Campus Architect Abdelhalim Ibrahim Reflects on AUC New Cairo Then and Now
In 2009, AUC received a special award at the Urban Land Institute 2009 Awards for Excellence: Europe, Middle East, and Africa competition because it was “designed to be a tool and stimulus in itself for learning and to anchor community development around the University.”
News@AUC spoke with Abdelhalim Ibrahim Abdelhalim, principal of Abdel-Halim Community Development Collaborative, which led the international team in executing the master plan and architecture design principles for the design and construction of AUC's New Cairo campus.
What are your general reflections on the campus? What was it like designing and building it?
My answer to that question falls into two sections. One is the process of designing and perceiving and building the campus, which was a phenomenal experience, not only for me but for anyone who did any campus planning. It haunts you like a creation beyond human capacity; it’s really just amazing. The creation of a campus is a new creature. What you are injecting into it is at the level of life. There’s no way to avoid that kind of mystery. So this was one big aspect of the process of being involved in the design competition all the way down to inaugural day.
The other side and second thing is the actual content of that process. It’s not just simply the creation of a new campus, which is a big thing by itself, but it’s almost like identifying the most basic things in life, such as community. AUC has been here in Cairo, in Egypt, for almost 100 years. Beyond just the downtown campus itself, AUC was a really important factor in linking what is now understood as liberal arts with the life of a city like Cairo.
To summarize the experience of designing the campus: there was nothing new, yet everything was new. There was nothing new because we used principles of functioning environments everywhere, and everything is new because you have to act creatively in that process.
What were some of the greatest inspirations and influences in designing AUC New Cairo?
I was mesmerized by the idea of liberal arts as a vision or framework for the design of the campus. Even though I got my PhD at University of California, Berkeley, which is a liberal arts university, I never truly contemplated the idea of liberal arts as an educational philosophy. In the design process, one of our very first assignments sent to our team was the question of what this idea of liberal arts has to do with Egypt. It was amazing that we discovered that some of the greatest universities in the world, like Al-Azhar University, have a liberal arts tradition. We came to understand liberal arts here in Egypt as the process by which you get to the truth without being stuck with one direction. Liberal arts is searching for the truth, but also searching for the basis of knowledge through a variety of resources. It was an exhilarating experience to take with my team and our colleagues. Overall, the campus was a result of a rational realization of the liberal arts concepts and ideas in space.
Additionally, when we were introduced to the AUC process, we were selected among six others at the competition stage. We were six American firms and six Egyptian firms in designing the campus. The debates that went on were some of the most vivid and exemplified the validity of liberal arts.
Cutting and Building Stone
The Karnak and Luxor Temples, which are built from stones that are thousands of years old, also served as a great inspiration. We were encouraged by some members of AUC’s Board of Trustees to visit Luxor. They totally understood the value of the land and materials and encouraged us to visit this portion of the country. While there, we rediscovered ways of cutting and building stone. The process was just amazing; we cut the stone the way it used to be cut thousands of years ago, and then we chiseled it with some of the most advanced mechanisms. I think that’s one thing that has given and will continue to give this campus a great deal of strength.
We had many other amazing examples in designing this campus like Sharia Moez, for example, which is very important to the city.
With a project of this scale in a place where not much had been built before, what were the biggest challenges when you were approaching and carrying out this project?
One of the first challenges was: how do you, as an architect, conceive of the needs and the wishes of the generations of students and faculty members. It was required from us to know, to conceive or to translate the move from the old campus to the new campus without losing in the process the excitement and the content of this community. We devised many ways to conceptualize the framework of building.
The most critical moment or encounter between us and this process is what I call the generic model of planning a campus, or the inherent characteristics that can be used to transplant this new creature. In other words, moving from the old site in downtown Cairo to this new site was not just moving thousands of people across the city to the desert, but we were actually searching for what was in the desert environment that could be expressed as a way to enable this process of transformation.
It was a complex process, how we move thousands of people in extraordinary circumstances; we weren’t just moving them from one flat to another, but we were moving the roots of life from one city to another. The creation of AUC’s New Cairo campus is unparalleled in terms of the magnitude, content and meaning of the move.
What surprises or realizations did you encounter in the design and building of the new campus, and how did you react to those unexpected elements?
We came across realizations that are unbelievable. The site that the new campus is on is 260 acres of land. It does have generic features like topography, plant life and all kinds of things that can give life to any place. It was upon us to identify these things.
In the desert context, there are several things to consider such as the orientation of the buildings and how you initiate movement of air and wind. It is also important to consider that in the desert, life originates in depressions of land, and they are a collector of cool water. The campus as you see it now flourishing reflects these principles. It has created a magic of gardens that is exposed to all elements of the campus. The campus, therefore, becomes like a secret oasis. By utilizing these natural aspects, we ended up saving energy in addition to creating such a nice atmosphere.
The other principle that’s really important about the desert environment is the idea of a courtyard or enclosed space. We used open space as an active and positive feature. We formalized that through the idea of the campus spine, which is made of courtyards and places that are interconnected.
What are your thoughts on how the campus is being used today?
In my first encounter with the campus being used, I heard some complaints, and I was beginning to worry that we lost the way. But now I think that the campus is physically realizing itself, in terms of the landscape and architecture. But also the campus is realizing itself through the student community. A community is being created, and I’m not sure that it’s the same community that was in downtown Cairo. It’s different, and I’m glad to hear that. During the planning process, we assumed that it is a must follow the roots of the old campus, but we discovered that the new campus is actually much more complex than just simply moving the old campus. I think the campus now is entering its maturity. It has already evolve and will continue to do so.