Like many architects, Shahira Fahmy’s activities bridge practice, research and academia. But she is also very much involved in quite different activities, and this likely informs her unusual approach.
As someone who produces her products and designs primarily through what she calls a process of subtraction, the 42-year-old prides herself on making use of whatever is offered to her. She points to a white cup she created out of a single block of clay as an embodiment of her whole approach.
“I like to begin with one unit and subtract until I create something,” Fahmy says. She also believes her work speaks strongly to the title of the upcoming exhibition in which it features, Cairo Now! City Incomplete, on display at Dubai Design Week.
Indeed, Fahmy’s architecture career remains incomplete – a reality she believes was imposed upon her by Egypt’s political fluctuations. She quit practicing when, after January 25, 2011, months of political and economic turbulence prompted many investors to pull out of the country.
Because Fahmy felt it was no longer viable for her to practice architecture or design in Egypt, she began seeking opportunities outside both her practice and her country and even began questioning the nature of her work to date.
The fruits of this shift have included a yearlong Harvard University research fellowship trained on surveillance, walls and gated communities in Egypt, that was completed in June. Since then, Fahmy has been on a quest for a new project. When we meet to talk in the garden of the Marriott Hotel in the upscale Cairo neighborhood of Zamalek, she tells me she’s ready to venture into acting and filmmaking – a world she is looking forward to bridging with that of architecture.
Fahmy founded her firm, Shahira Fahmy Architects, in 2005. In its first project, the firm worked on the interior design for administrative offices, halls and theaters in the walled-in new campus of the American University in Cairo (AUC), located in New Cairo’s Fifth Settlement, a desert suburb.
After that, she worked on designs for various private houses, venues and compounds in and around Cairo, such as for high-end furniture mall Designopolis in Sheikh Zeyad City, the now closed Tamarai restaurant in downtown Cairo’s luxury Nile City Towers complex and villas in the SODIC real estate group’s Allegria Compound in 6th of October City.
She has also worked on projects abroad, such as in a collaboration with the UK-based Studio Octopi to work on the new premises of the Delfina Foundation in London in 2014, and won competitions, most notably to design a new zone for the Andermatt Swiss Alps resort alongside two other firms in 2011, which is due to be completed in 2018.
Her designs are labyrinthine but not ornate. She has a tendency for sleek façades, sharp edges, slanted rooftops and solid earth colors, such as white and taupe. These aesthetics perhaps come from her early desire to merge her love for art with that for physics and mathematics.
Fahmy was born in Cairo to a mother who was also an architect. Her chances to join the College of Fine Arts were curbed when she failed her high school art class due to a painting assignment whose originality, she says, was incomprehensible to her teacher. So, Fahmy studied architectural engineering at Cairo University, and educational institutions have been a big part of her life ever since.
At university she met her mentor, Abdel Halim Ibrahim, a professor of architectural design and theory and an architect involved in designing various Egyptian embassies: the Maspero Triangle development, Cairo’s Palace of Fine Arts, the new Grand Egyptian Museum, and AUC’s new campus. Ibrahim, whom Fahmy did not meet until her second year, was impressed by her designs. She says he asked to meet her one day, after noticing her potential for creativity and innovation.
“He was the first to bring it to my attention,” Fahmy recalls, still sounding surprised. Ibrahim was keen to point out to Fahmy early on the reality of being a woman in a man’s world. She recounts with emotion how he warned her that everyone would eventually tell her to stop practicing architecture but that she must not heed them.
In fact, Fahmy says, she graduated at the top of her class in 1997, landing herself a teaching assistant position at Cairo University’s Department of Architectural Engineering, which she held for the next 10 years. Alongside her teaching appointment, she pursued a master’s degree in architecture, also from Cairo University, during which she was able to immerse herself in studying, reading and writing on space syntax.
She resumed teaching in 2014, this time as visiting professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation in New York, where she is now partly based.
Comparing the two experiences, Fahmy hails the creativity, passion and effort that go into the work of architecture students at Cairo University, and laments their institutionalized lack of exposure. Unlike their counterparts at Columbia, Cairo University students, she says, are largely denied social and cultural exchange and access to knowledge.
Fahmy has also been affiliated with prominent universities as a researcher. As the 2015-2016 Hutchins Fellow at the W. E. B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research and a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, she has researched architecture’s role in curbing dissent and controlling the masses in post-2011 Cairo.
Her project, titled Subcontracting Architecture: Surveillance Architecture, studied “the massive and unprecedented emergence of walls/gates in and around the city, whether en-framing residential, educational, institutional, or public spaces.”
Fahmy is not alone on this. Many architects, urban planners and observers attribute the abundance of walls and gates to an acute class struggle in which wealthy Cairenes increasingly shield themselves from their less wealthy counterparts.
But Fahmy’s designs from her years of practice – for example AUC’s new campus and the Allegria Compound – appear in contradiction to her recent research. She seems to attribute this to her professional evolution, which was radically impacted by the 2011 revolution.
According to Fahmy, the emergence of walls and gates – of gated communities and gated campuses – suggests an urgent “issue with the city itself.” In other words, they are symptomatic of the city’s disjointedness.
Having met Fahmy, the fact that she has been able to critically reflect on her earlier practice and to envision a shift toward an acting career is not surprising. Even in a light-hearted conversation, she has a penchant for intense philosophical meanderings on the meaning of her work and of life itself. Having lived across the globe and experimented with various aspects of architectural practice, Fahmy tells me how she believes that “anything that is complete is dead.”
So she accepts the incompleteness of her architecture career and hopes that, with a new and fresh perspective, she might revisit it someday.
This text is part of a collaboration with Cairobservor on the occasion of Cairo Now! City Incomplete, curated by Cairobserver’s Mohamed Elshahed, at Dubai Design Week in October.