Born in 1900 the son of a wealthy landowner Hassan Fathy was brought up in Cairo, Alexandria and Europe. He studied architecture at the University of Cairo whence he graduated in 1926. In 1927, on his first visit to one of the family estates, he was shocked by the terrible living conditions of the poor and resolved to find a way to house the poor reasonably. He also conceived a love for the Egyptian countryside which was to motivate him for the rest of his life. He realized that imported western material and technology was too expensive and inappropriate for rural housing in Egypt. Instead Fathy thought that mud brick, the traditional building material of Egypt, should be used in modern constructions. Although he realized that traditional designs were sometimes too cramped and dark for modern housing, Fathy argued that this was not the fault of the material.
In 1937 Fathy held exhibitions of his work at Mansoura and Cairo which resulted in several commissions from wealthy patrons. However, these buildings were quite expensive and relied on timber for their flat roofs. With the outbreak of the Second World War and the resulting shortage of timber, he had to find a new method of roofing his houses. On a visit to Upper Egypt Fathy noticed that the Nubian villages were roofed with mud brick vaults produced without wooden centring. The method used was to lean the bricks against an end wall so that all the bricks leant against each other. Fathy employed the local Nubian builders and undertook several projects using these workers. The most important of these projects was the Nasr House in Fayyum and the tourist rest-house at Safaga.
In 1946 Fathy was approached by the Department of Antiquities who wanted to move the people of Gurna in western Luxor out of the ruins of ancient Thebes where they had been living. The Gurnis had been living in the ancient Necropolis for several generations and some lived in the tombs themselves. Nevertheless, the Department of Antiquities issued a decree stating that they wanted the 7,000 people moved to a new settlement which was to be designed by Fathy. The settlement was to contain homes for 1,000 families and include public buildings like a mosque, a covered market, schools and a theatre. The houses were built around courtyards and arranged in neighbourhood groups which had access to the main streets. Although built with traditional materials Fathy made use of earth scientists and structural and mechanical engineers to improve his designs and ensure that they worked. Part of the project was to involve the future inhabitants in the construction, both as a cost-saving measure and so that they were not alienated from their new housing.
However, the project faced considerable difficulties in
implementation through the opposition of some of the Gurni Sheikhs and the slow-moving bureaucracy of the Egyptian Antiquities Department. In addition there was general suspicion of a project which involved traditional materials at a time when Modernism was seen as the only way to build. In the end only one-fifth or the project was completed and some parts of the village like the khan and the craft centre remain unused. Nevertheless, the mosque is well used and maintained and the Department of Antiquities has restored the theatre, belatedly realizing the value of Fathy's work. Despite the difficulties New Gurna showed the potential of mud-brick architecture and the value of training people in traditional techniques.
Other important projects carried out by Fathy in the 1950s were at Lu'luat al-Sahara in the Nile Delta and the village schools project. At Lu'lat al-Sahara houses were built in pairs, together with a mosque and a school. The village schools project involved Fathy in designing a school which was to be the prototype for village schools throughout Egypt. The design consisted of domed rooms opening on to courtyards with ventilation shafts to cool the interior during the summer. Unfortunately only two of the schools were built, one at Fares and the other at Edfu.
In 1957 Fathy left Egypt for several years to work for an architectural firm in Athens specializing in the Middle East, and during this time he designed a traditional housing scheme in Iraq. In the early 1960s Fathy returned to Egypt where he undertook two further major projects, a training centre in the Nile Valley and a new town in the Kharga oasis. Unfortunately the training centre was subsequently destroyed because of its bad location and the town known as New Bariz was abandoned because of the 1967 war.
In the 1970s Fathy began writing books about his work which were highly successful in universities throughout the world where the appeal of Modernism was wearing off. He showed that it was possible to design and build desirable residences and functional buildings which respected the traditional values of a culture and were also cheap. Since the 1970s Fathy's work in Egypt was concentrated on private houses and commissions. These buildings were constructed with increasingly sophisticated designs based on harmonic units of measurement derived from the dimensions of the human body. Probably the most important recent commission was for a Muslim community in New Mexico known as Dar al-Salam and built in 1981.