Coronation pride for royal architect Khaled Azzam

After years lost in an educational wilderness, the Egyptian-British designer found his niche as a world authority on Islamic art and architecture with noble patrons such as King Charles III

Dr Khaled Azzam, Director of the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London, with some of the work produced by his students and previous alumni. Mark Chilvers for The National
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The Chelsea Flower Show was just some annual event that happened in London as far as Khaled Azzam was concerned, until the day he answered a call from the heir to the throne.

Prince Charles, inspired by two antique Turkish rugs at his residence in Gloucestershire, was on the phone with an unusual brief: “I want you to work with me to design a garden.”

“I thought it was fabulous,” Azzam tells The National. “I’d never designed a garden before in my life so I went to see him at Highgrove House. He’s long been fascinated with Islamic art and architecture, and, because that's what I practise, we always spoke about such things.

“He said, ‘All these carpets that I live with and love are interpretations of gardens, but I would like to design and build a garden that is an interpretation of carpets. I want to flip it around'.”

So it was that in 2001, among the usual avant-garde displays and emerging trends at the horticultural showcase, the first entry ever submitted by a member of the British royal family instead dug deep into the past.

The classic Islamic charbagh representing the four gardens of Paradise in the Quran was a crowd-drawing triumph yet, when it won a coveted silver-gilt medal, Azzam remembers thinking: “Whoa, that’s crazy.”

In situ ever since at the Highgrove estate, The Carpet Garden is the living incarnation of the two men’s long combined efforts to bring forth new shoots from ancient artistic roots.

Now, more than 20 years on, Azzam presides as director of the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts that is regarded as a centre for excellence in teaching the geometries held to be the common thread between age-old skills all but abandoned in much of the modern world.

The aim is to nurture patterning techniques such as the kind of inlaid stone workmanship used to create the Cosmati Pavement, the 13th-century mosaic floor on which, fittingly, the throne will be placed during the coronation ceremony for King Charles III inside Westminster Abbey on Saturday.

An extensive network of PSTA outreach programmes has spread across the globe from the core educational base in London to regenerate the cultural heritage of different regions and communities, from Jamaica to the UAE to China.

But, from the outset, the school’s ethos often evoked incomprehension, ridicule and, at times, undisguised animosity from some within the art establishment.

“There were moments that I was very, very worried, saying, ‘if this dies, it dies with us',” Azzam recalls. “What His Majesty was saying that architecture, cities and education should be about, and how we should deal with the environment, was not commonplace. All those things were seen to be interesting and quaint. We never saw ourselves as being alternative. We were part of what we used to call ‘essential thinking’.

“Very early on, we had this strong bond; we understood exactly what we had to do. Then, I had to understand something. He was a prince, now he’s a king. We’ve had visionaries, we’ve had patrons all throughout history, that is the role of a prince. But my role is to make it happen.”

If the mission was to accumulate centuries of precious creative knowledge for alumni to reinvigorate and, in turn, hand to the next generation then there was one significant impediment.

“There weren’t any masters to teach us,” Azzam says.

The disconcerting discovery came when he went to set up a regional centre in his birthplace in 2005 with the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, Art Jameel and local artisans from whom he had hoped to gain a deeper understanding of tradition.

Instead, Azzam had a moment of transformational thinking that “not everything old is beautiful” — the craftsmen and women, in spite of their evident skills, had for generations been learning by rote.

“I really respect them and their role in the community but some of it was quite shoddy workmanship. They would start telling me, ‘Ah, but you don’t know, I am an eighth-generation carpenter and I learnt this from my grandfather'.

“But, because we came from an academic background and could analyse this stuff, I said, ‘your grandfather made a mistake three generations ago and you’re just repeating that mistake'.”

Most saddening for Azzam, however, was that the artists were stuck perpetually reproducing the same designs over and over again. Without much grasp of the underlying mathematical principles, they were incapable of extending the lineage of their traditional arts and crafts by creating anything new.

“It opened my eyes to the limitations of simply teaching young people through copying the forms of the past. We had to go back to the origin, to deconstruct buildings and understand how they were built. We had to look at certain principles to see what they were about. In a way, it was a voyage backwards.

“Then there was a moment where we started turning around, and now we feel that there is enough of a contemporary heritage to call it a living tradition and move into the future.

“If we’ve been successful in one thing, it’s in really delivering the philosophy into practice. It’s not just talk, it’s about making things, creating this process from the origin to the manifestation.”

That their son would end up running any school, let alone a prestigious art institution for the Prince’s Foundation, would once have been inconceivable for Azzam’s parents, Laila and Omar, who long kept quiet their fears over his prospects.

The fact that I not just got into university but got a PhD and became involved in education… my brother says it's a sign of the end of the world

Young Khaled, despite being widely read and full of curiosity about what was happening in the world, was nonetheless lost within the four walls of a classroom.

“I was always last in the class because I just didn’t understand what was going on at all.

“Although my parents never let on, they admitted it much later, saying, ‘You know, we didn't think you'd even make it into university'.

“And the fact that I not just got into university but then got a PhD and became involved in education … my brother says it's a sign of the end of the world,” he says, smiling affectionately at the long-running joke.

It pops up again when we’re discussing Azzam’s receipt of the Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order, a knighthood granted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2009, and his speech before Pope Benedict XVI as representative of Muslims at an interfaith forum the following year.

“I don’t know why until this day that I was chosen,” he says. “It’s another sign of the end of the world, according to my brother.”

Azzam puts being such “a terrible student” down to a childhood disrupted by frequent geographical moves but doesn’t rule out an undiagnosed learning difficulty. “In our day, you were just stupid if you didn’t get it,” he says.

Education eventually took its place as the most important part of his working life once he began to understand that the Latin root, educere, means “to draw out of” not “to put into”.

As a consequence of his own difficulties, he feels an enormous responsibility towards those unable to cope with school systems intent on treating students like empty vessels that need filling with facts and figures.

“I became very, very interested in the journey you take a student through to bring what’s in them out to the surface,” he says.

Though born in Egypt, where his mother “always returned to have her babies”, the family lived abroad because of his father’s job as a senior urban planner for the UN.

After a stint in Saudi Arabia, there was a relatively settled period of 10 years in Lebanon until civil war broke out. They struggled on for almost a year until Omar, working in Paris at the time, suggested that the rest of the family join him temporarily: “Just come over for Christmas,” was the gist, “things will die down.”

I felt I belonged in that building, that it was part of me. It was a very profound experience that changed my life somehow

“We managed to get on a flight one day very, very quickly — just packed a hand bag each and ran off to the airport. We left everything behind, all our books, our toys, our belongings, our clothes and just never went back because the war never ended. We had to rebuild our life. Then England became my home and I’m very grateful.”

This is not quite how his younger self felt when first pitching up late one Autumn afternoon in what was then the “very, very small town” of Cambridge.

“There was nothing to do. In those days, everything shut at five o’clock. It was foggy, cold and damp, and I’d just spent two years in the South of France. I was trying to figure out what I had done wrong.”

The posse of four siblings received a hospitable welcome from the locals and quickly grew to love their adopted home and the architecture lining the cobbled streets.

There was a particularly memorable encounter, surrounded by fluted limestone columns, medieval stained-glass windows and Tudor symbols in King’s College Chapel that would later inform much of Azzam’s work.

Beneath the celebrated fan-vaulted ceiling of the 500-year-old Gothic landmark built by a succession of English monarchs, the teenager made an unexpected discovery: he found himself.

“Physically, I had nothing to do with that place. Culturally, I was an Egyptian who came to England. I wasn’t even an architect yet. I was doing my O-Levels and A-Levels.

“But there was something in me that completely understood that building; the message, the beauty of it.

“I felt I belonged there, that it was part of me. It was a very profound experience that changed my life somehow.”

Arriving at what he says all the great civilisations of the world had known, however, came only with time and experience.

It has been a constant journey of learning with two particular guiding lights along the way. The first was Abdel Wahed El Wakil, the foremost authority in Islamic architecture with whom Azzam subjected himself completely for eight intense years at a “hothouse” of an office in London.

“We had a difficult relationship because he was very demanding but he was my master who taught me everything I know about architecture,” he says. “I just totally understood that this idea of apprenticeship is to give yourself to somebody, and if you find that person, you're very, very lucky.”

Through El Wakil, he met Keith Critchlow, the renowned geometer and founder of the Visual and Traditional Arts Department at the Prince’s Institute of Architecture, and developed a deep fascination with the properties underpinning the order of nature.

He talks of the intricate chambers of the nautilus shell and the honeycomb built in hives by bees or the movement of planets over time across the night sky, but perhaps his favourite example is the delicate, six-fold symmetry of a single ice crystal.

“All snowflakes are hexagonal because the molecular structure of water is hexagonal yet — and this blows my mind every time I say it — no two snowflakes that fall on the ground are the same.

“There is a principle of unity manifesting variety. All snowflakes start from the same origin but their final form is the record of their journey down to Earth. In a way, that’s us as human beings as well.

“If you look at a DNA structure, the very basic thing that binds us all together, it’s a beautiful spiral that has a certain proportional system and yet we’re all different."

The firm belief that we all have the same origin is fundamental not only to his work at the school but also as principal of Khaled Azzam Associates, the “little practice” he started in 1991.

It is hard, he agrees, not to lose count of the many architectural projects he has been involved in over the years: mosques like that commissioned by King Abdallah II to commemorate his father, the late King Hussein, in Amman; royal residences, commercial buildings, offices and schools across the Middle East; and, most recently, the master plan launched by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to sustainably develop the historic Al Ula site in Saudi Arabia where he is headed a few days after our interview.

“I’ve been running two careers, that’s why the number of projects looks bigger than it is,” Azzam, now 62, says modestly.

When it’s pointed out that there doesn’t seem to be much spare time weighing on his hands, Azzam concedes that he wouldn’t know what to do with it if he had any. He works all day, never tiring because, well, he doesn’t see it as work.

“I am blessed in my life because I do things I love. I think very, very early on in my career, I just said: I want work to be part of my identity, part of my character — it all has to be one.

“The school has always been somewhere that I found a great sense of nourishment and fulfilment. And it's very much part of my life. My wife, Mona, complains that they’re my family more than my family at home.”

Home proper is Clapham in south London, where Mona has laid the unshakeable foundation that has made “all this possible”, Azzam acknowledges. Everything is taken care of so that he never has to worry: the house, the well-being of their children, Issam, 24, and Nadia, 19, and the bills “that she knows I won’t pay”.

A few hours before the rest of the family wakes each day, he is already at his desk with a cup of coffee, drawing while looking out across one of London’s largest parks.

“It's very quiet,” he says. “There's nobody there, and then you see one person, then two people, and then you see life coming through, and you start having a funny relationship with it. It's beautiful.”

From his perch, Azzam envies the super fit elderly man who runs around Clapham Common each day, and often wonders with a glint of amusement what the dogs make of their owners diligently picking up after them.

He watches the latest exercise trends come and go with the seasons — the boxing or tai chi or, as with a few years back, “everybody standing on their heads”.

No surprises, though, that after a lifetime eschewing fleeting fashions, he isn’t inclined to join them.

Updated: May 05, 2023, 4:36 PM