EGYPT? WHY EGYPT? A Landscape Architecture’s Firm’s Route to International Practice
by Wilfrid L. Gates, Jr. ASLA

Gates, Leighton & Associates, Inc. (GLA) is a successful twenty-six year old landscape architecture consulting firm with offices in East Providence, Rhode Island, Brunswick, Main, and -- Cairo, Egypt. What? We are always asked how we ever started an office in Egypt.

I’ll tell you this, none of us sat around back in 1994 thinking about expanding our practice to Egypt, or anywhere else, for that matter. Our twenty-person landscape architectural practice was doing well and expanding here in southern New England. But, one phone call broadened our outlook!

The short story is that, Bob DiLeonardo, a world-class hospitality architect and designer, and the founder of DiLeonardo International, in Warwick, Rhode Island, asked us to join his design team for a new Ritz Carlton resort hotel in Egypt. We thought about it for about a second and said yes! Within days of Bob’s call, we all met in Cairo and traveled to Sharm el Sheikh near the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, which was the site of the resort.

At first we had difficulty finding the site, as there was absolutely no nearby development and very little in the way of landmarks. What we did find was a hard crusted rocky desert extending from the one central main road directly to the Gulf of Aqaba.

Gates Image 1
The Sharm El Sheikh Desert. Our first view of the hotel site in Sharm el Sheikh clearly indicated the challenge facing us as landscape architects. The entire site was one big coral rock desert with no growing media, no water, and no definition. Copyright © Gates, Leighton & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved, used by permission.

After a couple of days, we began to feel comfortable in the area as we became familiar with the topography and visited other resorts a few kilometers distant. We also had another learning curve—the local building materials, plants, and construction methods that are very different from our New England experience. The key to our success was the realization that the art of landscape architecture is universal and that learning the local ways and means was something we could indeed achieve.

Over the ensuing seven years, I traveled to Egypt about every two to three months. Because the resort was a Ritz Carlton, the landscape plan and gardens were critical to its identity and reputation. I met wonderful nursery and landscape professionals who helped me learn about the availability and choices of plants that can survive in the 130°F summers of Sharm el Sheikh. Bob DiLeonardo wanted the gardens to be spectacular and he gave us great latitude and responsibility to make that happen.

Gates Image 2
The Ritz small lake and waterfall with overhead lazy river in background. After about four years, the site material was sufficiently pulverized, and enough organic matter had been imported to create the client’s required botanical garden with the use of desalinated water. The striking overhead structure is a raised aqueduct of the lazy river in the children’s park. Copyright © Gates, Leighton & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved, used by permission.

Gates Image 3
Main Arrival Porte cochere at the Ritz Carlton Sharm El Sheikh. The lush green high impact plantings at the main arrival point and porte cochere use desalinated water through a drip irrigation system to minimize evaporative loss. Copyright © Gates, Leighton & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved, used by permission.

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The Meeting Place Overlook at the Ritz Carlton Sharm El Sheikh. Heavy plantings were introduced to cover the bed areas, shade the ground, create outdoor rooms, and guide guests throughout the complex. Copyright © Gates, Leighton & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved, used by permission.

Along the way, many fine Egyptian architects and engineers also participated in the planning, design, and construction of the Ritz Carlton. Through them I was introduced to several developers and their networks, and they later invited GLA to work on projects closer to Cairo.

We also established a strong affiliation with an Egyptian landscape architect, Mohamed Morsi, who earned his degree at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland. Mohamed and I worked together on a water park for the J.W. Marriott Hotel Mirage City Cairo, in a development east of Cairo.

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“The Beach” Waterpark at the JW Marriott, New Cairo. We had a lot of fun designing a wave pool, waterfalls, waterslides, and play areas for all ages of hotel guests. In the evenings, “The Beach” is transformed into an open air entertainment venue just a short walk from the main hotel building. Copyright © Gates, Leighton & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved, used by permission.

We also collaborated on Arabella Park, a high-end residential development of private villas in New Cairo. GLA is especially proud of the development, which is frequently cited as the gold standard for new residential compound planning and landscapes.

Gates Image 6
Arabella Park Twin Lake and Bridge, New Cairo. GLA introduced a very traditional, quiet, and beautiful landscape that complements the many high-end villas. The site is very hilly and underlain with fine sand. It was a great challenge to conserve water within the planting media. Copyright © Gates, Leighton & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved, used by permission.

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A portion of the pedestrian pathway system at Arabella Park, New Cairo. Handicapped accessibility is slowly taking hold throughout Egypt. Arabella Park was one of the first villa compounds to incorporate logical accessibility standards throughout. GLA’s design approach met the client’s requirements and provided a landscape well beyond expectations. Copyright © Gates, Leighton & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved, used by permission.

All of these projects in their various stages were underway simultaneously.  So, GLA decided it was made sense to open an office in Egypt. Today, Arthur Eddy, GLA’s Vice President of Administration and a talented Landscape Architect in his own right, is leading our participation in ongoing projects there.

While we make no claim that our experience extends beyond our office in Cairo, the past sixteen years have still taught us much about international practice that may be helpful to readers.

  • First, be open to all opportunities, learn what you need to know, and express your landscape architectural expertise confidently—wherever it may lead.
  • Second, ensure that your fees and contracts cover all travel and expenses. Structure your contracts to require substantial retainers and timely payments.
  • Third, use your international practice to strengthen your at-home credentials.

You will find that international travel and practice is exciting and educational. Welcome the opportunities for your personal and professional growth!

Wilfrid L. Gates, Jr. ASLA, is Chairman of Gates, Leighton & Associates, Inc., East Providence, Rhode Island, Brunswick, Maine, and Cairo, Egypt. He may be reached at:

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