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Nachar-Segeeny Museum

Balancing and Harmonizing the Receptacle and the Spectacle

Ashraf M. Salama, Ph.D.
Reader in Architecture,
Queen’s University Belfast
United Kingdom

An earlier version of this article was published in MEDINA magazine, issue 20, October-November 2001, Medina: Cairo/British Virgin Islands. PP. 66-71.

Segeeny: integrating Coptic iconsA family dream comes true. Eman El Nachar, an architect and university lecturer designed this pleasingly consistent whole. In recent years, the educational role of museums has become a key professional concern, thus the purpose of this project goes beyond preserving artwork; it is to provide education, enlightenment, stories, and culture to its visitors. The museum is a result of collective creative efforts by a team of family members, which made it a unique piece of architecture for art. Exhibits and artwork are of husband-wife artists, the late Abdel Rahman El Nachar, and Zeinab El Segeeny. Eman, their daughter, developed the architectural design and supervised construction, while the structural design is of her husband Walid El Kafrawi. The museum is located at km. 50 of Cairo-Alexandria desert road, within the premises of the Green Oasis residential farm community.

Since the museum will be opened to the public soon (in August 2001-at the time of writing the earlier version of this article), tentative experimental installation of the artwork is now taking place. However, artist-critic Ahmed Fouad Selim will conceptualize the final design of displays and exhibits. Although the role, purpose, and functional program of the project have been envisioned prior to design, several interpretation programs are currently designed for adults and children by Zeinab El Segeeny to foster the role the museum can play and to enhance its operating environment.

During the last two decades, the museum went from being an “elegant receptacle” for other people’s art to a “spectacle” in and of itself. Unfortunately however, one can argue that this is a negative trend since it has created an unfair competitiveness between the public face of museum architecture and the purpose for which they are designed and built, which is to accommodate artwork and artifacts. The design and building of a museum is a daunting task for an architect. Thus, unlike any other structure, the museum is a distinctive building type, and as the American writer and theorist, Justin Henderson, states “it is a coveted commission for a designer because of its position as a manifestation of intense public pride.” Balancing the interests of the artist, the architect, the curator, and the visitor is indeed a challenge. Some of the large institutions started to develop new approaches. However, the most stimulating developments have occurred in small scale museums where the sense of institutional responsibility towards conventional expectations is less pressing.

Interestingly, this project brings the container and the contained into harmony where the designer attempted to strike a balance between the receptacle and the spectacle. I would envision that the basic metaphor for designing the building was to reflect the essence of “Containing or Enclosing.” It adopts the premise that the container, exemplified by the building shell, volumes and spaces, is designed in a natural manner by which the contained, represented by the exhibits and the activities taking place, should be housed comfortably and conveniently.

Since the mid-sixties, Nachar and Segeeny have contributed fully to both the academic and professional worlds. They stimulated several art movements in Egypt, presented their works in many group and single-artist exhibitions regionally and in Europe and the United States. Their work is highly regarded by the art community and has been praised by art critics in the local media. Both worked professors of painting and design in the College of Art Education in Cairo. Generations of younger artists have already been inspired by their work, and many of which are currently following similar lines of thinking. In fact, one is very much impressed by their visions into the role of art and their museum, and the rigor by which they pursued their career.

Nachar: breaking up the unity of the centre

Work by Nachar

Nachar’s work is characterized by harmony, coherence, and a strong emphasis on cultural identity, signifying one matchless God, which produces spiritual forces that express an interaction of meanings. His work evokes various contradicting values and dramatic conflicts between opposites such as the organic and the geometric; the singular and the plural, the limited and the endless, and the static and the dynamic. Via his exploratory journeys, he succeeded in breaking up the unity of the center and created a central plurality, an aesthetic value some would claim modern artists have been struggling to achieve.

Work by Nachar

Nachar: interaction of opposites

Another set of qualities portrays Segeeny’s work, which reveals subjects with humane characteristics. Always, she strives to introduce themes that pertain to childhood and motherhood. In some cases her work augurs warmth and gentle feelings and in others pain and fear. The dialectic relationship between intrinsic values and extrinsic influences is expressed in her work, with emphasis placed upon environmental, social, and aesthetic aspects. The folkloric heritage of the local environment is usually reflected with its generosity, innocence, and spontaneity. In her work, ancient Egyptian and Coptic icons are integrated and in some paintings with Islamic detailing, and adapted to the structuralism of Egyptian culture.

Segeeny: childhood and motherhood

Segeeny: cultural traditions

Work by Segeeny

Accommodating these distinctive pieces of art, the museum is a two-story building where the ground floor acts as an intermediate level. It includes an information counter and a reception space. On the left-hand side one finds access to the lower level, which includes two gallery spaces for exhibiting the work of Segeeny ending with a small patio, covered with an ornamented pergola. It also includes a lounge space with a pantry. Access to the upper level is envisaged through a series of ramps that lead to three spaces designated for exhibiting Nachar’s work, and culminating into the highest point, the studio space; intended for illustrating the what, the how, and the why of their works.

Two major questions can be raised while critically analyzing this project; the first is “should an art museum of two artists be designed to surprise and delight or to instruct and uplift”? While the second is “should the museum building be a sacred space for art or a pleasing and appealing complex”? Walking through the museum answers become clear. It reveals several distinctive design features that corroborate how analogical and metaphorical interpretations can be addressed in design.

Museum: interior ramps

Museum: interior

Museum: entrance

The moment one enters the site three related feelings emerge: ambiguity, curiosity, and excitement. Ambiguity and curiosity are felt via walking through the circular path that leads from the street level and the gate to the entrance level of the museum, through which one cannot expect where the building entrance is located. The intention here was to give the visitor an opportunity for reflection and few moments for exploring the exterior space and its natural and built elements. Excitement is sensed by emphasizing the values of contrast and variety. Contrast is portrayed in the plain white surface of the façade and the harsh brownish natural stone pavement of the path, while variety is evident in the conscious distribution of landscaping.

Notably, the design of the entrance area reflects several aspects that exist in Nachar’s and Segeeny’s works. There is a strong assertion on highlighting the relationship between the geometric and the organic where the rigid building shell interacts with the soft lines of the planted exterior space. Motifs existing in the work of Nachar are utilized in the design of the metal gate and the ornaments covering the ground floor windows. The entrance path ends with a courtyard that gives another feeling of peacefulness and reverence; a distinctive aspect of Segeeny’s work.

Museum: entry and lower levels

Museum: upper level floor plan

Museum: section + elevation
It is significant to note that facades are characterized by minimal openings—other than the staircase large window--, and the staggering effect of cubic volumes, creating dialogue between geometric forms. However, harmony and interaction with nature are celebrated based on the designer’s belief that architectural forms should not compete with the natural environment but should complement it. In this respect, all the existing palm trees have been preserved and adapted for the design of exterior spaces, while other cactus trees and vegetation have been planted for landscape enrichment.

In functional and behavioral terms, the design of the interior spatial environment adheres to several requirements that pertain to circulation and way-finding, natural lighting, and accessibility. Way-finding is well studied via separating the five gallery spaces into two levels: three in the upper level for Nachar’s work and two in the lower level for Segeeny’s work. The upper level is hierarchical in nature in terms of floor levels and heights where each of the three spaces acts as Iwan, and all are physically linked by ramps. One striking feature here is that they are visually linked thereby facilitating circulation, asserting the feelings of ambiguity and curiosity that characterize the exterior space, and providing the visitor sufficient opportunity to speculate the exhibits at an appropriate pace. It is believed that the intention of the designer was to give the eye enough space to see and the mind enough time to experience. The two gallery spaces of the lower level end by a feminine patio, another aspect emphasized in Segeeny’s work. The covered pergola and the existing palm tree are articulated to reflect this feminist attitude. This patio acts together with the entrance court as spaces for temporary installations and group discussions and presentations.

Lighting was the most influential factor on design. Two levels of natural lighting techniques have been employed. Flat glass bricks are applied to the roof above the ramps providing a certain degree of lighting, while clearstory windows orientated to the north, covered with grills of motifs depicted from the exhibits, are designed to provide another degree of natural lighting. These have been developed by the designer based on mathematical calculations of relationships between the square area of space, walls, and the level of the desired lighting during daytime. However, one should note that one of the gallery spaces in the lower level relies completely on artificial lighting.

Museum: Nachar Hall

Museum: stair detail

Museum: interior court

Another striking feature is that the interior of the museum adopts the concept of barrier free environment that is to create an accessible space for people with special needs allowing them to experience most of the museum areas independently. This is also addressed in the design of the exterior path, where a gentle-sloped ramp has been introduced parallel to the circular paved path. The preceding design aspects avow a conscious attempt toward producing meaningful and purposeful architecture.

All in all, despite its small scale the designer has succeeded in dramatizing values and feelings, conflicting in some cases and melting at others: surprise and delight, learning and enlightenment, sacredness and pleasure, ambiguity and simplicity, curiosity and clarity. The dilemma inherited in the design of museums was solved, that is the juxtaposition of and tension between the specialized need of the building and its unique requirements for exhibition, preservation, and education, and her desire to make a tranquil peaceful architectural statement. This is a good achievement that witnesses the birth of a new Egyptian architect. Contributing with other recently built museums in Egypt; this museum is a cultural nexus of how two committed artists see themselves, a symbol and a message of cultural achievement to the outside world.

Photographs by Ashraf Salama


beatriz said...

As I read Ashraf Salama’s article I could not help thinking of a recent newspaper article entitled “Size Matters”, (The Australian, 11 April 2009) which discusses the current situation of the Australian National Museum. After the stream of awards comes the reality check: due to many factors including budget and site, the building is too small and the interior is, in many cases, inappropriate to display the vast collection.

But the issue is not only about size and site but the 'container'. The museum (container) was conceived as the ‘attraction’. A rather ordinary ground level carpark (a hideous feature of most projects in Australia) is the point of entry and, after negotiating your way to the building, finding the entrance is the next challenge. In the process, the visitor is redirected to the spectacle of colours and textures offered by the “Garden of Australian Dreams”—a playful display of a version of history pulled from an adolescent comic book.

It is not only the building that is problematic, it what it says about us.

This comment is not intended to compare the Australian National Museum to the Nachar-Segeeny Museum, as their scales and functions are different —it is simply to say that there are other many ways to conceive the work of architecture which is too often conceived as a piece of sculpture at the expense of it function.

See article:,25197,25303709-16947,00.html

Ashraf Salama said...

Reading the comment of Beatriz reminds me of my recent visit to the Canadian Museum of Civlizations. While I visited the place several times in the nineties and recently, I keep discovering a lot of problems (as a user) that pertain to juxtaposing the IN and the OUT and the SPECTACLE and the RECEPTACLE. do we really want to compete with what we are designing and building for, or do we want to balance and harmonize.. Looking at Museum architecture worldwide, one finds that architects want to compete rather than complement. Such an issue goes on and one in Bilbao--Spain, the Weisman Art Museum of the university of Minnesota, and many others.. click here for an article on the Museum Mania

However, some responsive non-verbal messages exist, offering an optimistic view on Museums.. that of I. M. PEI endeavor in the Museum of Islamic Art..Doha, Qatar.
(Ashraf Salama)

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