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CLIENT: Ministry of Culture of Arab Republic of Egypt

SITE: 470,000 sq. m (116 acres) in archeologically prestigious area near the pyramids that has been placed on UNESCO World Heritage list; varying topography, including sand dunes and stone mesa

PROGRAM: Museum complex, including space for temporary and permanent exhibition, storage, conservation laboratories, cataloging, teaching areas and meeting rooms, commercial spaces, eating areas, administration offices

SIZE: 86,000 sq. m (860,000 sq. ft.)

COST: EGP 2 billion ($350 million)

COMPLETION: Summer 2002 (competition)

NOTES: Cast-in-place and precast concrete structure on driven precast piles, aluminum curtain wall and sunshading, steel movable bounding elements, stairs and catwalks; mechanical HVAC supplemented by passive cooling and humidification through tower vent stacks and cooling ponds

PROJECT TEXT: The siting of the new Grand Egyptian Museum in the shadow of the pyramids reminds us of the immensity of ancient Egypt’s history. The telling of this vast story deserves a comparable architectural setting.

The architectural signification of vastness is the genius of the pyramids. Yet in this the pyramids offer a challenge, rather than a model. The contemporary practice must achieve vastness through other means than brute force. The setting proposed by this design offers a contemporary answer to the pyramids—a horizontal rhizomatic extension, expressing vastness through complexity rather than through simple magnitude.

Since the available space is limited, the desire for vastness cannot be satisfied by the literal spaciousness of the design. Instead, it must be experienced in the layout and affect of the space. Many factors contribute in this design to the indirect conjuring of vastness: the weaving of the exhibit itinerary into the unfolding dynastic succession produces an almost Piranesian complexity; the architectural continuity of the exhibit areas with the other program areas extends them out of sight in all directions with no definite boundary; the overlapping rhythm of natural light from the adjustable skylights and courtyards eliminates the customary environmental cues of finite enclosure, suggesting further dimensions beyond; and the flexibility inherent in this architectural continuity of the unfolding spaces introduces the potential for seasonal cycles of change to the vastness, extending the spatial metaphor into the temporal. The monumental abstraction of the architecture establishes a sense of deferral that also promotes the affect of vastness.

The museological character of the scheme is keyed by this same abstraction. In its treatment of the exhibits, this project adopts an attitude between aloofness and zealotry. Too scrupulous a concern for objectivity can result in a mundane curatorial frame—in the interest of providing a neutral backdrop—while too great an enthusiasm for their singular character can give rise to a curatorial frame that is overly thematized or cartoonish. The best design will steer a course between these extremes, balancing scientific objectivity with respectful regard, remembering that architecture is an abstract art and that its greatest strength is the manipulation of spatial affect, not pedagogy. This attitude of muteness and solemnity is well suited to the particular nature of the ancient Egyptian artifacts, at once offering a sober backdrop to their polychromatic splendor and a respectful continuity with their ruined dignity.

At the technical level, the new museum design can be described as a vertically layered, extensible carpet of servant/served space. Each layer is homogenous within itself but functionally distinct from those above or below. Thus, each layer enjoys ultimate flexibility—for rearrangement or expansion/contraction—without hindrance by fixed structure or service elements or idiosyncratic spatial conditions of adjacent program.

The pyramids are closer than the horizon on which they usually appear, yet are still strangely far away. The concerns of private property ownership preventing the museum from dwelling more closely to them seem of little consequence before their impassive judgment. The loose composition inherent in the rhyzomatic nature of the scheme is ideally suited to accommodate the possibility of change to the location or boundaries of the site, allowing it to incorporate the adjacent properties or to occupy them outright before the end of design should it become necessary.

A building as important as the Grand Egyptian Museum must take its expressive role seriously. Intended or not, it will be seen as significant and will be read with expectation. As a public building with a didactic cultural mission, the museum will be understood to communicate on a variety of levels—not only through its exhibits but also through its architecture and the layout of its program, and it will be judged as well by its references, clarity, and convenience. Because of the variety of channels over which the museum will communicate, it will be particularly important that the message be coordinated, that the contribution of each element positively support and reinforce the rest. Anything short of this, whether a failure of conflicting messages or indifferent execution, will result in an unsatisfactory experience for the visitor.

In this proposal the architectural text exists at two levels. First, the design intends to be considered in relation to the pyramids specifically, to offer a twenty-first-century answer to their timeless solemnity. Second, the design addresses its more general cultural and historical context, in order to ground itself in its own mission and time and engage its visitors with a richer museological experience.

The design of the new museum has an opportunity, a duty, to rise to the pyramid’s mute challenge, as well as accommodate the complex museum program—the two aspects must be interrelated. Formally, the pyramids are massive, inert objects, striking an emphatically vertical note against the relentless horizontal datum of the desert and life-giving Nile. Their discreet, vertical objectivity has challenged the elements for millennia, and so they have come to stand for durability and the triumph of the manmade object over the entropic depredations of nature. For this, magical properties have been ascribed to their shape, but ultimately it is their brute presence that affects us.

Where the pyramids stood literally for authority, hierarchy, and might, the new museum design represents multiplicity, pluralism, and cooperation. The new museum’s rhyzomatic extensibility is in many ways the opposite of the pyramid’s singular massiveness, yet it shares with them a claim to achievement, staked through vertical expression, and a desire through its form to encapsulate the age, to represent the zeitgeist.

Beyond this freighted relationship to the physically local but temporally distant pyramids, the design of the Grand Egyptian Museum attempts to reach out through its form to evoke the more extended physical scene and temporally recent context. From the expanse of rooftop, reaching out to the setting in all directions, towers spring silhouetted boldly against the sky, as suggestive—but ultimately as mute—as the pyramids. In their reserve they open themselves up, like the pyramids, to interpretation. These silent sentinels frame views of the pyramids and the desert beyond, and Cairo in the other direction, tying the experience all together in a composition that spans the horizons, while the antennas tie the museum to the world beyond those horizons. Through formal reference to precedents such as minarets, the double crown of ancient Egypt and other horned artifacts, and watchtowers that survey a distant vista, the museum fixes itself in the imagination as well as in space.

As formalized in the complex organizational problem posed by the exhibit program, the story of ancient Egypt unfolds along four different paths: chronology, major theme, minor theme, and geography. A completely deterministic approach to laying out the artifacts along these paths would be physically impossible, but a more open-ended arrangement that allows for greater flexibility of experience and planning, without sacrificing control of the pedagogy, can be imagined. This is what the present scheme has set out to achieve.

This design is loosely based on a cascade-sorting diagram, not too dissimilar to a pachinko game, in which the visitors are like the balls and the path they take is influenced but not dictated by the array of walls that act like the pins and paddles. In this design the themes are articulated by movable bounding elements that channel the viewers through the exhibits in a generally directed way but without forcing any particular itinerary. The “gravity” impelling the visitor through this matrix is chronological; that is to say, the exhibits are arranged so that the chronological axis follows the grain of the array. The themes are laid out across this grain so that each theme seems to unfold with time during the natural course of travel, while the passage from theme to theme occurs within a single time period (dynasty). Thus the looseness of this cascade-sorting organization leaves the visitor free to travel in both directions—following a certain theme through time or exploring all the themes as they stand at any particular moment. Additionally, the boundaries of those theme paths that share artifacts can “blur” without compromising the clarity of either theme. This experiential trope is magnified by the architectural affect of vastness. Since the bounding elements recede out of sight in all directions, the sense of overly defined exhibit corridors that might limit the sense of deep temporality is discouraged; yet at the same time the exhibits do not “bleed” into one another, except where they may do so intentionally because they are shared by two themes.

The array of movable bounding elements that organize the exhibit areas also demarcate all of the other programmed spaces within the building. Combined with the vertical zoning of the function-specific technical construction (which eliminates the presence of infrastructure on the main floor), this results in an unusual level of “rhyzomatic” flexibility since there are no impediments to the free play of the bounding elements. Simply moving the bounding elements and reapportioning the space from the neighboring area can effect the rearrangement and expansion of any particular space or program type. This holds true for both the exhibit areas, which share the same system for permanent and temporary and special exhibits, and the non-exhibit areas, such as the Science Institute or Conservation Labs, which also use the same movable bounding elements. When the time comes to expand the building as a whole, this system is able to march out into the open areas and enclose them as well on the same terms.

The Grand Egyptian Museum is envisioned as the hub of a network of related museums scattered throughout the world. In our design, this role has been included in the primary exhibition itinerary to give a continuous museological experience balancing the real with the virtual. The virtual is thus considered part of the experience of the real, at the architectural level, instead of being isolated in computer rooms or in a few scattered kiosks.

The digital component of the museum experience is spread throughout the exhibit areas. Rather than encumber the layout of the physical artifacts with an array of computer screens, though, which detract from the experience of those artifacts, the digital displays are confined to in-between spaces, where their particular viewing conditions (lighting, proximity) are more easily met and their relationship to the real is more clearly staged. These in-between spaces are literally that: located within the bounding elements that demarcate the physical exhibit areas, they inhabit the poché, from which they look out onto the physical display areas to either side through scrims or one-way mirrors. Because of their inherently greater flexibility, they add a dimension of engagement that extends the discussion of the real artifacts beyond the constraints of their physicality. For example, the controlled viewing conditions permit such digital “effects” as the superposition of digital commentary over the view of the physical artifacts, or the overlay of digital enhancements, like the imagined reconstruction of fragments, the recreation of original contexts, or the inclusion of missing parts held in other collections in the worldwide digital network. Since these didactic effects are visible only from the prescribed viewing area within the digital poché, and require no equipment or screens beyond those existing within that poché, they do not compromise the “straight” view of the artifacts in the physical display areas. In fact, it would be possible by such means to eliminate physical labels and wall text entirely in some appropriate cases, allowing the visitor the luxury of a completely unmediated aesthetic experience of the artifacts.

As in-between spaces these digital zones enjoy a strong metaphoric relationship to the areas they adjoin, allowing their “objective” commentary and elucidation “from the outside” to be uniquely reinforced by the literal spatial equivalent to that position. This also asserts the “reality” of the digital, by reserving for it a legitimately architectural place within the composition, one that is particular to its unique character yet equivalent to that of the physically real. By treating the digital component of the museum experience in this matter-of-fact way—neither celebrating it inappropriately through some anachronistic physical metaphor like the blob, nor denigrating it by hiding it away entirely—the design more effectively demonstrates the assimilation of the digital in the information age as a contemporary contrast to the brute physicality of the pyramids and the earlier culture they represent.