Architect, urbanist and creative researcher, Shahira Fahmy is a three-time recipient of Harvard’s post-doctoral fellowship for her groundbreaking and award-winning architectural work. Her projects span the Middle East, London and Europe, and she has been hailed by famed publishing house Phaidon as one of the “Architects building the Arab Future”.
Her work has been widely published and reviewed in international media, and two of her projects are featured in Cairo Since 1900- An Architectural Guide, an archive of the capital’s modern architectural landscape. Fahmy is a recipient of “Tamayouz Excellence Award, for the Near East and North Africa” 2019; The Mimar Sinan Prize 2014; and winner of the Green Good Design Award 2010.
Born and raised in Cairo, she recently moved to London and has been splitting her time between the two cities. We caught up with her in a quieter moment to learn more.
What are your earliest memories of wanting to create and design?
Lego. I used to play with Lego a lot when I was around 6 years old, or even younger, I can’t recall the age. Lego was a fantasy land I was creating with a life of its own, with a narrative and story around it.
Who lives in the house? Does it have a garden? Who are the inhabitants? What do they do for a living? My earliest memories are storytelling, and architecture for me is about storytelling, where your tools to tell a narrative are more spatial, experiential and physical.
Who was the strongest influence in your life when it came to choosing a career path?
My mother, who was also an architect. I saw her work and saw her creating, whether it was interiors, or architecture or furniture design. My paternal grandfather encouraged me to draw and he gave me confidence in my drawing capabilities. Both pushed me though to choose this path, by introducing me to the world of art and architecture.
What principles do you seek to incorporate in every design or building you undertake?
Oneness. I like to see things as whole, and how then something can unfold from this whole, how things grow, develop, unfold, divide, mutate from this. Then I let this process carry me and the project through its journey, not having a destination in mind.
I’d rather be surprised, and if I am not, I don’t trust it, and I would rather restart again. The finishing line for any project is time and always halted by the deadline.
Which of all your projects holds a very special place in your heart, and why?
Ahmed Bahaa El Din Culture center, as it was my first public project in architecture, but also for the cause behind it, a non-profit association for literary cultivation in Upper Egypt. I loved the site, in a remote village called El-Dowier, one of the farthest villages located in the south of the Assiut governorate. So isolated that when you land in Assiut airport and you say you’re going to El-Doweir, the locals would tell you they had never heard of it.
Upper Egypt is known to have the largest Coptic community, it is one place in Egypt where Muslim and Coptic inhabitants can be in equal numbers, which is not always the case in other places. This center is for youth, children as well as adults. Rarely do you find such a project that encompasses all, and welcomes all, even the bare-footed.
I have been there a few times since the opening in 2013, and once I met a toddler climbing the stairs on his bare feet to reach the roof, where there is an open-air theater. On that day there was a group of six to eight teenage girls doing a folkloric dance. I was happy to see the girls dancing and being watched by their families, friends and neighbors.
How do you juggle personal and family life with work?
I don’t. It’s very hard to admit. I know what I am doing while doing both, but I am not sure if I can juggle. You do the best you can do at the time you are doing it. You fail, and maybe you fail every day, but what you can do about it? You wake up the next day, and you try again.
Place you would love to have a home in? Siwa, Egypt.
How do you start your day? With a run. It’s my ‘go-to’ thing, to do before I think about it twice, or else I won’t do it.
Best advice you have ever received? Not given, but read! “Let life happen to you. Believe me, life is in the right, always.” – Rainer Maria Rilke
Best food experience ever? Zooba. Every time I am back to Cairo, visiting, it’s my go-to place for lunch.
Architects who inspire you? Zaha Hadid, Louis Khan, Kazuyo Sejima, Adolf Loos.
Best way to relax? In London, I listen to music, read, or light the fireplace. And in Cairo, I sit on my balcony overlooking the Nile, reading or listening to music. Sometimes, all I need is a walk to relax.