In Conversation: Mohamad Hafez
Mohamad Hafez is a Syrian-American artist and architect based in New Haven. Hafez’s art reflects the political turmoil in the Middle East. His art imbues a subtle hopefulness through its deliberate incorporation of verses from the Holy Quran. At the core of Hafez’s work, the verses offer a contrast between the pessimistic reality of destruction and the optimistic hope for a bright future.
Mohamad: Who reads this publication?
Editors: Students, at best.
Mohamad: If they find time, that is. To me, your time at Yale is becoming irrelevant.
Editors: How so? What’s something that art allows you to do but architecture doesn’t?
Mohamad: It’s never about architecture and art - I don’t have “art work” and “architectural work”. All of this is my work, they’re intertwined. Many architects have lost that understanding that architecture is also art, philosophy, anthropology, activism. We’ve watered-down the profession with aesthetics. Every once in a while we go do something, feed an African or Syrian kid, I would call that activism of building a nice tent. But I’m disappointed with the status quo.
I walked away at the highest point of my game. I was 27 and finishing a 60-storey skyscraper in Houston, managing people twice my age. And I realized that we are brutal to each other. We push students to pull all-nighters in school—that life model I’ve seen with freshmen in college all the way to somebody who’s worked for ten years. And as a result, we lose track of society, we are not part of the community. Our focus is primarily stone and mortar and aesthetics.
Look around you, in the built environment—95% of the new buildings will tell you the status quo. What are we manifesting? This is why I left and started working on my own architecture that combines the art and the community.
Editors: What is missing in our current discipline?
Mohamad: It’s an educational flaw for many decades. We pushed students to live and die at their desks instead of out there in the society. If you have zero interest in other disciplines, you will just not have it [good work]. So you need to make a conscious effort in school. You can talk about activism all you want, but remember that half a block away outside the school, you can do a lot more for the communities there. And your collateral damage is so low in comparison to these barges by getting your feet wet in so many things. If one way doesn’t work out, you can try the other. We are at a bit of a disadvantage as architects, because we are valued at a lower rate.
Editors: Yes, many people have been driven to take on unpaid internships.
Mohamad: That’s the other thing, look at this café, now I run my own business. We spend three weeks training people, because there’s a learning curve to make Syrian baklavas and specialty coffee. I pay every single minute for the three weeks of training. Some people are shocked about that, and that just tells you the status quo. When we accept unpaid internships, that in itself is a rotten route. And then consider a horrible economy, a pandemic, and people who are willing to take this job for half the salary. The companies have the upper hand. The system also has you put your time in for many years, and then you will make money when you become a partner. They hook you by giving you incessant deadlines. Deadline this week, another deadline next week. They use this trick to make you run and jump faster. But it won’t work anymore.
Editors: It’s challenging for a student who is put at a disadvantage from day one. To make a living and pay off the debt, we may have to work for that corporate firm. What can we do?
Mohamad: I think you [students] are so bright and so connected. The first thing is to know that there’s a problem. You want to go somewhere, but your financial situation and your life brings you onto this tanker, and it’s going deep into the ocean. There’s nothing wrong with entering the corporate world so you can pay your student loans, but ask yourself: how much time is it going to take me to jump off onto my float that goes in the right direction? I’m giving myself X years. If I hit my target, great. If I don’t, I recalibrate. But it’s important to remind myself: I don’t believe in it, I’m looking to jump. If jumping was that easy, everybody would. I, too, struggled to jump off for 10 years, it was not until my art allowed me to jump. I had my art practice going in parallel for 15 years in secret, and then I came out to the world with a big body of work. I know that’s not the situation for everybody, so you have to find your safety net.
Editors: Can that ever be architecture? Are the problems with our discipline inherent to architecture as a practice, or is it to exploitative economic practices in general?
Mohamad: I believe wholeheartedly in the power of architecture and beauty. Look around this coffee shop (Instagram:@pistachionhv). I touched every single wall and ceiling in this shop. This brick wall was behind three different walls, and we had to chisel it by hand to bring the original brick. So I completely believe in the power of design. There doesn’t always have to be social activism to it. I’m using my talent as a designer to make money? No, that’s not bad. We should make money.
But architecture shouldn’t be a silo. The architects I know are not part of their society. Their practice is fully separate from their existence as human beings. I think this is driven by the exploitative economy. In a capitalist society, the world is not up to the architect - it’s usually the billionaire, the hedge fund, or the lawyers who call the shots. They don’t give a flying falafel about anything that increases the cost per square foot. So over decades of this relationship between owner, developer and architect, the system has beaten the architect.
Editors: So how do we prepare ourselves?
Mohamad: One thing architectural education doesn’t teach you is how to be a good businessman. How can you be an entrepreneur? Run your own business? From the day you start at a corporate firm, know that you’re starting your own businesses too. You’re growing because
it takes time to grow a baby. That baby is that little escape boat, that you’re going to jump off the barge. Just remember your belief.
When I got published… my architectural circle barely acknowledged it. It makes you question your moves, and that, is a very scary feeling. You’re trusting your intuition. You’re moving against the majority of architects and the American society to do that. And it is suicidal if it’s not well-engineered. But once you take your own path, you’ll meet so many amazing people when you take your own path. Go meet real people, real caliber. Many people are low key, but they’re amazing. People are doing phenomenal stuff on their own.
So it’s not an easy fix, but I see individual solutions. I see you guys working together, finding like-minded souls. As we know, once you graduate, everybody’s in different worlds, right? But now’s the time to have that pact. It just takes two or three like-minded people to do something together, to build that escape boat. I was blessed to have my art, so what is the boat you’re building? Magazine, journal, art, anything.
Mohamad’s work can be viewed at http://www.mohamadhafez.com/.