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Reinterpreting tradition: Hassan Fathy

Jan p9

On the occassion of Hassan Fathy’s death in 1990, James Steele reflects on Fathy’s search for the true meaning of tradition

Originally published in AR January 1990 as an obituary, this piece was republished online in February 2020, along with a Reputations piece on Hassan Fathy published in AR Feburary 2020 on Soil. 

Jan p9

Jan p9

Hassan Fathy (1900-1989)

At a time when pluralism is prevalent and architec­tural styles seem to change as rapidly as the seasons, it is especially important to mark the passing of Hassan Fathy, to whom fame came late in life, but who never wavered in his deep belief in the need for cultural continuity in the built environment. That belief began to be tangibly expressed more than half a century ago as he became increasingly convinced of the socially destructive agenda of the International Style, and confident enough in the validity of his own research to propose an alternative to it. While wide ranging and not restricted to Egypt alone, that research did focus on several local sources that involved him most, such as the rapidly disappearing fabric of medieval Cairo, and the techniques of mud brick construction that are still used by Nubians in Upper Egypt. From these, and many other sources, Fathy fashioned a highly personalised and ethnically appropriate spatial and structural system and con­tinued to work within the self-imposed restrictions of this formal language during his entire professional career. His ability to do so served as a perpetual source of inspiration for those around him as they searched for deeper meaning in their own work, but feared the loss of creativity and individuality that they suspected a more traditional direction might entail.

‘in his view the re-interpretation of traditional forms was not self-contained, but served as the means by which the missing link in the chain to a pre-industrial past might be re-discovered’

Fathy’s architecture offered tangible proof that such fears were inconsequential, and he has been and will continue to be a role model for many. The basic dividing line he has exposed to his followers has been between ego and the timeless value of selflessness. In seeing architecture as a continuum, he has highlight­ed the role of creativity itself as the desire to comply with the standards established by the collective wisdom of the community or a society rather than a desire to make a strong personal statement, or to shock. In so doing, each architect becomes free to uncover the creative possibilities in a previously undiscovered interpretation of a past standard. As Said Zulficar, the Secretary General of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, has said about his work: ‘It would seem that Hassan Fathy has failed to have an impact on his own country … and yet, his invaluable legacy has provided deep inspiration for younger architects, whose prime concerns are to preserve cultural identity in architecture, while providing appropriate and affordable shelter for the disinhe­rited of the world.’

‘He looked at tradition in the original spirit of the Latin root of that word, meaning continuity’

Fathy was able to reach an international audience for the first time in 1973 with the publication of his book, ‘Architecture for the Poor’. His recounting of the exhilarating, frustrating and ultimately tragic story of the building of the village of New Gourna between 1945 and 1948 totally captivated the imagination of a public that had just begun to search for an alternative to the relentless sterility of modern architecture. While the work certainly provided him with a wider audience, it also unfortunately typecast him as the champion of those whom he once called the ‘economic untouchables’ of the world and has tended to obscure the more basic message he has to offer. In spite of the title of his book, he did not believe that there was such a thing as an architecture for the poor, but did feel that aesthetics, cultural values and economy, as well as adherence to physical and natural laws must combine to play an important part in all architecture. This belief, in conjunction with his commitment to the social role of continuity in architecture is ultimately far more critical to an understanding of his contribution than a detailed study of the surprisingly extensive built legacy that he has left behind. That contribution has been infinitely enriched by his universal approach to his work, in which architecture, rather than being seen as a self-contained endeavour, was treated as a natural extension of culture and not as an end in itself.

His search for the true nature of tradition, as a key element of culture, therefore became a central concern to him, and in his view the re-interpretation of traditional forms was not self-contained, but served as the means by which the missing link in the chain to a pre-industrial past might be re-discovered. He looked at tradition in the original spirit of the Latin root of that word, meaning continuity, handing over, or constantly renewing, and not sterile or dead. In his view, one lifetime was of no consequence in this renewal, because of its relative brevity, becoming important only as a contributing factor in a continu­ing process. As he has said: ‘Our architecture was not formed from the individual work of one man nor in a single lifespan, because it had to have, tradition, and there are cycles that need more than one lifespan to crystallise’. By reawakening the latent creativity of his countrymen, and demonstrating the infinite variety that is possible within convention, he has helped to insure that these cycles will once again be perpetuated, and the current debate over the role of tradition in architecture shows that his contribution is now more valuable than ever. 

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.