The Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) is one of the most important, ambitious and challenging museum projects ever undertaken.
It will house the world’s richest collection of artefacts: as many as 100,000 of them covering the whole of the Nile Valley’s ancient and classical civilizations. Many of these will be relocated from the Cairo Museum of Egyptian Antiquities and positioned on the edge of the plateau of Giza, beside the greatest artefacts of them all.
The ambition comes from the design brief, which was to create a museum that would display the moveable antiquities within the same physical context as the pyramid complex and the Great Sphinx.
Naturally, a collection of this importance had to be contained in some kind of architectural tour de force, but there were special conditions. For one thing, the design had to respond to the ancient site through the medium of modern architecture. And although it had to be very large and beautiful it also had to be, as far as possible, invisible.
The outer faÃ§ade, with its triangular motifs, is approaching completion
The challenge to the team building this paradoxical building was partly technical: the design of Dublin practice Heneghan Peng, which won the international competition launched back in 2002, would naturally pose some interesting problems for the engineers tasked with making it stand up. But it was also political and financial: the team had to steer this project of national significance through the years of Egypt’s national turmoil.
The grand opening
Waleed Abdel Fattah has been with the project since 2010, just before that turmoil began. He is the North Africa regional manager of Hill International, the scheme’s main construction manager, which operates in a 70/30 joint venture with EHAF, a consulting engineer based in Giza. GCR talked to him to find out where the project is now, and how the project team managed to create this temple to ancient history while so much contemporary history was taking place around it.
Originally, the museum was to have been completed in 2012, at a cost of $550m. But in mid-December 2010 the winds of revolution blew across the Arab world, ending, among others, the regime of Egypt’s authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak.
With normal life on hold in Egypt, completion was initially put back to 2015, while the projected cost rose to $810m. Now, Waleed says, the final figure will be around $1bn.
I think there will be a tremendous sense of awe– Waleed Abdel Fattah, Hill International
Egypt’s finances have been under strain for years, so it is fortunate that Japan is the museum’s main financial backer. The Japanese government agreed a $300m loan back in 2006. When the price climbed, work had to slow while the project’s client, the Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities, tried to raise the extra cash. In the end, Japan once again filled the funding gap.
The museum is oriented along sightlines based on the pyramids of Menkaure, Khafre and Khufu
"We knew that we would get the rest of the money a while ago," Waleed says, "but now it’s official and it’s been confirmed that the project will have another loan for $450m. It’s good news for the project, and with value engineering it should be enough. Everybody is pushing forward now."
It had been reported that the museum would be partially opened in 2018, but Waleed says that this will be brought forward to 2017. The goal is now to achieve the grand opening in 2018. "The date is set for May," says Waleed. "That’s the opening of the entire museum."
The signs are that the project will meet that deadline. The contractor for the scheme, a 50/50 joint venture between Besix of Belgium and Orascom of Egypt, has completed the structure and is now working on the faÃ§ade. "It’s been a conventional construction project for a while now," says Waleed. "We’ve had new client’s representatives on site pushing the project and making some hard calls, so I think things are coming together."
It wasn’t always so simple. One of the early milestones was to appoint a main contractor in 2012, a year that saw the election of Egypt’s fifth president, Mohamed Morsi, who would be ousted by the military in a coup the following year.
"The government and everything else was up in the air, but we managed to go through the processes and procedures to appoint a winner," says Waleed. "Then we had to go through more turmoil in 2013 during which we managed to successfully allocate the budget. We had to do what we could with the money available at the time. The priority was to keep the project afloat until we got the latest fund approved."
A view of the museum looking across the Nile Valley to Cairo
Waleed insists the series of national crises had little actual effect on the project itself.
"In 2011, in the beginning, we sent some of the guys away for maybe a week or so," he says. "But after that we never sent anybody home. We know the country and we realised that in the end it would not be a big event. We had a few days with limited hours, but the guys have been all the way through with us. We’ve had continuous site operations since 2012."
The invisible building
The winner of the architecture competition, which was held back in 2001, was the Dublin practice of Heneghan Peng. It beat more than 1,500 other entrants with a design for a 167,000-sq-m structure that was indeed almost invisible – at least when seen from the plateau of Giza. It achieved this by hiding most of its bulk behind a 50-m ridge about 2km from the pyramid complex, and by pointing one of its narrowest sides to the plateau.
Amid all of Egypt’s upheavals, the actual construction of the building might seem small beer. However, this posed enough problems to keep the project team occupied.
Render shows museum’s orientation to the pyramids (Heneghan Peng)
Waleed says that virtually nothing in the design conforms to those rectilinear junctions that make a contractor’s job easy.
"There are no straight lines. Everything is based on the axes of the pyramids, and three tops of the pyramids all converge at a certain point – this is meant to be like the rays of the sun, and it refers to Egyptian mythology. So, that’s the concept but when you come to engineer it, it’s a bit of a challenge."
The reward for working it out is that the pyramids appear through a vast glass wall, making them visible from galleries displaying the artefacts. This brings the pyramids into the museum, making them part of the visitor’s experience.
The other challenge for the structural team of Arup and Egyptian consulting engineer ACE was the roof, which Heneghan Peng wanted to "float" above the frame. As both were made of reinforced concrete, this was quite a request. Waleed says the engineers had a tough job to realise the design intent, especially as the roof had a folded form, like a partially opened fan.
"Tremendous sense of awe"
Here the lengthy delays caused by political events actually helped the project team by giving it time to work on the detailed designs required to make the concept design work.
Waleed Abdel Fattah has been with the project since Hill International was appointed in 2010
"In the beginning the contractor had to do some detailed design," Waleed says. "Some of the design was based on provisional drawing and we needed to add more detail. Maybe it didn’t look very productive on site but we managed everything in the end."
Waleed adds that the final form of the building will look "even more impressive" than the architect’s computer visualisations.
"We’ve almost finished the structure, so you can get an idea of how it will look. As you walk up the grand stairs and enter the building, you will have four big statues – Ramesses II will one of them – and as you go into the building there’s a huge glass wall where you can see the pyramids as if they’re actually being exhibited inside the building. Then you see the immense size of the building, and I think there will be a tremendous sense of awe."
Images courtesy of Hill International