Page 1 of 2
Dr. Hassan Fathi, born in Alexandria in 1900, became one of the outstanding architects of his generation in Africa and in the entire world, demonstrating that it is possible to build for the poor human architecture that empowers them because they learn to build for themselves. Fathi was highly influenced by the cultural crisis of the time, which reflected a great contrast and conflict between the cultures of East and West. Although he had a great deal of respect and admiration to the European civilization and traditions, he was critical of the role Western civilization played in colonizing Egypt and threatening its identity and traditions. This duality was reflected in his work, where in his earlier projects the ideals and ways of Western culture were quite obvious, as they were influenced by his educational background; and with the passage of time, he parted ways with his initial Western approach and pursued other aspects he thought were closer to the core of his spiritual heritage. Fathi soon realized that the concrete housing solutions were not only inhumane but also costly, since they require skilled labour, expensive equipment, and industrial materials produced abroad. Using the training he had received at Cairo’s Higher School of Engineering, he decided to design decent dwellings using locally available bricks made of mud and straw. Testing for maximum durability, he engaged the technical advice of soil mechanics engineers. The ensuing roofing systems from brick vaults and domes proved to be climatically comfortable, will not fall in earthquakes, can be used anywhere in the world, and only cost the price of labour. This discovery changed Fathi’s life. The miraculous simplicity of the ancient methods meant that Fathi could now restore to the peasants the skill which their ancestors had refined over generations not as a conscious science but as a craft that grew out of their need. Fathi remained loyal to mud, not only because of its eminent durability over tens of centuries, but because it maintains temperatures soothing to the body in a range varying between no more than 3 to 4 degrees Celsius within 24 hours. Moreover, it is mercifully plentiful when one considers that one-third of the planet’s inhabitants live in houses made of earth.Fathi's work came to international attention with the publication of his book Architecture for the Poor, (University of Chicago Press 1973). The importance of the book increased with time as it was placed among the ranks of pioneer studies critiquing architectural Modernism and giving rise to new humanistic directions in architectural and urban theory. This book, which has ever since become a classic, described in full detail Fathi's experience in planning and building the village of New Gourna, through using mud bricks and employing traditional self help principles. Fathi was able to revive certain architectural features, such as enclosed courtyards and domed and vaulted roofing. Fathi worked closely with the people to tailor his designs to their needs. He taught them how to work with mud bricks, supervised the erection of buildings, and encouraged the revival of ancient decorative techniques.
.In his essay 'Architecture and the Environment' Fathi described the architect’s role as a “unique position to revive people's faith in their own culture.” He initiated the use of traditional technology for modern buildings in Egypt and critically analyzed the role of architecture in the context of modernization, as follows, “The role architecture and town planning play in the progress of civilization and culture must be grasped. While change is a condition of life, it is not ethically neutral. Change that is not for the better is change for the worse, and we must continually judge its direction. Architecture concerns not technology alone but man and technology, and planning concerns man, society, and technology.” Fathi also wrote, “Modern science can develop human capabilities to use natural sources of energy far beyond what has been achieved in vernacular architecture. If science and technology are to revitalize architecture through a systematic and comprehensive comparison of new and traditional structures, the principles that produced the solutions must be respected. This is the only way we can surpass in human and ecological quality the achievements of traditional architecture in the hot arid regions of the world. Such an effort can only enrich human thought and culture. “ In his work, Fathi encountered loss, opposition, betrayal and even exile. His remarkable architectural success in self-help housing in the villages of New Gourna and Bariz was thwarted with prejudice against mud-brick as well as the red-tape at best. In some cases, it was corruption and ill-will that hurt him. His relationship with the architectural establishment inside Egypt was just as frustrating. Many dismissed his ideals as romantic, anachronistic, irrelevant, or non-lucrative.
Underlying Hassan Fathi’s work were a series of themes and principles:The ideal of beauty: Fathi was influenced by, and had a great deal of respect for, the principles of Islamic architecture including the role of scale, proportion and the great expression of rhythm. Like a composer playing on the violin he excelled in the presentation of his projects, creating artistic paintings that were influenced by the Egyptian Islamic and ancient arts. Fathi used a sophisticated mathematical rhythm, which he considered the optimal form of beauty, in his design proposal to expand the Harraneya Village for textiles. He was able to apply these same principles on other buildings such as the mosque of New Gourna Village.Humanistic and social sense approaches: When analyzing Fathi’s humanistic and social approaches we could argue that they were based on his ideological conception of justice. Through his projects he tried to merge humanistic and cultural aspects in the process of seeking a new lifestyle that respects the natural environment, and embodied in a local environmental architecture. Fathi showed great respect for the human experiences of creation, dignity, creativity and pride. He always respected the people's values and choices in their lives. Finally and most importantly, Fathi was highly concerned with the life of poor people, he encouraged the concept of ‘architecture for the poor’ while at the same time encouraging diversity in taste and choice.Intimacy - locality and time – place: Fathi was passionate about the local community and the environment; rather giving it precedence over his own comfort in choosing his next projects. While building every project, he was keen on satisfying and fulfilling the community needs, its heritage, and local conditions. In every project, Fathi showed respect for place, time and local community. He used unique construction, finishing materials, foundation techniques and local labour. For Fathi it was a matter of duty towards his community rather than a matter of articulating his own self-expression and artistic leisure.
Sensitivity to materials: Fathi used modified existing local construction and building materials underscoring his distress with the forests of concrete skyscrapers occupying the towns. Fathi chose to build most of his projects mainly with mud brick, not only because it is cheap, but also for being easy to prepare by the people themselves. Moreover, the use of mud brick reflected his respect for the environmental conditions and climate of his country, Egypt.Main concerns and constrains: Fathi’s ideology was mainly influenced by his sympathy for human beings and his great respect for people’s privacy and individuality. Fathi was concerned with people and spent his life working to provide a just and decent life for the poor, aiming to find solutions to the problems of inhabitants of the world.Fathi emerged from within a poor environment of a third world country; however, he was far more developed and cultivated compared to this context. At the beginning of his career; humanistic and social approaches were present in Fathi’s works, however the hostile surroundings played an essential role influencing Fathi’s flexibility. Fathi was preoccupied with the majority of his country’s poor people, thus he used his talent and energy to create architecture that was sensitive to their needs. The simplicity of his techniques and the cheap materials he used fueled his critics’ claims that his architecture was poor. Ironically, it was only after his death and the adoption of his language by the elite classes that his architecture became recognized as aesthetically rich and pleasing. This is probably what avant-garde is all about.