Czech architects in the land of the Pharaohs

Library in Alexandria, photo: CTK

It doesn't happen every day that a Czech scientist or artist succeeds on an international scale. This is all the more true about Czech architects. One name however stands out. It is signed under two projects which received international acclaim and, by coincidence, they are both connected with the country of Egypt - one being the library in Alexandria and the other the Grand Egyptian Museum. The name is Martin Roubik, a man with an interesting life story. After being expelled from university by the Czechoslovak communist authorities in the 1970s, he fled to Norway, finished his studies, started a successful business and eventually made it among the top in the world of architecture.

Library in Alexandria, photo: CTK
It doesn't happen every day that a Czech scientist or artist succeeds on an international scale. This is all the more true about Czech architects. One name however stands out. It is signed under two projects which received international acclaim and, by coincidence, they are both connected with the country of Egypt - one being the library in Alexandria and the other the Grand Egyptian Museum. The name is Martin Roubik, a man with an interesting life story. After being expelled from university by the Czechoslovak communist authorities in the 1970s, he fled to Norway, finished his studies, started a successful business and eventually made it among the top in the world of architecture.

"I spent a long time in Norway. I started a company there which, actually, was lucky enough to win the international competition - similar to the one which we now entered - for the Alexandrian Library, which is now completed and I think it is a great success. Then I moved from Norway back to the Czech Republic where I was actually born. I've been here for about three years. Together with Regina Loukotova I entered about ten competitions but we never succeeded. We are supposed to be below the average in quality. So we said, let's try and join an international competition, and we joined the biggest one. There has never been a bigger, larger competition than this, because 2,500 entries in one international competition - you don't find it anywhere, it never happened before."

Martin Roubik
Earlier in June, Martin Roubik and his colleagues won an award as part of a project to design the new Grand Egyptian Museum, announced by the government of Egypt and UNESCO. The assignment was to design a project for a state-of-the-art museum complex to house the enormous numbers of archaeological finds for which the old museum in the centre of Cairo no longer has room. The new complex will be built on a fifty-hectare site close to the Giza pyramids. Martin Roubik and his assistant Regina Loukotova decided to take the challenge and join the contest, and they devoted a whole year of their life to it.

Library in Alexandria, photo: CTK
"Altogether, I think, about one year. We had about a two or a three-month break when we waited for the results of the first phase, because the competition was in two stages. First they were judging 1,600 projects and picked up twenty and we were among those twenty."

2,500 teams from one hundred countries sent their entries to Egypt and the nine-member international jury, chaired by Korean architect Jong Soung Kimm, hand-picked twenty of the best projects. The first prize was awarded to an Irish team, lead by architect Shih Fu Peng. The second prize went to an Austrian team and the third went to Italy. The Czech team was awarded one of the seven High Honourable Mentions. Regina Loukotova who worked on the project together with Martin Roubik describes what it actually looks like.

"Everything is underground. We protect the inner spaces from direct sunlight and from daylight as well. Actually, if you ask Egyptologists or museologists, [they will tell you that] these particular collections don't need daylight because the pieces came from underground, so our philosophy was to put them back underground. We also think that the running costs of the museum will be very low, like air-conditioning and so on. Because the project is situated on the edge of the desert, we tried to protect the museum from the sand as there are sand-storms. That's another advantage, I would say. And I think we also somehow reacted to, or were inspired by Egyptian architecture."

Apparently, the Egyptian features were something the jury did not appreciate. I spoke to Jaromir Krejci, a Czech Egyptologist, and asked him to describe the ancient Egyptian influences noticeable in the project designed by Martin Roubik and Regina Loukotova.

"One direct influence in connection with the location of the project is that some forms which are used there follow the architecture of the mastabas. A mastaba is a type of Ancient Egyptian tomb found around the Giza pyramids. The location of the project is not far away from the Giza pyramids and there are a lot of mastabas around. The other influences could be seen in several temples dated back to the so-called "New Kingdom" and "Middle Kingdom". And possibly the main influence is the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut in Deir el Bahari. The material is also one of the influences of Ancient Egyptian architecture and especially the material of the façade, which is granite. Granite was the Ancient Egyptian building material par excellence, I can say."

The Grand Egyptian Museum is not just supposed to look good. Its main function is to allow the wealth of archaeological finds to be displayed to the public while preserving the items in the most favourable conditions. Egyptologist Jaromir Krejci.

"I found this project very interesting and I think it is well made. The main reason is that such a project could create very good conditions for the preservation of the objects. Because it is an underground project and the humidity and other things could be controlled very well. So I think it is a very good project. I saw the other projects and I have to say that [the Czech project] is really the best project in this regard. I think it is also very good that there are influences from Egyptian architecture, which I think, is also very important in the case of such a project."

The authors as well as many experts say that the Czech project has many advantages over the other entries, and even the winning projects, for example low maintenance and operating costs, a certain humbleness in that it doesn't try to compete with the nearby pyramids but rather fit into the landscape, as well as its respect to the Egyptian tradition. Last but not least the museum as designed by Martin Roubik and Regina Loukotova would be a very welcoming space for visitors, allowing them to get out whenever they would feel overwhelmed by the abundance of exhibits and take a walk along a stream or around a lake. Despite all that the Czech project did not make it to the very top. However, there is still a chance that the main investor, the Egyptian government, might not choose the winning project and instead go for a more cost-effective one. Martin Roubik.

"I don't think the results of the competition will be changed but the Egyptian government, after all, is the client who has ordered this competition and the jury to judge it and it seems now they are not really happy about the results, it's up to them to find out if they want to do something about it. And I think they should think very carefully about choosing the right project."

All the projects are now on display in Giza, and, reportedly, the Czech project is attracting a lot of visitors. Rumour has it that it also attracted the attention of certain prominent politicians in Egypt. After the results of the competition were announced in Cairo, on June 9th, architect Martin Roubik had a long private conversation with the wife of the Egyptian President, Mrs Mubarak, details of which he promised not to disclose.

When I spoke to him in Prague, one part of Martin Roubik's mind seemed to be still in Egypt. Arab music was playing on the stereo, the architect himself was wearing a traditional Egyptian knitted skull cap and he was smoking Egyptian cigarettes.

"Well, cigarettes in Egypt are even cheaper than in the Czech Republic, so I usually come back here with several hundred of them - and I like them. Actually, I smoked them when I was about eighteen years old. Cleopatra was the thing which was, you know... you couldn't get Marlboro but you could get Cleopatra. So now, forty years later I'm back to it."

And how does architect Martin Roubik feel after the year of hard work, drawing, calculating, travelling to Egypt and back, burning the midnight oil...?

"One year... I'm brainwashed. I'm all Cairo, Egyptian Museum and pyramids and Cleopatra cigarettes..."