a cairo cornerstone
Downtown Cairo's Mamluk-inspired 1980s architectural masterpiece
On a corner overlooking the courtyard of the American University in Cairo (AUC) Downtown campus, the Abdul Latif Jameel Centre for Middle East Management Studies (Jameel Centre) provides a fascinating example of efficient and versatile architectural design. With statuesque concrete façades, Mamluk-inspired arches and wooden mashrabiyas, the building formerly dedicated to business education is a landmark in Cairo’s multi-layered architectural and academic heritage.
Established in 1989, the building provided a focal point for progressive management education and training in the Middle East. It has since evolved into a space that helps shape Egypt’s tech-immersed entrepreneurial landscape as a core part of The GrEEK Campus, Cairo’s first technology and innovation park established at the former AUC site in 2013.
Cairo-based photographer Ebrahim Bahaa-Eldin captures the unique and flexible architectural design of the Jameel Centre, which continues to adapt and evolve along with its community of entrepreneurs, as well as the surrounding environment and culture.
A versatile building
Construction of the Jameel Centre began in 1987, led by architectural consultancy Dar Al-Handasah and overseen by Palestinian-born architect Suhayl Bathish. Bathish's approach — from the architectural concept to the selection of the building setting, materials and structural systems — aimed at creating a space with the capacity to evolve, and without the need for major interventions.
'The main concept was to create a versatile building, with maximum flexibility that would accommodate different functions as the need arose throughout its lifespan', recalls Ahmad Bahgat Chahine about the core design and construction objectives in an interview with Community Jameel. Ahmad is head of Dar Al-Handasah's architectural department, where he participated in the project as a recently-graduated junior architect. The final result is a multi-faceted building that quickly became a core part of the AUC educational landscape, providing classrooms and offices, a stepped amphitheatre, conference rooms and computer and reprographic labs.
Built using an endowment gifted to AUC by the Jameel family to house the university's department of management studies and institutes of management, the completed building was inaugurated on 27 February 1989 by the late Abdul Latif Jameel and his son, Mohammed Jameel KBE, founder and chairman of Community Jameel. As an entrepreneur, the late Abdul Latif Jameel believed that progressive management and marketing education 'would benefit administrators, managers and businessmen throughout the Arab world' (AUC News, Vol. 10, No. 2, Winter 1989).
A landmark of efficient,
Bathish's design aimed 'to create an efficient, flexible, user-friendly landmark building with a unique identity that would stand out within the campus, while at the same time [would] integrate effortlessly with its surroundings'. As such, Ahmad explains, 'the careful selection of the building setting, character, architectural vocabulary and materials had to build on this approach'.
The use of fair-faced concrete façades was intended to reflect a 'modern' look, while the inclusion of traditional design elements — namely, wooden mashrabiya screens and Mamluk-inspired marble arches — evoke 'the classical character and vocabulary of the original AUC buildings in the Tahrir area', as well as Cairo’s Mamluk-era architectural monuments.
Jameel Centre, 12 March 1987, AUC
Traditionally used to shield windows of houses and palaces for ventilation and passive cooling, the mashrabiya is not a purely aesthetic choice, but serves to regulate the entry of light into the building, enhancing its sustainability and performance. The effect of their use is to create a landmark building that reflects modernity and efficiency, 'while responding to regional climatic and cultural tradition’ (Official programme of the ground breaking and cornerstone laying of the Jameel Centre, 12 March 1987, AUC).
One of the building’s more intriguing design elements is the coffered ceiling on the first-floor mezzanine level. The concrete, grid-like structural system was intentionally expressed and exposed wherever possible 'to further accentuate the architectural character of the building and integrate with the fair-faced walls and façade concept', notes Ahmad.
Circular indents on the columns and façades provide a visual detail that speaks to the building's construction techniques and constraints. The round marks were left by metal through bolts used to hold the formwork of the façades in place while the concrete set. 'Several attempts and multiple studies to treat these holes were conducted at the time and we found that the best way was to express these holes, not to hide them,’ Ahmad recalls, ‘so we decided to keep the holes as a natural component to be maintained in the fair-faced façade finish’.
Evolving alongside function
to its role.'
Since its opening, the Jameel Centre has remained true to its original design intentions. Described in 1989 as ‘a masterpiece’ of modern architecture, with ‘flexible characteristics which will enable it to grow and adapt to its role’ (AUC News, Vol. 10, No. 2, Winter 1989), today the Centre forms a core part of The GrEEK Campus, Cairo’s first technology and innovation park established in 2013 at the former AUC site.
In its modern context, the building provides a hub for the city’s innovative fintech startups, non-profits and socially-driven enterprises. It hosts the offices of international and local fintech companies including Uber and Egyptian lending app, Money Fellows, which digitises the 'gameya' lending model prominent in Muslim countries of the Middle East and Africa, alongside Masr Dot Bokra, a non-profit organisation for creative and digital skills development.
While it remains in conversation with Cairo’s architectural past, the Jameel Centre is a space that continues to evolve with its community and into its future.
Ebrahim Bahaa-Eldin is a Cairo-based photographer and anthropologist. His work has been exhibited in Cairo, Marrakech and Liverpool. He is the inaugural recipient of the Community Jameel Creative Talent Grant for his photography of the Jameel Centre. Launched in 2023, Community Jameel Creative Talent Grants support creative works that speak to topics or issues core to Community Jameel’s network of centres, programmes and scientists.
Community Jameel thanks Ahmad Bahgat Chahine for his contribution to this piece. Ahmad is head of Dar Al-Handasah's architectural department, an international architecture and engineering consultancy founded in Beirut in 1956, which oversaw the design and construction of the Jameel Centre in Cairo between 1987-1989. Ahmad contributed to the project as a junior architect within the firm.
Follow Ebrahim Bahaa-Eldin @ebrahimbahaa and Sabrina Gilby @sabrinagilby on Instagram.