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Hassan Fathy (1900-1989)

Often referred to as the ‘Architect of the Poor’, Hassan Fathy used a particular interpretation of tradition to propose an alternative modernity

6 hassan fathy architectural review

6 hassan fathy architectural review

Illustration by Georgemma Hunt

At the age of 78, in a key scene of the documentary movie Il ne suffit pas que Dieu soit avec les pauvres, Hassan Fathy was interviewed at his Ottoman-Mamluk flat, at the foot of the Cairo Citadel. Swathed in a brown cloak, he walked back and forth on the house’s rooftop with the ensemble of Cairo’s buildings and the dome and minarets of the Sultan Hassan Mosque behind him. In the background are the sounds of chaotic traffic and the chants of the muezzins. To the question ‘who are you?’ he answered: ‘I’m an Arab architect who has lost every point of reference in the Arab society, who has lost his arabité. I’m searching for an architecture and an urbanism, searching and trying to find my lost arabité’. In this simple statement Fathy summed up the entire meaning of his work and poetics.

 ‘For many years Fathy’s projects have been described as Postmodern vernacular, and only recently has he been rediscovered as a master who proposed a different idea of modernity’

Hassan Fathy’s oeuvre can be understood as a continuous search to define an appropriate architecture with respect to the local context, one capable of expressing his arabité. His work poses an opposition to foreign cultural domination and the use of Western architectural models in the Arab region: a trend which was particularly in vogue in Egypt at the beginning of the 20th century. He wrote: ‘In modern Egypt there is no indigenous style. The signature is missing; the houses of rich and poor alike are without character, without an Egyptian accent. The tradition is lost, and we have been cut off from our past ever since Mohammed Ali cut the throat of the last Mameluke.’

Known as ‘the architect of the poor’, Fathy’s name rarely appears in histories of architecture of the 20th century. For a long time, his work was associated with the vernacular and confined to the boundaries of critical regionalism, making the Egyptian master a full member of that ‘multifaceted family of architects’, such as Dimitris Pikionis, Jože Plečnik or Fernand Pouillon, who, due to their heterodox interpretation of modernity, were almost forgotten during their lifetimes. During his long career Fathy designed more than 170 projects, but only the village of New Gourna (1945) achieved real international attention, thanks to the publication,

7 hassan fathy architectural review

7 hassan fathy architectural review

Source: Martin Lyons / Linda Northrup

 

24 years later, of Fathy’s book Gourna, A Tale of Two Villages, the first time his work became known to a wider architectural community outside Egypt.  Fathy was born on 23 March 1900 in Alexandria, Egypt and at the age of eight his family moved to Cairo. His father was a landowner and former senior police officer, who left his job to become a teacher and study law. His mother was of Turkish descent and spent part of her childhood in the countryside, which provided her with the stories she told young Fathy and his brothers of animals, farmers and rural life. He watched this same countryside from the windows of the train as they travelled from Cairo to Alexandria for their summer holidays. Memories of the Egyptian countryside would re-emerge in Fathy’s choice to address his work to the fellaheen (farmers) and in his thinking on rural housing.

Studying and then teaching in Cairo in the 1920s and ’30s, Fathy came into contact with representatives of modern Egyptian art, when the country was still under colonial rule. It was a period in which Egyptian writers, painters and sculptors were beginning to rediscover their Egyptian identity, and a similar impulse can be seen to underlie Fathy’s work as he wrestled with the attempt to find an architecture capable of expressing a true Egyptian and Arab identity.

5 hassan fathy architectural review

5 hassan fathy architectural review

Fathy, pictured here sitting on the right, moved to Athens in 1945 to work with a team under Constantinos Doxiadis 

Fathy discovered Nubian vernacular architecture and the significance of the vault in Egyptian history during a trip to Aswan, visiting archaeological sites with students in 1941. The reference to Nubia was already clear in his project for the Hamed Said house, built a year later in the Cairene suburb of al-Marg, evolving into a paradigm in his architectural language. This house was also one of Fathy’s first attempts to use mud bricks. The idea of building with clay was fostered by the outbreak of the war which had blocked the import of iron and timber. There was a real need to use local materials, which Fathy answered by observing peasants’ houses and by developing an in-depth understanding of the use of mud bricks in the construction of catenary vaults and domes.

15 hassan fathy architectural review

15 hassan fathy architectural review

Source: Rare books and special collections library, American University in Cairo 

East elevation of three houses of 1934 in Dahmit Village, Nubia, surveyed by Fathy in 1962

The Hamed Said house represented a turning point, a radical change in the architect’s language. The building, in fact, already contained most of the elements that would form Fathy’s design concept – that is, his search for ‘a felt space’ capable to ‘convey an Arab feeling’, which can be found both in the New Gourna village and in most of his following projects.

The story of New Gourna began when the inhabitants of Old Gourna, a village inside the archaeological area of the Valleys of the Kings and Queens, cut out and removed a rock carved from the tomb of a pharaoh. The episode persuaded the Department of Antiquities to move the village a few kilometres from its former site, and Fathy was commissioned for the project in 1945. Old Gourna was only one reference among many for the new settlement, which included buildings of Upper Egypt, palaces, streets and houses of medieval Cairo, Pharaonic architecture and drawings as well as a world consisting of stories, forms and figures that gave substance to Fathy’s architecture. The New Gourna houses gouache can be viewed, in this respect, as a manifesto for the project. The landscape is archaic and constructed with the insertion of a few symbolic elements indicating the idea of the place: Hathor, goddess of fertility, acting in support of the project’s success; Ibis, protecting the housing; the sycamore, representing regeneration; and the sacred mountain of Luxor, the only specific geographic reference. 

14 hassan fathy architectural review

14 hassan fathy architectural review

Source: Rare books and special collections library, American University in Cairo 

Village of New Gourna in 1948

2 hassan fathy architectural review

2 hassan fathy architectural review

Source: Aga Khan Trust for Culture / Photo: Gary Otte

Gouache of New Gourna houses, 1946

This marked the invention of Fathy’s architectural and poetic language, which, in the case of New Gourna, became also a silent instrument to communicate the idea of an anonymous architecture, one that, as stated by Fathy, has ‘the appearance of having grown out of the landscape that the trees of the district have’. The move was resisted by the inhabitants, who had no desire to leave their old houses or their trading of archaeological finds, and who later decided to flood the new village. Due partly to a lack of support from the government, New Gourna remained incomplete. Fathy’s disillusion was such that he decided to leave Egypt, moving to Athens in 1957: ‘I understood that there was no place for me in Egypt; it was evident that mud brick building aroused active hostility among important people there’. He spent five years with Constantinos Doxiadis, collaborating on housing projects for Pakistan and Iraq, and the research project City of the Future. Despite being in his late 50s, this period was one of the most fruitful of Fathy’s entire career. It was then that he came into contact with the ideas on urbanism of the Modern Movement, and undertook a theoretical systematisation of his own thinking.

8 hassan fathy architectural review

8 hassan fathy architectural review

Source: Rare books and special collections library, American University in Cairo 

Axonometric of house unit, Iraq Housing Programme - in the ’50s, Fathy was influenced by the Modern Movement 

3 hassan fathy architectural review

3 hassan fathy architectural review

Source: Aga Kahn Trust for Culture / Matjaz Kacicnik

This is particularly evident in the project of New Baris, his second commission for a small town, that Fathy obtained when he returned to Egypt, a rural settlement that was partly built from 1965. A general lack of economic resources combined with the Six-Day War then interrupted the village’s construction in 1967, which was never resumed. The few buildings actually finished stand today as a modern ruin in the middle of the desert. In New Baris, Fathy’s montage technique became a kind of design rule, deriving from what he learned in Greece about the idea of classes of community which Doxiadis included in the concept of the Dynapolis, or the dynamic city. As in most of Fathy’s projects, the choice of mud bricks as building material recurs.

A low-cost material available on site, this choice also had an ethical and expressive value. Normally, cities and villages were built over time and in stages. Designing a new settlement would require an ability to conform the new to the existing conditions, only possible with local materials – furthermore, Egyptian farmers had always used clay to build their homes. Fathy considered mud brick to be the most appropriate material, for what it symbolically expressed and its resonance with the context. According to Fathy, the use of mud leads to a result which is ‘bound to be natural … most basically of all, in terms of its texture and colour. It’s the same mud, the same colour, as the environment – that’s one aspect of good faith’. 

12 hassan fathy architectural review

12 hassan fathy architectural review

Source: Viola Bertini

Fathy’s New Baris public buildings, 1967, with museum in foreground and market vaults to rear

10 hassan fathy architectural review

10 hassan fathy architectural review

Source: Viola Bertini

South-west side of New Baris market 

1 hassan fathy architectural review

1 hassan fathy architectural review

Source: Aga Kahn Trust for Culture / A Albek & M Niksarli

Although the building material is the same, New Baris, when compared with New Gourna, shows a greater architectural mastery in the use of traditional elements which were transposed from the Egyptian or Arab tradition and then reassembled into a new architectural language. At New Gourna, most of the public buildings were a direct quote of pieces of ancient or vernacular architecture, while at New Baris they became the result of a creative work on the tradition itself, not a mimicry but its reinvention.

In the ’70s, Fathy built several stone private villas outside Cairo, purchased by wealthy Egyptian families. Paradoxically, the architect who dedicated all his life to building for the poor was more successful among the upper classes. Perhaps this is due to the wealthier classes’ recognition of the cultural value of Fathy’s work, often not welcomed by the greater public who, chasing the myth of the West, of progress and modernity, barely accepted the idea of living in traditional houses built with mud brick. It was Fathy himself who commented: ‘What defence can the feeble peasant culture put up against the clamorous attack of Western industry?’. 

13 hassan fathy architectural review

13 hassan fathy architectural review

Fathy explains Dar al-Slam project in New Mexico to future inhabitants in 1982 

9 hassan fathy architectural review

9 hassan fathy architectural review

Source: Salma Samar Damluji

The rear of Andreoli Residence in Fayyum 1985 with its red garage door 

Books hassan fathy architectural review

Books hassan fathy architectural review

Two of Fathy’s most famous publications Architecture for the Poor and Natural Energy and Vernacular Architecture 

These stone houses can be considered as the manifestation of the research into the traditional Arab house he began in the 1930s. While the use of vaults and domes was originally due to Fathy’s choice of mud bricks as his main construction material, at this point in his career the employment of these forms was so assimilated into his architecture that he used them in different contexts and with different materials. A final demonstration of this approach can be found in his last settlement project, that for the Islamic Foundation of Dar al-Islam in New Mexico, opened 1982, where, although the village wasn’t in the Arab region, he used the same language and materials that had become an integral part of his poetics.

For many years Fathy’s projects have been described as Postmodern vernacular, and only recently has he been rediscovered as a master who proposed a different idea of modernity: inventive work with tradition, carried out with the aim of expressing a lost arabité. Fathy left a small number of disciples who are continuing his struggle to avoid the use of Western models in Arab architectural culture. Here, in fact, little has changed since Fathy inaugurated his research on tradition, while his way of making architecture has been gradually reduced to a style, becoming a status symbol for the upper class. But his research hasn’t been lost: his book on Gourna has been translated in more than 20 languages, and in the long term, proved a valuable lesson in architecture for generations to come.

Key works 

Hamed Said house, al-Marg, Cairo, 1942
Village of New Gourna, Luxor, 1945-48
Garagos Village ceramics factory, Qina, 1950
Fāris school, Fāris, 1956
Village of New Baris, Kharga Oasis, 1965-67
Fathy house in Sidi, Krier, 1971
Akil Sami house, Dahshur, 1979
Dar al-Islam project, New Mexico, 1980
Andreoli Residence, Fayyum, 1984

Quote

‘We need a revolution, a mud brick revolution – without one we won’t be able to do anything’

This piece is featured in the AR February 2020 issue on Soil – click here to buy your copy today