Beyond the Façade – Mixed Use Architecture: the Mashrabiya System

Architecture can be considered as the mirror of a society as it reflects various elements, including the environment, surroundings, as well as social and cultural beliefs. In the case of Islamic architecture, this complex relationship produced diverse innovations that should not be generalised without geographical and historical contexts, as Islamic architecture adapts to changes of time and location. The city of Cairo is characterised by its dry climate, low rainfall, and high levels of sunshine. Consequently, its traditional residential architecture adopted design patterns, elements, and construction methods in accordance with its climate, which gave form to its architectural creations. Its mashrabiyas (window screens) were designed to not only fulfil these functions but also emanated from a profound need for intimacy and seclusion in accordance with Islamic teaching. This paper argues that the mashrabiya was innovative, multifunctional and fulfilled both environmental and social concerns. Cairo’s Mamluk mashrabiyas will be analysed as a representation of Egyptian mashrabiyas to understand the irrefutable relationship between the environment, architecture, and social and cultural values.

This paper comprises of two parts. The first section explains the historical background and function of mashrabiyas in the Middle East in order to understand what makes Cairo’s Mamluk mashrabiyas distinct. In the latter part, the contrast between the historical usage and the contemporary applications of the mashrabiya will be investigated to understand how the knowledge of the past is being applied to the present by reinventing traditional practices for contemporary buildings.       

Mashrabiya origins and terminologies 

In origin and design, the mashrabiya is associated with the traditional architecture of Cairo and were typically found on the second story, or higher of a building. Initially applied during the Mamluk era (1250-1517) in Egypt, the mashrabiya designates a technique of turned wood that is used to produce lattice-like patterns that adorn windows in traditional domestic architecture. Mashrabiya were originally named in Egypt and date to the thirteenth century, at the beginnings of the Abbasid empire. Researchers have tried to identify and locate the origins of the name mashrabiya, but there is no one definite answer. One theory suggests that the term mashrabiya derives from the Arabic word sharab meaning “to drink”. This is supported by the fact that at first, mashrabiya referred to the place where a clay pot of water was stored and cooled through the vaporisation of the water caused by wind movement through the openings. However, another theory proposes that it was derived from the word mashrafiya, also Arabic in origin, meaning “to observe” as people could see through it. And that, Mashrafiya was changed and renamed later to what is known as mashrabiya.

Exterior Mashrabiya in Cairo, Egypt 1865

According to Loredana Ficarelli, mashrabiya corresponded to the small objects in half-light used as the basis of support for the small jars as they needed to stay cool. He further explained that mashrabiya was a kind of balcony that was composed of small wooden elements that were assembled to create a grid. Though the certainty as to the naming of the mashrabiya is unknown, from these theories we can deduce that its naming may have related to its functions and make-up. Mashrabiya is also known under different terms according to the region. For example, in Saudi Arabia it is known as rawshan, which is derived from the Persian word rawzan which means windows. While in Iraq, it is known as shanashil, and kushk in Turkey and Syria, which means pavilion in Turkish. Thus there are several distinct types of mashrabiya, and their wooden latticework designs differ from region to region. However, the majority are sealed, in which the latticework is fixed (sometimes with coloured glass), and parts of these mashrabiyas can be opened like a window.

Mashrabiya and architecture

The main goal of Islamic religious architecture is to create a space in which humans can experience the presence of God. Therefore, Muslim artists used light, colours, and forms of objects to depict notions of the Koran to induce a sense of divine presence. Cairo’s style is based on the traditional Arab-Islamic urban patterns that is inspired by Islamic building standards. Its urban patterns were planned with narrow roads to provide balance to human scale and in medieval Cairo the compact hierarchy of narrow, winding streets contributed to the city’s aesthetics. Its Mamluk buildings were characterized by high-quality masonry work, monumental size, and carefully constructed facades. The most striking feature of medieval architecture in Egypt whether religious, commercial, or residential was its verticality. The principles behind the living units of Cairo at that time were virtually identical for large and small, rich or poor, with the only difference being in scale and decoration. Each dwelling had a living room or hall which was the main constituent of the house, with various dependencies attached to it to form a unit. Privacy was achieved for both men and women through the use of entrances, vestibules, and perforated wooden screens (mashrabiyas) on windows in the men’s quarters as well as in the harem (female quarters). Compared to other Islamic cities, residential architecture in Egypt was rather extraverted and wherever possible, provided with a view onto the street.

Mashrabiyas were generally featured in houses and royal residences and occasionally in open-air structures, and the system of orienting building spaces inwards resulted in the creation of two facades in Islamic houses. The first of these, the external façade which faced outwards towards the streets contained few openings which were covered by mashrabiyas. This orientation of the building’s façade influenced the size of the mashrabiyas openings, pieces, spaces, and overhang. In many cases, mashrabiyas were protruded from the exterior façade (although some remained flushed with the wall) to the street. The protrusion allowed the mashrabiya to face the airflow even if the airflow was parallel to the building’s elevation. With air coming from three sides, the mashrabiya had the ability to capture natural ventilation, even if the draught outside was parallel to the house’s façade and provide air movement. The second type, the internal façade surrounding the inner courtyard (which was the core of houses at that time) was also covered by mashrabiyas. The indoor courtyards fulfilled the essential roles of ventilating and providing a light source to internal rooms. Thus, mashrabiyas were used to enhance air circulation for indoor rooms as the air was drawn into the small openings of its lower section while hot air was drawn out through the large opening of its upper section.

A typical mashrabiya is made of unvarnished wood and is composed of three parts. The main mashrabiya opening of the lower section (that is below eye level) was made with fine turned pieces in a tight lattice pattern and an upper section (above eye level) with a more open lattice pattern of turned wood. The second part was the overhang found immediately above the main mashrabiya opening, and thirdly, a flat grilled window above the overhang that was often added if the mashrabiya did not provide sufficient airflow. The wood was assembled in an artistic manner to produce decorative forms of geometrical patterns, plant ornaments or Arabic writings. Plant based decorations included stems, twigs, and leaves, while geometric patterns were more common and were placed in a special order, with a pair placed in a horizontal position followed by another in a vertical position. This arrangement was distinct of Cairo’s mashrabiyas and can be seen in the lintel of al-Sultan al-Mansur Qalawun’s (Mamluk Sultan from 1279-1290) late thirteenth century tomb in Cairo. 

The Mashrabiya, its environmental and social functions

The mashrabiya has four capacities related to the environment. According to Hassan Fathy (an Egyptian architect) these functions include; the passage of light, controlling the air flow, reducing the temperature of the air current, and increasing the humidity of the current air. The cooling and heating capacities of the mashrabiya are related. Because of its wooden construct, the mashrabiya through the process of evapo-transpiration, would at night absorb moisture carried in the wind that passed through its spaces. When heated by sunlight, it released the moisture into the air that passed through it, thereby increasing humidity within a home and reducing its temperature. This is facilitated by the natural fibers in the wood which collect, hold, and remove extensive amounts of moisture. Moreover, the lower section of the mashrabiya blocks the direct rays of Cairo’s intense sunlight and reduces the glare. While the openness of the upper part compensates for the dimming effect caused by the lower section, and the overhang further intercepts the direct sunrays. The pieces of wood used to form the lattice were made of many small rounded dowels to diffuse the penetrating light and soften the contrast between dark wooden pieces and the bright spaces.

For maintaining the norms of veiling, gender segregation, and home seclusion, mashrabiyas were applied between the harem and any space considered public such as the street, residential court, or the reception hall. The mashrabiya, because of its screen like features constituted an architectural veil that was similar in function to the textile counterpart. In classical and contemporary Islam, the concept of the veil seems to have developed from Koranic bases and served social and mystical purposes. Thus, it is possible to argue that the first mashrabiyas may have been invented as an architectural affirmation of the Semitic practice of covering holy things. Mashrabiyas and qamariyahs (pierced screens) were primarily applied to separate women from men, ruler from the populace and, as a general rule the holy from the secular. Additionally, mashrabiyas were also installed inside the house on the upper floors and mainly in women’s rooms to overlook the inner courtyard so that women could keep an eye on the activities without being observed by visitors hosted by men in the same house. This works as an isolation partition to separate the men’s and women’s zones to preserve decorum.

View from a mashrabiya

 The mashrabiya was designed not only to cover and separate spaces but also to facilitate certain degrees of controlled vision. Like the veil, the mashrabiya allowed one to see but not be seen. By the mere nature of its fabric and design, it was possible to secure some appealing optical effects that emanate from a profound need for intimacy and seclusion. The tight pattern of the lower section of the mashrabiya insured a woman’s invisibility because when looked at from outside it appears as a completely opaque wall. Additionally, from the house on the opposite side of the road, a woman could not be seen through the wide pattern of the upper section of the mashrabiya. This is as a result of sharia (Islamic law) which stipulated the location of openings and their location in relation to the opposite house. However, the occupants behind the mashrabiya are not completely isolated from the outside, as it allows them to observe the outer activities without being observed from the outside. Its wooden patterns make it difficult for passerby to observe who is behind the mashrabiya, but allowed the occupants to see outside. For maintaining the norms of veiling, gender segregation, and home seclusion, the mashrabiya was the desired solution.

The Decline of Cairo’s Mashrabiya

Though the mashrabiya was an efficient solution to old time environmental and social issues, it proved its inefficiency in modern times. Up to the nineteenth century, mashrabiyas were common in all urban households and Cario’s facades were characterized by the numerous projecting mashrabiya windows. However, from the first half of the nineteenth century, Muhammad Ali (King of Egypt from 1805-1848) banned the construction of mashrabiya and encouraged the adoption of modern European architecture. Consequently, the mashrabiya disappeared from Cairo and was replaced by openings with sheesh (wooden shutters) and balconies, which continues to be the only devices offered to residences in Cairo until now. The former which claims to be a modified version of the mashrabiya is used to protect from dust, noise, and the suns glare. However, sheesh obstructs the needed air and daylight as well as the view. Moreover, modern devices have replaced most of the main functions of mashrabiya, such as ventilation and cool air. Modern fans and air conditioners provide better and more effective solutions to overcome the local climate.

Additionally, much of the cultural and social values of Islamic countries have changed throughout the time, which makes privacy less demanding in modern times. Social changes during the aforementioned time-period and until the 1950s by Islamic reformers, feminists, and some elite women began calling for the removal of face veils in Egypt. Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s (1956-1970) socialist policies encouraged work and supported the principle of sexual equality. It was during this period that women stopped wearing the veil and gradually began to adopt Western clothing and they began to increasingly interact with outdoor activities. Last but not least, the high cost of traditional mashrabiya construction due to its time-intensive labour needs (a single square yard of latticework can be composed of as many as two thousand pieces.) are among the reasons why the mashrabiya was not used anymore in modern times. Despite mashrabiyas being considered one of the most traditional elements of Islamic architecture, existing mashrabiyas are rare, and only a few can be found in preserved historical houses. One such example is the now restored Bayt al-Razzaz, a 178-room urban palace in the Darb al-Ahmar neighbourhood of medieval Cairo. In this palace, both examples of the projecting and flush mashrabiayas can be found.

Adaptive rebirth for contemporary applications

Despite the traditional mashraibyas decline in past decades, noticeable developmental revolutions regarding its shape, components, and materials have become popular in recent years. Architects have innovatively created distinct designs through a dramatic approach of the traditional mamshrabiya to address contemporary needs. Unlike the traditional mashrabiya which optimized static skin system that enable passive cooling to spaces through natural ventilation, modern mashrabiyas came to cover large spaces in terms of scale and particularly high rise buildings, which are fully glazed to provide a sense of light and luxury for the building. These high-rise glazed towers have become the dominant architectural typology for new buildings in Middle-Eastern countries with large amounts of glass being used in their facades as a way of expressing modernity. (By contrast, traditional buildings minimized openings to avoid heat and glare exposure caused by the sun). However, this building type is often unsuitable for arid and dessert climates as they have high heat retention rates that not only make them uncomfortable for occupants but also consumer more energy to cool.

An example of the Mashrabiya concept applied in modern architecture, Al Bahr Tower, Abu Dhabi

Thus, architects have been challenged to create efficient buildings to reduce discomfort, high expenses, and energy consumption. This has led researchers to promote several experimentations that integrate cultural-based elements into modern architecture that is evocative of local Middle Eastern vernacular. As such, architects have been challenged to interpret the notion of the mashrabiya into modern architecture to achieve environmental control. Though mashrabiyas have been applied to contemporary buildings to help reduce the internal temperatures through shading, it may be considered a technique that leads to high energy consumption within the building. While it tends to act as a shading device through static or dynamic skins, it neglects other environmental factors, such as ventilation, which was the main principle of the traditional mashrabiya. Because, the traditional mashrabiya used passive systems that worked perfectly to adopt the surrounding environment in the absence of high-technology, the sustainable features of the traditional mashrabiya have the potential to benefit contemporary architecture to create a more environmentally friendly architectural design. Undeniably, the knowledge and lessons of the past will help articulate a method that can be applied to the present by reinventing the remaining technique of traditional buildings. The legacy of the innovative mashrabiya is that it synthesized both technology and culture. It looked for the potential for a dynamic responsive façade in keeping with the notion that Islamic architecture adapts to changes of time and location.

Conclusion

In conclusion, this paper discussed Cairo’s traditional mashrabiya which were designed to fulfil environmental, physical, social, and religious needs in response to the local climate and social values. This multidisciplinary approach in designing and constructing Cairo’s Mashrabiya had cooling and heating capacities but also emanated from a profound need for intimacy and seclusion in accordance with Islamic teaching. The mashrabiya is considered as one of the most traditional elements of Islamic architecture and was used for many centuries. However, by the mid nineteenth century, there the construction was banned mashrabiya as modern devices were favoured and replaced mashrabiya functions as well as changing social and cultural values which made privacy less demanding. These resulted in the decline of mashrabiya from Cairo’s streetscape with very few existing today. Thankfully, architects have innovatively created distinct designs through a dramatic approach of the traditional mashrabiya to address contemporary needs, which resulted in noticeable developmental revolutions regarding its shape, components, and materials which have become popular in recent years. Consequently, the knowledge of the past is being applied to the present by reinventing traditional practices for contemporary buildings. 

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