On a street parallel to the Nile in Cairo's Agouza district lies an enchanting architecture gem, the former residence of renowned Egyptian architect Ramsis Wissa Wassef (1911-1974), built in the forties by the architect himself.
The four-story building, currently the house of Doum Cultural Foundation, Cairo’s latest cultural hub, bears witness to Wassef’s lifetime goal to revive and renovate authentic folk architecture. It is a mixture of Nubian style and Mamluk flair, enhanced by simple curved lines that contour the hallways leading to a dome overlooking an indoor granite fountain.
As you walk in, the light tiptoes inside through stained glass and arabesque that scatters the beams gently on an old brown piano in the centre. At both ends of the house internal domes crown and arches the ceiling and hallways to ensure good ventilation. Positive energy and serenity greet you, bliss in the heart of the city.
Despite his art education in Paris, Wassef was always drawn to ancient Egyptian building styles, and remained loyal to them at a time when Egyptian architecture was dominated by modern European styles, according to Sabri Mansor's book Derasat Tashkilia (fine arts studies).
Bewitched by Nubian houses, Wassef thought they were the perfect example of ancient Egyptian architecture with Coptic and Islamic layers. Hence he had the idea of following the same line of thought and building authentic folk houses using primitive building materials that were in tune with the environment.
His first building was a school in Coptic Cairo in 1941. Then he built the Mari Gergis Church in Heliopolis and the Virgin Mary Church in Zamalek for which he was awarded the National Encouragement Award for Architecture. He also built museums such as the Mahmoud Mokhtar Museum, the Habib Goregy Museum and Al-Haraniya Art Centre for which he was awarded the Aga Khan International Award for Islamic Architecture in 1983.
To Wassef, according to Mansor, a building is like a sculpture, it has to be part of the surrounding environment. It's a living thing able to interact with its surroundings. And like his ancestors, he believed that an architect should also be a builder, and so he would make a clay model first then make blue prints. Wassef’s style deviated from straight lines. He seldom used the model dimensions of windows and holes.
Wassef was a visionary with a strong sense of social responsibility
"Wassef wasn't only a great architect, he was a true intellect with a real project to enhance the talents of Egyptian children. Through his tapestry project, he nourished the talents of residents in the small Giza village of Al-Haraniya," explained Khaled El-Khamisy, founder of Doum Cultural Foundation.
“Hence we picked this house because it contained years of positive cultural energy," El-Khamisy added, explaining that they are adopting the same line of thought. Doum opens its doors to poetry evenings, concerts, forums and numerous artistic venues this month.
Last year a documentary on Wassef was made by director Omnia Khalil to celebrate what would have been his 101st birthday. The film, Ramsis Wissa Wassef, Ayoub Al-Haraniya, was more focused on the impact of Wassef’s social work.
The film focused on the big impact on the tapestry of indigenous artists that Wassef nurtured at the art centre in Al-Haranya. The vivid primitive/folk motifs are reflections of nature’s beauty. The shades of green, the enchanting daily rituals and handmade masterpieces are more like paintings than tapestries.
"Wassef and his wife would plant the plants they use to dye the wool, according to the colour pallets the artists needed," Omnia Khalil explained.
Opening the door to creativity was not his only virtue. Wassef's tapestry centre changed the lives of Haranya villagers forever. They developed their creative talents as a means of making a living and reviving authentic handicrafts. Young girls would flock to his art school to rejoice in their talents and support themselves. “At a time when a woman working outside their homes was frowned upon, he subtly made tapestry an artistic and economic exercise, hence empowering women in the process,” Khalil added.
In the documentary, Karima Ali, one of the indigenous artists Wassef trained, remembers how she first started to create handmade tapestry when she was ten. Her work leans towards the legendary folk heroes. When her husband deserted her, she created a masterpiece tapestry that took her one year to make. It depicts a war between knights and the saga ends with sunshine and triumph. "I raised my children from this work," she commented.
Wassef would take his young artists on family trips for inspiration, Khalil explained. And when he built new houses for some of Al-Haranya's peasants, he would let each family make their own miniature clay design.
"As a child, I remember how we used to stand on the outskirts of our village waiting for him, and how on the sight of his car, we would cheer until he reached the village and came out to greet us,” Ali concluded.