Last January the Gezira Art Center hosted an exhibition and a series of events about architect Hassan Fathy and his work. Hassan Fathy is perhaps Egypt’s most renowned architect from the 20th century, but why?
The exhibition was beautifully curated and organized with images, text, models, video projection, as well as samples of Fathy’s mud bricks, the most essential element of his constructions. Fathy’s 1945 housing project for the relocation of the village of Gourna in Luxor was his most famous and internationally renowned project. The village which has fallen into disrepair (watch video above) is currently the focus of a UNESCO rehabilitation and documentation project. Gourna was not a project free of controversy nor was it a success, at least for the intended inhabitants of the village. Fathy left no mark on Egypt’s urban centers: Cairo and Alexandria don’t have examples of Fathy’s architecture (with the exception of a mausoleum and few private homes), his ideas printed in his “Gourna, tale of two villages” (later published by the Chicago University Press with the condescending title “Architecture for the poor”) have failed to produce any practical solutions for Egypt’s urban and housing problems. Despite this underwhelming record, Fathy’s oeuvre is celebrated in the West as an example of “other/vernacular modernism” and is celebrated in Egypt mostly by his students as authentic modernity/spirited continuity with the past.
It is difficult to fully comprehend why Hassan Fathy overshadows his contemporaries who had successful practices, built many buildings and engaged in current discourses (Ali Labib Gabr, Antoine Selim Nahas, Mahmoud Riad). Fathy also overshadows his colleague Ramses Wissa Wassef (who like Fathy engaged with the question of vernacular architecture and perhaps was more successful in balancing modern practicality with vernacular identity without falling in the trap of essentialism). Finally, one of Egypt’s most influential architects of the modern period, Mustafa Fahmy, will never make an appearance in a Western curriculum of the history of modern architecture nor in an Egyptian exhibit, yet Hassan Fathy might. How can this selective celebration of a figure with little impact on his community and profession be explained?
The legend, the myths
Fathy had interesting ideas about architecture, there is no denying this fact. But he wasn’t the only one with interesting ideas in 20th century Egyptian architecture. Fathy had a strong following of students, particularly in the 1970s when the notion of vernacular modernism was emerging in Western academia coinciding with proclamations of the failure/death of high-modernism along with the birth of post-modernism. Egypt, like many countries, particularly those who had recently experienced heavy-handed state-led development in post-revolution or post-independence “third world” societies, experienced high-modernism withdrawal.
Over the past couple of decades there have been numerous articles keeping the memory of Hassan Fathy alive. Nearly every six months there is a new piece regurgitating a long list of myths and stereotypes about Fathy as the ONLY architect worth remembering, as a founder of green-environmentally friendly architecture in Egypt, as the symbol of authenticity and culturally sensitive design, and as the humble architect who worked with people to realize his designs.
[“An empty village like the tombs of the pharaohs and its called Gourna” from the popular magazine al-Musawwar, 1961. Note Hassan Fathy’s name isn’t mentioned, it only mentions “built by the state in 1945.”]
In a nutshell, the standard narrative, as stated in this 1999 discussion of Fathy’s legacy, argues the following “”The “modern movement” in the West, which aimed to use new architectural materials and technology to improve the life of the ordinary city-dweller, had foundered on aggressive stylistic innovation and an arrogant disregard of the past; Fathy showed how social needs could be met using familiar, vernacular styles, materials and techniques, and with the participation of the “consumer.” However, I have some reservations on nearly all of the points made here:
1) I find it extremely dated and naive to look through a narrow perspective at twentieth century architectural development and continue to argue that “the modern movement” was an exclusively “western” endeavor. Architects around the world, including Egypt, engaged in practices that responded to common developments and problems such as the availability of new materials and technologies and the pressing issues of urban areas particularly the need for housing. These were not “western” problems and in finding solutions, professionals across the world dealt with those concerns using the latest accessible designs and approaches. This is the 20th century and the world is to a large extent connected via new media and communications. Thus to expect a solution to modern urban problems in Egypt (or any other non-western country) to be drastically different from say Italy, Spain or France is to accept racist and orientalist notions that the non-western other is essentially non-modern (or their modern must be a different kind, more primitive modern), otherwise a pragmatic concrete housing block in Africa designed by a local architect using locally produced materials is at best viewed as “western.”
2) The claim that Hassan Fathy used “familiar vernacular” architectural language is far from the truth. Domed architecture in upper Egypt is funerary, not residential/domestic, hence the refusal of such form by villagers. Similarly, the claim that his materials and techniques were familiar and local goes against Fathy’s own description of the process of instructing builders how to create his mud brick and the many repeated attempts to perfect building his domes. This was instructed architecture as were the modernist designs he distanced himself from. Had this been truly vernacular, then the presence of an architect arriving from the urban capital hundreds of miles away should have been unnecessary. Fathy’s domes for domestic space were not traditional, rather they were an “invented tradition.”
3) The claim that “consumers” of Fathy’s spaces “participated” in the making of the architecture negates the stark difference of position between Fathy, as the knowledgeable professional, and the builders/villagers/dwellers as recipients of his expertise. In fact, the extent of participation was clearly defined along that line of expert vs receiver of expertise and Fathy is even documented in photographs, including one shown at the exhibition last year where he is clearly instructing, standing over builders, rather than the image propagated about the architect as working with, as equal, learning from as well as teaching the builders.
The other myth perpetuated about Hassan Fathy is that his architecture represents the “continuity of Islamic architecture,” an argument forming the spine of Ahmad Hamid’s 2010 book Hassan Fathy and Continuity in Islamic Art and Architecture: The Birth of a New Modern. In this book, Ahmad Hamid positions Hassan Fathy in relation to a long tradition of Islamic Architecture as well as in relation to the advent of twentieth century modernism. The book focuses on Hassan Fathy as “a condenser of an older intelligence” (45) and as an agent of reviving and creating anew an architectural practice that is connected with the essence of an Islamic architectural tradition.
I would argue that Fathy’s architecture is premised not on the continuity of a particular tradition, Islamic or otherwise, but rather as a reactionary response to modernism as a style and a project. In this sense his architecture is less about authenticity and more about romanticism, not unlike European architects and critics of the 19th century who reacted against new concepts of architecture by resorting to primitivism and revivalism.
[Streets in the Habous Quartier in Casablanca, Morocco built by French colonial architects in the 1930s in a madina-like “vernacular” mode for native, working and middle classes in contrast with the modern town center for European and upper classes]
Also, Fathy’s most famous project, New Gourna, is for me less of “architecture for the poor” than it is a colonial project. Not colonial in the sense of foreignness, but in the approaches and techniques of imposing on a local population the vision of an architect coming from the capital commissioned by a central state to build following state orders, rather than following the desires of the locals. In other words, the residents of Gourna did not commission Fathy nor did they seek his services. New Gourna brings to mind Habous Quartier in colonial Casablanca, a district built in the 1930s by French “experts” for the “native” population using what the French must have thought of as “vernacular” madina architecture.
[the 1964 film الجبل “The Mountain” is inspired by the story of Gourna and features an architect trying to relocate villagers away from the mountain where artifacts have been found. Scenes were filmed in New Gourna]
Vernaculars old and new
Hassan Fathy was certainly an architect who belonged to a particular moment in the twentieth century along with his contemporaries in Egypt, India and elsewhere who reacted to concrete and increasingly standardized architecture of the twentieth century. However, the pompous celebrations, flowery descriptions, selective admiration of Fathy in the last several decades since his international recognition in the 1970s has had negative consequences. Somehow the celebration of Fathy came at the expense of recognizing other architects from twentieth century Egypt, particularly the modernists. By promoting the legacy of Fathy the notion that Egypt’s modernists were merely copycats with little contribution of their own to Egyptian architecture or modern architecture in general has been fully ingrained and accepted. Additionally, the perpetuation of Fathy’s romantic ideals has failed to confront the realities in which we live: that his ideas and concepts fail to respond to the mass need for housing, and that his rejection of concrete and modern materials has not been heeded by the poor for whom he claimed to design.
Since Fathy’s 1940s experiment and 1960s book about that experiment, a new vernacular has emerged, one which academics, architects and casual observers continue to negate and choose to ignore. Egypt’s vernacular, what the masses are actually building and without the services of architects (architecture without architects) is reinforced concrete and red brick and it is eating up the country. The refusal of architects to work with this reality to theorize and conceptualize new approaches that accommodate the needs of communities and the available (not the most sustainable) materials has delayed the potential for something interesting to be created here. While some continue to dust off the figure of Hassan Fathy on the pedestal, millions of square meters of concrete and red brick are rising around Egypt, from the center of the capital to the rural outskirts and small villages. While Hassan Fathy’s “architecture for the poor” is exhibited in the posh district of Zamalek, the poor have been building in what is closer to Le Corbusier’s domino house than Fathy’s mud brick domed village houses. Pragmatism rather than identity-driven reactionary nostalgia is what drives the poor in how they build.
[Le Corbusier’s domino house, a basic structure using concrete slabs and minimal support]
Fathy’s reaction to modernism as a style was to create a style of his own, the poor however are not concerned with style as much as they are with shelter. For now Fathy’s legacy is retained in the rural “Hassan Fathy Style" houses for the urban rich designed by his students. And that is fine. But the rest of the profession must move on and confront the red brick and concrete and offer new solutions and designs that could be adapted by the masses to maximize the utility and sustainability of Egypt’s new vernacular, before it is too late.
Hassan Fathy and the Identity Debate, Nasser Rabbat
Heritage and Violence, Timothy Mitchell