By Omar Kishk
Photography by Hisham Labib and Ahmed Raouf

At Abusir, architect Tarek Labib has designed and built a unique space in which to live and work. We take a tour around this masterpiece of architecture, while also exploring the mind of this master architect.

The Pyramids Field, which stretches from North Giza to below Saqqara, represents the rim of the Great Sahara Desert. At this border lies a very narrow, but fertile green strip, 10 km wide. Like their predecessors, contemporary Egyptians have always lived in this fertile valley in a number of small farming villages on the edge of the ancient desert plateau. Since the 1940s, however, the urban bourgeoisie have fled the Cairene hustle and bustle towards the Saqqara area in search of serenity. These newcomers wanted to build their new getaway houses and mansions on this magical thin line, where the harsh and dry yellow of the desert meets the lush and prosperous green of the farmlands. In the design of their houses, they strove for a more laid back and relaxed design ‘pattern language’, one that escaped the Cairene neoclassical and art deco architectural styles of the time. Meanwhile, master architects like Ramsis Wissa Wassef (Harraniyya compound, 1952) and Hassan Fathy (Gourna, 1949), followed by their disciples, were experimenting with a new architectural style, with a pattern language that extracted its vocabulary from the simple vernacular architectural elements of Egyptian village dwellings throughout the country. A patron’s dream and an architect’s experiment coincided in the Saqqara area, and gave the new style a place to develop and prosper through the following years into the Egyptian neo-vernacular style. Abusir, part of the Sahara plateau, houses a group of escape homes overlooking the ruins of the Abusir pyramids. Among these lavish retreats, Tarek Labib‘s Abusir House 2 stands out.

Since completing his architectural studies (BSc in architecture from the school of Fine Arts in Cairo, 1979; PhD in Designing Climate Responsive buildings from UCLA, 1996), Tarek Labib has enjoyed a multifaceted career as an academic, architectural scientist, and finally as a practicing architect, in the United States, France and Egypt. His scientific studies into the thermal performance and behavior of buildings have always guided his design decisions. After a few years of living and practicing architecture in the heart of Cairo, in 2003, Labib moved his permanent base and work to his newly finished, dual-purpose, project at Abusir. 

In the daytime, translucent salt bricks create a yellow glow, While at night they act as a halo to the

Abusir House 2, as this architect/owner likes to refer to his project, is remarkable even when approaching it. Entering through the gates of this relaxed yet elegant gated community, one passes many houses, each within its own miniature gated compound, until meeting with a surprise at the end of the street.

Unlike the others on the tiny road, Tarek Labib’s house stands fenceless, extrovert and open. Openness is the major feature that one finds intriguing about this house, as well as its resident. The house is open to the surrounding green and yellow landscape with a front yard as well as a backyard/garden. The front yard benefits from the house’s location at the end of the tiny residential compound, while the backyard garden enjoys a view of the Abusir pyramids. Both yards serve as a framing buffer for the sculptural yet very functional architecture. Another very clear aspect of openness, directly observable by the visitor, is the flexible mix of forms. Rigid concrete geometrical blocks jut out of smooth, softly curved forms. Moreover, the architect employs a widely diverse palette of materials that usually aren’t combined in one project. The architect has picked a vernacular plaster finish in white and ochre next to industrial looking, unfinished concrete masonry units. Steel elements adjoin Meranti wood openings, while unfinished and whitewashed red bricks intersect with translucent salt bricks from Siwa. This first perception of the open building is even stressed when passing its entrance. A portico of parabolic section cross vaults revive the typical Coptic arch and form the house’s Arabic majaz, leading to the entrance door. From the top of the first arch drops a monochromatic khayamiyya piece of fabric, with a poetry verse of Abu Feras al-Hamadani, ومن مذهبى حب الديار لأهلها (My belief is that homes love those who dwell in them). The door opens onto an elevated lobby introducing one of the house’s major spatial elements. A six-metre wide and high parabolic vault extends in length for nine metres and extrudes for another two metres, with a flat concrete slab and industrial brick walls, towards the pyramids view. This vault breaks the conventional 3.6–4m constraining span vault, repeated throughout Egyptian neo-vernacular architecture since the 1940s and which has always limited the openness of plans. This first overwhelming volume represents the house’s vibrant heart and ‘entertainment hall’, as Labib would call it. In the daytime, translucent salt bricks create a yellow glow, while at night they act as a halo to the apertures. The hall space is open plan where the chimney links the living room to the dining room and open kitchen, and to their backyard extension. A ‘gallery corridor’ leads to the service kitchen, the guest powder room/bathroom, the main court staircase, and a service back entrance at the axis. The northern area houses the help quarters, while the electro-mechanical closets are punched in below the ground and mezzanine floor levels to better ventilate the courtyard. The hall space and its extension are flanked by a horizontal Ancient Egyptian-style garden, stepping up towards the hill occupied by the Abusir pyramids, and from the other side by the house’s inner courtyard. The court is the centre around which the different functions of the house revolve.

Stepping upwards out of the hall to the courtyard, one is received by the melodic concrete and metal one flight staircase that reaches a fragmented floor plan and an extended balcony. There, a 100 sq. m office space currently holds Tarek Labib Architects’ studio. The practical, flat roofed space accommodates 6 professionals, storage space, a kitchenette, and a bathroom. The practicality is broken by the presence of a shaded terrace, unobstructed by handrails, overlooking the view and protected by a mosquito net. This outdoor wooden deck,  framed by a very colourful collection of cactuses, gives the studio a very informal, ground seated, zen meeting room, or a secluded contemplation spot for the architect. A storage facility and laundry closet with an open balcony for natural drying separates the studio from an annexed, small guest bedroom and toilet. This professional level is also directly accessible from the outdoors by a secondary side entrance through the courtyard. Following the stairs, one reaches the house’s sleeping quarters.

The second flight of stairs leads to a 155 sq. m area, which includes a central living/TV room and kitchenette, accessible from both bedrooms. Two towers house the master and guest bedrooms; each includes dressing areas, shower rooms and bathrooms, and shares prime views, whether through their windows or from their tiny Romeo and Juliette-style protruding terraces. After utilizing the flat ceiling for the office space, the more relaxed bare parabolic red brick vaults reappear in this second comfort zone of the house, after the entertainment hall.

To ensure comfort throughout the house, the architect has applied his profound theoretical and practical knowledge in designing climate responsive buildings. Architecturally, Labib smartly perforated his court to receive the prevailing northern wind, allowing its fresh breeze to cool the walls of his structure while maintaining the orientation of the house’s main hall to the view of the Abusir pyramids. Additionally, the fine-looking sculptural forms of architecture are all in structural double skins. The resulting intermediate vertical voids and attics have been used to house polyurethane insulation layers and hidden passive and active ventilation ducting and equipment for the supply of cool air and the flushing of heat. Statistically, the introduced climatic solutions boosted the thermal performance of the building allowing for 73% of passive cooling during the summer, while in winter, the double skin building, with its large thermal mass, traps much needed heat during cold nights. During the short autumn and spring seasons, passive cooling is in effect 50% of the time. Furthermore, the white and ochre walls are used as heat reflectors, and the windows, opening to the outdoors, act as wind collectors. As one cannot observe the thermal solutions from the exterior, one cannot feel any peculiar interruption in the eclectic laid back interiors throughout the house.

In his own words, Labib says he put no effort into the interior design of the house. Nevertheless, by merely reflecting the architectural envelope and accommodating his personal collection of art, artefacts and furniture, a unique flair for interior design is obvious. The interior spaces are open to each other and respond to the contemporary quotidian way of living. The variety of finishes on the outdoors extends harmoniously to the interiors. Once again, the interior finishes throughout the house, along with the owner’s collection, echo the openness that was expressed earlier in the approach to the house. The collection includes pieces of furniture from Europe, Turkey and Syria. Sufi khayamiyya flags hang beside a good quality reproduction of a Renaissance figurative painting. Antique kilims lie on grey epoxy background flooring.

During the design and construction of Abusir House 2, Tarek Labib navigated freely through a diverse vocabulary, accumulated during his learning and practical journey. He used spatial and architectural patterns that were adopted through the vernacular and neo-vernacular styles in Egypt, tweaked to reflect the contemporary quotidian and to accommodate his acquired knowledge, enhancing his design decisions. He introduced new patterns that complemented his vision of the house. He found no harm in moving  freely between different architectural styles and material expressions. The architecture echoes the contrast of the site, where green meets yellow. Finally Labib considers this architectural product as one of a series of projects, where he tries to introduce the post-vernacular architectural style in Egypt. Leaving the house, guests are greeted with another indicative poetry verse echoing the owner/architect’s interpretations of his pattern language وللناس فيما يعشقون مذاه (and people love, each in their own way).

This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 5, 2013

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