Posts tagged vernacular

Hassan Fathy: Architecture for the rich

Hassan Fathy’s New Gourna from Oliver Wilkins on Vimeo.

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.

Further reading:

Hassan Fathy Revisited, Panayiota Pyla

Hassan Fathy, A Critical Review

Hassan Fathy and the Identity Debate, Nasser Rabbat

Heritage and Violence, Timothy Mitchell


Profile: Ramses Wissa Wassef

“An artist’s work is no longer of much use in modern society. Exhibitions in art galleries are visited by people as social events, like race meetings or cocktail parties. Basically, art is dying in the twentieth century because it has been torn as under from daily life. It has become part of the trade in rare, expensive luxuries, or else it is cast aside. It undergoes all day to day caprices of fashion and gains attention by being provocative or sensational, or even by making use of drugs. And then the works that have won fame, or notoriety, are put into museums to be admired” -Ramses Wissa Wassef, Woven by Hand.

Ramses Wissa Wassef (1911-1974) is the architect who best conceptualized and designed modern houses adapted from rural vernacular architecture in Egypt. His architecture is a direct result of his involvement with the social and cultural contexts that inspired him in the first place and the context in which he designed. Unlike Hassan Fathy, who was celebrated first in the West and later in Egypt and the Arab region for his mud brick architecture, RWW worked closely with people as partners, not as recipients of his wisdom. The legacy of Ramses Wissa Wassef lives on despite the lack of academic attention, particularly from the West (in contrast to Hassan Fathy) because of the humanist approach of his design process. The inhabitants and users of his buildings today praise RWW and share fond memories of their time with him as a member of the community. His architecture oeuvre is not limited to the domed village houses and includes private villas, public buildings and churches.

Below is a brief biography provided by

Ramses Wissa Wassef was an Egyptian architect and educator. He earned his BA degree from the Ecole Des Beaux Arts in Paris in 1935. His graduation project “A potter’s house in Old Cairo ” received the first prize by the examination board. Upon returning to Cairo, in 1938, he was nominated as a professor of art and history of architecture in the college of Fine Arts in Cairo.

"One cannot separate beauty from utility, the form from the material, the work from its function, man from his creative art."

In 1951, Ramses Wissa Wassef embarked upon an experiment in creativity which would become universally acclaimed. He set out to prove that creativity was innate — that anyone could produce art. He had become discouraged by the general decline of creativity in 20th century urban culture and dismayed by the deadening influence of mass production. He felt that routine education was stifling. For his experiment he chose uninhibited, free-spirited young children who were isolated from many aspects of modern civilization.

Wassef saw that the “modern architectural revolution”, which had hit Cairo, was producing a multiplicity of buildings constructed without any sense of aesthetics but rather for their fast rentability. From this point on, Wassef was firmly resolved to never sacrifice his artistic vision for current trends of construction.

For a list of buildings by Ramses Wissa Wassef along with a selections of related articles on the architect provided by, click here.

[Villagers of Haraneya outside of Cairo speak of their experience living and working with Ramses Wissa Wassef and his efforts to establish a the center for Egyptian tapestry. Video by Omnia Khalil & Tarek Waly]

Two recent exhibitions celebrated RWW, the first was hosted at the American University in Cairo’s Rare Books and Special Collections Library (February 2012) and the second was hosted at the Palace of the Arts – Cairo Opera House site, Zamalek (November 2012).

For further information, here are some useful links:

Wissa Wassef Art Center

Aga Khan Award for Architecture for the Wiisa Wassef Art Center

Ramses Wissa Wassef Architectural Drawings at the AUC Rare Books Library

Egypt Today: Celebrating Ramses Wissa Wassef

modern urban vernacular


Building on an earlier post, here are some more reflections on this often overlooked building typology which represents one of Cairo’s modern vernaculars (late 19th-20th centuries).

The brick buildings pictured above are not located in an “informal” area or on the outskirts of the city or along the ring road. These are in the center of Cairo in the district of Abdeen, a 19th and early 20th century neighborhood that grew out of the limits of the old city and into the 19th century expansion. Those particular buildings are on Mohamed Farid Street, which continues further north in downtown proper where it is lined with some of 19th/20th century Cairo’s grandest buildings. In its southern part however the street has more humble beginnings. Although Abdeen Palace is just a stone’s throw away, the buildings here dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries are residential buildings where middle class families resided.


Some turn of the century brick buildings survive. Those buildings, in my estimation, represent one of Cairo’s forgotten vernacular typologies. They can also be counted as an early iteration of the contemporary reinforced concrete and red brick typology dominating the city. There are fundamental differences however between these century old buildings and their contemporary counterparts.

On the most basic level, these buildings use the same materials as their contemporary counterparts, that’s where the similarity ends. The differences are in the ways these materials are used, the proportions of spaces, and the craftsmanship.

These buildings were most probably not designed by architects (as in someone who received formal training to gain the official title of architect), rather this typology like the majority of the city’s built environment was constructed by builders, not different from today’s developers/contractors. The difference comes in the centrality of artisans and specialists who conceive and execute certain elements of the building (carpentry, brick work, iron work). Today’s developers and builders who build for the majority of the population seem to have lost their grip on the well-trained artisans. Artisans who were trained in an apprenticeship system have all but disappeared. Therefore the majority of today’s building work is undertaken by unskilled labor. That is the fundamental difference between these brick and concrete buildings and their contemporary equivalents.

This vernacular architecture should be the subject of study and documentation. Such buildings are sidelined as insignificant, mundane and unworthy of study. However, these buildings remind us that “back to basics” isn’t a bad way to go. In the big picture so few of Cairo’s buildings throughout its history (like many other cities) were actually designed by architects. We tend to forget that architecture as a profession is relatively new and has historically catered to the top echelons of society. What about the rest? They built and continue to build without architects but skill, artistry and traditions of building technique evolved and were refined and readjusted to suit the times.

The building below and others pictured here, are reminders of what buildings are about: basic shelter. There aren’t so many ways to arrange the plan for a one or a two bedroom apartment and the materials available predetermine many factors. The question is, will it be done sloppily or will artisans and builders execute the various elements of building well enough that they survive a century even if they are only exposed brick and concrete slab buildings. There is beauty in this architecture and it lies in its honesty, simplicity and functionality.


another vernacular

For the past fifty years Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy has been celebrated in and outside Egypt as the father of Egyptian vernacular (read primitive) modern architecture.

If one takes a closer look at the existing conditions in urban Egypt, other forms of “self-built” “architecture without architects” can be found. There is the ubiquitous concrete structure filled with exposed red brick which to my eyes is the true vernacular language of modern Egyptian architecture.

But there are also slightly more refined variations on that self-built brick and concrete architecture that dates a bit further back prior to the current condition of sprawling informality. And some of those examples stand today and they have inspired a more recent generation of that typology. Here are some examples.

The taller building, in Shoubra, is built with a basic concrete structure of slabs supported by columns and connected by a stair. The walls and facade are of exposed red brick. The balconies and window are on a fixed grid. Decorative elements are added such as the brick detail above the building entrence which consists of three parallel vertical lines of brick extrusions. Balconies are personalized by the residents.

The shortest building in the image above follows a similar format to the building above. Notice the play with positive and negative space on the facade. Also in Shoubra.

The building above represents a further level of articulation on the model represented in the first two examples. This building is essentially following the same format but goes further in the direction of Architecture (with a capital A) by finishing the surfaces, enforcing symmetry and regulating doors and windows. This example dates from the 1950s or late 1940s. Located in Shoubra.

An earlier example of this model. Near Al Saleeba Street.

This building type is long ignored and hasn’t been studied. In a profession that values exceptions over the everyday (celebrating high modernism, criticizing exceptional conditions such as slums, or cynically looking at badly conceived facade architecture) the model presented here is nothing short of fill, everyday, maybe even mediocre.

This is an invitation to take another look and to consider the lessons that can be had from “everyday” architecture.