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Profile: Antoine Selim Nahas

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[Doss building, downtown Cairo, b. 1933 عمارة دوس، وسط البلد بنيت عام ١٩٣٣]

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كتابة علا سيف، ترجمة نبيل شوكت

هل يخطر لآلاف من الناس الذين يعبرون ميدان التحرير أوميدان مصطفى كامل بوسط البلد أو يسيرون على مقربة من دار القضاء العالى كل يوم أن يتساءلوا عن المعمارى الذى بنى بعض الأبنية القريبة والتى تركت بصمتها على القاهرة المعاصرة؟ الإجابة هى على الأغلب بالنفى، برغم أن بعضهم قد يعرف الأسماء الأصلية لتلك المبانى، مثل عمارة “بحرى” أو “دوس”.

لقد تعمد المعمارى “أنطوان سليم نحاس” (1901-1966)، الذى قام بتصميم تلك المبانى ألا يضع عليها لافتة تحمل اسمه. لكنه اشتهر فى الأربعينات والخمسينات بأنه حامل لواء التجديد فى حى وسط البلد، حيث قام بتصميم الكثير من المبانى الحديثة. فى أوائل الثلاثينات، كسب “نحاس”مسابقة لتصميم المتحف القومى فى بيروت (ما زال قائما) بفضل مشروع أعده للتخرج من مدرسة الفنون الجميلة فى باريس عام 1932 مع استاذه “لوبرانس رينجيه”. كان هذا هوالمشروع الأول فى حياته المهنية.

وتشاء الأقدار أن تختاره الحكومة اللبنانية فى منتصف الستينات، أى بعدها بثلاثين سنة، لكى يقوم بتوسيعه. ومن المفارقات الحزينة أن هذا المشروع أصبح آخر مشروع له، حيث توفى مباشرة بعد اتمامه فى 1966.
كانت القاهرة تمر بفترة من الانتعاش المعمارى والاقتصادى عندما قرر “نحاس” أن يستقر بها عام 1936، وعلى امتداد الثلاثة عقود التالية أتم الكثير من الأعمال بتلك المدينة. لقد اهتم معاصرو “نحاس” من المعماريين فى تلك الفترة ببناء مبان صناعية وحكومية وريفية، ولكن “نحاس” ركز فى عمله على المعمار السكنى، باستثناءات قليلة منها نادى الصيد فى الدقى (1939) وكنيسة قصر الدوبارة (1949) وكنيسة “كوليج دى لا سال”1958

وبينما عكست مبانيه فى وسط البلد الطابع التجارى للحى المذكور والذى يزداد فيه الطلب على الشقق الصغيرة والمتوسطة الحجم والتى تصلح كمكاتب أو عيادات، فإن مبانيه اللاحقة فى الزمالك والجيزة على شاطىء النيل تميزت بالفخامة والطابع السكنى الواضح.

أصبحت عمارة شركة “ليبون” للتأمين فى الزمالك فى الخمسينات والتى تطل على حديقة الأسماك سكنا لكثير من مشاهير السينما مثل “فاتن حمامة” و”فريد الأطرش” وغيرهم، وهى أكثر عمارة ظهرت فى أفلام الأبيض والأوسود فى الخمسينات والستينات (مثل “حكاية العمر كله”). وهناك عمارة أخرى ربماتكون أقل شهرة فى عالم السينما ولكن ليست أقل أناقة، وهى عمارة “أبو الفتوح” فى الجيزة، والتى توجت حياة “نحاس” المهنية فى القاهرة. كانت تلك العمارة هى آخر مشروع له فى القاهرة وكانت أعلى عمارة فى القاهرة فى وقتها، بارتفاع 33 دورا.

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لسوء الحظ، لا نعرف الكثير عن عمل “نحاس” فى التدريس فى كلية الفنون الجميلة فى الزمالك، باستثناء صورة له وجدت فى أرشيفات الأسرة مع زملائه “على لبيب جبر” و”حسن فتحى” والفنان “بيبى مارتين”. عندما رحل “نحاس” نهائيا من القاهرة إلى إيطاليا ثم بيروت فى أوائل الستينات، ترك خلفه أرشيفاته التى تبعثرت أو اختفت تقريبا. لذا ظل تاريخه غامضا بالنسبة لمؤرخى المعمار حتى الثمانينات، عندما ألقت الأبحاث التى قامت بها “مرسيدس فوليه” وأيضا الموقع الالكترونى “لسمير رأفت” الضوء على أعمال هذا المعمارى، وذلك بناء على بعض الأوراق التى احتفظت به عائلته التى تقيم حاليا فى الولايات المتحدة. بعدها بعشر سنوات، ظهر بالصدفة صندوق كارتون به بعض المخططات المعمارية والمراسلات المكتبية الخاصة بالإستشارات المعمارية بين “نحاس” وزبائنه، مثل شركة “الشمس” وشركة الحلويات السويسرية “جروبى”، حيث تم العثور على هذا الصندوق فى متجر للأشياء المستعملة فى ضاحية بالقاهرة. ومن المقرر أن تنشر محتويات هذا الصندوق فى كتاب.

فى الوقت نفسه، قامت عائلة “نحاس” بإنشاء موقع إلكترونى تكريما لذكراه. يقدم الموقع معلومات عامة عن واحد من أهم رواد المعمار فى مصر. ولعله أيضا يقدم إلهاما لعائلات كبار المعماريين الآخرين مثل “محمود رياض” و”نعوم شبيب” و”عبد الباقى إبراهيم” لكى ينشئوا مواقع مشابهة

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[Aziz Abd el-Malek Hanna Building, Midan Sheraton, Giza b. 1938 عمارة عبد المالك حنا في ميدان شيراتون بالجيزة، بنيت عام ١٩٣٨]

By Ola Seif, translation by Nabil Shawkat

Do the thousands that daily cross Tahrir, Mustafa Kamel and the Supreme Court squares in downtown Cairo ever wonder who the architect of its modern landmark buildings is? Probably not but perhaps some would recognize the buildings’ original names such as the Bahari or the Doss buildings. This is the case for most of architect Antoine Selim Nahas’s (1901-1966) edifices which intentionally never bore a foundation plaque crediting him. Nevertheless, in his time he became reputed, in the forties and the fifties, as the modernizer of the Cairo downtown district, because of his prolific architectural contributions to its skyline. In the early thirties his graduation project in 1932 from the Ecole nationale des Beaux arts in Paris, jointly with his Parisian professor Leprince Ringuet, won a contest to design Beirut’s National Museum (still extant). This was the first project in his career. And as fate has it, thirty years later the Lebanese government commissioned him in the mid sixties to expand it. Ironically and sadly, it became also the site of his very last project as he died in 1966 right after its completion.

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[Above: Nahas with fellow teachers at the Fine Arts school in Zamalek نحاس مع زملائه من مدرسين الفنون الجميلة فالزمالك

Below: National Museum in Beirut المتحف القومي في بيروت]

It was to an architecturally booming and an economically prosperous Cairo that Nahas chose to return and relocate in 1936 and where he spent the next three productive decades of his career. Unlike his contemporaries who built industrial, public and rural structures almost all of Nahas’s works were exclusively dedicated to residential architecture except for the projects of the Shooting club in Dokki (1939), and the Qasr el Dubbara (1949) and the College de la Salle (1958) churches. While his buildings in the downtown area reflect the commercial nature of the downtown district by providing small and medium size flats that lend themselves to business offices or clinics, in contrast his later buildings on the Zamalek and Guiza shores of the Nile were of a more upscale and residential nature. The iconic Lebon insurance co. building in Zamalek in 1950s, overlooking the Fish garden, became home to many cinema celebrities such as Faten Hamama and Farid el-Attrash among others and the most featured building in the black and white movies of the fifties and sixties (ex. Hikayet el ‘Umr Kullu). Perhaps less featured cinematically but equally elegant is the Aboul Fettouh building in Guiza which crowns Nahas’s career in Cairo doubly. On chronological grounds it was his last project in Cairo and secondly, its boasting new height record of thirty three floors.

Unfortunately, little is known about Nahas’s teaching career at the Ecole des beaux arts (al-funun al-Gamila) in Zamalek except for a photograph found in the archives of the family with his colleagues Aly Labib Gabr, Hassan Fathy and artist Bépi Martin. Due to Nahas’s final departure from Egypt to Italy then to Beirut in the early sixties, the bulk of his archive was left to be liquidated, if not dispersed, by his office personnel. As a result, he remained in the shade to architectural historians until in the eighties the scholarly work of Mercedes Volait and Samir Raafat’s website shed light on him based on the little that his family, currently in the United States, had kept. A decade later, a carton box containing some plans, elevations and official correspondences referring to architectural consultancies between Nahas and his clients al-Chams company and the Swiss chocolatier firm Groppi surfaced coincidentally in a junk store of a Cairo suburb. Its contents are on their way to become the subject of an upcoming publication.

In the meantime, the website www.antoinenahas.com was compiled and launched by Nahas’s family to commemorate him. It served not only to provide “at a glance” information about one of Egypt’s pioneering Egyptian architects but also inspired families of other leading architects such as Mahmoud Riad, Naoum Shabib, Abdel Baki Ibrahim to launch similar sites.

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[Bahari buildings in Tahrir Square built in 1934 عمارة بحري في ميدان التحرير، بنيت عام ١٩٣٤]

Profile: Mahmoud Riad

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[Mahmoud Riad and his graduating class at Cairo University, 1927.]

It maybe about time for the canon of the history of modern architecture to include an Egyptian architect from the modernist period. And if one Egyptian architect from that period is to be included it probably should be Mahmoud Riad. Riad is a prolific architect and planner who built many iconic buildings in Cairo (still standing) and who wrote and lectured about matters of planning and workers’ housing. He graduated from Cairo University’s architecture department in 1927 then went on to acquire a masters degree from Liverpool in 1931. During his apprenticeship he worked with “Shreve, Lamb and Harmon on their Manhattan masterpieces, the Empire State Building and 500 Fifth Avenue, before returning to Egypt to establish his own practice.” Riad founded his practice in Cairo in 1933 and later served in the Ministry of Public Works and the Cairo Municipality.

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[Riad’s thesis proposal for a bus+rail terminal for Alexandria, 1931.]

"In the 1950s, after years of service at the Ministry of public works, he was named Director General of the Cairo Municipality, a position that he held until the late sixties. During his tenure, he oversaw and developed some of Egypt’s most important projects, like the planning of Nasr City and Cairo Stadium. News of his stern and professional reputation made waves in the international scene, as he was asked take part of the UN meeting on metropolitan planning as one of the "expert" professionals in the field. In 1965, Mahmoud Riad was appointed the position of technical advisor to the Ministry of Housing & Public Affairs in Kuwait , where he oversaw the planning and construction of all projects taking place in Kuwait until his death in 1979 - leading him to establish professional and personal relationships with the likes of  Reima Pietila, Sir Colin Buchanan, and  Kenzo Tange."

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[Ford facilities at Imbaba in Cairo, 1937.]

Riad’s most notable projects include the Egyptian Cotton Company’s Cardiology Clinic and hospital in the industrial city of Mahala el Kobra in 1943. Also, The Misr Insurance Company building in Lazoughly, 1946; Misr Insurance Company building in Tawfiqiyya, 1948; Misr Insurance Company building on Talaat Harb in downtown Cairo, 1952; The Socialist Union Building (the now burned NDP building), 1959; The Arab League, 1955; and Hilton hotels in several cities including Luxor, Aswan, Alexandria as well as in Cairo in partnership with Welton Becket.

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[Misr Insurance Building on Talaat Harb Street under construction, completed in 1952.]

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[Model of the Arab League Building, completed 1955.]

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[Elevation of the Misr Insurance Company Building in Tawfiqiyya, completed 1948.]

Mahmoud Riad is a foundational figure in twentieth century Egyptian architecture. His legacy is little known outside a small circle of specialists as the Egyptian modernist phase continues to be undermined within the contemporary education of Egyptian architects. As it is the case of many of Riad’s fellow architects from the early and mid-twentieth century the legacy of such architects can only be assembled with the availability of archival materials. Luckily the family of Riad has maintained his archive. The family maintains Riad’s architectural practice which is now seeing its third generation. The information and images posted in this blog post come from a fantastic beautifully designed website by Riad’s grandson architect who has meticulously constructed a portfolio of Riad’s works, a biography, a CV as well as an assortment of other materials such as personal correspondence with Kenzo Tange. The website showcases the continuity of the family business across three generations from Mahmoud Riad’s first 1933 establishment of his practice to his son’s practice and now the grandson.

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[Mahmoud Riad with Um Kalthoum in the 1950s.]

Profile: Ramses Wissa Wassef

“An artist’s work is no longer of much use in modern society. Exhibitions in art galleries are visited by people as social events, like race meetings or cocktail parties. Basically, art is dying in the twentieth century because it has been torn as under from daily life. It has become part of the trade in rare, expensive luxuries, or else it is cast aside. It undergoes all day to day caprices of fashion and gains attention by being provocative or sensational, or even by making use of drugs. And then the works that have won fame, or notoriety, are put into museums to be admired” -Ramses Wissa Wassef, Woven by Hand.

Ramses Wissa Wassef (1911-1974) is the architect who best conceptualized and designed modern houses adapted from rural vernacular architecture in Egypt. His architecture is a direct result of his involvement with the social and cultural contexts that inspired him in the first place and the context in which he designed. Unlike Hassan Fathy, who was celebrated first in the West and later in Egypt and the Arab region for his mud brick architecture, RWW worked closely with people as partners, not as recipients of his wisdom. The legacy of Ramses Wissa Wassef lives on despite the lack of academic attention, particularly from the West (in contrast to Hassan Fathy) because of the humanist approach of his design process. The inhabitants and users of his buildings today praise RWW and share fond memories of their time with him as a member of the community. His architecture oeuvre is not limited to the domed village houses and includes private villas, public buildings and churches.

Below is a brief biography provided by Archnet.org

Ramses Wissa Wassef was an Egyptian architect and educator. He earned his BA degree from the Ecole Des Beaux Arts in Paris in 1935. His graduation project “A potter’s house in Old Cairo ” received the first prize by the examination board. Upon returning to Cairo, in 1938, he was nominated as a professor of art and history of architecture in the college of Fine Arts in Cairo.

"One cannot separate beauty from utility, the form from the material, the work from its function, man from his creative art."

In 1951, Ramses Wissa Wassef embarked upon an experiment in creativity which would become universally acclaimed. He set out to prove that creativity was innate — that anyone could produce art. He had become discouraged by the general decline of creativity in 20th century urban culture and dismayed by the deadening influence of mass production. He felt that routine education was stifling. For his experiment he chose uninhibited, free-spirited young children who were isolated from many aspects of modern civilization.

Wassef saw that the “modern architectural revolution”, which had hit Cairo, was producing a multiplicity of buildings constructed without any sense of aesthetics but rather for their fast rentability. From this point on, Wassef was firmly resolved to never sacrifice his artistic vision for current trends of construction.

For a list of buildings by Ramses Wissa Wassef along with a selections of related articles on the architect provided by Archnet.org, click here.

[Villagers of Haraneya outside of Cairo speak of their experience living and working with Ramses Wissa Wassef and his efforts to establish a the center for Egyptian tapestry. Video by Omnia Khalil & Tarek Waly]

Two recent exhibitions celebrated RWW, the first was hosted at the American University in Cairo’s Rare Books and Special Collections Library (February 2012) and the second was hosted at the Palace of the Arts – Cairo Opera House site, Zamalek (November 2012).

For further information, here are some useful links:

Wissa Wassef Art Center

Aga Khan Award for Architecture for the Wiisa Wassef Art Center

Ramses Wissa Wassef Architectural Drawings at the AUC Rare Books Library

Egypt Today: Celebrating Ramses Wissa Wassef

Ingi Zada Building, 1937

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The twelve-story apartment building commissioned by Madame Inji Zada was designed by Egyptian architect Antoine Selim Nahas and finished in 1937.

The building is a sleek streamlined white tower on a triangular corner site located in Ghamra, halfway between the bustling downtown and the suburban enclave of Heliopolis. The main features of the building’s exterior are its clear order, minimal design, curved corners and its nautical bathroom windows. Few details are known about Ingi Zada, the owner who commissioned the building, but what is know is that she was one of the Egyptians who commissioned Nahas. Being of Lebanese origins, most of Nahas’ commissions in Egypt were from the Syrio-Lebanese community. The apartment building consists of shops and a garage on street level, with two small apartments above followed by nine floors with replicated floor plans each consisting of two apartments (entry hall, living room, two bedrooms, kitchen and bath). The top two floors are set back with three additional apartments. The penthouse included a roof garden. The two-elevator building was topped by a radio antenna to service the apartments and had a separate servants stair with direct access to the kitchens. The building’s published profile included some technical details regarding the nine-meter deep foundations and the building’s reinforced concrete structure. There is no reference to architectural style and only the final sentence remarks on the building’s appearance by stating that “it corresponds with modern architectural practice.”

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