The Story of a Friendship: my friend Wael Al Masri.
“We came together as friends almost instinctively, forty years ago.
Wael has never left my memory as a selfless, warm hearted person ever ready to lend a helping hand.
He was practically a fixture in my life for 3 plus years, yet he is everybody’s person you would want to have as a loyal friend”.
Meeting in Manchester 1978.
In July 2015, I decided to “search” for Wael. In an era of new technology, Google searches and websites made the task easier. “Wael Al-Masri architect” was popping up on many sites. I read whatever news I could.
Eventually, I sent an email and soon made my way into his Whatsapp list.
I recall the caution when I started texting, then a WhatApp call. “Don’t answer that number. It’s not a number you know” said his son in the background.…Wael picked up the phone and we spoke again for the first time.
In October 1978, we enrolled in the Manchester School of Architecture, also known as the Victoria University of Manchester. The cold October air, woolly sweaters and police on horses, the school campus was at once a new experience. So was the strange sight of grey precast concrete panels of the three storey school and the red-brick architecture of the Precinct Centre that we would come to know intimately. As a small group of foreign students comprising 5 Malaysians, 2 Indonesians and 1 Jordanian we soon got talking.
And before long, we would merge with the rest.
Our life as students.
As first year students, our life was exciting. We were studying the subject we love in a totally new environment, meeting students from parts of the world we had not heard of and getting to know our British friends and tutors. Zimbabwe, Greece, Cyprus were totally new places. Or Ukraine where Rob Kratokovitch (later James) was from.
The age of Rotring pens and 4B pencils would be gone forever, but the skills we honed over the formative years spoke volumes about ourselves, our fine motor skills, our sharpness of minds and clarity of ideas.
A few of us, Wael included, would marvel at the pencil drawings of intense construction detail drawings drawn by David Chew, a fifth-year senior; how thick and thin lines were drawn out of pencil. We pondered if we would ever achieve same quality. We did.
Wael’s pencil drawings and sketches were exemplary, and I recall his site plans were immaculately executed, so were his inked drawings that came later. If Francis D.K. Ching’s book was our bible, the renderings of Frank Lloyd Wright served as benchmarks for the young graduate.
Beyond the social evenings at the Speakeasy over tea, biscuits and cheese, live drawing sessions with Structures lecturer Bernard Gosschalk, we developed our friendship. Together with Rudy Suparman, Hock Soh, John Woodcock, Nicola Sutton, John Petropoulous and Joe Burke, we formed a loose group who would occasionally hang out at weekends or visit Arndale Centre. Wael would often enjoy lashings of my Malaysian curry in Cornbrook House. Musically, Michael Jackson, the Commodores, jazz-funk ruled the waves; we danced to ‘Off the Wall’ like no tomorrow.
A deepening friendship.
A very likeable person, Wael was not the loud or pretentious student that got all the attention. It was his intellectual mind that brought us on many instances to discussions on the subjects we were just taught. Soon after lectures he’d be working away at the issues. Wael and I waxed lyrical over the iconic flat roof, a feature of modern architecture over the pitched roof that was a hallmark of British traditional architecture. We were adamant that there was really “nothing wrong” with flat roofs in our designs though they were much frowned upon by our tutors who schooled us on the leaking issues that plagued flat roofs.
Modern architecture was modern because of flat roofs but the school of architecture told us otherwise.
Suffice to say by the end of our first year, Wael and I had cemented our friendship from the common perception we held and the stand we took on various issues we faced. So much so that we formed a group of 4 to design one of the last great projects in Year 3. A meeting of minds forged our teamwork and final presentation.
Malaysia in the late seventies was a poor South East Asian country who had been independent from Britain in 1957. The country had been ruled by a coalition that practised “guided democracy”. It was an iron clad apartheid system that discriminated against her non-Muslim population and deprived them of university places, scholarships, government projects and work in the civil service. Yet the multiracial harmony that existed, although skewed in one direction, could not be diminished entirely by such policies. It was against this political context that I left as a young adult to the UK, seething with hatred for the regime. I knew little of world events except reading about the fall of Saigon in 1975 when I was sitting for my O Levels. Our worlds would meet and I would learn of greater hardships: those of the Palestinians.
The late seventies became the arena of Anwar Sadat and Jimmy Carter, and notably of Arafat when I met Wael. University life opened my eyes to the Holocaust and to the Palestinians’ loss of their homeland. Wael and I would talk a lot about Arafat whilst we exchanged experiences from our backgrounds. I could feel the sadness in him when he related the events of having fled Palestine. The unhappiness deeply rooted in our upbringing and the broken country we both came from made us “equals”, I believe.
But being young and optimistic, Wael forged ahead, knowing that he had to work hard in University to graduate well for his future. We were in Manchester to learn so I guess we put our heads down and just immersed ourselves in all the school had to offer. Wael was as steadfast as ever, never wavering on his mission in architecture school despite the political harshness around.
Today the School of Architecture in Manchester is ranked 7th in the world and 2nd in the UK for its Architecture degree. Back in the autumn of 1978 we would not have known about any rankings for we had entered the UK at the time of its worst political crisis: The Winter of Discontent (1978-1979). It was a time of social turmoil, the largest stoppage of labour because of public sector strikes against pay caps put up by the Labour government. Rubbish piled high in the streets and ambulances stopped running. Britain was in a mess. Our student lives in Manchester had just begun whilst unbeknownst to us, UK society and the welfare state was being fractured forever. Then Maggie Thatcher came to power and put up school fees ending decades of subsidised University education. We were hit the hardest.
Hence, against this backdrop we carried out our three intensive years, increasing our knowledge and design skills with each passing year. Despite the late nights slogging over drawing boards, a rudimentary tee square, masking tape, translucent paper and Rotring pens or sketching in freezing Hebden Bridge, Wael and I had never laughed so much whenever we met. He would be serious most of the time when in came to design matters but when it was time to laugh, he would joke and laugh. Wael’s sense of humour made him very likeable with everyone in class. In this pre-computing and pre-mobile phone age, we engaged as people and bonded as colleagues.
Manchester then was known as a conservative or traditional architecture school. It gave its students good grounding in construction, structure, mechanical and electrical knowledge and detailing. Add to that numerous serious issues that were the order of the day: context and regionalism, brutalism, post modernism and Charles Jenks. Outside in practice, there was Terry Farrell, John Porter on one hand and Fosters, Hopkins, Rogers and Grimshaw on another. In school, we were fascinated with Corbusier and Cubism, FL Wright the modern masters. I had my idol I.M. Pei whose geometrical simplicity fascinated me and was the inspiration in one of our studio projects: a visitor’s centre. Wael too explored geometry but his early work exhibited a clear sense of surprise and poetry like a discovery of sorts. This I had particularly noticed whenever he had returned after the summer break!
In school, I have not known Wael as someone who dithers, of being indecisive. Always assured of himself and his approach, his studio projects display the confidence of a young architect not only in the ideas presented, similarly, of the strong lines and colours that accompany the presentation. Manchester taught us to understand that the context we design in is important, heights, neighbours, access pathways, the brief; these were all the generators of architecture. Coupled with theories exemplified in early textbooks: House Form and Culture by Amos Rappaport and Siegfried Gideon’s Space, Time and Architecture, I would argue that the architecture of Wael today has captured what architecture is always about – the human dimension in a complex, changing world.
His ability to transcend conflict of any sort, be it tradition versus liberalism or high tech versus context, must surely stem from his childhood in the Middle East. The changes we have witnessed there, from the late seventies to this 2018, is nothing short of phenomenal. Traditional Arab non-religious urban forms are replaced with western urbanism of wide streets (and cars) and sky rocketing towers, marking the ‘globalised’ world we now live in. Here lies the conflict, would Wael be true to his profession or held captive to the moneyed society he is designing for. As he strives to find that balance, I am sure it is the deep roots he has sunk during his time in the School of Architecture that will serve him well.
Professor Dearden’s fourth and fifth year programme focussed on urban issues such as urban infills and the importance of continuity in an established language of a city. Interpreting the language of the context in a modernistic and capitalistic way requires the experience gained in the B. Arch programme. This is where his current versatility lies where his designs exhibit a Middle Eastern language matched to its climate with modern aspirations: he is the ‘urbanist and art’ bridge.
The future journey and parting of ways.
After our first 3 years, I worked in London during our ‘year out’ whilst Wael left for Kuwait.
A year later we were re-joined in Manchester, and we stayed together for one term. Having decided not to return to Manchester, I enrolled in the neighbouring city of Liverpool where I could pursue High Tech for the next two years. These were my dark years, in a new school with no familiar faces. I was also financially strapped. Facing a bleak winter in my hour of need, Wael was ever so generous to help a friend for those vital months. I am forever indebted to his generosity. Otherwise, I would not be the architect I am today.
We would meet again one more time in London in 1984 and thereafter, our separate ways.
40 years later, Wael is still the Wael that I know: humorous, happy, confident, big hearted and kind. His prolific built work speaks volumes about his time spent in Manchester, the US and the Middle East. However, I can only convey my impressions during our time in grey Manchester. What he has been through and achieved post Manchester might have been more instrumental in ‘learning to fly’ the architecture with a capital A.
I have no doubt Wael would cherish the values from both sides of any divide, be it architectural versus societal, technology versus tradition. I think as architects, we have had to become adaptable in this wider world of fading influence and obsolescence. Just as Gideon explored in his essays on growing a new tradition, Wael’s own perception of ‘space’ in his ‘time’ responds to a life-long architect’s desire to capture the ‘zietgeist’ of his influence via design, namely, of becoming an authoritative architect of the Arab world to bring coherence to one that is as directionless as is dysfunctional, as far as architecture goes.
Over and above his achievements to date, my copy of Wael is that of a brother, magnanimous in all occasions.
This is Wael Al-Masri.