An Egyptian Architect

By Ikram Nosshi

Ramses Wissa Wassef- Born in Cairo on November 1911 spent his childhood in a family environment where art was highly prized. His father, a lawyer and a leading member of the Egyptian nationalist movement, an enlighten patron, kept an open house for all talented artists.

He used his influence in parliament to develop the arts in Egypt.

Already "The Artist" at the age of six, Ramses would cut out the shapes of animals which showed remarkable vitality and movement. Later he exercised his talent on slabs of limestone on which he carved low- relief.

Receiving his high school diploma, Ramses decided to become a sculpture, but changed his mind at his father's advice and began to study architecture in France at L' Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Paris.

This was a decision for which he had reason to be pleased, as he grew more and more aware of the fact that this art, architecture "in code" was also a universal art.

At the beginning of his career in 1935 he was struck by the beauty of the medieval towns such as the old quarters of Cairo. His vision was filled with the harmony and picturesque beauty of villages with the simplicity of certain old houses, its narrow lanes which were shaded most of the day. Ramses saw sharp contrast to the coldness of most modern Cairo buildings.He often said,Why was it possible for craftsmen in the past to succeed where present-day architects failed?

The ancient craftsmen had managed to derive from their traditional heritage an infinite variety of expression and created effects distinguished by local character.

He would not resort to massive undertakings, such as the housing blocks and complexes, profitable by virtue of their uniformity. This he found, was not genuine to his nature or his interests.

Ramses main concern was the way in which conditions of the individual in a mechanical civilization gradually could be humanized.

Helped by his classical architecture studies of "History of Architecture and Art" Ramses gradually came to conceive elements of an architectural "style" bearing the stamp of his own strong personality and responding to the challenge of the times without breaking away from the past.

Impressed as he was by the beauty of the Nubian houses in the villages around Aswan, which still preserved the domes and vaults, inherited form the earliest Pharaonic dynasties, he resolved to maintain their presence in his own architectural work for reasons of aesthetics, climate and economics.

He incorporated the skills of a number of traditional craftsmen such as stonecutters, traditional carpenters, glass blowers and potters who had inherited a wealth of techniques and traditions of the Egyptian vernacular.

The combinations of these varied elements were to find shape in a number of universally admired architectural achievements such as;

  • The junior Lycee school at Bab-el-Louk- Cairo,1948
  • The Mahmoud Mokhtar sculpture museum- Cairo.1961
  • Saint- Mary Coptic church in Zamalek- Cairo.1959
  • Several other churches in Cairo, Alexandria and Damanhour
  • His own house in Agouza- Cairo 1946
  • Adam Henein house- Harrania Giza.
    Adam was his student at the college of fine art.
    He is a prominent Sculpture and painter. 1968
  • Several private houses along the Sakkara road. 165/70
  • The Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Center compound - Harrania Giza, 1952/72 which include the tapestry workshops and gallery, the Habib Georgi sculpture museum. The art Center presented Ramses with the opportunity to design and implement his architectural ideas in total freedom.

It was also an opportunity for Ramses to teach local builders the art of building domes and vaults which has been traditionally being executed by builders from Aswan, in Upper Egypt. It is thanks to these local builders, that present day new generation of dome & vault builders continues this wonderful building tradition.

When the Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Center, won the prestigious Aga Khan award for architecture in 1983, the awarding committee eloquently summed up the project as follows;

"For the beauty of its execution, the high value of its objectives, as well as the power of its influence as an example.

For its role as a Center of art and of life, as represented by its location, its endurance, its continuity, and its promise.

The project is perfectly adapted to its environment, enhancing the role of earth as a building material and demonstrating innovation in the organization of volumes and its subtle use of light.

The Ramses Wissa Wassef art Center, a social as well as a sculpture and spiritual dimension, as it has proved.

A place supportive as well as poetic or supportive because it is poetic, Where the young tapestry weavers of the community have been free to develop an artistic hand craft, producing tapestries of great excellence and renown."

At the department architecture, college of find arts in Cairo, Ramses was teaching history of architecture and arts, eventually became the head of the department. It was his teaching that made him think about the conditions required for training an artist and he decided the creative effort was the most important.

Children, he observed, were generously endowed with this creative faculty and that is why he started working with young village children in his art Center.

After teaching the rudiments of weaving, he deliberately set out to isolate them from any sophisticated external influence. Encouraged by early results, he extended the experiment to other materials: knotted carpets, fine cotton weaving on horizontal looms, batik, stoneware ceramics, stained glass windows, using the oriental technique of colored glass and plaster. Building with traditional materials (adobe bricks and rammed- earth walls. The results as in the case of tapestry weaving exceeded the most optimistic forecasts.

The career of Ramses Wissa Wassef was entirely devoted to art, which he regarded as the best means of communication between human beings. His pioneering teaching method was an act of love and faith in the potential of the child. He proved that nothing was impossible if one's intelligence Stemmed from the hart and if one's artistic sensibility were genuine enough.

Awards

Egyptian National Award For Arts- 1960 for his stained-glass window designs of The St Mary Church, Marashly street- Zamalek, Cairo.

The Aga-Khan architectural award- 1983 for his achievements and particularly for the art Center at Harrania.