“I decided to start Studio Meem at a moment when things were changing with hope towards a brighter future,” said Manar Moursi, founder of the Cairo-based architect and design atelier Studio Meem. “It was my way of contributing to my city by culling my experiences and talents into projects that raised critical awareness about the architectural and urban environment.”
Having studied architecture at the University of Virginia, Moursi started off in pre-med, though she had also begun taking architecture classes on the side. Eventually, one felt more natural than the other, and
allowed her an outlet for creativity.
“I was attracted to architecture’s potential to communicate and tell stories while addressing complex political, social, psychological and philosophical orders,” Moursi said. Following her undergraduate studies, she’d briefly alternate between Cairo and Kuwait before heading off to Princeton in 2006 for her Master’s Degree. Graduating in 2008 during the global economic crisis, Moursi was left with little choice but to return to Egypt once again to join Shahira Fahmy Architects, an innovative design, architecture and urban development firm founded in 2005.
“It was hard enough to be an architect in Cairo – a city with new construction loosely divided along the lines of self-building and cookie cutter developments,” she said. “But Shahira’s persistence and vision of herself as a creative woman in a masculine paternalistic society and field was a beacon of light for me.”
Laying the foundation for Studio Meem, Moursi, in 2010, found herself in the marketplace, attracted to the gireed, or palm-fibre crates. “I decided to experiment with these crates to make new furniture,” she said, referring to her gradually increasing collection of the crates, hoping to use the material to highlight its once common application in regional building. The project, ‘Off the Gireed’ offered Moursi a chance to explore an environmental and artisanal narrative – as well as the “wabi-sabi aesthetic of impermanence”.
“It was a shifting political moment in the country, and my visits to these artisans in the marginal peri-urban areas of Cairo were very educational in lieu of the completely different perspectives I was hearing from friends and family,” she said. “I enjoyed the possibility of reconnecting and learning about my city through the lens of one object, which the projects ‘Off the Gireed’ and later, the ‘Sidewalk Salon: 1001 Street Chairs of Cairo’ afforded.”
In 2011, Moursi launched Studio Meem, which today stands as an interdisciplinary atelier that covers a range of fields from architecture to product design to urban development and research. Intended to be a platform for collaborations, Studio Meem’s name was taken from the Arabic letter, which, according to its founder, is linked to Hebrew and Aramaic and was once the symbol for water in Ancient Egypt. And in Arabic, when placed before a word, the letter ‘meem’ designates a place.
“Since its establishment, I have been searching for new operating models,” she said. “I view architecture as a tool and a field for critical research and inquiry on the built environment. The outputs of Studio Meem are therefore not necessarily always architectural – they vary from art to publications to actually built or paper architecture.”
Encompassing both commissioned as well as self-initiated projects, Studio Meem has consistently turned out project after project over the last few years: from various residential structures in Kuwait to cultural centres and temporary installations – like Wonderbox – to a collaborative project for Cairo’s Science City
Partnering with Ricardo Camacho Architects (who recently completed Kuwait’s Al Shaheed Park), team members in Egypt, Kuwait, Portugal and Spain, as well as environmental consultants in Germany, Studio Meem’s ‘Science City’ was intended to be a landmark scientific and educational institution dedicated to promoting curiosity and public understanding of the history of science in Egypt. In reference to the advancements made in Ancient Egypt in terms of agriculture, astronomy, mathematics and medicine, Studio Meem’s design recalled the spatial organisation of the country’s agricultural grids.
Studio Meem goes wherever Moursi goes. Sometimes a physical place shared with other artists and architects, and other times located in the complex of her laptop, its mobility allows it to remain fluid and flexible, responding to Moursi’s enthusiasms as they come.
A favourite project of hers took her to Kuwait, where she spent her childhood, to design and build private residences. She had enjoyed seeing her work materialise, but the experience highlighted a number of cultural nuances that affect not only her, but also others working in similar creative fields across the Middle East and North Africa.
“Working in the GCC is different than Egypt on multiple levels. From a market perspective, while Egypt’s housing stock is mostly focused on providing basic, often times self-built, dwellings in multi-storey, mixed-use buildings, in Kuwait the majority are single-family homes,” she said. “So by and large, Kuwait has more of a market for architects particularly working on single-family homes.”
But Moursi noted that despite the market differences in Kuwait, clients there often struggle with understanding the time and money necessary to produce a well-designed project. To the architect, both Egypt and countries in the GCC generally lack a commitment to making public projects open to wider competitions, and accepting tenders that promote local and regional architects.
“Often we hear of public state projects, such as museums, commissioned to ‘starchitects’ from Europe or the US, who orientalise or simplify the context to respond to it quickly,” she said. “The potential for projects in Egypt is rich both in historical preservation and in responding to the needs of social justice in the urban environment. The potential for projects in the GCC is also equally rich, but in terms of preserving a rapidly eroding modernist heritage.”
At the moment, Moursi can be caught between worlds – geographically and professionally speaking.
Currently teaching at the Universities of Waterloo and Toronto, she’s also breaking ground on new
research that can be caught in a forthcoming book and exhibition. The research looks at material significance of new minaret construction in Egypt. The architect is also looking to experiment with new creative media, like video, and she’s currently working on an autobiographical project titled ‘Everywhere I go, Here I am’.
Whatever she’ll get up to, it’s clear that Moursi will continue to contribute to the Middle East and North Africa’s conversations surrounding urban development. “I hope to continue in the strands of work I have developed so far: art, architecture and editorial work,” she said. “In the near future, I am looking forward to the launch of the second part of the book ‘Modern Architecture in Kuwait’, which includes a piece I wrote on the role of Egyptian architects in the urban development of Kuwait. Whatever medium I’m working in, I hope I can contribute to critical discourses and practices of design, art and writing focused on the Middle East.”