The Alexandria Library, which opened in 2002, is an important cultural center for much of Egypt—so much so that during Arab Spring, young citizens rallied around the building to protect it and its contents from looting.
The library’s shape is inspired by the ancient Alexandrian lighthouse, and its carved stone exterior harkens to Egyptian hieroglyphics—details which make it both a monumental symbol of knowledge and modern progress. So it might be surprising that the building was designed not by Egyptians, but by the founding partners of Snøhetta, the Norway-headquartered architecture firm.
“We want to create things that people can rally around . . . but we know cultural appropriation is a challenge,” says Craig Dykers, partner at the firm, when we spoke for Co.Design’s Studio Tours series.
“On one hand, people are looking to see their culture in a work in their place of residence,” he continues. “On the other hand, we’re not that culture, so how do we make it appear as though we are a part of their lives?”
It’s a challenge for global architecture firms, which have cross-continental offices and reach, but can’t possibly be literally headquartered in every location that requests their services. Dykers stops short of offering a catch-all solution for designing locally relevant architecture for international clients, but ultimately the firm owns its thoughtful, outsider view without imposing it onto local stakeholders, recognizing that its value might actually rest in the thousands of miles it may live from a site.
“Generally we interpret, or we intuit,” Dykers says of the process. “We provide fresh eyes to things people have seen, perhaps, all their lives.”