January 2018 e-Newsletter

A Unique Architectural Design for the New AUC Press Tahrir Bookstore

The 500 square-meter space of the new AUC Press Tahrir Bookstore is a fine example of elegant contemporary architecture. Its shiny marble ground floor leads to a sanded glass mezzanine and balustrades. The tall columns supporting the newly designed interior, panelled in dark oak wood, feature attractive embedded book shelves and display cases.

The conception for the interior of the AUC Press Tahrir Bookstore was to create a contemporary design, using simple forms with modern materials. But when resident architect Agnieszka Dobrowolska was commissioned by the American University in Cairo in 2008 to design the new bookstore and also restore the landmark neo-Mamluk Sheikh Rihan palace building, she was faced with a double challenge.

“It is much easier to preserve an old building or design a new building from scratch because you have to honor the past and it gives you restrictions in designing [a new space],” said Dobrowolska, who also designed other new spaces within the historic palace building, now part of the AUC Downtown Cultural Center.   

The open space of today’s bookstore was once a maze of cramped administrative offices of the AUC Registrar. “I had to remove all load-bearing walls of the offices, which was quite an exercise from a structural point of view because we virtually had to support the whole building on a steel structure that carries the weight of the AUC Press offices on the floors above,” added Dobrowolska, noting that the six new paneled pillars now serve that purpose.

“As a conservation architect I am very aware of historic buildings so I do not touch any historic decoration or historic features, I just play with contemporary forms within the existing space,” said the Polish architect, who has been living and working in Egypt for sixteen years.

Among the most distinctive features of her design for the bookstore are the ceilings and main entrance. A maze of tiny lights resembling a twilight sky glows from the high dark ceilings. “I took the inspiration from ancient Egyptian architecture because when I starting to work on this project I was thinking that a bookstore is a temple of reading and in an ancient Egyptian temple you had starry skies representing the skies of Egypt,” explained Dobrowolska. “But since we are in the twenty first century, we were not going to paint the stars so I used the newest technology available to implement this idea.” This visual metaphor is effectively created by fiber optic lights dispersed by crystals inserted in the ceiling.

The other distinctive feature of her design is the twist in the angle of the main entrance of the bookstore, located on the corner of Sheikh Rihan Street, off Tahrir Square. “[T]his was to contrast my new design with the old building and to enhance the idea that the bookstore was constructed in 2009, and not fifty, or a hundred years ago,” added Dobrowolska.

From the first impression to the detail, the architect weighed functionality, and aesthetic.

“I wanted to make the overall design almost simplistic and invisible so that it would not be over-imposing on its own,” explained Dobrowolska. “I used simple walls, simple colors, glass... to create a sober, and I hope a little bit elegant, neutral space for the books to be the most important visual element,” she added, acknowledging the important contribution of engineer Ashraf Shawki, and her design team.

To further draw visitors’ attention to the books, the display shelves were built at an angle. “It was a conscious decision so that you don’t only see book spines.”

Dobrowolska also suggested adding the mezzanine to accommodate twice as many books. “I realized that the interior was very high and by lowering the level of the floor a little bit, it was possible to design two levels, and thereby double the space,” she said.

On the ground floor, the recently-installed coffee corner inside the bookstore opens out onto a small garden terrace with chairs and tables, enclosed by a fountain and a row of small palm trees.

After AUC’s move to the New Cairo campus, much of the Downtown Campus exterior and interior was restored, renovated, or completely redesigned to house the newly established AUC Downtown Cultural Center, a dynamic hub for culture and art, in the heart of Cairo.   

In addition to the new Bookstore, Dobrowolska designed the Margo Veillon Gallery of Modern Egyptian Art, the AUC Legacy Gallery, and the AUC Future Gallery.

She also supervised the conservation of the grand staircase leading to the university’s presidential offices, and the restoration of all historic facades of the AUC Downtown Campus, including the Sheikh Rihan palace, a building built in 1874 for Ahmad Khairy Pasha, former minister of education and confidant of Khedive Ismail.

Some of the unique features of the building’s historic facades, representative of neo-Mamluk architecture, include the use of crenellation, pointed arches, and ornaments on balustrades.

Today the new AUC Press Tahrir Square Bookstore offers a complete selection of AUC Press publications, as well as a wide range of English-language books, in a quiet, modern surrounding. “It took me a year and a half to design the Bookstore and supervise the implementation. When you have people using it and if they are happy, it is rewarding,” Dobrowolska said.

Click here to view photos of the new AUC Press Tahrir Bookstore.

To read about the opening of the new AUC Press Tahrir Bookstore, click here

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