The London Design Biennale 2018 Medal for the most outstanding overall contribution has been awarded to architectural historian and NJIT alumnus Mohamed Elshahed ’05, who curated “Modernist Indignation,” an Egyptian installation that pays homage to Al Emara, the first Arabic-language design magazine focused on contemporary architecture in Egypt, from 1939 to 1959, and its founder, architect Sayed Karim.
While a historic win for Elshahed and Egypt — this is the country’s first time participating in London’s splashy design fête, which ran Sept. 4 – 23 — the watershed moment brings with it a disconcerting reality: Although it’s often referred to as the cradle of civilization, Egypt doesn’t have a single magazine, design museum or archive, an architecture museum or a national body concerned with design.
“There’s this acceptance that everything that happens here is second rate to what happens, let’s say, in New York City, London and Paris,” says Elshahed via video chat from Cairo.“People here have become unappreciative of their local history because they’re so busy trying to please and impress the folks that come from big cities in the Global North. The colonial dynamic has never really ended.”
Elshahed’s one-room elegy reintroduces the world to Egypt’s architectural relevance while interrogating the country’s erasure from the architecture cannon. Designed by Suzanne Gaballa of Lund Gaballa, “Modernist Indignation” marshals viewers through layers of suspended fabric, polished metal, neon lights and mirrored perimeter panels that serve as a gateway to Egypt’s modernist past and highlight the intersection between architecture and political history. Excerpts from Karim’s 1939 manifesto “What is Architecture?” are read in a short film, commissioned for the exhibition and shot in Karim’s home.
“Sayed Karim’s story shows the precarious position of being Egyptian and modernist in the years of nationalist politics,” says Elshahed, a former British Museum curator for the “Modern Egypt Project.” “He is excluded from the international narrative of modernism, and his career and legacy are denied a place in national history when he no longer served a political purpose for the Nasser regime. Al Emara and Sayed Karim illustrate the vulnerability of design culture.”
Elshahed, who was born (and currently resides) in Egypt, began his educational journey as an undergraduate student in the College of Architecture and Design (CoAD) at NJIT, which he first learned about from his guidance counselor while attending high school in Nutley.
“Phew! It was such a long time ago,” he says, when asked to recall his fondest memory as a CoAD student. He thinks for a second. “The long nights in the architecture studio!” he exclaims. “I remember that.”
But Elshahed isn’t hard-pressed to remember the CoAD professors who had an influential sway on his perception of art, architecture and design. “Everything I do is informed by what I learned in Gabrielle’s class,” he says of Associate Professor Gabrielle Esperdy. And then there’s former University Lecturer James Dart, whom he credits with helping him to uncover his true professional calling. “Most of my colleagues, I presume, went on to work as professional architects. I didn’t,” says Elshahed. “I wasn’t interested in slaving away on AutoCAD for somebody else’s design work. James taught me that I should find my own path.”
After graduating from NJIT in 2015 with a B.Arch, Elshahed went on to earn a master’s in architecture studies from MIT. It was around this time when he began to fine-tune his interest in architecture and question what he refers to as the “western-oriented curriculums” from which he was being taught.
“Places like Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East aren’t really part of the picture,” he says. “Something was missing.”
A burning intellectual curiosity led him to NYU, where Elshahed earned a Ph.D. in Middle East studies and immersed himself in all things Sayed Karim, making the all-but-forgotten pioneering documentarian the subject of his dissertation, which has been translated into Arabic and will be published later this year.
“It took me a few years to realize that it isn’t anybody’s job to teach me about my culture and my own history,” he says with a quiet assuredness. “There are a lot of blind spots in the way we perceive the history of architecture. I want to fill in the gaps.”
Elshahed’s resolve to create bold, reflective work that challenges the status quo has branded him an abolitionist of sorts in architecture circles. However, by his own admission, he’s “not really an activist type.” In fact, the label weighs on him.
“It’s difficult to be someone who is critical of mainstream architecture history while trying to fix it, and at the same time, criticizing local forces that are making it difficult for this history to come to surface,” he admits. “Professionally, winning the medal provided much-needed vindication that this work has relevance, that it resonates with people.”
Personally, the timing of the groundbreaking win was bittersweet. “I recently lost both of my parents,” he says. “And my mom,” he continues, “actually passed away the week we installed the exhibit in London. So when I won, I thought, ‘Maybe I did something right.’”
Next up on the docket for Elshahed is the forthcoming book “Cairo Since 1900: An Architectural Guide,” which will be published early next year by the American University in Cairo Press. The pocket-size tome, which provides a comprehensive look at Egypt’s modernist building styles, is the first of its kind — and the latest rallying cry of an independent researcher, who’s committed to redefining the narrative surrounding his home country’s architectural culture.
“Career-wise, I’ve chosen a really complicated path, but it’s the most exciting work,” he says with a smile. “And I’m happy to do it.”