Abdel Wahed El Wakil vs. Yale School of Architecture
This weekend I attended an excellent symposium at the Yale School of Architecture organized by my professor, the admirable Karla Britton. The symposium, “Middle Ground / Middle East: Religious Sites in Urban Contexts”, explored all sorts of fascinating sacred sites while probing tensions within religious building traditions in such a tumultuous region. The highlight of the weekend was the uproarious final conversation, which featured a voice drastically divergent from the rest: Abdel Wahed El Wakil, Egypt’s leading architect, widely considered the greatest maker of mosques of our time, and a champion of traditional building. What a sensitive, hilarious, humble, animated, and exceedingly wise man. El Wakil is a deeply religious Muslim, a builder of mosques; and his every remark on our place in the order of nature, his every ethical concern about the degradation of our culture, his every word about the sacred and our access to it, was precisely right.
As a proponent of traditional forms and craft within contemporary practice, El Wakil falls fairly far outside the currents propelling the Yale School of Architecture’s program, and entertainingly insulted many of its guests this weekend. During his theological digressions, groans became audible. When he slammed abstraction, many (students, mostly) stormed out of the hall. His comments were somewhat extreme, but oh, how refreshing! I was invigorated.
I’ve typed up some of my notes here for your consideration and entertainment. They’re somewhat fragmented (partly the fault of his heavily accented broken English), but capture many of his key comments. Architecture critic Paul Goldberger served as his conversation partner/interviewer. Enjoy!
Abdel Wahed El Wakil and Paul Goldberger (’72): A Conversation
Goldberger: Let’s start things off with a straightforward but probably very difficult question. Why build this way? That is, your buildings are traditional in style and design, but also traditional in the way that they’re made.
El Wakil: I think immediately of Plato. He banished artists from the city because they brought unwanted innovation. Today, to be “creative” does not mean to follow the order of creation; it means to be innovative, to go psychedelic. To twist buildings like a rhinoceros.
Art can only be produced with limits and boundaries.
We are suffering now from a disease. A disease! It is the disease of ego. You have to realize we’re in a sick society. You don’t have this collective view you had in traditional cities. (Takes a stab at Le Corbusier.)
On how the transcendent becomes accessible: Form is a reflection of what is unseen. It is the shell of a kernel. Form has a repercussion on our society and our minds. Bad forms are damaging! Bad forms in music, in art; these forms are damaging! Look at contemporary music. Rock music, there’s always violence in it. You go to a classical concert, and you don’t find this kind of violence in the music. I love classical music – Vivaldi, I love it all. I think German composers, Johann Sebastian Bach, have produced some of the most beautiful music ever created.
You see, before, the artist was not working to tantalize. He did not work to please. He wanted to instruct, to reach your intelligence.
Look at the golden proportion. You have the sacred rectangle and this triangle, and it’s the beginning of polarization, of unity in multiplicity. It’s not just pleasing to the eye but meaningful and embedded in a much deeper way. We are in the image of God, we are viceroys in nature. We have a sacred character inside of us.
(Rant about the richness of variation – and the years of study required to gain access to it – within traditional forms and methods of building.)
People do not know the subtlety of shades in a tradition.
The crafts are important because all that knowledge of theology and physics and spiritual flowering is carried, and handed down, and preserved, within the craft tradition.
Pharaonic art is so better than stupid Greek sculpture obsessed with realism. (Keep in mind that he’s Egyptian.)
Egyptian Pharaonic sculptors weren’t concerned with illusion, they were concerned with transmitting truth.
Goldberger: It sounds like you just dismissed the entire Renaissance.
El Wakil: I’m erasing the entire period after the medieval. (Without a shred of humor.)
(Laughter erupts in the auditorium)
(When prodded, he clarifies: he does admire geniuses of every age; da Vinci, Goethe, Ortega y Gasset. He also mentions Mies. “He was a great craftsman! But it was later vulgarized by his followers.”)
Good will always dominate evil, even if there are times when evil gains a strong presence.
Goldberger: Let’s focus on the question of transcendence. What’s so important about sacred geometry – rather than Le Corbusier’s notion ineffable space, which has so characterized much sacred building in the past century? Why not mystery rather than the clarity of geometry?
El Wakil: Yes. How necessary is MYSTERY! There was such mystery in the medieval city. Behind every gate there was a door, a courtyard.
I’ve lived in Manhattan. I love it because it’s a medieval city! You can walk! You can walk to the store! It’s the best example of a medieval city alive today.
In the medieval city you have mystery. Go to courtyards, alleys, gardens. In the modern city today you go to one particular building, like “Oh look at this Norman Foster building!” What ego! (Laughter in the auditorium, followed by el-Wakil’s prodded clarification that he does admire Foster’s work.)
I’m complaining about people making idols today, because they have lost their contact with God. It’s the decadence of each generation when it loses touch with the transcendent.
…we have to introduce into the forms which have these vibrations… (I sort of got lost in his remarks here, it was too wonderful to try to pen)
How do you create form that is conventional to everybody? (Launches into long explanation, rant, and hilarious physical demonstration of Ministry of Silly Walks.)
We are governed by the architecture of silly walks!!! This is how I see architects today. Like, “Let’s make a golf-club into a building!!!”
Goldberger: Do you believe our reactions to form and space are universal?
El Wakil: Yes. Yes. Form is there to give us a message of the transcendent. You feel it sometimes in nature, when you have an experience. Traditional art is an experience. There is stupid copying now without knowing why a thing is done.
(El Wakil launches into an example about the shape of an arrow, and how the symbol works visually to point our eyes along its lines converging in a single direction.)
Goldberger: Is the arrow’s pointing function then perhaps just a visual phenomenon, rather than sacred geometry?
El Wakil: Everything that works in us is attuned to the created world! The cube is the extension of the cross. What do you have in the center? The sacred heart.
(Somehow transitions into rant against the replacement of traditional architectural forms by rootless abstraction.) What is this abstract? What is it? These are oversimplifiers which destroyed architecture!
(At this point the auditorium erupted into shouts and murmurs, as heads darted sideways and all around to exchange expressions of horror)
What you want is a group of architects who work collaboratively, not an architect who just wants to do whatever he wants!
Robert A.M. Stern, Dean of the Yale School of Architecture, rising to usher El Wakil offstage: Thank you for setting my school back on track!
(After this critique of much of the YSOA’s program, cue unnaturally loud, overly conciliatory, painfully forced laughter between Dean Stern and El Wakil as they shake hands and stage the photo-op.)
- reply: Margaret Anne says:
Thank you, Caroline! I especially love that he calls New York the best example of a medieval city today. Did he say more about how sacred geometry preserves mystery within its clarity?
the link: http://cumrecordaremursion.wordpress.com/2011/01/23/abdel-wahed-el-wakil-vs-yale-school-of-architecture/