Architecture Misfit #8: Hassan Fathy

Hassan Fathy (1900 – 1989)

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Hassan Fathy was responsible for 160 projects from houses and schools to large-scale communities. His most major work was the building of the village of New Gourna (1948-1952), near Luxor, Egypt, without the use of modern and expensive materials such as steel and concrete. This project was documented in his 1969 book Architecture for the Poor. 

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800px-Gurna_Mosque_R01Hassan Fathy would count as an architecture misfit for this alone – for having the effrontry to design for the poor and call it architecture. The following quote is from his 1989 obituary in the AP News Archive.

He advocated mud brick instead of concrete and steel, preferred quiet inner courtyards over high-rise apartments and had as his ideal human hands, simple tools and traditional methods instead of highly paid contractors and imported technology.

Fathy often was labeled a crackpot and charlatan in Egypt, the land of his birth. He was all but forgotten except by Egyptian intellectuals.

But his designs in mud brick, volcanic rock and compressed sand were long hailed outside Egypt, and his death was front-page news Friday in Cairo dailies. He designed the first mud brick mosque in the United States for an Islamic community in New Mexico.

Fathy’s 1969 work, ”Architecture for the Poor,” became a standard text in architectural classrooms, inspiring a generation of builders trying to solve acute housing shortages and exploding populations of the Third World.

It has been translated into 22 languages – but never into Arabic.

The obituary continues, mentioning that

he struggled without success to convince Egyptian peasants that mud brick, a traditional building material in Egypt, is preferable to concrete.

And policymakers too, I imagine, in their quest for symbols of modernity and progress. And not to mention the architectural establishment. (His Royal Highness Prince Charles, did call Fathy “a remarkable Egyptian architect who for 40 years has had to put up with persistent vitriolic criticism and denigration by the modernist architectural establishment”. I don’t know which is worse – to suffer the criticism of the architectural establishment or to suffer the praise of Prince Charles for annoying them. Both have a distaste for the poor. The difference is that Prince Charles has always thought that if the poor can’t be invisible, then at least they should be picturesque.)

* * *

As soon as one sees the degree to which Fathy’s buildings were total economic, social, cultural and climatic solutions, it becomes clear what little meaning we really ascribe to modern terms such as “social and economic sustainability”.

* * *

Fathy’s knowledge accumulated from those 160 built projects is contained in his 1969 book Natural Energy and Vernacular Architecture which you can download for free here.

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This following extract is from the book’s foreword, written by Walter Shearer, Senior Programme Officer at the United Nations University. The entire foreword is worth reading – as is the book.

The vernacular architecture of the Arab World and neighboring regions not only solved the climatic problems but did so with a combination of beauty and physical and social functionality. This book describes some elements of the vernacular architecture developed by these societies over many generations to provide a comfortable microclimate using natural energy.

Yet, there is much more to be acquired than scientific understanding and aesthetic appreciation of the vernacular architecture of a people. A topic such as this can open the door to a recognition of the contribution traditional knowledge can make to the solution of many contemporary problems. 

The book contains not only knowledge, but wisdom. Some people have criticised the book for simply telling people what works in hot, arid climates without presenting sufficient quantitative data or citing sufficient academic references. Well, fuck them!

* * *

Hassan Fathy,

for using commonsense, intelligence and your own humanity
to extract the maximum economic, climatic and social performance
from the most humble of construction materials and resources in order
to improve the lives and livelihoods of people in poor communities,

hassan fathy

misfits salutes you! 

* * *

I saw this comment following a post about Fathy on the innovation diaries.

Hassan Fathy’s influence continues today. 

In response to the building materials embargo in Gaza, terrifyingly high unemployment, and habitat destruction linked to the Cast Lead military action, Swiss architect Bill Bouldin coordinated an International Labour Organisation building training program to support mud-brick reconstruction in Gaza in 2009. Working together with gifted local architect Rachid al-Ruzzi, innovative entrepreneur Emad el-Khaldi, and the Craterre earth-construction institute they trained new masons and led a pilot project for four adobe domed-and-vaulted houses without any imported materials. The design of these houses was largely inspired by the designs of Fathy as they use no significant structural wood, steel, or concrete. While Fathy’s reasoning was economic, the Gaza team had no other material choice.

The entire project was an inspiring example of how traditional construction, enthusiasm and goodwill can overcome the most stringent project constraints.

bill bouldin

5 thoughts on “Architecture Misfit #8: Hassan Fathy

  1. Reine

    Browsing, surfing, or whatever, I happened on this article – great read. I discovered a Hassan Fathy book in Caïro while on holiday 1989. I subsequently visited Gourna, outside Luxor, and got invited into one of the houses by the very welcoming and proud owners – I didn’t speak Arabic, but I found Egypitians speak exellent English, so conversation was easy. It was impressive how the fundamental (and therefore often humble) building type, the house, got such a noble appearance – excuse my exaggerated choice of words, but it was really impressive. In any place this house would be wonderful, but here it was in a country where literally having a roof over your head was an exception. Unfortunately, the whole village didn’t look as shiny as on your photo. Fathy had a lot of trouble in getting his unconventional way of building accepted. More Hassan Fathy, more nubian domes, more mud brick architecture!

    Reply
  2. hudaabukhoti

    Here is a beautiful quote from the book, I think it explains his vision clearly:

    “Culture springs from the roots
    And seeping through to all the shoots
    To leaf and flower and bud
    From cell to cell, like green blood,
    Is released by rain showers
    As fragrance from the wet flowers
    To fill the air.
    But culture that is poured on men
    From up above, congeals then
    Like damp sugar, so they become
    Like sugar-dolls, and when some
    Life-giving shower wets them through
    They disappear and melt into
    A sticky mess.”

    Reply
  3. hudaabukhoti

    He is my first inspiration when it comes to Architecture ever since I read his book “Architecture for the poor”

    Thank you for writing this blog post Mr. Graham!

    Reply

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