Article by Alia F. Hassan
Who is Hassan Fat'hy
Hassan Fat'hy is one of the few names of 20th century architects in the Middle East that is also known in the West. He is, however, known as more than just an architect. He is the author of several books and articles on issues like building for the poor and sustainability. Because of his passion for those subjects, he can easily be called a humanitarian and perhaps even a visionary. His life-long career has been mainly devoted to an architecture that serves a greater good. Not only has his interest been in providing affordable housing for the poor but also in reinstilling pride in the vernacular and traditional architecture of the Arab world and mainly his home country of Egypt. Although his efforts have not always met with success, his philosophy has changed the architecture world of the 20th century. His ideas on sustainability, an architectural way to deal with our dangerous dependence on dwindling natural resources, will certainly hold importance in the next century.
New Gourna and Traditional Building Techniques
Fat'hy's ideas on the value of traditional architecture are most evident in his efforts at New Gourna Village near Luxor, Egypt. New Gourna was a peasant village very near to the famous archaeological digs of Luxor and had to be relocated as a result. The village, built from 1946-53, was a reaction to the architectís realization that the concrete-frame housing schemes imported from Europe for the rural poor were not working. They were not only too costly but did not accomodate to the cultural differences between Europe and the Middle East. Hassan Fat'hy offered the low cost, locally and traditionally built structures at New Gourna as the alternative. They were a sort of social/architectural experiment for him, one he would write about 20 years later in Architecture for the Poor, an Experiment in Rural Egypt. Part of his goal was to not just prove he could build houses cheaper than the supposedly advanced Europeans could, but to solve a much deeper social problem by having the poor villagers build houses themselves, thereby becoming completely self-sufficient. To achieve this he himself trained the locals in the Nubian tradition of mud brick construction. The homes were composed almost entirely of mud brick steps, walls, vaults, and domes.
The Lesson of New Gourna
Although these structures were well suited to the climate and customs of the region, this type of building was not able to be revived in Egypt to any large degree. Industrialization had taken its effect on the Third World for better or worse, which meant that what was modern was what the Western world was creating. Just as the West had ignored the value of the cultures it had subordinated during imperialist rule, native thinkers in those same countries ignored the power and appeal of Industrialization and what it offered people.Fat'hyís experiment at New Gourna failed not because it was not a valid experiment or because it had nothing to offer but because his philosophy underestimated the force it was up against. His ideas on the value of tradition and nationality were reasonable and well intentioned, but powerless.
Perhaps now with a return to national/cultural pride and preservation of the past in the Middle East, partly due to thinkers like Fat'hy, some of his ideas can be taken much more seriously. His beliefs that what is modern and new is not necessarily what is best for a people and that certain traditions exist because they are well suited to a culture or region have certainly taken hold. Those in the field of sustainability have come to realize that vernacular architecture, often centuries old, is more earth-friendly and will sustain us longer than the much more recent building techniques we see in the Western world today. This is one positive lesson we can take from New Gourna. It may not have been what the people were seeking, but it was enough to suit their needs for a long time. Despite these lessons, in the aftermath of Industrialization Hassan Fat'hyís ideas could not be applied in pure form and the experiment at New Gourna can never be repeated. Sadly, New Gourna represents not just one manís unsuccessful experiment but an architectural tradition that will never exist again as it once had.
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