It was during a dinner party in 1972 that I heard my host announce the completion of a film on “the greatest architect of the century, Hassan Fathy.”
All I could think was, “Hassan who?” Yet I was then director of the philanthropic Menil Foundation in Houston, which was active in art and architecture, and I considered myself well-acquainted with the leaders of contemporary architecture.
“Hassan F-a-t-h-y,” he spelled out, “from Cairo. He’s designed and built superb villas of adobe and stone, but mainly he’s grappled head-on with housing the poor. And he has proposed elegant solutions! His central concern is rural low-cost housing; he organizes residents to build cooperatively.”
Inspired and curious, the next day I read Fathy’s seminal book, Construire avec le peuple (Building With the People). The book is Fathy’s detailed account of his experience in planning and building, with its 7000 residents, the village of New Gourna on the west bank of the Nile, opposite Luxor, in the late 1940’s, under the auspices of the Egyptian government.
This reading changed my life. My experience with architects had been substantial, including work on commissions with Charles Moore and Louis I. Kahn. Yet in reading Fathy,
I realized that I had never before encountered an architect who not only designed superb spaces, but who was also committed to the “800 million peasants—one-third of the population of the earth—now doomed to premature death because of their inadequate housing.”
I learned that when Fathy organized the construction of New Gourna in 1947, government-financed low-income housing in Egypt had almost always cost at least $1200 a unit, and nobody seemed to have given a thought to the high cost of skilled labor that made up so much of this amount. Even today, $1200 a unit is more than most nations are willing or able to pay for such housing. As Fathy proved for New Gourna —and as he also demonstrated in 1967 at Bariz, in Egypt’s Western Desert—he could keep the cost down to $500 a unit, including kitchens and latrines, by building cooperatively with the owners. Fathy’s accounts for such housing are exhaustively documented, down to the price of straw per mud-brick dome—exactly nine cents.
When Architecture for the Poor came out in English—the revised title was not Fathy’s choice, but that of the publisher, the University of Chicago Press—it was soon thereafter translated into Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese. Since then, visionary developers throughout the arid regions of the less-industrialized world have looked to Fathy’s ideas and example. Fathy presaged much of the “appropriate technology” movement that now is a standard element of grassroots development philosophy around the world.
Three years passed before I was to meet Fathy. In the meantime, several Middle Eastern scholars encouraged me to help disseminate his work and philosophy in the United States. In particular, Yusuf Ibish, then professor of Islamic civilization at the American University in Beirut, hoped that more of Fathy’s writings might be published; Father Youakim Moubarac of Louvain and Paris urged me to make this inspiring Muslim better known through the ecumenical programs of the Rothko Chapel in Houston.
In late 1975, I wrote to Hassan Fathy in Cairo requesting permission to document his work. His reply, addressed to “Ms. Swan,” came more promptly than I expected, and his use of that title, then new, cued me to his contemporary awareness. In his letter, he warmly offered to show me his work and country.
He met me at the airport. He was 76 then, dapper and compact. When my hat fell to the floor, he swooped it up with an agility that amazed me. That made an impression. In the car we immediately spoke of shared ideals, and by the time we reached the city each of us knew where the other stood, with mutual appreciation.
I set to work reading his voluminous papers, questioning him and assisting in his work sessions with a younger architect. They were designing a tourist complex in Giza with hotels, restaurants, parks, craft markets, gardens, a mosque and—at my suggestion—an ecumenical chapel. I helped him with a translation of his only play, Mushrabiya, from Arabic: He conveyed the sense of the lines to me in English and French and I helped him write what felt true.
There was never anything pompous about him. He had the charm of a cultured, well-read gentleman, a polymath who could always turn a thought with humor. He was intimidating only when refusing to suffer flattering fools and the venally ambitious. He loved the company of the young, especially students and former students, with whom we would dine on squab in the narrow market streets of Old Cairo.
He was more formal when he received visitors at tea time, which he did nearly every day—diplomats, industrialists, scientists, historians, social workers, theologians, artists, and of course architects and builders from many countries. They usually came unannounced, because of Cairo’s lack of telephones at the time. They would listen as this scholar, sage and raconteur held forth on his visions of symbiosis between architecture and climate, the theological principles embodied in mosque design, and building with the poor. I marveled at how his thinking complemented that of other visionaries of these years: E. F. Schumacher(Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, 1973) and Paulo Freire(Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1974) come first to mind.
We explored his own house at Sidi Kreir, which he had built in 1971 outside Alexandria on a lonely stretch of beach. This was a palazzino, a playful gem of a mini-palace set amid the low dunes. A diminutive front courtyard led to a small, well-proportioned foyer and living room, the latter flanked by iwans—recessed, curtained alcoves used as sitting rooms by day and sleeping rooms by night. Later he showed me New Gourna, which by then was in a distressing state of disrepair, a casualty of the government’s faulty assumption that villagers would be willing to change not only their location but also their livelihoods. (See “Fame and Fiasco in New Gourna,” page 20.) Back in Cairo, we toured the villas he had built of stone for several friends.
By this time in the mid-1970’s, his peers in art, architecture and scholarship usually paid him affectionate, often devoted, homage, but government officials—the ones who held the purse strings for public housing, the field in which he longed to work far more than he ever did—remained skeptical and even hostile. Their behavior reinforced Fathy’s hardest lesson: His commitment to the poor made him an outsider in Egypt, one who was regarded as a threat to vested interests in industrial building materials, banking, real estate and large-scale contracting. Except for commissions from his friends and admirers of means, his career became almost as notable for the obstacles he encountered as it was for built work, perhaps to an extent unmatched by any other architect of his stature.
To his friends and followers, Fathy was always known as Hassan Bey, a name that used the Ottoman term of rank with his given name to indicate respect and warmth simultaneously. He was born in Alexandria in 1900 to a family of artists and scientists, the son of a noted jurist and a Circassian mother, whom he was fond of quoting. He graduated with degrees in engineering and architecture from the University of Cairo in 1926, and he went on to teach there from 1930 to 1946.
With his degree fresh in hand, out on his first job, he had a life-changing experience. He was assigned to build a school in a remote farming area of the Delta. On reaching the village, he was revolted by its ugliness, by the poverty of its residents, and by “the hopeless resignation of these peasants to their condition.” Fathy was overwhelmed by how unnecessary their misery appeared to be, and then shaken more deeply still to realize that the land on which they were living belonged to his father. (As a boy, his family had never taken him to the country, preferring instead to acquaint him with Europe.)
In Architecture for the Poor, Fathy wrote,
“I suddenly felt terribly responsible. Nothing had been done out of consideration for the human beings who spent their lives there; we had been content to live in ignorance of the peasant’s sickening misery. I decided I must do something.”
Thus began his quest for a means of rebuilding communities that would allow people to live with self-respect despite their exclusion from the consumer economy. He never turned away from this goal, and the economically dispossessed were to be Fathy’s constant preoccupation.
As Fathy realized that people who possess no cash can hardly become an architect’s clients in the usual sense, and that they cannot be simply integrated on command into a cash economy, he set to work devising techniques of producing low-cost, energy-efficient houses. Using concrete, so much in vogue in Egypt at that time, was out of the question: It required skilled labor, expensive equipment, and industrial materials produced abroad, all of which put it well out of reach of the budget of the Egyptian peasant (fellah). Worse, in hot climates concrete traps and holds high temperatures unbearably, exactly the opposite of traditional earthen interiors, which remain cool during the day and release warmth at night. (See Aramco World, May/June 1995.)
Fathy’s solution was to turn to sun-dried bricks made of mud and reinforced with straw: adobe. He engaged the advice of structural engineers and soil-mechanics specialists to ascertain the maximum strength and durability of adobe under different conditions. After this research, in the early 1940’s, he began to design dwellings that demonstrated an unprecedented degree of harmony with the natural environment, climate and local culture, and the spiritual tradition of Islam. With inspiration from the very soil of Egypt, he aimed to help the poor build for themselves.
Yet roofing remained a problem. In rural Egypt, the fellahin could afford neither wood nor corrugated galvanized metal for roofs, nor could they even buy the wood needed to make forms to shape vaulted adobe roofs. Fathy’s early attempts at building adobe vaulting without wooden forms—the only economically sensible solution—resulted in a series of discouraging collapses. This was particularly maddening because it was clear from his visits to Upper Egypt that just such form-less vaulting had been used for millennia to build ordinary houses, tombs and even royal buildings, such as the granaries of the first-century-BC Ramesseum, one of the great monuments of Thebes.
Fathy feared that the secret had been lost, but in 1941, in the Nubian village of Abu al-Riche, he found village masons building catenary vaults of mud brick that could measure two stories high, up to three meters (10 ½’) wide and of any desired length, without forms. (See “How to Build A Nubian Vault,”) The technique, he was exhilarated to learn, was simple enough to teach to any willing person.
Henceforth, adobe became Fathy’s technological passion, and he remained loyal to it not only because of its durability over millennia—some adobe structures in Egypt are more than 3000 years old—but also because of its thermal properties: In many desert climates it maintains comfortable temperatures within a range of three to four degrees centigrade (5-7°F) over a 24-hour cycle. Furthermore, it is plentiful: Approximately one-third of the world’s people already live in houses made of earth. Finally, the flexibility of a material for which right angles and straight lines are not always essential nourishes architectural creativity. Under Fathy’s control, adobe led to simple, captivating beauty.
Yet it was to take Fathy nearly a decade to land his first housing commission for the disenfranchised. Over that time several proposals met with scant interest at the ministries of housing and health in Cairo, which appeared to be more interested in the “modern” connotations of multistory concrete apartment blocks than in the traditionalism Fathy offered. Finally, in 1946, came the New Gourna commission.
The first thing Fathy did away with was the contractor. Then, a social worker joined him in interviewing each family about its aspirations and its needs in house design. “No two persons are alike,” he wrote, “not even identical twins, because they will differ in their dreams. Architecture emerges from the dream and this is why, in villages built by their inhabitants, no two houses are alike…. It is the architect’s job to make his village as charming as possible. If the architect is to offer any excuse for his arrogance in dictating what his fellow men shall live in, that excuse must be that he can surround them with beauty. It would be grossly discourteous of an architect whose imagination has been enriched amid the loveliness of Siena or Verona, or the cathedral close of Wells, to scamp his work and fob his clients off with something less than the most beautiful architecture he can create.”
And so it was that participatory planning, mixed with the need for public service structures, determined the plan of the village of New Gourna and the design of each house. “My irregular plan made for variety in design, constant visual interest and precluded the building of those boring ranks of identical dwellings that are often considered all that the poor deserve.”
Besides using adobe to enhance thermal comfort, Fathy also experimented in New Gourna with the revival and modern adaptation of three time-tested vernacular architectural elements that also affect perceived temperature—the courtyard and its breezy claustra, or pierced wall; the mashrabiyyah, a carved wooden window screen; and the malqaf, or windcatch. These architectural gestures showed his respect for the culture he shared with the fellahin, but they were also “appropriate technologies” that had disappeared from fashion in Egypt because, despite the nationalism of the era, the country had kept its technological gaze fixed firmly on the industrialized West. These architectural elements bestow uniquely Egyptian and Arab qualities where they are used, although they were (and often still are) considered by many to be pejoratively indigenous and “backward,” a sign of poverty or of an irrevocably bygone era.
In traditional desert architecture from the Maghrib to Central Asia, the most efficient air conditioner available is the inner courtyard. It traps cool night air and releases it gradually during the day to adjoining rooms through built-in claustra, an effect that complements the thermal properties of mud brick. Trees, shrubs and other plantings, both in the courtyard and, to the extent possible, immediately outside the house, help clean the air and afford a measure of protection from the dust-laden desert winds—or the fumes of trafficked streets. In almost all of Fathy’s designs, the courtyard was literally a central feature. He experimented almost endlessly with its variations, yet he never lost sight of its thermal as well as its social and esthetic functions. To Fathy, the development of the courtyard house was even a metaphysical response by desert-dwellers to their surroundings:
“The desert has formed the Arabs’ habits and outlook, it has shaped their culture,” he wrote. “To the desert they owe their simplicity, their hospitality and their bent for mathematics and astronomy. Because the experience of the desert can be so bitter, because the surface of the earth and the landscape are for the Arabs a cruel enemy, burning, glaring, and barren, they find no comfort in opening the house to nature at ground level. The kindly aspect of nature for the Arabs is the sky, pure, clean, promising coolness and life-giving water in its clouds. It is no wonder that for the desert-dweller the sky becomes the home of God.”
“With the adoption of a settled life, the Arabs began to apply architectural metaphors in their cosmology, so that the sky became a dome supported by four columns. This notion gave a symbolic value to the house, considered to be a microcosm of the universe, and the metaphor was extended further to the eight sides of the octagon that supports, on squinches, a dome symbolizing the sky. These eight sides were held to represent the eight archangels holding up the holy and the most soothing face of nature. The Arabs naturally want to bring it into their own dwelling. The means of doing this is the courtyard. It becomes the owner’s private piece of the sky.”
The mashrabiyyah is an artful lattice of lathe-turned dowels that intersect at carved wooden spheres (or, on occasion, other shapes). It is used as a window covering from Morocco to Pakistan (see Aramco World, July/August 1974, July/August 1993). Themashrabiyyah allows air to circulate through the house while maintaining privacy for its occupants, and in regions of intense sunlight it is the most effective of window shades because the curved, often polished surfaces do not block light: Rather, they diffuse it into the interior with the splendid subtlety of radial reflection. Over the centuries, buildingmashrabiyyah became a highly developed craft, as woodworkers produced panels several meters high that nonetheless seem as delicate as lace. Fathy followed the traditional form of the mashrabiyyah, in which the apertures at eye level are narrow, to reduce glare, and the ones higher up, where sightlines do not compromise privacy, are larger. In colonial times themashrabiyyah lost favor, but now—thanks in part to the efforts of Fathy—it is enjoying a revival, and not only in the Middle East. Antoine Predock, the New Mexico architect, has adapted it into his work; in Paris, Jean Nouvel transformed the idea of mashrabiyyah into steel for the Institut du Monde Arabe’s electrically operated façade. (See Aramco World,January/February 1989.)
The malqaf, or windcatch, originally developed in Persia, is another millennia-old popular cooling device that fell into disuse in the Middle East when European housing design gained popularity. Fathy’s most famous use of the malqaf was in Bariz, the second entire town he designed. The malqaf is a shaft rising above a building, open to face the prevailing wind. Functioning as the opposite of a chimney, it catches and channels the wind down into the cool, lower reaches of the interior, often across a pool of water and occasionally also over wet fabrics or screens, both of which further decrease the air temperature by evaporation. When clients could afford it, Fathy often made such water an esthetic element by installing fountains centered in an octagonal configuration, as in classical Arab houses, that often echoed the eight-sided support of a dome overhead.
The English word adobe comes from the Spanish assimilation of al-tub, Arabic for sun-dried bricks of mud. This derives in turn from the ancient Egyptian word for mud. The size of the mold used today in most parts of the world to make adobe bricks dates to at least 1450 BC, when the young pharaoh-architect Queen Hatshepsut was depicted on frescoes molding with her own hands the bricks for each corner of her funerary temple at Deir el-Bahari, near old Gourna. The proportions used then are so perfectly adapted to the function of the bricks that they remain largely unchanged today in Egypt, the Indus Valley, Pakistan and China, and from Sudan south to Zimbabwe. In the eighth century, the adobe mold traveled to Andalusia with the Arabs. From there, the Spanish conquistadores carried it to Mexico, where the native people of the deserts quickly adopted it.
In 1980, Fathy noted that in the pueblos of New Mexico, bricks still measure 33 by 15 by 10 centimeters (13″x6″x4″)—almost exactly the proportions of the bricks at the Temple of Hatshepsut. When he made this observation, Fathy was engaged in his only North American commission, the community of Dar al-Islam in the remote mountain site of Abiquiu, New Mexico, where his clients were US-born Muslims. (See Aramco World,May/June 1988.) The first structure to rise was a mosque, constructed by the community members themselves under the tutelage of Nubian master masons Mohamed Abdul Jalil Moussa and the 85-year-old Ala Eddin Mustafa, both of whom had worked on many of Fathy’s buildings. Though Fathy engaged himself in nearly a dozen projects afterwards—mostly individual houses and one hospital—Dar al-lslam was his last village-sized commission. Although today it is the only one that is even partly inhabited, the plans for individual adobe homes had to be scuttled early on, for local building codes had not been written with such construction techniques in mind, and their advocates were unable to secure the changes required.
In 1985 Fathy was awarded the first Chairman’s Award of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. He was 85, and it was only then that he began to receive the international recognition, the speaking engagements, and the other awards that his work and his principles had so long deserved.
On November 30, 1989 Fathy died in Cairo, in the 17th-century Mamluk house where he had lived for decades. It was his refuge and inspiration to the end, standing in a modest quarter at the foot of the eight-domed Ottoman citadel and overlooking the massive splendor of the Sultan Hassan Mosque, which Fathy regarded as the apotheosis of Islamic design in Egypt. Yet the neighborhood was (and is to this day) heavily populated by squatters, and so, even across the street from his door, he found daily reminders of the need for sensible, sensitive, sustainable housing solutions.
Patronage for Fathy’s architecture for the poor never materialized to any significant degree, and his deepest hopes went largely unfulfilled in what at first seems to be a lifetime marked by setbacks. Yet Fathy remained ever an optimist, an idealist and a fervent believer in the essential goodness and the ultimate perfectibility of the human being. “Straight is the line of duty, and curved the path of beauty” are words Fathy would often mutter while drafting—words that he came to understand well in the full course of his life and work. In a 1961 paper, “Religion and the City of the Future,” he saw clearly the unity of matter and spirit:
“As knowledge spreads among people, as the dogmatic certainties of 19th-century materialism lose substance, as matter itself grows more elusive under the physicist’s examination, so humanity comes to a new understanding of the truths of religion. As education raises the general level of knowledge, so this understanding will become common property, and the illumination of the ancient sages becomes part of everyone’s consciousness. With this knowledge, all natural phenomena and all works of humankind will be seen as a unity, as part of the holy totality of all things. Then the distinction between the sacred building, the church or temple, and the secular buildings of the city will cease to have any meaning. The whole city will become the temple, designed and built with the same reverence as the cathedrals of the past.”
In the spring following Fathy’s death, with the help of Brent Porter of the Pratt Institute, I organized a memorial celebration at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine. An overflowing crowd of people from nearly every faith saw slides showing his built work, heard a surah from the Qur’an recited, and listened to numerous messages, including ones from architect Charles Moore, consumer and health advocate Ralph Nader and Britain’s Prince Charles. Afterward, I took my leave with reluctance, and walked out into a world in which Fathy’s memory would—and this was my personal resolution—be a source not only of continued inspiration, but of action.
Today there are two centers in France inspired by Fathy. Both work with owner-builders in West Africa and the Middle East: CRATerre (Centre de Recherche en Architectures de Terre) of Grenoble and the Development Workshop of Lauzerte have helped introduce the Nubian technique of mud-brick dome and vault construction among villagers in Mali, Niger and Iran. In Egypt, Fathy’s ideas can be found in the work of architects, planners and cultural developers in numerous institutions. In the United States, I have spent much of the past decade among architects, architectural conservationists and soil engineers dedicated to continuing his work in the desert climates of the Americas. Since 1994, my resolution to carry on Fathy’s work has led me to form the Swan Group in the border cities of Presidio, Texas and Ojinaga, Chihuahua. (See page 46.)
As our global population continues to rise, the number of people without dignified, healthy, safe housing has soared far beyond what it was 30 years ago when Fathy wroteArchitecture for the Poor. Fathy’s designs, ideas, principles and character promise to grow only more relevant with time.
This article appeared on pages 16-27 of the July/August 1999 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.
Simone Swan is director of the Swan Group, based in Presidio, Texas.