Heritage, Egypt, Architecture

Identity, Tradition, and Architecture

A critical treatise from the archive of Abdel-Wahid El-Wakil

Photos showing the Halawa House project by in Abdel-Wahid El-Wakil, 1975. Agamy, Egypt
All images courtesy of Abdel-Wahid El-Wakil

While the text was written in the early 1980’s, master architect Abdel-Wahid El-Wakil’s writing not only retains its relevance but continues to offer profound and insightful perspectives. El-Wakil underscores the role of tradition in preserving the identity of a civilization, focusing on the legacy of Islamic architecture and the benefits of its enduring qualities. This highly philosophical yet practical text illustrates the ways in which the imperative for change can also be expertly guided by tradition. 

Loss of Tradition: Loss of Identity

Change is intrinsic to all living organisms; it is intrinsic also to human institutions and to the arts that accompany them, without which they cannot live. Again, the arts cannot live without the protection of the institutions that they both reflect and support, and this is a fundamental symbiosis.

The sum of human institutions at any given moment in history is civilization—or, let us say, a particular civilization—founded upon a revealed doctrine that informs every aspect of it; of no civilization is this more true than it is of Islam. Walk through any traditional Islamic city in any part of the world from, say, Indonesia to the Maghreb; whatever the difference of natural environment or climate, what is immediately apparent is its Islamic identity. And this immediately recognizable and tangible identity depends not upon uniformity of design or materials but upon the fundamental unity of the civilization and its traditional institutions and principles.

Moreover, this unity does not depend upon the imposition of some kind of artistic totalitarianism; nor has it come about through the absence of such changes as the introduction of new techniques or the use of new materials. The long history of Islamic civilization, its very diffusion over vast areas of the earth's surface, and its acceptance by many different peoples would necessarily preclude such a static situation. There has been constant and inevitable change and development of forms, but there has always been continuity, and the warrant of continuity has been adherence to tradition and its disciplines.

Professor El-Wakil shares unique insights on natural materials, the function of buildings, and the importance of the past.

Change is intrinsic to all living organisms and institutions, but the anchor of change is continuity safeguarded by tradition. Without this safeguard, change becomes not part of a cyclic progression, but a kind of centrifugal violence that disrupts and fragments the arts, and none more than architecture. But change, sanctioned and protected by tradition, is no more than movement necessary to preserve vitality: without movement there is death, but where there is vitality, there is variety, invention, creativity—howbeit not necessarily all at the same level: for even within the span of tradition there is always a possibility of good and bad periods, of rises and falls; but life remains, not necessarily uniformly vital, for these rises and falls are also as intrinsic to organisms and institutions as change itself; they are, in fact, the song of life.

What has to be realized is this: change is not synonymous with what is today called “progress”

What has to be realized is this: change is not synonymous with what is today called “progress.” Change, sanctioned by tradition, has never destroyed the unity of Islamic civilization but the notion of “progress” has not only begun to destroy the unity, and integrity, of Islamic architecture, but also to imply what is the parody of unity, namely, uniformity. This comes about through the fact that “progress” believes that everything is bound to get better and better as time moves forward—implying a progress as uniform as time's passing—and resulting, in fact, in the almost uniform adoption by everyone of the “International Style,” which, by advocating the functional and utilitarian has established itself with global monotony and with varying degrees of ethnic cosmetics, Islamic or otherwise.

Thus both tradition and identity are lost. If it is the role of tradition to safeguard an identifiable art, or architecture, it is the role of art, and above all of architecture, to safeguard the environment in which the tradition can survive. Once this symbiosis is negated by novelty, or by simple egoism on the part of the artist and architects, then a vicious circle ensues: what was mutually supportive gives way to what is mutually destructive.

The role of the architect is, in fact, critical in establishing the permissible rate of change within the spatial environment

These remarks apply wherever material affluence makes the lure of the new irresistible and where a secular viewpoint has prevailed, in practice, over a spiritual one. All spiritual perspectives, and the creative traditions they foster, have about them an element of the timeless and universal; the secular viewpoint stresses the fleeting and the egoistic. The pursuit of the new, unguided by traditional principles, makes for egoism and the loss of identity, because the tradition is always greater than the practitioner and his true identity is, in fact, the tradition.

To abandon tradition, to disregard the achievements and models of the past, and to be caught up in the trauma of change, means to be incapable of handling the new. It is therefore no accident that the “search for identity” will probably become the dominant theme in architectural thinking throughout the 1980s.

And, if so, it will not be a bad thing; change must always be for life to remain, but it must not abandon the continuity that only adherence to traditional precedent and principles can give it. The role of the architect is, in fact, critical in establishing the permissible rate of change within the spatial environment.


Recovery of Tradition: Restoration of Identity

In considering what needs to be done to repair matters, it is important to see where architecture now stands. Let us look at the key concept of “originality,” for that is what most modern architects appear to have been aiming for. The word, as it is now used, means simply to be new, novel, different—to display one's creative individuality. But this is not what the word should mean: the word “original” implies a return to the origins of things, to the archetypes that relate to the cosmic order and, hence, to the path of tradition that leads back to the universal.

Similarly, the word “creative" should relate to the Creator, the Architect of the Universe; far from inspiring individualism or egoism—the notion of “creativity” should inspire awe and humility.

Yet, nowadays, attempts at “original” or “creative” design are a denial of the true definition of these words: they are often no more than an agglomeration of architectonic acrobatics destroying the very purpose of architecture which should, by the use of meaningful forms, establish a subtle language pattern and communication system of visual images. These, in their turn, should never abandon certain archetypal reflections nor cut off all access to the past, the familiar, and the provenly human.

Modernism is, essentially, a provincialism, since it declines to look beyond the horizon of the moment. In architecture, the modernist ideal created the “International Style,” the architecture of ideals adapted—in time—to the fleeting present, a style without an anchor. Organic architecture, on the other hand, adapted—in space—to a particular environment, has been unable, by simplifying functional forms, to produce a universal solution either.

The accelerated pace of technology and the need for quick results made the ascendancy of the “International Style” inevitable, but only as long as its motivating ideals continued to prevail. But Modernism has already been deposed in the minds of the modern generation, who no longer see it as expressing their own “modern” ideals; it has been succeeded by Post-Modernism.

All fundamental architecture, and especially that of sacred buildings, develops around forms related to the cosmological order. Thus, the first step towards the restorations of identity can only be taken by means of a correct evaluation and re-integration of historical forms. This must be undertaken not in such a way as to produce a dead record of past events but, on the contrary, in order to see them as a vital and perceptive reflection, through changing forms, of the unchanging patterns that regulate the universe.

The importance of continuity can hardly be overstated.

It is well known that imprisonment and confinement may well destroy an individual’s identity simply by depriving him of contact with his fellow men. It is through relation to others and to the ancestral past that identity is strengthened and maintained; such is  the saving role of continuity. Identity requires context. It cannot stand alone. The “International Style” stood alone and isolated from the past. Whereas architectural styles from periods covering many centuries had, in our ancient towns, flowed into an integrated whole, modern architecture interrupted this continuity and through its very isolation contributed to, and largely brought about, the present identity crisis.

The increased concern now being shown for the restoration of historical sites and the preservation of architectural heritage, whether through antiquities departments or cultural organizations, basically reflects a longing to recover our lost identity. The seeming lack of concern, on the contrary, in societies where the old social matrix is still alive, even after tradition's protective shell has been destroyed, is explicable in terms of a social, or spiritual, identity that has survived. But, there too, the shattered environment will eventually produce the same results, and then the conservation movement will doubtless emerge.

A new sense of commitment is called for. In advocating what is new and fashionable, Modernism has made it almost impossible for us to relate to, or commit ourselves to, our own particular, traditional architecture. An architectural Don-Juanism has been generated. Modern architecture has proved a flirtatious mistress, a stranger to true emotions or love, and one incapable of accepting even the passionate attentions of the Romantic, which it sees as mere sentimentality. Modern architecture cannot afford abiding commitment; its stillborn offspring litter our lifeless modern towns. Modern architecture lacks love.

It is by committing ourselves lovingly to our buildings, through our care for them and our tending them, and through treasuring the patina of time, that we can relate to them. They will then become beautiful and enduring objects that will not be cast aside or demolished at the first sign of age.

Modern architecture lacks love

From the laying of the foundation stone to the fixing of the key-stone, the act of building is symbolic and meaningful, and only through this realization can architecture recover its true content.

Designing within a tradition is not a pretense for repeating the old in order to avoid the pains of new birth. It is no mere act of imitation, for mimicry destroys all the significance of form. Traditional design is a complex process of adaptation and assimilation in a perpetual act of gestation. Only through the re-establishment of our spiritual identity can the dynamic and continuous process of consolidation and reorganization be truly assured. 

Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil
Egyptian architect considered by many as the foremost contemporary authority in Islamic architecture. For designing in traditional styles, he is also a representative of New Classical Architecture.