Hassan Fathy

Architect and teacher, Egypt
More than any other 20th-century architect, Hassan Fathy raised the status of earth
building among architects worldwide. Building in earth—adobe or pis é—has a long and
honorable history, and in those parts of the world where stone and timber are scarce and
expensive, earth has remained the most economical and widely used building material.
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This is certainly true in Egypt and most Arab countries. But even there, as in most of
Europe, earth, at the turn of the 20th century, had come to be identified with poverty and
backwardness, and earthen building materials were increasingly perceived by architects
and the professional middle classes in general to be old fashioned and impermanent. A
handful of architectural devotees of earth building advocated and promoted its use, but by
and large, commercial vested interests in the brick, cement, steel, and asbestos industries
almost completely sidelined earthen building materials.
Fathy, in common with many Egyptian architects of his generation, studied in France,
at the Ecolé dex Beaux Arts in Paris, and like them he acquired a love for the historic
architecture of his homeland, and for the Mameluke and Ottoman architecture of his
native city, Cairo, in particular. But unlike most of them, he acquired also a love for the
traditional vernacular architecture of the Egyptian countryside, and chiefly for the Nubian
architecture of Upper Egypt. Soon after his return from Egypt to France, he was
appointed to the staff of the Department of Architecture at the School of Fine Arts in
Cairo, of which he became Head in 1938. Under his direction, annual field study visits to
the various regions of Egypt were introduced into the curriculum.
Fathy’s growing reputation in this field brought him the commission, in 1946 from the
Egyptian government, to design and build a new village, on flat fertile land closer to the
Nile, for the inhabitants of Old Gourna, an ancient village close to the Valley of the
Kings at Thebes, who had made a living for genera-tions by robbing historic artifacts
from the Pharaonic tombs and selling them to tourists and dealers. Before this
commission, his architectural practice had consisted, in the main, of private houses for
affluent middle-class clients: the New Gourna commission transformed his practice and
almost broke him, financially and psychologically. His plan for the new settlement, his
designs for each one of the buildings in it, housing and public buildings, incorporating as
far as possible the architectural traditions of the Upper Nile valley and the building skills
of the Nubians, and his direction of the building process, were based on long and close
observation of, and consultation with, the community for which he designing.
Unfortunately, on completion of the main phase of building in 1953, the people of Old
Gourna refused to move form their old homes and to forfeit their traditional illegal source
of income. The buildings of New Gourna were not occupied, and they remained empty
for decades.
However, Fathy persevered—he remained faithful to his vision of an architecture
deriving from and drawing its inspiration from the building traditions of the Egyptian
people. His own architectural practice continued, in its modest way, until the publication
in 1969 of his account of the genesis of the New Gourna project by the Egyptian Ministry
of Culture became a turning point in his career. The Archaeology Department of the
University of Chicago had been actively engaged in the exploration, interpretation, and
conservation of the Pharaonic remains in Thebes for decades and had come to rely on,
and admire, Fathy’s profound knowledge of the building traditions of the area. Therefore,
the department sponsored the re-publication of his account of New Gourna under a new
title, Architecture for the Poor : An Expe riment in Ru ral Egy pt, in 1973.
The reissue of the New Gourna story coincided with the worldwide fuel crisis,
following the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, and in the use of locally available building
materials and building craft skills and the application of traditional principles of climatic
comfort was seen the recipe for the affordable and locally sustainable rural development
Entries A–F 839
of which the developing countries of the world, in all continents, were in desperate need.
Architects and architectural students from all continents in increasing numbers made the
pilgrimage to New Gourna, or to Fathy’s home in Cairo, on the top floor of the ancient
house in Dar Al-Gabbani at the foot of the Citadel, where Fathy was to spend the last
years of his life.
This historic house, acquired by the Aga Khan and over a period of years restored
under Fathy’s direction, came to serve as a demonstration of the design principles that
Fathy advocated. Here he established the International Institute of Appropriate
Technology, of which he served as director for several years.
In the final decade of his life, Fathy undertook a vast range of commissions including
Dar Al-Islam, the Moslem arts and crafts community in New Mexico, and the Desert
Research Centre for the American University of Cairo, at Sadat City, the vast new city in
the desert overlooking the oasis of Wadi Natrun. The execution of these latter projects
would have been impossible without the support and assistance of the young architects,
Egyptians and others, who were attracted by his philosophy and personality, and whose
assistance he so generously acknowledged. Notable among these architects was Abdel
Wahid ElWakil.

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