Mahmoud Riad was discouraged. It was the summer of 2004 and he was three years into a five year architecture degree in Cairo, Egypt. Feeling frustrated by a lack-luster program and without a summer internship, he flew to Washington, D.C., to visit his mother, who was completing her Ph.D. at Georgetown University. There, it was a chance dinner with one of his mother’s colleagues that connected him to Roger Lewis, FAIA, a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland. Roger’s enthusiasm for Mahmoud’s work was inspiring. “It breathed new hope for me and my career in architecture,” he recalls. Two years later, an acceptance letter to UMD’s Master’s program landed in his mailbox.
Riad is now a third generation architect for his family’s small but fast-growing global firm, RiadArchitecture, in Cairo. Riad was recently honored with the Cairo Design Award for his graduate thesis project—and continuing research—on the connection between music and architecture. Below, Riad talks about that project, plus a new project that will add to a building originally designed by his grandfather over 60 years ago:
Notable project from this past year: This would most definitely be the extension of the Arab League Headquarters, in Cairo. The Arab League is the gathering point of Arab states to discuss their affairs–kind of like our own United Nations. My grandfather, whom I was named after, designed the original building back in 1955, so it was both an honor and a dream come true to be able to follow his footsteps and keep this building within the RiadArchitecture family.
The project was a closed competition between nine of the largest architectural offices in Egypt and us. I was rather overwhelmed, as I was unsure if our small office, with its limited resources, could compete with these large multinational architectural organizations. But the Task Force saw that we wanted to keep the spirit of the original design intact, as if it was designed by the same architect, rather than attach a contemporary building to the original icon. We are currently in the tendering process and hope to break ground sometime in March.
You are the third generation of the Riad family to join Riad Architecture. Did always know this was your calling? How has the practice changed over the generations and what do you hope to bring to it that’s new? I know that this wasn’t always my calling, but I am not sure I remember what triggered that transition for me. I wanted to be a musician earlier in my teenage years, and applied to Berklee’s College of Music at some point. I also remember that day I left Egypt to start my graduate studies at Maryland; I made a vow to myself on the plane never to return. It was during early in my classes with professor Karl DuPuy’s—his “Urban Train”—that I realized that I belonged in Egypt, and that I was needed back there. With every assignment I had during graduate school, I often found myself referencing Cairo and Egypt as my case study. I felt that the best way to make a difference was to use the history of our office and our contacts from the first two generations of RiadArchitecture, to start conducting business (as opposed to starting fresh from scratch).
I feel that what I have brought to RiadArchitecture is an understanding of the digital architecture practices and thought processes. My experience at Zaha Hadid Architects (I worked for the Dame Zaha for about three years after graduating from Maryland) was also very rewarding in that it exposed me to some of the cutting-edge technologies in both architectural design and construction. But, most importantly, it actually taught me how to think spatially in three dimensions and use the tools to explore the architectural experience, not just form. This is what I hope to have the third generation of RiadArchitecture known for: creating spaces and places that are born from a non-architectonic narrative.
You were recently awarded the Cairo Design Award for your project, Al Masmaa-the Place for Listening, a project that initially won the Dean’s Thesis Award at Maryland and the AIA Maryland Graduate Award. Can you describe the philosophy/research that informs this project? I always had this feeling that both music and art were related somehow, and I wanted to find a venue to explore my hypothesis. Upon reading many different scholars’ thoughts about the relationship between architecture and music, I decided I wanted to tackle the subject matter. It was also nice to make use of the musical education I had developed during the years I wanted to become a musician. I discovered through literature that research had barely scratched the surface, and that most of the discussion used Western music as a foundation. I wanted to see what I could develop on a design level using Arabic music instead of Western, as the main core of the music theory is rather different.
With the guidance of my awesome thesis committee from both the Architecture and Music Programs, I hypothesized that there are intangible qualities in each region or culture that are, perhaps, evolved through language, location, climate, religion and other cultural intricacies that make their way through all arts, most probably unintendedly. It is these qualities, in my opinion, that create a feeling of belonging to a certain place; I wanted to see if, in using a different medium (music), I could perhaps identify or familiarize myself with them in a different way (or defamiliarize myself with them). I’d then be more aware of them and able to free myself from the traditional way of looking at the architecture. This was the basic philosophy that I approached in this project, and that I am hoping to continue with RiadArchitecture.
RiadArchitecture has historically concentrated on regional work, but recent design competition entries in other countries hint at global ambitions. When I started the third generation of RiadArchitecture in 2013, Egypt had gone through a series of political events and social uprisings that hurt the economy and the industry. Work had been rather stale for a few years, so I was hoping to reinvigorate the office and found it to be the best time for us to restructure and re-invent ourselves. I decided that the best way to push through the economic slump was to work on a number of international competitions to start a new chapter for Riad and a new design philosophy in the office. We continue to enter competitions all over the world today—and have landed a few. It allows us to test out new ideas, which we can then market to our existing and potential clients (even if we didn’t win the actual competition).
What’s interesting to you right now? I am interested in revisiting some of the topics I have tackled in my thesis research, as I seem to have brushed it aside for a few years now. Interest in my research and the Al Masmaa project only picked up again some time last year, because we had a business development officer join us at RiadArchitecture who started approaching clients to discuss some of the ideas written in my thesis with them. He was the one who pushed RiadArchitecture to apply to the Cairo Design Awards, and we are happy we listened to him. I would like to find new and different ways to be able to use this philosophy and have our office known for that instead of taking on projects we do not feel passionately about just to pay our bills.
Last great book you’ve read or show you’ve binged: I must admit I have not been reading as much as I probably should, but a show I’ve recently binged and loved was “Westworld”. Truly amazing show that blew my mind; the way they tackled the subject matter of pain, suffering and human consciousness really blew me away.
What’s next for you? I am looking to expanding the office, as the work load has become rather tough. I have been struggling to find good quality designers in Egypt, as the good ones were more than I can afford, and those that I could afford were not up to par. Now that we have several projects in the pipeline, I am looking to, hopefully, hire good candidates, either fresh graduates that I could help along the way or more experienced designers and architects that could help take some of the work load off my shoulders. I have to start thinking as a boss and delegating design work; it’s an interesting challenge!