Egypt's first lady of architecture and design, Shahira Fahmy has made a name for her firm both locally and abroad, proving to be one of the few geniuses of our generation. We find out the secrets of her success in this very special interview...
In every generation of Egyptians, there are a few geniuses that stand out in their fields, making a name for themselves and their country on a global scale, giving us yet another reason to be proud of what we can produce. Without a doubt, architect and interior designer Shahira Fahmy will go down in our collective conscious as one of those bright sparks that changes an industry and inspires thousands to work harder, think smarter and do better. A Cairo University graduate, Fahmy has become one of the most sought after architects and designers of our time, adding her touch to Egypt’s landscape, whether it’s at modern buildings like the new AUC campus or everyone's favourite club Tamarai, or restoring old ones like the iconic Mounira Palace. With a mantle filled with awards, a portfolio packed with successes and now with two on-going projects in Europe, we talk to Fahmy about Egyptian education, building a business and being a woman in a man’s world…
Who is Shahira Fahmy and how did she become such a famous architect and interior designer?
My mother is an architect but she was practicing interior design for a long time, so I grew up in a house where interior and furniture design was a huge part of my life. The only two things I was good at in school were math and art. That’s why I thought architecture was a good combination of both. When a teacher told me I was good at math, I thought I should do something about that. I started working really hard and exceled in math in my senior year of high school. My goal was to get accepted in the engineering faculty of Cairo University and I was able to do that. I attended AUC for a semester but then transferred to Cairo University, even though I had a full scholarship for the AUC. When I went to Cairo University I knew three friends also going there, but they all dropped out in the first year.
During your first year in Cairo University you take general courses without studying a specific field of engineering, but I knew from the beginning I wanted to study architecture. My first year in college was very difficult and I wasn’t doing very well because I discovered I actually didn’t know how to draw. Everybody was much better than me in drawing and my grades weren’t very good. The second year, however, was my turning point. There was a great professor who I still consider my mentor today; Abdelhalim Ibrahim. He actually wasn’t my professor, but then he selected me to join his team. He still pushes and motivates me all the time. I started excelling in college and, by my senior year, I was at the top of my class. I was selected to be a TA in the university but I didn’t want to work in the academic field so I only took the position temporarily. I did my masters after that and started working in Dar El Handasa. By 2003, I decided to resign and start my own practice.
So you attended Cairo University and had a good experience there. Is education in Egypt really as bad as we think it is?
When I attended Cairo University, it was of course a different environment, but it was a great experience. I had two mentors at university and that’s what makes a difference. There’s Ibrahim, whom I mentioned, and Aly El Gabr. You find very good people everywhere. Like the math teacher I had in school; she changed my life. I met another math teacher during my bachelor’s degree, who also changed my life because he pushed and motivated me. So, you have to appreciate these people who try and help you and who know what they’re doing. I’ve also come to learn in practice that Egyptians, because of these obstacles and lack of systemisation, know how to do things that others can’t. Also, AUC didn’t have an architecture department so that limited my options. So it was either fine arts at AUC or architecture Cairo University. I’d heard that Cairo University was good and the system is helpful because, even if I changed my mind about architecture, I still have my knowledge from the general courses of first year. Now, when I come to think of it, I’m glad I had no other options. But at the time, I was very frustrated.
You said your mother is an architect and most people go into their family’s business. Why did you choose to do it alone?
Because what my mother did in her time was very avant-garde. I was very embarrassed to bring people over to my house while I was in college because our dining room was all mirrors. It was just a box of mirrors. And the table was made of glass and white stones. So when people came into the room they were very shocked. But now when I come to think of it, I appreciate what she made us live in. In my apartment, I have a glass console that she designed in the 80s and at that time you didn’t have designs like, that that were so efficiently done. It’s all glass with no screws. So she had a very strong identity that I couldn’t follow but I now appreciate very much because there are a lot of things that she made me aware of without me realising.
What really pushed you to start your own firm?
I was doing my Masters degree between 2003-2004. My mentor, Abdelhalim Ibrahim, offered me a job. He was the prime architectfor the new AUC campus and he asked me to work in interior design for the project. Although I wanted to a job in architecture and not interior design, I accepted the job offer and ended up designing the president’s office and all the conference rooms. They were very pleased with my work so they made me design the interior of the PVA, the theatre and the faculty lounge. This project was what pushed me to start my office.
How did you decide on the aesthetics for the AUC?
I had to fit within the architecture but luckily that was easy, as I was very familiar with Ibrahim’s visions. You have to always sit with the architect and the room and envision it all. Sometimes doing less is better. Only 70-80% of my work got executed exactly like the drawings but that’s normal, so I was very satisfied. I would’ve loved if they’d executed the theatre like I’d designed it, but that wasn’t the case. I also designed a chandelier for Legoretta + Legoretta [the firm which designed the Campus Centre and student residences at AUC].
How do you describe your own design aesthetic?
That is the most difficult question because I’m trying to define myself through my work until today. I still don’t know who Shahira Fahmy is.
Do you think you ever will? Does any designer really know?
I think at this point I’m very confused because everybody knows what they’re doing and I should know what I’m doing. I’m afraid of two things: One, if I know what I’m doing then maybe this it’ll be the end of my career. Secondly, if I’m going to be a commercial designer because I’m trying to label and market my identity, then I’m not going any further. In each project, of course there are things that define what I do and of course there’s common ground in these projects that I’ve started seeing. But I’m also afraid to say “Ok, this is the language I’m working with,” because I’m not sure if it’s good or bad. I’m trying to experiment. What I can say is consistent with Shahira Fahmy’s work is the process. And it’s also evolving. The process is more important than the end product. If, along process, I’m not honest with myself, I’ll be sure my project will fail and I’ll never be satisfied with it.
Most of the work you do is very modern. Would you say you’re futurist?
Yeah, but mostly you’re just trying to work with what you have. For Legoretta, for example, I knew the designer’s whole portfolio and he’s very renowned. So, I knew what he likes and I had to speak in his language but put my ideas in the designs as well.
Does that ever get frustrating?
No, actually it doesn’t. It adds to you because even though you have your vision, it’s always good to have limits and direction. If you’re directing an open space, it’s very difficult because you have to start from scratch. With the chandelier, I started from Legoretta and took it to something else. I’m very happy with what was done, because it has a mix of old and new and mine and his work.
Is there an architect that you wouldn’t or couldn’t design for?
Yes, of course. I select my projects and whom I want to work with. My clients would come to me and ask me to do a house, and I’ve always wanted to do the architecture for a house but when I saw their vision I realised I couldn’t work and collaborate with them. I cannot take my client to the vision I see if he’s not willing to come along.
What’s the most ridiculous request a client has given you that you had to decline?
During my first meeting with a client if I find that he/she understand what my work is, I go forward with them. The one time I sat down with a client and I felt I had to leave the room, I was with an associate and the client came with a huge project with no introductions. He wanted me to tailor his requests without adding my touch to it. Whenever that’s the case, I have to decline.
Has there been a public or commercial project that you’ve turned down and regretted?
No. I take a lot of time in making my decision when accepting a job so I don’t regret it.
Is there a project that you’re most proud of?
Not yet. I have one house that is really special to me. It’s under construction but the construction has stopped and it will stay on hold for a while.
Is it frustrating when you’re working on a project then the economic situation in Egypt forces it to stop?
You get used to it!
Why is it that people in Egypt only paint the front of a building and leave the rest exposed?
It’s an economic manifestation. They don’t have money to finish the building so they do what is needed. Some of them don’t even cover the front façade. I have no comment on that actually…
Do you have a dream project you’d like to work on?
I love everything regarding galleries and museums. That is my dream project; to work on a museum. I haven’t gotten a chance to do that yet.
Which is your favorite museum design?The Mokhtar Museum in Zamalek. It’s not that it’s the best museum worldwide, but it doesn’t get any credit for how beautiful it is. I first visited it when I was in college. We went on a tour of the city and I didn’t know that this jewel existed.
What do you think makes a good iconic building?
How people interact with it. It’s relationship to the people. The people are the ones who make the building either alive or dead.
Are all your design and architecture projects in Egypt?
I now have two projects abroad. But before 2011, all my work was in Egypt. In 2011, I won a project in Switzerland and, in 2012, I won one in London. It’s under construction now. It’s an art foundation and it’s my first project related to art. We’re opening two buildings onto each other so it’s an architecture job. They’re old buildings near Buckingham Palace so for them this is a listed area which means we can’t change much on the outside, which also makes it an interior project as much as it is an architectural one.
What is something you’d change in this office?
It’s a beautiful office space but I think I’d change the windows. Add more glass and less aluminum.
Do you believe in things like Feng Shui?
I don’t use it in my work but I believe in it in a different sense. I’m not trying to abide by the rules of Feng Shui but I really care about people’s emotions, how they feel about the design and how they behave in a space. It’s all about the organisation for me. If you have a colour scheme that works in Feng Shui but the space sucks, then you won’t ever feel comfortable.
Is there one space/venue/building in Cairo that absolutely horrifies you?
Actually, the building next you. The new Saudi embassy. I never want to set foot in it. It horrifies me because I used to live here and it’s my neighborhood. The architect who made this building is the same one that designing the Om Kalthoum tower. The tower was actually Om Kalthoum’s villa and he tore it down. It was a beautiful villa designed by Labib Gabr and they tore it down and built that horrifying building. Until now, they’re the two worst buildings.
Architecture in Egypt is a male dominated business. Has that affected you or your work?
In my second year in college when my mentor came and told me he wanted to see my work, he told me “I want you to be aware you’re a woman in a man’s world but I want you to keep going forward and never quit.” This was the best advice I’ve been given. I didn’t know that at the time and I didn’t understand the sentence because I’d never thought of it. This helped me assert myself me a lot. But I keep forgetting that I am in fact I’m a woman in a man’s world and I keep getting shocked by it. Like when I was at Dar El Handasa. I excelled and kept getting promoted the whole time I was there and there was a lot of jealousy. It was also like working as part of a machine, rather than a creative person and that’s a very male view of how to do things.
If you had the opportunity to either: A) completely redesign one of the slum areas in Cairo, or B) design one iconic building in Cairo, which would you choose?
I’d choose both but I won’t destroy the slums; I’ll work with them because they have a lot of architectural theory going on there; stuff we never see in real life anywhere else in the world, like how a 20 storey building can be so small and still stand? It would be a great opportunity because they have a lot of potential.
Have you considered urban planning?
I’m not sure I want to intervene but I definitely want to learn. I don’t know how our roles should be defined in terms of city growth just yet.
What about all these new compounds? Do you think it’s okay to standardise housing like that?
I don’t think it’s good for your health to live in a gated community. You will close the boundaries on your children’s creativity.
Where do you live?
I lived in Mohandiseen for 15 years and I just moved to Zamalek.
Was that for design purposes?
No, for quality of life. I wanted to be able to walk in the streets. And I got divorced, so that was another reason.
If you could live in any building in Egypt, which would you choose?
A penthouse in Downtown. In Talaat Harb Street, next to where they film Bassem Youssef’s show, there’s a penthouse with a terrace and a dome. I’d love to live there. Not because it’s classic or traditional, but because I want to live somewhere with energy and the energy in Downtown is beautiful.
Let’s say your next project is designing a home for the new president of Egypt. What would it look like?
I wouldn’t participate in that, even if he’s my favourite candidate, because it’s too big a risk especially in the current state.
Is there a certain area in Egypt that you would like to rehabilitate?
A lot places, especially in Garden City. There are a lot of beautiful palaces there. Why should they be left like that? There was a beautiful modern building near the Israeli embassy that they recently demolished too and it’s so sad.
What’s one typical Egyptian interior mistake that you can’t stand?
Moulding. I don’t understand why we do that...
Finish this sentence: An Egyptian “salon” is…
A place where we should live. It’s a living space. It has to be functional. Every room in the house has to be functional. Either find a use for it, or shut it down. I’d love to live in one room that has everything. One room that you can live, sleep and eat in.
For more information on Shahira Fahmy, her work and her firm, visit: http://www.sfahmy.com/en/