feel kind of depressed and in sleep deprivation pain whenever the I get out of bed before the sun). We had a quick breakfast and I remember that we were at the gates of the Wayna Picchu Trail at 5:30 am. One of the students suggested that we get there as early as possible, because he anticipated a long line, and wanted to make sure we were able to enter the trail before they closed it off (they only admitted 300 individuals per day to make sure they are able to manage the number of people on the trail).  We were the first ones to arrive. At 6 am, the gates opened, and we commenced on our journey – before they made us sign a waiver that if anything happens to us or if we happen to fall off the cliff or die on the trail, then the Machu Picchu organization/authority would not be held responsible.

The trail started off easy, and the group banded together rather well. I remember that we were about 9 individuals on the trail: Beret, Andrea, Jason, Jessica, Sarah, Shawn #1, Shawn #2, Nick and I. We were told that going up the trail would be short, but a rather steep uphill, but climbing down would be much easier (yet longer). Five minutes in, the trail turned into a series of zigzagging steps carved into the mountain – each step being about 45 cm high (three normal stair steps high) if not higher, with a rather flipsy rope to act as a guard rail to hold onto to keep you from falling. This is when the group ceased to band together, and the more fitness ready of us raced up these stairs of hell. I was not among those who were entirely fit at the time, and stairs were considered to be a bit of an enemy for me. I was fortunate enough that one member of the group was in worse shape than I was, and I used that as an excuse to lag behind and say that I did not want this member to hold back alone. In reality, I was extremely exhausted ten minutes into these steps, and there was no end in sight. I was happy that I packed my bottle of water with me, but was careful not to drink too much so I could ration my water effectively towards the entire journey. At times, I would take a moment to look towards my side and see that I was in the same elevation as the clouds … I had no experience to me walking in the clouds up to that moment in time, and the experience was – other than exhausting – rather exhilarating. I would stare at them and think about reaching out my hand and actually touch or grab the clouds, but I would be too scared to fall off the stone stepped path.

After about half an hour of climbing the stone path, we found ourselves on a platform circulating the mount. The rest of the group had sped up before us, and the only ones left were Nick, Shawn #1 and I. We could not figure out where are we to go from there – I mean, we did find a bunch of steps at a 70 or 80 degree incline that looked a lot like a tall ladder, but that definitely could not be it. We kept searching for a way to get up, but the more we looked the more we figured that the scary ladder was our only choice. We had no access to those who have gone up before us, so we couldn’t really ask … so ladder it is. Little that we knew that there was another path that we completely ignored that was much less dangerous than the ladder we just took. We also started somewhat of a chain reaction behind us, as other people from other groups started to catch up with us. There was a French lady that went up this ladder before me, but would randomly stop every 4 steps or so, look back and met and scream “MARIIEEEEEE, MARRIIEEEEEE!” at the top of her lungs. That enraged me, and I had rather violent thoughts of wanted to pull her off the ladder. The stepped ladder was about 80 cm in width and you could climb up with your hands and feet, no guardrails on either side and you would look back and see nothing but clouds and sky. I was terrified! Ten minutes later, Ms Marie Screamer and I had reached the top of the ladder and onto the platform before it, and it was smooth sailing from that point onwards. I believe that there were easier steps to climb up a series of 4 or 5 platforms after that, and then we were at the peak…. FINALLY, the peak!

I got on the peak and I literally could not stand. The peak of Waynu Picchu was not flat, but had a rather irregular terrain, and I was too terrified to get on my feet and be whisked away by a strong gust of wind, so I instinctively started crawling on my back like some sort of insect, trying to hug the terrain with dear life. Shawn #1 was on both his feet looking out, and I do not know how I had the courage to snap a picture of him at that point. I looked out at the rest of the Machu Picchu Valley and mountains, and was at awe with nature. I had climbed Saint Catherine 3 years before that, but did not feel this level of exhilaration before. I felt that I was among the clouds, I actually thought I was sitting on one of them. I thought to myself that this is what life would look like if heaven existed on the clouds, as cartoons depicted before. My previous imagination of heaven from my childhood years had merged with my actual experience at the top of Waynu Picchu, and save from the thoughts of fear I had that prevented me from standing up, these images had flooded my thought process. Looking at the lush green mountains and how the colors of green had inexplicably turned to blue as the colors blended in the horizon.

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Shawn at the Top of the Waynu Picchu Peak

It was time to go down, the worst is over, I thought. Time to take the scenic route down to the Machu Picchu estate. But before we can head off the cliff after a total of ten minutes basking  in the peak’s sun, we heard a bit of commotion on the penultimate platform. I heard lots of wailing and crying, and then saw Sarah and Shawn #2 carry a crying girl onto the platform, where she hugged them and started to thank them, tears of fear streaming down her face. Ms Marie Screamer than popped up from nowhere and started to console her crying friend, who turned out to be “Marie”. They apparently got separated – it actually looks like her friend abandoned her. So apparently our group start a chain reaction that detoured all the groups coming up after us, and we took the more dangerous path. Marie was terrified and thought she would fall, crying and praying she would make it out of there alive. As soon as she reached the first platform after the stepped ladder, she sat in a corner and said she was not leaving. My friends heard her crying from above and decided to head down to help her, consoling her by letting her know that the worst is over. When she regained her composure, we cautioned her against heading up to the peak and told her that the way down was much longer yet much easier, and the worst is over. I gave her my bottle of water, thinking I wouldn’t need it anymore, and we wished her all the best, and left.

The difficult part was over, now we could take our time heading down Wayna Picchu, and enjoy the beautiful green trail … or so we thought.

Two minutes on the trail downwards we found ourselves on a very narrow ledge, that then breaks off into a cliff, and another trail underneath it about one storey below. The way off the first trail and onto the second is a via a non secured ladder – not a stepped or ladder built into the cliff as before, but an actual ladder. We had no idea how sturdy the damn thing was, and could not find another way around it. After thinking about Marie for a split second, we helped each other get off this rather scary ladder (which I remember was surprisingly more sturdy that it appeared to be) and we soldiered on, braving the trail. The next two hours seemed to be much smoother, as we kept climbing down the mountain – with an occasional ladder here and there that we had to climb down. I started to get thirsty, and regret my previous chivalrous moment with Marie, but it was a lot easier going back for the most part. Our group banded much tighter together at first, and we all walked down at a similar pace …. until one of us asked the question: “Hey guys, do you think that we have gone down, more than we have gone up?”

Side story: Remember when I talked about the Poster image of the Machu Picchu Estate? I had previously mentioned that the visitors center entrance was at the same level of the estate (more or less). However, to reach the visitors center (which was elevated from the rest of the town), we had to take a rather dizzying bus ride that took a zigzagged path up towards the entrance. I get car sick, so I HATED this bus path. One our way down (spoiler alert? well, I am typing up this story so in the end it is safe to assume that I survived this Waynu Picchu adventure), there was a little Peruvian native that would get on the bus and scream “byeeeee!!!!” and then while the bus takes the zigzag route one level down, the same boy runs down a series of steps to meet us at the next intersection point, climb back on the bus and scream “byeeee!!!”. He did this a total of eleven times! But again, I digress – the important question here is “did we go down more than we went up?”

The question that was asked seemed to break up the group’s spirit a little bit, and the closely banded group was divided into three. My subgroup was the middle group, not trailing too far behind (the subgroup behind us really took its time). We started to get rather worried that we seemed to be doing nothing but go down a never ending trail, until we reached a platform that was a cliff looking onto the rest of the mountains. In the middle of the cliff was two sets of arrows, each pointing at different directions: one towards a trail to go up, and the other down. The question was revisited once more: “did we go down more than we go up?” We were fortunate enough to meet a group of people coming out of the trail that seemed to head down, and we asked them were they came from. They told us that the trail that they just took would take us directly back to the estate, and the trail going up will take us back up. We were happy to hear that, until they said that this a trail that would turn into a one hour uphill hike … dread on all our faces. Ok … so three hours in this mess, and we have an hour uphill left. No water on us … nothing but our sheer will to survive that is energizing us… we took a few deep breaths and we soldiered on.

It was EXHAUSTING! To this day, I do not know how I made it through at that pace. Our subgroup was made up of four people, the Shawns, Sarah and I. I think one of the reasons of our survival was Sarah. She didn’t do much in terms of motivating us, it was just that none of the guys wanted to look bad in front of her (she was that kind of gorgeous). Half an hour in though, we both took a moment to catch our breaths. I remember the look we gave each other at the time, one filled with fear and anxiety …. were we ever going to make it off this path? What on earth gave us this crazy idea to do this Waynu Picchu trail in the first place?! Shawn #2 looked at this watch and said, “well, if we are going to take this one hour time estimate those guys gave us seriously, then we are half way there”. I believe that sentence saved our lives. Out of nowhere, we all burst out singing the chorus of Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer”:

“oooooh, we’re half way thereeeee -OOOO OOOOHHH LIIIIVINGGG ON A PRAAAAYERRRR”

Yelling it out at the top of our lungs, taking this brief moment of laughter relief to energize us and get us back on the hike. We shouted the lyrics out for about five minutes, and started to head back. Sure, we ran into a few fun obstacles, like having to crawl under a boulder and a number of those weird stepped ladder thinigies here and there, but half an hour later, we were out of there and back at the Estate. We looked at each other, lots of handshakes all around, and headed down to the restaurant.

This experience really stayed with me all those years later, and I do believe that it was somewhat of a spiritual one. I won’t exaggerate and say that it was a near death experience, because even though I had overcome a number of dangerous and risky obstacles, I was not in a position where I almost failed one and actually feared for my life. This experience stayed with me because it taught me a lot about the necessity of pilgrimage and procession, understanding the true meaning of journey. I feel that this trail is in essence a metaphor of life … and it made me appreciate aspects of my own life that I had previously taken from granted. It started somewhat of an awakening process that has been unraveling up to today, and gave me a new sense of appreciate towards the destination (my idea of “destination” underwent something of a paradigm shift). It is then when I realized that the path less traveled is often the one that brings about the most significant change in our lives.

 

See you next week 😀

Mahmoud M M Riad

Director of RiadArchitecture

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Architecture & the City

My City: What I Love About New York

“The traveler roams all around and has nothing but doubts; he is unable to distinguish the features of the city, the features he keeps distinct in his mind also mingle. He infers this: of existence in all its moments is all of itself, Zoe is the place of indivisible existence. Buy why, then, does the city exist?” – from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities

 

 On the 2nd of May, 2017, we asked a question to our followers on our Social Media Pages page (Facebook page link here): What do you LOVE about it? And also, what would like to see improve in your city?

New York City – hard to believe that at one point I hated this city. 

 

But let’s say I was a kid and did not know any better. I preferred Washington DC because it was cleaner and less crowded. Not sure why as a child I found that to be an important asset for a city to have. Or, perhaps I was accustomed to a different lifestyle to New York. Instead of walking pleasantly along the street for a few minutes I would have to walk much more, switch to a bunch of subway trains, and battle through crowds to get to my destination. I hated walking a lot when I was younger. Maybe, I found similarities to Cairo and was not prepared to endure that. Why would I want to go to a place like that when I spent years trying to escape? 

 

I have recently realized that my enjoyment of the city largely depends on who I am, my current situation and my past experiences.

 

To save some face, let me start to say that I no longer see Cairo as a place to escape. When you live away from your home city you begin to realize how inaccurate and biased your description of it can be. I was born and raised in Cairo but always thought that other places were much better (cleaner, more exciting, more livable..etc). I felt stronger about this when I started visiting Washington DC every summer. It was an escape then because DC had some sense of order, ease of maneuvering, a glimpse of independence, exposure to new things, and most importantly – had the pleasantries of people. On those levels, DC was superior at the time to the nth degree that I would get insanely sad returning to Cairo after the summer. The 14 hour plane ride and jet-lag did not help.

 

On an emotional level I was attached to DC because of these new-found attributes. So much so that any other city did not come even close for my love of DC. This could be due to cultural and environmental implications, but the city had a big role to play. You begin to realize that is serves as a current projection of yourself. Today I don’t feel that same emotional attachment to DC nor do I feel the intense escapist attitude to Cairo. What remains of the city is a nostalgic essence of what it once was whilst it being physically the same.

 

I started to enjoy New York towards finishing my undergraduate degree when I saw so many people heading there to make something of themselves. The story of starting from scratch within the midst of like-minded people intrigued me. From then on, more and deeper constructs of the city started to become appealing, even with all its complexities. So, with a suitcase in hand and a few couches to surf on, I attempted to give it a try. It is safe to say that I love this city at this moment in time. There is an element of spontaneity existing in certain neighborhoods that spark a sense of creative urgency in me. The kind that keeps me going despite partaking in a mundane weekday routine that screams of capitalism at its worst. The city has a strange dichotomy of boring infrastructure to a combustion of creative elements. And there is no blend between the two at times. 

 

You can argue that this is a description of my current situation and I am portraying that description into the city. But the beauty of New York is that it allows me to do so. How is that possible? For someone to look at an object in different ways and understandings, the object itself needs to be ambiguous of definitions. An object that has a flat top surface with legs extruded from the bottom gives the shape of a table and thus we exhaust its functions as a table. A structure with a long hall with bays flanking on both sides and barrel vaults encompassing you from above evokes of cathedral types and brings forth worshiping. Land divided up into certain zones with similar looking boxes with triangular elements on top tell you that I come here to fulfill my duties of living and solely that – the function of playing, learning, being seen, consuming, and exploiting can be predominately done in other areas.

 

Yet New York is difficult to grasp. It has elements with clear distinct functions and some with uncertain qualities. Take for example the time my cousin came to visit. We walked and stumbled on to a sign that had an image of a chicken. Looking further we see steps leading down to a restaurant in a basement serving fried chicken and champagne. Not something I would expect to see, but naturally we ate there despite my intentions to take him to another place as part of my pre-determined plan. We got out and found ourselves in some kind of Goth looking retail shop. I had no interest but he did for some reason. We end up taking tequila shots with the owner and get into a heated discussion on how owning cashmere sweat pants are so “in”. My cousin was worried that the items the owner was suggesting  seemed to be coming from his grandfather’s wardrobe. Of course the owner was having none of it, said he looked good, and suggested to go to a certain club he recommends. We contemplated going with our new friends, but a memorial to David Bowie caught our eye and we spent the next few minutes reflecting. 

 

I had a particular plan to follow during my cousin’s visit. In another city where everything is expressed exactly to its function, this plan can work wonderfully. But that doesn’t happen in New York. The city is best experienced by expressing yourself. You have certain likes and dislikes, walk around and attenuate yourself to the surrounding. The city will take you on a journey – express what you enjoy, and question what you do not. Include the company of another and combine each of your qualities and the events of the day transpire differently. The journey becomes a conversation and the city enhances it along the way. Maybe somebody can show me reasons to enjoy certain neighborhoods I dislike.

 

On a design end, architects and urban planners serve an answer to programmatic, contextual, and life cycle attributes that are predicted to occur. However, this does not allow for flexibility when the complexities and transformation of the self or the surrounding happen. There are many examples of a city deterministically envisioned to functional zones for residential, recreation, work, and transportation. But I argue that this is too rigid of a system because what is ideal today may not be the case tomorrow as environmental, cultural, political, and economical constructs are ever changing. On a personal level, I am ever changing too and I have been lucky enough to live in cities where I can project onto that are flexible enough to respond.

 

The variety and diversity makes this city special to me. It provides me a backdrop to express an imaginative world of it even if that is not its intention. One day time square can be exhausting, another, it can be calming yet all the elements from the previous day are still there. I would have to delve deeper and unpack reasons for this peculiarity. But for now I’ll stop here and unpack another time. 

I come to you today with my certain qualities and project them on to my city. I hope to meet you one day projecting your own, complementing or clashing with mine. It is because of us that we radiate our city’s vibrancy.

Cheers,

Khaled Riad

Managing Partner of RiadArchitecture

Architecture & the City

My City: What I Love About Cairo

“I miss aspects of being in the Arab world – the language – and there is a tranquility in these cities with great rivers. Whether it’s Cairo or Baghdad, you sit there and you think, ‘This river has flown here for thousands of years.’ There are magical moments in these places.” – My former boss Dame Zaha Hadid, may she rest in peace.

On the 2nd of May, 2017, we asked a question to our followers on our Social Media Pages page (Facebook page link here): What do you LOVE about it? And also, what would like to see improve in your city?

My brother Khaled and I have lived in a number of different cities throughout our lives: Cairo, Istanbul, Washington DC, Atlanta, Savannah, London, New York, and Rome to name a few. Between us, we have also visited a number of cities that we have fallen in love with: San Francisco, Cusco, Salt Lake City, Park City, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Bodrum, Paris, Edinburgh, Brighton, Vicenza, Florence, Como, and Alexandria (in the interest of keeping this post positive, we decided against naming the cities which we have issues with, which is quite a large list). Each and every one of these cities has imprinted its soul onto our hearts, and we carry the experience with us everywhere we go and every design we make. We could write essays about the cities we love, and poetically (at least trying to be poetic) describe the moments that touched our hearts, but that would too long (perhaps we could do so over a longer period of time and group these essays together in a short publication sometime in the future). In order to answer the question we posted above and give our insights about the city we love, we decided to each pick a city and dive deep into this: My brother will be writing about his love affair with New York (where he is currently residing), and I will talk about Cairo.

Before starting to talk about what I love about Cairo I would like to tell you a little anecdote that helped shape my view about my city. I, like many others of my generation growing up in 80s and 90s Cairo, loathed the city. I had a very bad series of experience and unfortunate events during my undergraduate years and couldn’t wait to leave the entire country upon my graduation. My mother has been living in Washington DC since 1996, and I would count the days till summer vacation so I could leave what I considered to be a dump and spend my summers with her. Upon graduation, I quickly traveled to DC as I had been accepted in the Masters program of the School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation at the University of Maryland. I remember  on my plan ride over there I thought to myself that I was never going back to Egypt and I had to find a way to make this next destination of mine my new home.

A week later was my first class in my masters program, and it was an Urban Design theory class taught by the awesomely energetic Professor Karl Du Puy. At the beginning of the class he asked us to write a one page essay about the city, town or suburb that we grew up in, and what do we think we learned from urban design – be it positive or negative – from our experience of our hometown. As you can imagine, I took this as an opportunity to rage against Cairo. I emotionally began outpouring everything I hate and loathe about the city: the traffic, the pollution, the architecture, the education, the governmental bodies responsible for issuing building permits (and those responsible for the education), the newly adopted suburban sprawl …etc. I don’t remember if we took the time to write this essay in class or if it was an assignment we had to hand in, but I remember that I waited for the entire class to submit theirs so I can be the last one to face Professor Du Puy – yes I was annoying like that. Karl (I’m just going call him Karl from now on in this post, I am certain he won’t mind – at least I hope he wouldn’t) looked at the essay and saw that I grew up in Cairo, and he roared out in his famous ‘Urban Train’ (MAPP+D reference) shout out voice “OH CAIRO! “. He smiled, looked at me and said, “you know, Cairo is not all that bad – I mean, it has its problems, but as a city, it’s quite wonderful” …. huh?! Was he kidding me? What the hell was he talking about? Not all that bad??!! Please … He doesn’t know what he is talking about … how can he? Why am I paying a fortunate to study in this school when professors claim that Cairo is actually “quite wonderful”?! How am I supposed to trust, respect and expect to learn anything from someone who claims that shit hole called Cairo is “not all that bad”. Well it turns out, I learned a lot from this man, and I owe him a great deal of gratitude.

As I went on with the program, I noticed something rather peculiar about myself; whenever I was given a task or assignment that required me to use a city or place as a precedent, I would use one of my favorite spots in Cairo (which made me realize that I actually had favorite spots in Cairo). I would always try to apply whatever new concepts that I have learned to my hometown, and I rediscovered a lot of facets to it that I may have previously turned a blind eye towards. Sooner or later, I realized that I miss home … and this wasn’t the run of the mill homesickness that people talk about as they become expats – I  felt that I was learning a great deal of information and gaining immense insight and knowledge that I couldn’t wait to share in Cairo. Sooner or later, Cairo became my focus of study: I helped arrange a winter abroad class with Professor Lindley Vann to Egypt, I used Cairo as my precedent study for my Urban Design studio, I wrote countless papers about the city, and I based my entire thesis project on Cairo. Professor Du Puy was right, if you look passed a lot of its Cosmetic issues, Cairo can be quite beautiful.

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View from Cairo Tower by Raduasandei

In terms of what I love about the city, there are two major elements that come to mind. First of which is the Nile (sorry this is kind of cheesy, I promise you the second element could be more profound hehe). I live right in front of the Nile, in fact, the image attached with this post is taken out of my balcony. I never really truly appreciated it until later in life; I believe I was taking a felucca boat ride like ten years ago or so and I marveled at the Cairo Skyline from within the Nile. It was fascinating how all the towers and residential buildings that I had previously thought were ugly on their own seemed to sparkle along the river. When I was on the felluca, I did not see these pieces of architecture as rudimentary forms or badly design facades (which, yes, many of them are badly designed) but as a collective whole merging with one another and shimmering through their reflection on the water. When looking at them abstractly, they seem like oversized trees or monuments along the water. Many have discussed removing these towers as they were said to be eye sores preventing viewership of the Nile from the older and shorter buildings behind them, after this felucca boat ride, I had to disagree with this point of view. Let me be specific, the area which I am talking about runs between Abbas bridge by El Manial and Giza on the other side all the way up to the tip of Zamalek (I am not sure I can defend the towers along the Maadi Corniche – sorry to whomever was responsible for those). The heights of the towers are proportionate to the width of the Nile, and they somehow seem to enclose the river as a large urban space. This is probably why I never really made that connection until after my visit to Rome in 2007 and understanding what it means to enclose a space and feel like it is a large room, and sitting on the boat that day truly did make me feel secure and embraced. Yes, the architecture can be prettier and the architects who worked on these buildings probably did not think of all this during the design process, but the fact remains. I am attached a number of stock images from the Wiki commons in this post to further elaborate my point: the best images taken of Cairo always show its relationship to the Nile.

Nile-Cairo
The Nile Corniche by Faris Knight

I went Kayaking with someone special to me for the first time in my life last week, and it was the first time I was actually this close to the water; it felt like I was hovering above it. Yes, I could have chosen to complain about how dirty the river was (to be fair, I believe I did that a few times), but I chose not to dwell on that. There was a brief moment where I just stopped kayaking and sat there in the middle of the body of water and looked around me, taking it all in and truly feeling that this river is the most beautiful part of the city. You could watch people sitting in their balconies, families gathering along the river boat cafes and restaurants, and you could notice the little remaining bit of wildlife in their ecosystem … a beautiful blend between concrete jungle and natural habitat. To this special someone who is probably reading this and thinking: “what the hell, you were frowning the entire time!!!” I would like to remind her that the sun was in my eye, and I always look like I want to beat someone up when the sun is in my eye (I am cursed with ugly resting bitch face, and for that I apologize hehe).

Panocairo1
A panorama taken from the Judge’s Club in Cairo, showing the Nile as well as Geziera. The Sofitel and Grand Hyatt Hotels can be seen in the far right of the photograph. By Jasmine Elias

The second aspect that I love about Cairo is the historical city – and by that, I do not mean the 19th and early 20th century downtown, I mean the largely neglected Mamluk Cairo. I am not going to go into a history lesson and go on about how Cairo grew over time, there are many other architects, scholars and historians that could do that a million times better than I ever can (will be happy to recommend books to anyone who asks), but I will take the time to describe why I love this part of the city so much. I have talked about this at length in my book (Al Masmaa’: The Place for Listening), but the main reason why I find places like El Moez Street and el Darb el Ahmar so fascinating is the element of surprise at literally every corner. The promenade through the street is rather majestic and episodic, as the street widens, narrows and curves to create a series of spaces and unique nodes along the path. During my research, I noticed that while walking along El Moez Street with each minaret you pass another one appears in the distance. Try this next time you are visiting the area: walk through Bab el Fetooh onto the triangular space infront of Al Hakim Mosque. The minaret of Al Hakim blocks the vista towards the rest of El Moez Street, which makes the space in front of the Mosque all more important as it feels embracing and less porous; it feels like a large room. As you continue walking and approach the minaret, the street opens up and reveals the rest of the city, and in the distance appearing out of nowhere is the Ottoman minaret of Sulayman Agha el Silahdar. As you approach that minaret and it leaves your cone of vision, the smaller minaret of Al Aqmar Mosque appears, which then leads to the minarets of the beyn asreen complex of the beautiful Barquq and Qalawun mosques (my favorite space in Cairo), and so on and so forth until going out of Bab Zuweila and into the Khaymeya district. Not since my exploration of Florence (the procession from the Ponte Vecchio, the street along the Arno to the Uffizi overlooking Piaza della Signoria and Il Duomo is breathtaking) have I not seen a city filled with surprising games played with the pedestrian visitor.

This idea of closing off and opening up vistas allows for different episodes, characters and zones within the same 20 minute walking distance street. I believe I have brought it down to nine different zones within the El Moez thoroughfare – each with its own multisensory aspects: different smells, sounds, visual enclosures, and activities. It started to remind me of a piece of traditional Arabic Music piece, where there isn’t a main theme with its variations, but a number of themes that are linked together at small connection points, allowing the same piece to have a number of different episodes under the same umbrella. This is an aspect of design, that may have occurred by happenstance historically, that I believe we should have held onto and built upon rather than discard.

There are many aspects of Cairo I would like to see improve or change: the traffic / pollution / garbage is a major concern of mine, the attitude towards public space is another, and so is the maintenance of our architectural resources. But one of my major concerns is the suburban sprawling expansion of the city and the new satellite towns of the outskirts of Cairo … but this is something that I would like to discuss in more detail and depth at another time.

 

See you next week 😀

Mahmoud M M Riad

Director of RiadArchitecture

Artchitecture General

On the Question of Beauty in Architecture

“Once you learn to look at architecture not merely as an art more or less well or more or less badly done, but as a social manifestation, the critical eye becomes clairvoyant.” – Louis Sullivan

 

On the 25th of April, 2017, we asked a question to our followers on our Social Media Pages page (Facebook page link here) – here is our response:

I realize that this is a loaded and heavy question and extremely subjective – when one starts talking about “preferences”, all arguments for or against start to become irrelevant, which is why interior design for private dwellings is a rather subjective art. On the other hand, we have always felt that architecture exists in the public domain (regardless of who the client is), so a certain level of objectivity towards the design aesthetics is required … a rather difficult take that many would believe is an oxymoron. For many, the question of art and aesthetics is highly subjective, and any attempt to create an objective rational or analysis over it defeats the purpose of “Art”. We at RiadArchitecture don’t subscribe to that notion, and believe that it is imperative; especially with Architecture – where scholars are still arguing over why, how and if it truly is “art”.

Having spent many years of my life involved in the design arts (starting with painting, moving into musical composition – which I do regards as a “designed” art, and then into architecture), I’ve come to realize that we need to differentiate between what can be considered “good” art and how our preferences and tastes form our biases (I often try to stay away from using simplistic subjective adjectives like “good” or “bad”, but for purposes of this article which attempts to describe my own outlook towards this subject topic I will eliminate my vocabulary inhibitions in order to better get my point across). For example, I am personally not a fan of “blues music”, I find it repetitive and boring … I prefer Jazz because I find that the musical form and structure is much more liberating for the musicians and the possibilities are endless. The 12bar blues form, in my opinion, is too limiting and I feel that I am listening to the same version of the song between each track and the other. That, is my opinion, and it is not fact … and could very much mean that I am an idiot and a musical novice that I could not understand the sonic subtleties between each song and the other and between each artist and the other. For me to denounce the entire genre of Blues just because I don’t prefer it would be rather immature. I have a lot of respect for the genre and the musicians who perform in it, and I realize the musical genius behind the fingers of BB King, Buddy Guy, and Stevie Ray Vaughn, it is just that I don’t listen to it. I cannot claim it to be “bad” music, or “unmusical”.

On the other hand, there are certain songs that I believe that I can discuss in an objective manner as to why it truly is “bad” music. There are those who claim that we should refrain from judgment from all music and art because it is all entirely subjective, I believe that this is not true. In my opinion,  there is a criteria on which we can distinguish between “good” and “bad” art provided that we are mindful enough to understand the difference between this criterion and our own preferences. For example, we need to know that there is a lot of “good” music that we won’t particularly like, and there is a lot of “bad” music that we may actually enjoy. In this definition, “good” music or art is one that either engages, bends or even breaks the rules and guidelines for creating art, as well as adding an intangible quality of pouring into a bit of their soul in the artwork (which may seem unquantifiable and immeasurable, but the mere fact that one is emotionally touched by the music or artwork is evidence enough that such a soul outpouring has occurred) – the artist goes through a process of critical thinking (even if just on a subconscious level) upon inception and creation of said artwork. On the other hand, “bad” music or art is one that recycles old ideas without any type of awareness to the process (the element of critical thinking and soul outpouring is missing from the creative process) … this artwork is processed and manufactured, and not created.

I believe that if we are able to agree to this definition then we can separate our own biases when judging artwork and take into account people’s different tastes and cultural inclinations and inflections. This leaves us with two aspects of the design process: the self awareness and critical thought process that deals with the engagement of the rules, and the intangible quality of soul outpouring. When engaging in design, both aspects of the process are always present, whether the designer is conscious of both, one and not the other, or neither. We could understand it as the Yin & Yang of design, or my preferred analogy would be the “Yung” & “Qi”; the Yung being loosely translated to the “mastery” or the mastery of creating the artwork, and the Qi being loosely translated to “energy flow”. The former is objective and theories of which can be taught at school, the latter would differ from one designer to the other as it is how we choose to put our own personal touch to whatever it is we do. I will discuss how I, and by extension RiadArchitecture, have been engaging and rationalized both aspects so far.

When it comes to mastering the rules of architectural aesthetics, there many guidelines we can go by. Most architecture schools in the states adopt the vocabulary adopted by Francis I Ching in his book “Architecture: Form, Space & Order” – required textbook reading for all young aspiring architects.  He uses phrases and concepts like proportion, rhythm, order, harmony, hierarchy, and datum (including many more) to understand and analyze the built environment, abstracting complex forms and geometries into simple basic ideas which young & designers architects can then delve into and create layers thereof. Ching, and many other architectural scholars like him, have developed an objective approach to how we can discuss, analyze and critique aesthetics.Designers can chose to follow these rules, bend them or break them in a conscious effort to create visually engaging experiences. Whether or not we as the general public “like” what these designers is irrelevant in some respect, as it does nothing but show our own biases and preferences, and are therefore highly subjective. In this regard, we cannot take away from what the designer is attempting to do (but perhaps only critique how successful each designer’s approach is while catering to our collective needs and preferences).  I believe that the problem arises from the MANY designers that do not truly understand these principles are and somehow winging it.  The lucky ones have an implicit eye towards what they feel “looks good”, but can then only argue in a subjective matter. The unlucky ones get to build the many pieces of the built environments that many of us agree are “eye sores”; there is no integration between elements, no attitude towards proportion or harmony, no understanding about creating datum, rhythm and variation … which then results in poor quality architecture.

In RiadArchitecture, we have added another layer of understanding when it comes to these principles, which we have simplified as creating a blend between “constants” and “variables”. We believe that what we as humans connect with in terms of designs are the elements which our brain can figure out a pattern or organizational concept behind. We might not understand what said organizational pattern is, but our brain has recognized that there is one. A creative pattern is that which employs a balance between constants and variables. A constant is an element where the brain can easily distinguish, a variable is a variation of said constant (be it  a variation in size, geometry, color, material…etc). A pattern filled with variables and not enough constants would seem chaotic and cacophonic, as the brain will see and understand it as a pile of garbage or an un-designed mess. A pattern that does not include enough variables will be seen as rather dull (if we follow the definitions set forth in the beginning of this article, it would then be slapped with the “bad art” label). We believe the most engaging pieces of art is that that includes enough variables that would get the observer intrigued, move, and perhaps somewhat uncomfortable. A good mix between both take the observer to the edge and pushes them to their comfort zone limits and perhaps a little bit outside of it. It encourages them to step outside what they feel is the norm but also gives them a guideline to be able to find their bearings with the overarching organizing principle when needed.

To give you a simple example, let’s consider two surfaces: a curvy free flowing surface and a flat surface. Each of these surfaces need to be divided into a series of panels. The curvy surface is free flowing and is a constant blur of variables, so we add a regular grid pattern to it as a constant. This pattern will then morph and evolve as it follows the free flowing surface (expand when the surface is being pulled in tension and contract when the surface is being condensed). There is a way the brain can identify the motion of the surface by following how the grid responds to it, and thus this surface becomes more intelligible to us.

On the other hand, a simple flat surface would need some level of dynamism to animate it. The flat surface is our constant, so we are now free to layout whichever variable grid (different size or shaped patterns) onto it. Whatever pattern we create here may be convoluted if we overlay on the freeform surface, which would make both the pattern and the surface more difficult to comprehend. We at RiadArchitecture believe that art exists in this exploration and constant game playing while bending the rules.

Which comes to the second aspect or quality of the design, the intangible “Qi”. In the 1960s, there were many architectural anthropologist scholars, among them to be one of my favorite authors, Amos Rapoport of “House Form + Culture”. Rapoport has stated that architects need not strive for any conscious aesthetic inclination and that architecture that responds to its surrounds, in terms of responding to the physical, material and climatic constraints of the site and taking the local cultural aspects that influence the design, the finished product will inherently be “beautiful” just by default. He believed that by putting all these conditions first the designer would then tap into “the spirit of place” as opposed to his or her own aesthetic biases. Even though I love this poetic notion that designers can live and breathe the local cultural nuances of any given site, I do understand that this notion of designing with the advent of globalization and digital technology may be outdated. However, I do believe that we as designers need to find different methods in order to personalize what Rapoport has suggested in order to not directly impose our own design language (a little bit of ourselves will be imposed on our creations whether we like it or not, but we need to find a method in order to allow ourselves to be influenced by something much larger and much more important than ourselves). I believe the best description of such can be found in a poem I heard Moshe Safdie recite a few years ago at Grad School which I would like to share with you:

 

“He who seeks truth shall find beauty
He who seeks beauty shall find vanity

He who seeks order shall find gratification
He who seeks gratification shall be disappointed

He who considers himself a servant of his fellow beings shall find the joy of self expression
He who seeks self expression shall fall into the pit of arrogance

Arrogance is incompatible with nature
Through nature the nature of the universe and the nature of man we shall seek truth
If we seek truth we shall find beauty”
Moshe Safdie

 

It is our quest at RiadArchitecture to find and define “truth”. We do this by trying to unravel the non-architectonic layers that make up whichever project we undertake, devoted to understanding the intangible and hidden dimensions that make spaces and places unique. The aim is to create unique environment that don’t originate from the over the top design (designing for the sake of designing) but strive to find a deeper meaning to every line, curve of form that is being built. Our design ideas are usually taken out of the context of cultural traditions, critically analyzed and deconstructed, and then put together again to fit the needs and spirit of the time and place. We apply this by encouraging and interdisciplinary approach to design, where ideas from music, music theory, philosophy, psychology,  emotional well being, education, and ecology are often found to be driving forces behind the ideas. This is our attitude towards what many have called “critical regionalism”, not accepting the status quo of tradition but feeling free to chose what works and build upon it both aesthetically and programmatically.

Whether or not we are successful in our approach is a totally different story and not up to us to decide. However, I do encourage that each designer try to find their own niche in how they define their “Qi” and their “Truth”. What are we trying to uncover, explore and give back to the world? What is the vision we are trying to create and recreate on Earth, and how can we effectively improve until such a vision is achieved? How do we evolve as designers and allow the built environment to evolve on its own with our creations long after we are gone? These are the type of questions that I believe that we, as architects and designers, need to preoccupy ourselves with, and the result, as Moshe Safdie has so eloquently stated, will be inherently beautiful.

 

See you next week 😀

Mahmoud M M Riad

Director of RiadArchitecture