Hassan Fathy: innovation and tradition
Drawing on the American University in Cairo's collection of architectural drawings and memorabilia of Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, as well as on similar material held by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Hassan Fathy, un architecte égyptien is a free exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe that traces the development of Fathy's work from the earliest experiments to the architect's late commissions in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, writes David Tresilian in Paris
Fathy, born in Alexandria in 1900 and dying in Cairo in 1989 following a career spent in Egypt and Greece, demonstrated how elements from vernacular Arab urban architecture, such as the malkaf (wind catch), shukshaykha (lantern dome) and mashrabiya (wooden lattice screen), could be combined with the mud-brick construction traditionally practiced in Nubia in Upper Egypt to form a distinctive, environmentally and socially conscious building style that linked the use of appropriate technologies with co- operative construction techniques and the guiding thread of tradition.
In so doing, Fathy arrived at a national style in architecture, setting out his views on how this style, when linked to traditional building materials and practices, could yield answers to Egypt's rural housing problems in his best-known book Gourna: A Tale of Two Villages (1969), published in the US as Architecture for the Poor (1973). In this work, recording an attempt to put such ideas into practice at Gourna near Luxor, Fathy argued strongly for the state's adoption of his ideas, seeing in them an expression of the re-established national and cultural pride that had developed in Egypt in the 1920s and 30s and that had seen a renaissance across the arts, including in architecture.
As American architect James Steele writes in his book An Architect for the People (1997), the standard work on Fathy, by "defining tradition as 'the social analogy of personal habit', Fathy intimated that it is the responsibility of each architect to develop a heightened awareness of such habits, and to incorporate them sympathetically into each design... [Fathy's] determined attempt to reawaken a sense of cultural pride among his countrymen, and to make them more aware of their rich architectural heritage," has led "many young people [to become] more informed about Islamic architecture in the mediaeval part of Cairo."
"This new awareness is no longer confined to Egypt alone, as Fathy's name has now become associated with the re- establishment of architectural tradition throughout the developing world," Steele writes. In addition, Fathy's early emphases on appropriate technologies, on local materials and construction techniques and on social co-operation chime with contemporary, environmentally conscious architecture, in which architects have tried to work with the environment instead of changing it, exploring the renewed use of traditional materials and techniques and having a more modest understanding of their social and cultural roles.
For Steele, "rather than believing that people could be behaviourally conditioned by architectural space, Fathy felt that human beings, nature and architecture should coexist in harmonious balance. For him, architecture was a communal art that should reflect the personal habits and traditions of a community rather than reforming or eradicating them. While he was certainly not opposed to innovation, he felt that technology should be subservient to social values, and appropriate to popular needs, ... [prefiguring] the current ethos of sustainability."
In 1980 Fathy won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, the citation making special reference to how his investigation of the "climatically efficient houses of Mamluk and Ottoman Cairo", with their ventilation systems of wind catches, lantern domes, courtyards and mashrabiya, had stimulated interest in these traditional and economical forms of climate control. It also referred to how Fathy's investigation of rural vernacular construction had reinvigorated traditional mud-brick architecture, with its inclined arches and vaults and domes on squinches above square rooms and semi- domed alcoves, showing how this could contribute to the design and building of villages for the poor.
At the Paris exhibition architectural drawings from each phase of Fathy's career are on display, as are personal items and manuscripts owned by Fathy himself. Architectural drawings from the New Gourna project (1945-47) show the new village's mosque, theatre and market, illustrating Fathy's plans for a village that could be a prototype for other projects designed to rehouse Egypt's rural poor.
Other drawings show plans for the private commissions that Fathy increasingly occupied himself with in the 1970s and 1980s, including houses built in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and at Shabramant near Cairo. These houses all incorporate trademark Fathy elements, such as the domes that he had adopted from vernacular Nubian architecture and the use of mashrabiya and other traditional materials, also reproducing the traditional Cairo house's inner courtyard and division of private and public domestic space.
Hassan Fathy, un architecte égyptien, exhibition organised in collaboration with the American University in Cairo and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, 4 December 2002 to 2 February 2003