Hassan Fathy brings function and tradition to meet with aesthetic excellence in the earthen-built village of New Gourna
Originally published in AR September 1947, this piece was republished online in February 2020, along with a Reputations piece on Hassan Fathy published in AR Feburary 2020 on Soil. The text is entirely a product of its time, riddled through with orientalising or otherwise denigrating ideas – what is more acutely conveyed than any architectural qualities is the attitude held by European writers of the time to the architecture of anywhere else.
An architecture in which the claims of convenience, hygiene and economy have been so imaginatively satisfied that the result is beauty – this, though it sounds too good to be true, is what I found last Spring in a village now being constructed in Upper Egypt. Returning to Cairo after twenty years, I was appalled by its changed appearance: skyscrapers that are at once coarse and mean-looking, built in a style that pretends to be modern and succeeds only in being already old-fashioned, have destroyed the once beautiful silhouette of the city. Though most of these are designed by foreigners, the Cairenes seem to regard them with a complacency all the more shocking, because they have under their eyes Islamic monuments that are among the supreme masterpieces of architecture. The richer Egyptians seem to despise their own civilization, once so nobly expressed in buildings, furniture and clothes; yet they take from the West chiefly what we Occidentals deplore as vulgar and ridiculous. They revel in Swiss chalets, Gothic palaces and Germanically modernistic tenements, which they proceed to adorn with sham Renaissance furniture, oil-paintings from the Salon, half-timbering in the roadhouse manner and ornaments from the Paris Exhibition of twenty years ago.
‘Indeed I know of no other new housing scheme in any country that so well combines simplicity with elegance, usefulness with variety’
It was a surprise, therefore, as well as a delight to come upon a village in course of construction near Luxor, that revealed conspicuous imagination and good taste. I succeeded in meeting its architect, an Egyptian named Hassan Fathy Bey; and I spent a night in one of its houses, which enabled me to appreciate the refinement in the proportions of these apparently so simple buildings. The history of this building-scheme is singular. The limestone hills on the western side of the Nile valley opposite Luxor are riddled with innumerable tombs, many of them royal. This is the necropolis of Thebes, the capital of the Pharaohs, and the chief source of the fantastic treasures by which ancient Egyptian civilization is known to us. The site still offers to archaeologists the promise of marvellous discoveries. On the lower slopes of these hills are five hamlets that form one village of some six thousand inhabitants, which is called Gournah. The Egyptian Service of Antiquities wishes to remove these hamlets in order to excavate the site. Some of the houses actually open into tombs, and animals are stabled among wall-paintings thousands of years old. In the past, moreover, the villagers have profited by their peculiar situation, digging through their floors to the ancient burial-places and removing treasures from them for illicit sale. Rather than provide an indemnity in cash for the dispossessed inhabitants, the Department wisely obtained the consent of the Government to build a new village in the plain, where the people would be close to the fields they cultivate. The design for this new Gournah was entrusted to Hassan Fathy Bey, a lecturer in the Cairo Ecole des Beaux Arts. In the design of various private houses he had shown an understanding, all too rare in Egypt, of the local tradition of design.
He began by getting to know the villagers individually, discussing their needs and their wishes. Then he produced his scheme for the new Gournah. This consists of a single agglomeration, divided into five quarters, corresponding to the five existing hamlets; and a centre which contains the mosque, the town hall, the bazaar or shopping place, the Sheik’s house and a Khan. (In this Khan artisans will live and work, weavers, potters, carpenters-craftsmen who will have to be imported since the villagers have hitherto neglected these useful activities).
At the corner nearest the station of the little local railway is the market-place, planted with trees, with an arcade at one end and a cafe nearby. Here, except on market days, the children will be free to play. Shade is a prime necessity in Upper Egypt, where the sun blazes, with a ferocity almost unendurable in summer, from a sky that seldom knows a cloud. The orientation of the streets and the provision of arcades make it possible to walk through the village in the shade, and the houses are designed to catch the prevailing wind. At another corner there is to be a large pool, with stone sides, to cool the air and to provide healthy bathing. (The Nile water with which the fields are irrigated is infested with an organism that produces bilharzia, the most widespread disease in the country). Every precaution against malaria is also arranged : a few years ago an epidemic of malaria killed a quarter of the inhabitants of Gournah.
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The architect decided that the most practical and economical method of construction would be the method that has been used locally for centuries. (Who except a German could be astonished at this?) The material is the sun-baked brick with which men have built in the Nile valley since before history. The mud is taken from any adjoining field, mixed with the straw mentioned by Moses, and with cattle-urine; it is then hardened by exposure to the sun into bricks of three sizes, for walls (26 x 12 x 7 cm), for vaults (27 x 15 x 5 cm), for domes (23 x 14 x 5 cm). The exorbitant price of wood in Egypt makes the use of domed ceilings an economy; and these domes, pierced with small openings, give dignity to small rooms, making them seem more spacious. The masons, brought from Assouan, are remarkable hereditary craftsmen, who construct vaults and domes without centering; and these will support a great weight so that the villagers can use their roofs for storage.
‘The village that has begun to rise, so far from disfiguring the landscape, will take its place serenely on the road between the river and the Ramasseum’
The foundations are of rubble, the doors of wood; otherwise the whole building is in brick, including raised recesses that serve as tables, seats and cupboards. The houses are plastered and whitewashed. Their only ornaments are little balustrades of open brickwork, but the mosque will be appropriately embellished. The houses are designed to preserve the privacy demanded by Moslems, with an angle in the entry passage, and a small interior patio, planted with a tree. The houses have two stories, the upper one containing a terrace. The ground floor includes a space for cattle, which the fellaheen like to keep under their eyes, and this is so arranged that they cannot bring them into the rest of the house, as is their unhygienic habit. Each family from old Gournah will find in the new village a house suited to their numbers and requirements, and near their old neighbours.
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The signal interest of the scheme lies in the art with which Hassan Fathy Bey has used the demands made by economy, hygiene and social custom to produce architecture that is aesthetically excellent. The part of the village that has already been built affords intense pleasure to the eye by its variety, simplicity and harmony. A limited number of forms have been so orchestrated as to produce an effect that one feels to be natural as well as picturesque. Here the functionalist and the traditionalist can for once agree in admiration. Nowhere in Egypt did I discover a more impressive proof of continuing vitality this comparatively modest scheme reveals a sureness of taste that reminded me of the fine Islamic art of the Middle Ages. Indeed I know of no other new housing scheme in any country that so well combines simplicity with elegance, usefulness with variety. This is an unmechanical, essentially human architecture, which suits the landscape and will positively improve with time.
When the village is completed, it will provide a model for the rural housing that is needed throughout Egypt to meet the growth of the population, to raise their standard of living and to improve their health. It will incidentally attract visits from experts from every country who concern themselves with contemporary architecture. But will it be completed? The scheme, which in England, France or the United States would excite widespread interest, has received comparatively little attention in Egypt, except from foreigners. The very fact that it employs traditionally Islamic idiom seems to diminish its attractions, although the Egyptians are passionately nationalistic. This is paradox of which I shall not attempt an explanation: it would carry me too far from my subject. I am now concerned only to provide a short description, and to express the delight I received from a remarkable work of art. After sleeping in the vaulted recess of a square, domed room, I rose early, and from the roof watched the dawn bright above the other side of the Nile, and then the majestic hills above old Gournah rose-coloured as they caught the sun. This is one of the most numinous sites the world contains, and what wonder that the Pharaohs chose it for their temples and their tombs? A huddle of shacks here in the foreground would be a disgrace to Egypt. The village that has begun to rise, so far from disfiguring the landscape, will take its place serenely on the road between the river and the Ramasseum, and foreign visitors will realize that Egyptian art has a present as well as a past.
This piece was republished online in February 2020, along with a new piece on Hassan Fathy published in AR Feburary 2020 on Soil. Read the new piece here.