Galal Mahmoud has seen enormous changes in the architecture industry since he first graduated from the Paris School of Architecture, over 20 years ago. One thing that has not diminished however, is his thirst to learn of new cultures and to take up the challenge of designing new buildings with an eye on adding value for the customer.
Today Galal is the President and Founder of GM Architects, a business operating out of Lebanon, but one with a growing geographic footprint.
Having graduated from the Ecole d’Architecture de Versailles Paris – Architecte D.P.L.G., Galal joined forces with Jean Pierre Heim, establishing a successful architecture business that primarily operated in France and the US between 1987 and 1996.
However, the lure of Lebanon in the mid-1990’s, a period of rebuilding after years of civil war, presented increasing opportunities and Beirut-born Galal found himself spending more and more time in his homeland.
“I am originally from Lebanon and at that time the country was under reconstruction as it was recovering from the civil war. We started to develop opportunities from out of our Paris office and given my multi-cultural roots, there was a good affinity with people in Lebanon and the business started to grow until it got to the point where I was spending more time in Lebanon than Paris.
“Lebanon offered opportunities on a much bigger scale that those available in France. In Paris we had made our name working on shops and residential projects, whilst in Lebanon we could handle bigger scale projects.”
And so it was that in 1996, Galal took the decision to relocate to Lebanon and establish his own business GM Architects.
“We had to start from scratch; whilst we had 10 to 12 people in our Paris office, we started here in Beirut with just 3.
“My European education and international background was one for which the Lebanese market had lots of appetite and it helped that I was also Lebanese. Because Lebanon is a relatively small country, you build up a network very quickly over here.”
The first big project that GM Architects secured was one which helped to take the business in a new direction, one it has since excelled within, as Galal relates:
“We worked on the design of one of the first “trendy/hip” restaurant lounges in Lebanon, called ‘The Circus’.
“Following that project we started doing lots of restaurants and then managed to work on the Crown Plaza in Beirut, which was our first large project.
“I became attracted to hotel and hospitality projects which were springing up around Lebanon and presented a variety of concept challenges covering food and beverage, meeting rooms, guest rooms and suites.
“Hotel projects would give us bigger challenges and the work would often last longer, so we began to work with large international chains which were starting to open across the Middle East and allowed me to employ a bigger workforce.
“There are not many interior design firms in Lebanon that have our level of experience and we are the market leaders here, working with the likes of Accor, Starwood, Radisson and Rotana.
“But we also saw the opportunity to expand our geographical footprint and we are now competing in Africa and the Middle East. Because of the historical instability of Lebanon, roughly 40 per cent of our business has been located here, with the other 60 percent around the world.
“Today I am very spread out in Africa, Northern Africa and Southern Europe, as well as the Middle East. We try to diversify as some countries may have a slow-down in business.”
Galal has been able to recruit impeccably educated employees who can add real value to the business:
“The advantage in Lebanon is that people you hire are extremely well educated. We operate 2 offices; our team in Beirut is 100 percent Lebanese, while our Abu Dhabi office is 80 percent Lebanese.
“One of the advantages is that all our team have been able to adapt to the latest technology as the design industry continues to evolve.
“When I started out everything was 100 percent drawings, but over time things began to migrate to CAD programs and we are now 100 percent using computer technology, which means we can cover bigger territories.
“In the current environment we can find ourselves working on very large projects with third parties located around the world.
“The modern tools allow us to increase our capacity for more projects and to deal with more challenging designs. There are no limits to creativity thanks to various computer software and hardware.”
From small and humble beginnings, GM Architects has thrived and grown to 28 employees in Beirut and a further 6 in the Abu Dhabi office. Maintaining control of the growth is an important consideration for Galal, who wishes to retain the culture that has served his business so well for 20 years.
“I am very hands-on with all projects and we have developed a work methodology that allows me to monitor all processes.
“We have on average 8 to 10 projects happening at the same time, covering design or construction and at various phases of each project.
“The big challenge is to retain the concept of a great idea through the life cycle of a project, to make sure it is preserved and it needs the right attention on large scale projects as so many things can change.
“For me, the biggest challenge as an architect today is to be a solution provider, a project manager, a technician and a creative mind – and to combine all of these qualities is always the challenge,” Galal says.
As we speak, Galal is excited at the impending completion of a flagship project on the northern coast of Morocco:
“The opening will take place of a very large Sofitel Hotel resort which will include 140 rooms and occupies 40,000 square metres of land on the beach.
“We started this project 6 years ago and it represents our main ethos of design and architecture, with a holistic design from the entrance throughout the building, including the interior.”
The Sofitel Tamuda Bay is a luxury five star hotel located in M’diq, a town located on the northern coast of Morocco about 20 miles east of Tangier. For Sofitel, the Sofitel Tamuda Bay is the luxury hotel brand’s latest project and encompasses 104 bedrooms and suites, 8 bungalows and 5 villas. Located on one of the most beautiful Moroccan beaches of the Mediterranean, and set against the stunning backdrop of the Rif Mountains, the Sofitel Tamuda Bay will stand proudly in one of the most idyllic settings in the entire kingdom.
Today’s clientele in the luxury hotel sector searches for aesthetics, quality and excellence. The Sofitel Tamuda Bay, as with most hotels within the Sofitel group, strives to anticipate and exceed such expectations. Tamuda Bay offers a genuine experience in French art de vivre combined with the refinement of an authentic Moroccan style. GM Architects, under the leadership of Galal Mahmoud, were commissioned as architects and interior designers for the resort. The prize for “Best New Hotel” at the 2011 International Hotel Awards went to GM Architects for their work on this project.
Galal visits each site in person to get a feel for the place, an approach he calls “contextual immersion”.
He makes a preliminary study of the site and the surrounding landscape, including local history, in order to integrate contextual references such as climate, geography and even topography. It ensures a certain respect for the identity and culture of the place.
This approach drove the architect’s work for the Sofitel Tamuda Bay. He took the cultural references of northern Morocco and reinterpreted them in a contemporary language, and then integrated them into the final design. Tangier is punctuated with wonderful contrasting strokes of cobalt blue and white and these have been a vital source of inspiration.
GM Architects designed the Sofitel Tamuda Bay’s architecture and interiors in such a way as to blur the boundaries of indoors and outdoors, with a view to creating a genuine experience of well-being for all guests to enjoy. Sky and sea blend into a beautiful palette of blues to offer a once-in-a-lifetime Mediterranean experience. The very essence of the project is the fusion of the opposing shores of the Mediterranean: on one side the French Riviera’s world of contemporary art and glamour and on the other, Morocco’s charming traditional crafts and authentic lifestyle.
Such attention to detail can only be achieved by Galal maintaining his hands-on role and he says of the Tamuda Bay project: “We were allowed to do it all.
“There is no typical project, but we work mainly on projects where people want to benefit from our creative approach.
“We want to create something special for the user, something that provides well-being.”
Other current projects include a boutique hotel in Mykonos, Greece, and a new 450 room hotel in Oman.
Whilst technology has played a significant role in changing the processes involved in architecture, environmental considerations have also had a big impact in recent years.
“I think it has become irreversible and we cannot build and then think of how to reduce the carbon footprint any more. It is the responsibility of the architect but it is also all about common sense from the outset,” Galal asserts.
One gets the sense that Galal‘s desire to explore and learn of new cultures is a profound motivator for creating new challenges for his business. The Sofitel Tamuda Bay illustrates perfectly how he derives inspiration and creativity from new surrounds and it is a passion that shows no signs of relenting:
“If I had a call from South America, asking me to consider a new project, I would travel tomorrow,” he says. “It is intellectually enriching to look at other countries and cultures and represents a new challenge. We have always had an approach to look at new experiences.”
Galal says that the recent economic downturn in the Gulf region has reduced the number of projects and has increased competition:
“Today there are lots of developers who look at architects just by how much they will charge and not the added value they can bring to a project.
“We can be commercially competitive but we will also bring added value in a competitive environment. It is all about how to make a project more appealing to customers or guests in the long-run and that is where an architect can make a big difference to a commercial project.
“Our approach is to target and identify industries that are more interested in quality of design, space and experience. It is more about conveying the message of quality over price.
“We are a boutique size firm in the region and I want us to remain that way so that we can handle projects whilst maintaining a hands-on control to ensure our concepts are delivered.”
The Sofitel Hotel project is a pointer to a new area of expertise for GM Architects and one Galal is keen to build upon:
“We are shifting more and more into seafront developments for real estate and hotel resorts and this has been a trend over the last 5 years.
“Geographically there is no limitation and we are already working on the coastline of the Mediterranean in Greece and Turkey. Then there are opportunities in the Caribbean and South East Asia,” he concludes.