Immersive Atmospheres…

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Al-Moez Street, Old Cairo. Photo after Mohammed Moussa:, last accessed 22.06.2021, 21:46.

They are just everywhere, your favourite restaurant, that novel you have lived in your imagination just as much as you have read, and surely that movie that you can endlessly watch again and again. When people ask me about my PhD project, they don’t know that I am just as surprised as they are once I am finished explaining the often-neglected power of architecture to engage, to overwhelm and to attach by the merit of its atmosphere. They were surprised by a deep new topic, and I`m surprised because of what they tell me about how they used to think of architecture. It was then that I realized how it was pushed back to be just an abstract envelope to people nowadays, design and architecture students among them too.

It is not any more surprising to find people explaining how they fell in love with a painting, a piece of music or even a cafe they have recently been to, and sometimes they even mention the word atmosphere in their reviews, while on the other hand, when architecture students present their design projects they never get to that level of detail nor do they design for it. When I think about it further, I say to myself maybe that is how these sad-looking box buildings were born in the first place. I think a little more and I find that not only the majority of modern architecture has lost the spirit but also that individual that is overly overwhelmed with smartphones, devoid activities, and abstract input that makes it even harder to appreciate, to contemplate and ultimately to truly live. After all, just as it the deep views on art that define it through its communication with the people watching; there would be no communication without both architectural works and the people, and there will be no beauty if we are not there to see it, not to mention appreciate it and make it ourselves.

I remember very well how I felt as I walked into some pyramids in Egypt. I remember the awe I felt at the moment I stood right next to one of them, and it just shocked me how undeniable it was what those great designs communicated to me as I exist in them, beside them or even when looking at them. It wasn’t just the pyramids that made those trips memorable, but the questions they raised as well. Standing in front of the details of one of the murals, a colleague wondered, “How come these people, humans just like us, are capable of such greatness, beauty, and human perfection when we with all this technology are incapable?!”.  I cannot claim that I figured all the differences between us and them at the time, but sure enough, that very question popped in my head repeatedly. I read Pallasmaa`s argument about the importance of empathy in architecture and how even some institutions considered integrating it into architecture education, just then I thought maybe we blamed the tools too much, maybe the real dilemma is in ourselves; an empathy crisis!.

I felt how far we have slipped every time I walked into or around an ancient building, every look I felt touching those woven ornaments of wood and stone, every taste induced by stained glass windows and mosaic dome or wall, every time I listened to the beautiful and compassionate sound of Athan by an actual person calling for prayer while being in Al-Hussain area or Al-Moez street, and every time meanings were slowly revealed to me as I tried to decipher the intertwined words of poetry written in expressive Arabic calligraphy that encircled the halls in ancient mosques, Arabic houses and Turkish palaces. Architecture was never an envelope, it used to be a home where all arts gather to communicate, honour and celebrate our existence.

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Inside Al-Manial Palace, Cairo. Photo after Ahmed Yasser:, last accessed 22.06.2021 21:46.

I will also never forget how once they brought tears to my eyes so easily when I came back to travelling and exploring after I had been away from them for so long. Not that they expressed any melancholy, it is just that the whole thing was so beautiful that it brushed away every bit of dust and pride that a tired, dull, and bored eye could have; especially when it was used to wonder with disappointment in the cold and rather abstract buildings and modern cities. I can almost hear you asking how such beauty makes us cry? And I’ll happily tell you, that’s the question I Googled that night. Fortunately, I didn’t have to read a lot of scientific papers before I got to the answer on one of the open discussion platforms, a simple and honest one that I can succinctly summarize from what a young woman tried to explain; we cry when we feel a lot,…and it is beauty that makes us feel the most.

خط ثلث ديواني ، الجمال عزاء القلوبِ الكسيرة ، و بلسم جراحها ، و جابر خاطرها ، و باعث سرورها, الخطاط: الأستاذ عدنان الشيخ عثمان Photo after:, last accessed:22.06.2021, 20:55. Beauty is the consolation of broken hearts, the balm of their wounds, the liberator of their mind, and the source of their joy, Arabic calligraphy: Thuluth Diwani. Calligrapher: Prof. Adnan Sheikh Othman.

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