Wadi El Gemal Visitor Center

Located 50 km (30 miles) south of the Egyptian Red Sea shore town of Marsa Alam, and an hour flight south east of Cairo, Wadi El Gemal National Park was officially declared the 24th protectorate in Egypt in 2003, primarily due to its striking landscape and important cultural resources.

Wadi El Gemal Visitor Center in Marsa Alam, Egypt by MADA Architects

Text and images are courtesy MADA Architects.

Stretching from the Red Sea coast to about 50 km (30 miles) inland, Wadi El Gemal National Park (WGNP) includes roughly large areas of terrestrial habitat and marine life, as well as Roman ruins, significant religious sites, quarries, and indigenous communities. The combination of marine and terrestrial habitats represents an important integrated ecosystem. The one-story, 250-sm (2,700-sf) Visitor Center is located at the WGNP’s northern entrance atop a hill.

The building serves two main functions: 1. Orienting visitors and disseminating essential information about the park’s nature and inhabitants (Ababda tribes) through maps, brochures, tours, and presentations to increase visitors’ appreciation of, and sensitivity to, the distinctive natural, environmental and cultural resources of the area. 2. A reception and pit-stop that is predominantly open, serves basic visitors’ needs, such as refreshments, and presents local crafts. It also houses office space, a store room and provides ample uncovered parking at its front entrance. Restrooms are housed in a separate annex.

Conceptually, the design of the building was inspired by the acacia tree, the only tree type abundant in this arid desert. The Visitor Center was designed to offer shade and shelter where multiple activities can take place. The simple floor plan allows for the client’s program requirements to be functionally and esthetically laid out while creating a playful semi-outdoor ambiance that lends itself more to the surrounding natural elements. The building's placement on the site is axial to an existing acacia tree, thus respecting its presence and using it as the prime element of its southward vista.

The Visitors’ Center introduced in its composition the same materials used by the nomadic Ababda tribes in erecting their Bersh houses. The design was also inspired by the traditional Roman construction methods, found in remnants of watchtowers, fortresses, and watering stations in the WGNP. The Visitor Center is conceived to be a "model" that demonstrates how local resources can be redefined and how the available know-how can be developed to bring into being other constructions. Hence the design is laden with sublime messages that aim to guide the ordinary building practice of tourist resorts in the region.

The positioning of the building safeguards it users form the prevailing strong northwestern winds. Its massive yet permeable periphery of stone walls and columns make the visitor aware of the natural surroundings, which are allowed inside the building.
While the architectural presence of the building in its setting is pronounced, its environmental impact is minimized, due to the reuse of almost all of its building materials. The building used minimal amounts of cement mortar and relied on stacking Basalt stone with clay infill on outer joints.
An innovative Lego like technique was used to be readily visible and self explanatory. This was purposely done to show how the building was put together and how most of its elements can be reused when its played out its life.
The design is inspired by Bersh dwellings which, at first sight, look like bird’s nests or stacks of sticks with no inner space. Yet, the intricately stacked branches perfectly filter light and offer a relaxing inner atmosphere.
The roof of the Visitor Center is made of two layers; the lower is a wood beam structure covered with panels of palm midribs. This layer was sealed in some areas where dust is considered nuisance and left open in other areas to allow the infiltration of light.
The prevalent architectural element that hovers over the building and conveys its main character, while astutely protecting its spaces, is a large corrugated sheet metal roof covering a latticework of wooden trusses supported by thick stone bearing walls and columns. | The thick bearing stone walls, while acting as a latent mass for the enclosed exhibit space, also shield the outdoor space from the strong prevailing northwest winds creating a comfortable shaded area through which visitors can move freely. Openings are screened with rough tree branches to filter light.
For the Ababda tribes, the acacia is considered the reference point in the open wide desert; offering the much needed landmark, shade for gathering, and a source of nutritious pods, branches for construction and firewood. | The building uses local igneous Basalt stone quarried by the local Ababda tribes from nearby mountains as the main construction material for foundations, walls and columns.
The galleries are arranged in sequence to allow for a clear linear path. A double-roof system allows for the free permeation of air, thus, dissipating the heat of the desert direct sunlight.
The remoteness of the site from any utilities advocated the necessity of designing the building to be self sustaining, but it was also a major hardship during construction, with no access to electricity or running water. The immediate idea after an initial site visit was to use local building materials and labor, utilizing low technology building methods.