Hassan Fathy: Egypt’s architect of the poor

Fathy believed architecture was for the people. He designed houses to meet the needs of the families living in them.

Hassan Fathy, Egypt''s architect of the poor
Fathy went on to international fame as the Architect of the Poor [Dimitri Papadimos personal archive with his son Ioannis D.Papadimos via Wikimedia Commons]

Hassan Fathy’s is a name that is instantly recognisable among Arab architects and conjures up idyllic images of hand-smoothed walls and domes covered in adobe, nestled in a verdant countryside while pigeons swoop overhead.

This vision is a manifestation of all Fathy is known for; sustainable architecture created along lines that work with the surroundings, using local resources and catering to the needs of its inhabitants.

Today Google is celebrating Hassan Fathy on its homepage for “pioneering new methods [in architecture], respecting tradition, and valuing all walks of life”.

Abdul Sattar Edhi was also recently celebrated on Google for his “super-efficient” ambulance service.

Fathy studied architecture at King Fuad I University (now Cairo University), graduating in 1926 at the height of the European Art Deco and modernist movements, which had their effect on his earliest work.

The mosque at Gourna, Luxor, designed by Hassan Fathy [Marc Ryckaert]The mosque at Gourna, Luxor, designed by Hassan Fathy [Marc Ryckaert]

By the late 1930s Fathy’s work was showing an awareness of local architectural details, as he studied how indigenous Egyptian architecture worked with its environment to maximise light and ventilation inside homes.

In 1945 he was commissioned by the Department of Antiquities to design his most iconic project that haunted him for years, the village of New Gourna in Luxor.

The village was intended as a place to relocate an informal community of “entrepreneurial excavators” who were living and plying their illegal antiquities trade in the royal necropolis.

Fathy got to work, believing as he did that architecture is for the people, and he designed each house around the needs of the family who would inhabit it.

Sadly, the families later refused to move into this new village, which caused many to see it as a failed project. Today, it is recognised by the World Monuments Fund and UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee.

Roof and dome of the mosque at Gourna seen from the minaret [Marc Ryckaert]Roof and dome of the mosque at Gourna seen from the minaret [Marc Ryckaert]

Twenty years later Fathy wrote Gourna: A Tale of Two Villages , republished in the west as Architecture for the Poor, which became a textbook for architecture students worldwide.

In this landmark book he wrote, “In Nature, no two men are alike … they will differ in their dreams. The architecture of the house emerges from the dream; this is why in villages built by their inhabitants we will find no two houses identical”.

Fathy went on to international fame as the Architect of the Poor, lecturing and consulting with the United Nations and the Aga Khan Foundation, which awarded him a specially-created Chairman’s Award for his lifetime achievements in architecture in 1980.

Fathy’s projects in Egypt continued to show his focus on function, history and environment, as he designed homes that honoured the needs of Egyptian families for privacy, functionality, and a modernist-inspired open airiness. He died in 1989 and is remembered to this day as a giant in world architecture.

Source: Al Jazeera