Project Team


Dar Arafa Architecture SAM Architecture

Structural engineer


General Contractor

Sicra Île de France

Concrete contractor


Precast concrete

Decomo Belgium


Georges et Samuel (The GS Studio)



Maison d'Égypte

Waleed Arafa of Cairo-based Dar Arafa architcecture explains how he introdued ancient Egypt to Le Corbusier on Paris’ International student campus

The Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris (CIUP) is a unique location, established in the 1920s as a place where the young people of the world could learn and live together. There are 43 campus houses across the CIUP park, including famous modernist buildings such as Le Corbusier’s Fondation Suisse (1933) and House of Brazil (1957). When we reached the shortlist for the Maison d’Egypte, I declined any new paid commissions and asked everyone to wait for me while I conversed with Corbusier!

It started in 2018, when the Cité made 1,915m2 of land available to Egypt’s Ministry of Higher Education. The terms of the competition required an Egyptian architect to work alongside a French practice.

At the time, if you Googled “Egyptian architect” my name would come up, as I had just finished one of my most successful projects, the Basuna Mosque in Sohag, Egypt. I got a phone call from Bassem Shahid, a young Egyptian architect who lived in Paris, and he told me about the project. I thought it sounded like a scam, but then I found I had 10 emails, all from big, reputable practices. I like working with small teams, so decided to go with the first firm, SAM Architecture.

I was attracted by the idea of exploring Egyptian architecture outside its usual context. My masters degree had focused on the mosque in Britain. Because Britain does not have a long history of mosque building, the typology is not comfortable there yet – it hasn’t taken on the architectural language of its place. Conversely, that can help us to understand what a mosque is: by taking something out of its historic context, you can more clearly see its essential qualities.

That sparked an idea in my head for the Maison d’Egypte. France has a strong character, and Paris has an even stronger character. This would force me to try to understand what Egyptian architecture really means.

For me, it felt very obvious to start with a monolith. The architectural historian Sigfried Giedion said that the Egyptians were the first people to manipulate rock into stone as an architectural material. So stone was going to be the thing. We could carve out what we needed to, but the building had to look like a single piece of stone.

Of course, we had to factor in the local environment. Paris has a lot of stone buildings, but not all of them are in great condition due to the weather. SAM’s principal Boris Schneider suggested that we use precast concrete, which appealed to me as a modern form of processed stone. We could add pigment and acid-etch the finish to resemble Egyptian sandstone and, crucially, we could specify a self-cleaning surface.

It was also important to us that, as much as possible, the external concrete should be structural, not just cladding. We wanted to use it in the same way as the Egyptians used stone: as building blocks. The use of precast introduced the possibility of incorporating hieroglyphs into the main facade.

I worked with Egyptologists Salima Ikram and Anne-Claire Salmas to choose the texts, from ancient scripts about the pursuit of knowledge, and scale them to the correct proportions according to the canon of Egyptian writing. In a happy coincidence, the building is a similar height to the Luxor obelisk in the Place de la Concorde, which features probably the most famous hieroglyphs in Paris, so we were able to compare the spacing for each character. When we were sure everything was right, Decomo Belgium made the negative moulds from marine ply.

Another important element of Egyptian-ness was natural light. People often don’t realise how dark northern Europe can feel to Mediterranean visitors: your vitamin D levels go down, you feel depressed, your bones hurt. We wanted single- loaded corridors, which are very rare in the Cité, and configured the space so they all look over the naturally ventilated atrium.

The nine-storey curtain wall faces east, so gets lots of light, which is reflected and enhanced by the smooth concrete surfaces of the core walls. Summer heat is controlled by the shade from a mature red-beech tree. We worked with landscape designer Emma Blanc to understand how the tree behaved season by season, the light paths and angles – without that, we wouldn’t have had the courage to make a fully glazed facade.

The atrium also provides ideal conditions for an Egyptian garden, full of palms, lotus and papyrus – all plants that are loaded with symbolism. Papyrus was the first medium for writing, and Maison d’Egypte will hold workshops in papyrus-making and calligraphy. It is another way in which the building introduces students from all corners of the world to ancient traditions.