Samir El Kordy is a tall, slim, soft-spoken man whose love of contradiction feels almost perverse. “Ignorance is the main virtue in this project,” the architect tells me, speaking of the house he’s currently building, his fifth. He calls it the Gym House because the neighbors and authorities are convinced that it’s a gym, not a home.
When he first went to the site in Rehab City, New Cairo, with the client, he immediately saw the commission was going to be a challenge. It was to be built in the half-subterranean ground floor of an apartment building and totally hidden by a high wall surrounding the property — a “wrapped condition.”
“What I liked about it was that it’s full of faults,” he says.
His solutions have resulted in a striking space — modern but conservative, spacious but small, luxurious yet modest, social yet private, and with a layout that seems more house than apartment. The only way to not have the bedrooms take up the periphery next to the garden, and thus all the natural light, was to put them, grotto-like, at the very center of the design. No one puts bedrooms in the heart of a house, says Kordy, mainly because they need natural light and ventilation. He made it work in two ways.
The first is what he calls “fixity and flexibility.” Everything is fixed, but flexibility is injected into the experience. Each space has multiple functions, is linked in several ways to other spaces, and is designed to generate events. The bedrooms can open fully to become an extension of the living area, for example. A staircase to an underground fourth bedroom outside — designed to catch the evening sun bouncing off the curved exterior wall — doubles as a seating area. Some of these touches are a bit James Bond: the living-room panel on which the TV is mounted swings open to reveal a desk alcove behind it, and a bar can emerge from the wall next to the swimming pool.
The second aspect is the layers of transparency, translucence and opacity through which a maximum visual connection to the outside has been created. Sheer gold curtains line the living area’s floor-to-ceiling windows. An open-topped, textured fiberglass shisha pavilion protrudes from one corner. Every material is carefully chosen. A green rubber for industrial conveyor belts is used as a sound-absorbing wallpaper. A selection of old, unmatched wood veneers create a cartoony effect. Searching for olive wood, Kordy found a comb-maker who uses it and ended up going to Ismailia to buy olive trees, letting them mature for four months, and then working with the comb-maker, who had never done this before, to produce the slim scented tiles that cover the floor of the sunken dressing room.
Like the preparation of everything else, such as the mixing of the terrazzo flooring and the marble cutting, the tile making happened onsite. Most of the time, Kordy goes there everyday to supervise all this — otherwise, because of the work’s specificity, the client would have had to hire a prohibitively expensive specialized contractor. It also means he’s there to deal with the authorities, who keep coming around to check that it’s not a gym. It’s just too unfamiliar-looking to be a house: the novel structure, the striking materials, the built-in fiberglass dining table, the shisha pavilion.
“I’m really interested in new communities,” says Kordy, explaining that these desert cities on Cairo’s outskirts are full of potential, like a tabula rasa. This also stems from his idea of architecture as a political act. “You have to be part of the system. The Gym House is part of the system of new houses, new lifestyles, new fantasies for modern Egyptians to be part of a community in gated towns. You have to be part of that community. Otherwise, if you’re not involved, you prevent yourself from inventing or injecting good potential in this kind of new life, and you let other, mediocre, average architects do it. Why not do it yourself?”
Kordy was born in Heliopolis 1974, but because his father was a general in the Interior Ministry, he grew up for 14 years in the seaport of Marsa Matrouh, halfway between Alexandria and the Libyan border. This, he says, made him observationally curious — “very important in my profession.” This was because Marsa Matrouh was the main summer resort at the time, filling temporarily every year with strangers. You had to be observant to figure out how to deal with all those people yet not become attached to their personalities, Kordy says. Also, there was nothing to do but swimming and reading. Luckily his parents had lots of literature at home, and the first book he remembers reading was an Arabic translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, which is set in hell.
He wanted to go to the Cinema Institute to become a director, but says his family suggested he do engineering first, because that would enrich his experience — and it didn’t have to be an either-or choice. He never studied cinema in the end but has no regrets because architecture and filmmaking are very similar: Both films and buildings must have a sequential structure, a narrative, and to make them, you have to have a vision for reality and knowledge of and connections to other domains of life — neither are hermetic professions.
Kordy graduated in 1997 from Cairo University, where he met his mentor, Abdel Halim Ibrahim of CDC Abdel Halim. The architect’s approach, unlike Kordy’s, is anti-modern and focused on Islamic architecture (the AUC new campus is a good example of his work). Kordy says Adbel Halim has a “specific and comprehensive approach” to architecture and is able to find common ground with collaborators. Kordy too is interested in similarities rather than differences between personalities, and still rates Abdel Halim as the most interesting architect working in Egypt. He helped design his new office around 2002. The invitation was a gesture of trust, and working with his mentor was inevitably stressful, but a fruitful learning experience.
Kordy had already been getting some interior design work and received his first architectural commission in 2001: a billiards room on a Heliopolis rooftop, which he says, through his persuasion, incrementally became an entire penthouse. Clients often find him through his work in architecture magazines. He doesn’t have a social media presence, as he feels it forces conformity to certain patterns. “I’m not creating my own bubble,” he says.
In 2006, he went to work for celebrated Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron (London’s Tate Modern is theirs, for example) for two years. He was interested in their work’s tactility and wanted to learn about their project design process. From there, he went to Rotterdam to work for OMA. On his second day, he bumped into the firm’s co-founder Rem Koolhaas, and the interrogation that followed forged a connection between the two. This makes sense, as Koolhaas’ dystopian realism, which sometimes seems to border on cynicism (“the city is an addictive machine from which there is no escape”), seems to echo some of Kordy’s thinking.
Kordy returned to Cairo in 2009 and has been working here ever since. His studio is in Maadi, where he lives, and he has painstakingly developed a very specific kind of work environment that contrasts with the strict one Abdel Halim cultivated. Kordy says he hires between one and five assistants on a project by project basis, plus interns. These collaborators include architects, anthropologists, lawyers, political scientists, economists, media specialists, artists and novelists. Each project is conceptualized through discussions, readings and experiments with them. You can’t do architecture alone, he explains — but it’s also a one-man show. “Architecture,” he reiterates with relish, “is a very contradictory profession.”
“Defining things is very important,” he adds, explaining that the questions discussed include: What’s the meaning of a “new community” in relation to middle-class dreams? What does it mean to build in a gated compound? What’s the difference between having a house there and in another part of the city? And what was the revolution — a momentum that’s been lost or a thread in a long process of opposition? The complexity of real life is thus inserted into each building design. “I’m not designing utopias,” Kordy says. “It’s very dystopic.”
His working method is influenced by the ways in which contemporary art is often produced, and his practice has overlapped with art at points — he’s been involved in exhibition design (for example at Haus der Kunst Munich in 2010) and has collaborated with his partner, artist Rana ElNemr, on various projects. In 2012, he collaboratively made an artwork called A Monument to Buzzwords, a series of images in which raised concrete walkways appear to follow, and totally take up, the paths of the protestors of 2011.
Architecture and politics are closely linked, Kordy says. Architecture is a political act because of the context, clients’ demands and misunderstandings with officials. The revolution amplified that confrontation with the power dynamics in this country, and he found that useful. In architecture, you have to create your own power and defense mechanisms, even if it’s just to continually convince people that a project is a house, not a gym.