Hassan Fathy was born in 1900 in Alexandria, Egypt. He was an Egyptian
architect, artist and poet who had a lifelong commitment to architecture in the
Muslim world. Early in his career he began to study the pre-industrial building
systems of Egypt to understand their aesthetic qualities, to learn what they
had to teach about climate control and economical construction techniques and
to find ways to put them to contemporary use.
systems dominated his thinking: the climatically efficient houses of Mamluk and
Ottoman Cairo, ingeniously shaded and ventilated by means of their two-storey
halls, mashrabiyyas and courtyards; and the indigenous mud brick construction
still to be found in rural areas. The latter consists of inclined arches and
vaults, built without shuttering, domes on squinches built over square rooms in
a continuing spiral, semi-domed alcoves and other related forms. The urban
housing forms of Cairo could not serve Fathy directly as a replicable source
because of the disappearance of the building traditions that created them.
These fine old houses enriched his imagination, however, and were to become
models for later large-scale work. The ancient mud brick forms, in contrast,
were still being produced by rural masons unchanged. Stimulated by what he had
learned, Fathy had what was then a revolutionary idea. He perceived that a
connection could be made between the continuing viability of mud brick
construction and the desperate need of Egypt's poor to be taught once again to
build shelter for themselves.
Hassan Fathy devoted himself to housing the poor in developing nations and deserves study by anyone involved in rural improvement. Fathy worked to create an indigenous environment at a minimal cost, and in so doing to improve the economy and the standard of living in rural areas. Fathy utilized ancient design methods and materials. He integrated a knowledge of the rural Egyptian economic situation with a wide knowledge of ancient architectural and town design techniques. He trained local inhabitants to make their own materials and build their own buildings. Climatic conditions, public health considerations, and ancient craft skills also affected his design decisions. Based on the structural massing of ancient buildings, Fathy incorporated dense brick walls and traditional courtyard forms to provide passive cooling.
Awards 1959: Encouragement Prize for Fine Arts and Gold Medal. 1967: National Prize for Fine Arts and Republic Decoration. 1980: Chairman's Award, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. 1984: Union Internationale des Architectes, Gold Medal.
"The village of New Gourna, which was partially built between 1945 and 1948, is possibly the most well known of all of Fathy's projects because of the international popularity of his book, "Architecture for the Poor", published nearly twenty years after the experience and concentrating primarily on the ultimately tragic history of this single village. While the architect's explanations offered in the book are extremely compelling and ultimately persuasive, New Gourna is still most significant for the questions it raises rather than the problems it tried to solve, and these questions still await a thorough, objective analysis.
The idea for the village was launched by the Egyptian Department of Antiquities as a potentially cost-effective solution to the problem of relocating an entire entrenched community of entrepreneurial excavators that had established itself over the royal necropolis in Luxor. The village of New Gourna also seemed to offer Fathy a perfect opportunity to finally test the ideas unveiled at Mansouria on a large scale and to see if they really could offer a viable solution to the rural housing problem in Egypt.
The Village was meant to be a prototype but rather than subscribing to the current idea of using a limited number of unit types, Fathy took the unprecedented approach of seeking to satisfy the individual needs of each family in the design. As he said in Architecture for the Poor, "In Nature, no two men are alike. Even if they are twins and physically identical, 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. This variety grew naturally as men designed and built their many thousands of dwellings through the millennia. But when the architect is faced with the job of designing a thousand houses at one time, rather than dream for the thousand whom he must shelter, he designs one house and puts three zeros to its right, denying creativity to himself and humanity to man. As if he were a portraitist with a thousand commissions and painted only one picture and made nine hundred and ninety nine photocopies. But the architect has at his command the prosaic stuff of dreams. He can consider the family size, the wealth, the social status, the profession, the climate, and at last, the hopes and aspirations of those he shall house. As he cannot hold a thousand individuals in his mind at one time, let him begin with the comprehensible, with a handful of people or a natural group of families which will bring the design within his power. Once he is dealing with a manageable group of say twenty or thirty families, then the desired variety will naturally and logically follow in the housing."
All of the architect's best intentions, however, were no match for the avariciousness of the Gournis themselves, who took every opportunity possible to sabotage their new village in order to stay where they were and to continue their own crude but lucrative version of amateur archaeology. Typically but mistakenly misreading the reluctance of the people to cooperate in the design and building of the village as a sure sign of the inappropriateness of both programming and form, many contemporary critics fail to penetrate deeper into the relevant issues raised by this project. These issues now, as at the time of construction half a century ago, revolve around the extremely important question of how to create a culturally and environmentally valid architecture that is sensitive to ethnic and regional traditions without allowing subjective values and images to intervene in the design process. In the final analysis, the portion of New Gourna that was completed must be judged on this basis."
Steele, James. 1989. The Hassan Fathy Collection. A Catalogue of Visual Documents at the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Bern, Switzerland: The Aga Khan Trust for Culture, 16-18.