Maher Lamie Megallaaa is the palace builder of Abu Dhabi. The Egyptian architect has designed skyscrapers, majlises, mosques and cathedrals and “not less than 18 or 20” palaces.
At his office on the Corniche overlooking the Gulf, Mr Megallaaa flips through an old catalogue from his firm, Architectural & Engineering Consultants. Their palace projects take discreet names: "multi-storey villa", "private resort", "prestigious villa".
“For my first ten years, most of my work was palaces,” said Mr Megallaa. “It was really difficult for me to do more than one palace for one person – every palace has to be completely different from another.”
His designs include palaces in the Seychelles and France, and the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in China, a gift from the Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation to the Muslim community in Ningxia, China. It holds 6,000 worshippers.
But his work will be most familiar to Abu Dhabi residents. He estimates that his company has designed about 30 buildings in the city– including the First Arab Bank headquarters, the Holiday Inn and the Twin Towers on Airport Road.
Mr Megallaa landed in the UAE during a construction boom in September 1977.
“At that time, Sheikh Zayed would give the local people two lands – one land for his house and one for the commercial building. From having nothing, everybody had [land].”
This meant everybody needed an architect. When Mr Megallaa arrived with a Lebanese consultancy, he saw what he calls a “salad” of influences.
“There were many architects from all over the world and everyone would do something to suit him."
In 1982, he and his wife, Nabila, left their jobs to open their own firm. His wife was the accountant, secretary and financial manager. “We started with three persons: myself, my wife and one office boy. But it was very good to work together because I will never find a person who will help me and be honest with me other than my wife.”
The day the office opened on October 2, 1982, he received a call informing him that he had won a bid for his first project against several well-established consultants.
“When I came in for the first day, my wife said to me 'what are you going to do? You don’t have any work’. But we received the first gift from God on the first day.”
Mr Megallaa was soon commissioned to design a palace for President Sheikh Khalifa’s mother, the late Sheikha Hessa bint Mohammed, in Al Ain.
Hospitality is the most important consideration when designing a palace, explains Mr Megallaa. It requires special attention to the majlis, a reception room where the sheikh receives guests and the public.
As the senior in the family, Sheikh Khalifa’s mother was in the unique position of hosting both men and women.
“Really, they told me she was like the mayor of Al Ain. She works with everybody and she deals with everybody – men and women.” To reflect her openness, he designed an open space with an eight-metre-tall glass room and an 85-metre Moroccan fountain.
“Of course, the size of the kitchen in these palaces – it’s like for a hotel. Really, you can say that this kitchen can serve, minimum, a hundred people.”
Then there are matters of discretion. Mr Megallaa recalls presenting a design to a regular client who noticed one thing was forgotten: the hairdressing room. “He will never go to a hairdresser,” said Mr Megallaa of the client. “They come to his palace. This place has to be very private.”
In 1984, when Mr Megallaa was asked to build a mosque in Al Ain, he had to seek permission from the Al Ain municipality because he was Christian.
“At that time, some of the local people didn’t believe that a Christian architect could design a mosque. The owner of the mosque went to the Ruler of Al Ain and told him that he would not work with any other architect.”
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He has since completed nine mosques and seven churches, including the St Anthony Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Abu Dhabi where he is an active member.
At age 78, Mr Megallaa continues to work. Yet, of all his life’s work, he speaks with the greatest pride when he is on the topic of his daughter in Egypt and son Shadi, a DJ-turned-entrepreneur of a vinyl record store in Dubai focusing on electronic dance music, instead of following in his father's footsteps.
Mr Megallaa prefers the classics of Umm Khalthoum and Abdel Halim Hafez to electronic dance music, but realises that his son is creating, just as he did.
“We went to Reem Island for his show once just to show we appreciated it.”
“All our friends say to him, ‘your father did a lot of work to have this [business] now’. But really I believe that no one will be successful if they don’t like their job. Sometimes I spend a very long time doing some new designs, just like Shadi.