"Architecture for the Poor"
Hassan Fathy believed in the social responsibility of the architect and acted accordingly throughout his life. He invested all of the money he earned designing luxury villas for rich clients in buildings and villages for poor fellahs. Those were the clients he was truly committed to.
"The building client I am interested in is represented by the 800 million people of the third world who, according to statistics, are doomed to die before their time because of the poor conditions they live in. Architects should be serving this client, but architects are not interested in these poor people. It is like the barefoot doctors in China; the poor also need 'barefoot' architects."
Fathy, who was born in Alexandria in 1900 and died in 1989, was Egypt's most important architect of the 20th century. He is hardly known outside of Egypt and was unpopular in his native country throughout his life. But more than 15 years after his death, those who knew him still speak rapturously of his charisma and of the sensuality of his architecture.
Buildings of clay, flooded with light
Fathy's buildings are constructed almost exclusively of clay. Their architectural forms have a sculptural beauty, and feature walkable roofs, cosy inner courtyards and delicate sun screens.
His schools, mosques, theatres, markets and factories come alive through the controlled effect of the light which enters them through openings covered elaborately with glass or wood.
European observers of Fathy's architecture are, above all, fascinated by the abstract overall form of the buildings, which seems disturbingly exotic. The use of clay allows for soft contours and gently oscillating lines that have a sensual attraction. These are founded in Fathy's belief that, "The straight line is the line of duty, while the curve is the path of beauty."
Villages of clay
One of his most spectacular project villages, New Gourna, follows that path. Its strict geometric plan is broken by gently curving streets and sloping alleyways. They create a tension that leads one to continuously new viewpoints while strolling through the village.
Hassan Fathy's great contribution to modern Egyptian architecture is the rediscovery of traditional methods of clay construction. Their principles had been forgotten; not until he was aided by Nubian master builders did Fathy succeed in creating a renaissance in archway and cupola construction techniques, which he first tested in projects in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, India and Greece.
One of his most impressive clay villages, from both an architectural and social standpoint, is Dar al-Islam Village, which was created in New Mexico, USA in 1980. This low-lying village with its breath-taking mountain backdrop is the loveliest evidence of the durability of Fathy's architecture if it is used, cherished and well-maintained.
Criticism in his native land
These same traits caused difficulties for Fathy's buildings in Egypt. Public authorities refused to work with him. Fellow architects, educated in Europe and international in their orientation, considered Fathy's architecture to be romantic and anachronistic. His users were too lethargic and not enlightened enough to understand Fathy's progressive ideas.
Fathy, considering his ancient family background, saw himself as one link in a long chain of master builders rooted in Islam whose duty it was to carry forward the Arabian building tradition. On the one hand, he was cosmopolitan, a man of the world who was respected as a guru everywhere he went. On the other hand, he was an Egyptian master builder who helped Arabian architecture flourish anew, all the while vilified and hated in his native country.
It's true that Fathy benefited from a western-oriented architectural education in Cairo. However, he never saw himself as capable of radically breaking with tradition as in modern European architecture, nor did he believe in an international architecture that would wipe out the characteristic architecture of a given country. He considered architecture to be linked to location and tradition, not something for uniform, mass production.
He saw his role as an architect as something quite like a mystic seismograph. He did not find the formula for his architecture – rooms, dimensions and proportions found him. "There is a holy geometry of the Pharoahs. Rooms can have a healing effect. We must recover these secrets."
Fathy's main contribution was not his buildings, however. Instead, it was his skill in formulating images and visions that took up the centuries-old principles of Egyptian construction and increased awareness of a tradition that was always visible but no longer highly regarded.
In his fantastic gouaches, which he used instead of plain building plans, quotations from the ancient world of the Egyptian gods turn up alongside his minimally beautiful, cubistically complete houses. For example, Hathor, in the form of a cow, and Osiris, in the form of a sycamore tree, watch over the sober ground-plan for New Gourna.
Buildings for the poor
Throughout his life, Hassan Fathy was a tenacious and patient advocate of the poor. That's not because he viewed architecture as socially responsible building construction, but above all, because he believed that good architecture helps to improve human living conditions. "In a beautiful house, the soul has a chance to grow and to fly …".
In his book "Architecture for the Poor," published in 1969, he formulated principles which should be a challenge to every architect:
"Architecture for the poor should not be looked upon as treating a particular kind of disease. I'm referring to a new architecture that is valid for both the rich and the poor. Unfortunately, the poor do not benefit from the merits of aesthetics. People associate poverty with ugliness, and this is incorrect. The less expensive the project, the more important are the concern and attention paid to aesthetic considerations."
© Ingeborg Flagge/Qantara.de 2005
The article was originally published in the German daily Frankfurter Rundschau.
Translated from the German by Mark Rossman