Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 October 2010
Issue No. 1019
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Architecture for the poor

Nevine El-Aref reports on a UNESCO scheme to conserve and revive architect Hassan Fathy's New Gourna village on the west bank at Luxor

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Hassan Fathy's New Gourna where poor villagers live is currently being inspected for preservation

Although the heat makes work in Luxor over the summer difficult, a committee of international architects gathered early last week on Luxor's west bank in order to inspect Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy's New Gourna village, launching a comprehensive scheme to help preserve this village consisting of mud-brick domiciles for the poor.

Constructed between 1946 and 1952 by pioneering architect Fathy, New Gourna aimed to provide housing for the population of the village of Old Gourna. Villagers from the latter had lived for generations above ancient Egyptian tombs, and they were moved in order to prevent damage to the tombs and to provide a model for low-cost and sustainable housing.

The main characteristic of New Gourna consists of its reinterpretation of the traditional village setting, using local materials and techniques that are extraordinarily sensitive to the climate. The type of architecture Fathy developed at New Gourna was recognised internationally as an appropriate solution for housing low-income rural communities, and it was presented in a major architectural work published in 1976, Architecture of the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt.

Fathy's ideas inspired a generation of architects and planners worldwide through his integration of vernacular technology with modern architectural principles. In 1980, Fathy was awarded the Aga Khan Award for Architecture Chairman's Award for his architectural design at New Gourna.

However, since then time has taken its toll on the village, and some people from Old Gourna always refused to be relocated to the new setting. As a result, parts of New Gourna were sparsely populated, and the village as a whole has been subject to a lack of maintenance and environmental problems, leading to the loss of some dwellings.

Cracks have spread in the walls of some buildings, and concrete buildings commissioned by the local authorities are even being constructed just a few metres away from the magnificent mud-brick theatre designed and built by Fathy.

Although New Gourna is situated within the boundaries of the World Heritage Site of Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis, added in 1979 to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO's, World Heritage List, its outstanding nature was not fully recognised when the site's nomination dossier was prepared.

International efforts have been made to safeguard New Gourna, but few concrete measures have been taken. Since the village is a key reference for architects, engineers and specialists in earthen architecture worldwide, an international association was set up in 2008 in Geneva in order to try to safeguard Fathy's architectural work.

However, little work took place until 2009, when the village was declared a protected heritage site by prime ministerial decree, and a committee from the Ministry of Culture, the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), the National Organisation for Urban Harmony and the Luxor governorate was formed to identify the perimeters of the village and the legal measures that could be taken to protect the site.

It was in this context that UNESCO set up a committee of experts in the field of sustainable and earthen architecture to help efforts to safeguard New Gourna. Last week, some two dozen international experts met in Luxor in order to make recommendations on a project aiming to safeguard New Gourna.

"The safeguarding of New Gourna would be a dream come true," said Luxor Governor Samir Farag at the meeting, adding that the development of the village was also within the city's development plans, including turning the area into an open-air museum.

Under the plan, the 70 homes in the village would be restored along with the mosque, theatre and market. The house lived in by Fathy during the village's construction would also be restored. An international centre for sustainable architecture would be established, as well as a Hassan Fathy visitor's centre.

One of the main goals of the initiative, Farag said, would be to draw attention to the pioneering ideas and philosophy of Fathy himself and to demonstrate their contemporary relevance in the international centre.

According to UNESCO, Fathy's tenets derived from his humanistic values, which set high store on the connections between people and the places in which they lived, arguing for the use of traditional knowledge and materials and especially the advantages of earth as a construction material.

New Gourna was an important experiment in the implementation of Fathy's philosophy. Safeguarding the village is not only about preserving its original design and fabric, but also about promoting Fathy's ideas and educating the public about them.

"We are here to begin a new adventure that fulfils the dream of a great man, Hassan Fathy, that his life did not see," Francesco Bandarin, UNESCO assistant director-general for culture, told reporters at a press conference held to launch the $1 million rehabilitation project for New Gourna, which will last two years.

Bandarin said that Fathy had seen the future shape of architecture before others, a future that he had made concrete at New Gourna. "We are here to make this project a flagship for Luxor, Egypt and the world as a whole," Bandarin said, explaining that the planned International Centre for Sustainable Architecture (ICSA) aimed to provide training and research facilities for Egyptian and international students in order to promote Fathy's humanistic vision.

The project would have shorter and longer-term components, Bandarin said. The short-term component would last for a year and would include a geotechnical and infrastructural assessment of the site, its sewage system and road network, as well as documentation of the village's history. A project master plan would be drawn up, and this would include a management map and details of the architectural task force.

The shorter-term activity would also seek urgently to consolidate the most-threatened buildings and restore the empty houses in order to set an example for later interventions.

"We are here to help the local community," Bandarin added, explaining that buildings built in concrete in the village would be demolished under the plan and replaced by new ones similar to those in Fathy's original design. The inhabitants of the demolished houses would be given new ones under the project, he said.

In the longer term, the project would include the construction of the proposed international centre in a central position in the village. The mosque would be restored, as would Fathy's former residence. The centre would include a guesthouse for teachers, scholars and students, and the project as a whole would include an important environmental component and sewage-treatment scheme.

Overall, those living in New Gourna would benefit from the plan in the form of better housing conditions, and they would be able to capitalise on the national and international attention focussed on the village.

Local businesses could develop as a result of the new emphasis on mud-brick conservation, and villages could become entrepreneurs renting out rooms, running local eateries and shops and setting an example to surrounding communities of the social and economic gains to be made through the conservation and adaptive reuse of their own heritage.

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