Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 March 2000
Issue No. 474
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Remembering 'the Master'

On the centenary of the great architect's birth, Yasmine El-Rashidi revisits his house and reminisces with some of those who crossed his way
The house still stands at the end of the curved, dusty road at the foot of Cairo's great Citadel. It still has character and mystery; now, however, it is a unique work of art amidst its modern concrete neighbours.

It is the house where Hassan Fathy lived; a mansion without its master. That master was an intriguing man; one to whom some bowed, and many more raised a sceptical brow. He was seen as eccentric and a dreamer -- the strange man who built his house of mud -- not the man the world now praises; the architect who laboured for the people.

To others, however, Hassan Bey, as he was more commonly called, meant the whole world.

"Hassan Bey must be viewed in relation to his time, and the way in which he acted upon generations of thinkers in Egypt and in the world," asserts architect Ahmed Hamed, an eight-year disciple of Fathy's, currently adviser at the American University in Cairo's Hassan Fathy archives, and a guest panelist on AUC's 'Hassan Bey as We Knew Him' forum, to be held today under the auspices of Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni. "This man represented to young architects a form of what we would call resistance. But to him it was not resistance; it was his only way of reacting to the world's progress, evolution, thinking. And this may be why one day, when I asked him, 'What's that statue behind you?' -- in a niche covered with a mashrabiya screen with a little light inside, a very theatrical setting -- he said it was Don Quixote. And I asked him, 'And why is Don Quixote there behind you?' And he replied, 'Because this is the man who fought windmills.' Every time I find resistance -- to thinking, to order, geometry -- I remember the little statue behind Hassan Fathy and what it meant to him."

Hassan Fathy

Fathy on the terrace of his Citadel home. The architect's home in Sidi Kreir -- passed on to longtime friend Nawal Hassan. Fathy's Bariz Project for Public Housing in Kharga Oasis
What it meant was turning towards human beings. It meant working with a social consciousness, knowing that "the Almighty Architect" would view his work; taking into account every tree, every bit of technology, every change in every inch of every piece of nature tampered with. It meant inventing, adding and always viewing his own work critically before presenting it to the public.

"He used to say," Hamed adds, "that an architect should live in the spaces he has created. If he is happy, he deserves credit. If he is unhappy, then he is to be discredited."

Fathy himself, to judge by his little beach home in Sidi Kreir -- built of the same rock on which it stands -- was content, and certainly deserving of credit.

But at a time when the world was industrialising, modernising and squeezing humanity into an ever-diminishing space, the planners could only question his convictions.

"He would say 'we can correct the procedure, the thinking, the phenomenon, so that it can always serve man'," Hamed explains. "Many people believe he was against technology. He wasn't against technology, but he invented the term we use exhaustively today: 'appropriate technology.' There is no reason to manufacture, say, an armchair, with the same technology that makes an airplane. But this was the time of the big boom of industrialisation."

At that point in time, he was an outcast in a world awash with excesses and generalities. Industrialisation may have been meant to serve the masses, but to Hassan Bey, Hamed explains, "the masses were not an accumulation of zeros -- two million, two hundred million. He insisted that treatment for every person be very personalised."

Thus, his reputation as a romantic was born, and the details of his every-day life were recast as peculiarities -- his own quirks and foibles seen as divine messages and emulated by those who adulated him.

This process begins, his long-time friend Nawal Hassan notes, with the 17th-century house in which he chose to live.

Then, there were his daily rituals: like his insistence on opening his home each afternoon to visitors, friends and admirers -- any follower or passerby interested in joining the gathering, listening to his perspectives, or contributing a thought or two.

And of course, there was the way he chose to prepare his food; always baked, and always in earthenware, remembers one visitor, Nevine Hussein.

"He was very particular in his eating habits," agrees Hamed. "He ate baked pigeon, boiled rice, peeled tomatoes -- because, of course, the peel is bad for the digestion; lentil soup and stewed apple or pear. That was the menu."

An exception was made at five o'clock every afternoon, when the petits fours from Groppi would be served to his guests. Apart from that, and an occasional dish of osso bucco at Estoril or a sandwich at Felfela, Fathy's routine did not vary.

"He was an early riser," Hamed says. "He used the morning hours for his reading -- which I would say was a ritual. During the time I worked with him, he would have looked over the sketches before I arrived at 9.00am, which means he had probably been up since 6.00."

The early reading ritual took him through the pages of Yehia Haqqi, botany, Sufism, as well as the traditional regional architecture of Africa, the Far East and anything in between. His all-time favourites, however, were The Little Prince and the Divine Comedy, from which he quoted time and again: "I do not exist except for what I love; for Beatrice, truth or for God Almighty."

A deep-rooted belief in his theories pushed him onward, always; he derived his unwavering energy from an obviously higher inspiration.

Hassan Fathy by Bahgory
A selective biography

1900 Born in Alexandria to an Upper Egyptian father and Turkish mother

1926 Graduated from Cairo University, where he started studying agriculture but switched to architecture

1928 Talkha Primary School, first recorded project Fathi completed after graduation; neo-classical style with engaged columns, pediments and acrotyrion executed in precise detail

1938 Hayat Villa, for famous artist Hayat Mohamed

1940-41 Rural Hospitals, built using the Nubian construction techniques Fathy discovered in Upper Egypt

1946 New Gourna, Luxor, Commissioned by the Egyptian Department of Antiquities to solve the problem of tomb-robbing in the Valley of the Kings, Queens and Nobles nearby

1950 Mosque, Punjab, India

1957 Harraniya weaving village, Imbaba

1957 Arab Refugee Housing, design for a prototype of temporary housing for Palestinian refugees

1967 New Bariz Village, Kharga, Fathy's best known community project

1971 Nasser Mausoleum

1973 Chicago Press publishes Architecture for the Poor (variation from French Architecture with the People), which catapulted Fathy's work to international fame

1980 Dar Al-Islam Village, Abiquiu, New Mexico

1980 Received Aga Khan Award for Architecture

1984 Received Medal of the Union of International Architects

1984 Received first-ever honourary Doctorate awarded by AUC

1989 Died

"He is a controversial figure," wrote Ismail Serageldin in a 1992 article titled "An Egyptian Appraisal," "and one whose impact is widely acknowledged but not quite understood, although he has been a continuous presence on the scene for almost 60 years. Nevertheless, during those six decades he has always been peripheral to the mainstream of building activity in Egypt, or architectural education in Egypt, and of decision-making on urban matters in Egypt. But peripheral to the mainstream does not always mean easily discountable," he continued. "His persistent presence has sometimes infuriated, sometimes disconcerted, always challenged those who were most influential in building matters in Egypt. His intransigence baffled some, who saw him as a lonely guru, reminiscent of Old Testament prophets, promising that the world will reap misery for not listening to the truth of his message."

It was a message best conveyed through the title of the book that catapulted him to worldwide fame, Architecture for the People. Not one to be taken in by modern forms, Fathy offered an alternative paradigm.

"Today, industrialists all over the world are reviewing what they have done," Hamed explains. "Man has punctured the ozone layer; they are trying to understand why, how, to ensure that this does not happen again. Industry today goes hand in hand with culture -- and culture is not just something useless, though precious, but a useful, scientific heritage that should be available for a better tomorrow. Hassan Fathy, in the 1940s and early '50s, initiated this way of thinking."

Now, after years of searching for a social agenda, his message may be coming into its own. And as it does so, architects with Hassan Fathy's social consciousness are asking their clients to evaluate the dwellings in which they will live, looking at the different regionalisms that have acted upon architects, and wondering whether they have addressed cultural complexity or simply avoided it.

To live in a world filled with rows of concrete blocks was Fathy's great fear. Guests at his afternoon sessions recount that he would often stand on the rooftop of his Citadel home and exclaim in sorrow that the buildings were "like matchboxes."

Serageldin writes that Fathy "rejected the elements of internationalism that were trying to unify the world in a common pattern of living derived from a common technology."

And Hamed continues: "With communications today -- if we adopt the same measure that Hassan Fathy has created -- we risk losing most of the world's languages. English, French: these will be the languages we speak. Does this please man, or does this hamper his progress? Will it be one global village, in which you find the same products, the same people, the same languages, the same behaviour from New York to Cairo, Dodoma to Delhi? Or should we safeguard critical regionalism, for the sake of this international citizen we are creating today?"

So Fathy was not, as many believed, rejecting modernity lock, stock and barrel, but rather globalisation and industrialisation as homogenising concepts that strip humans of their individual qualities, cultures and values.

"People were hesitant towards Hassan Fathy's architecture because they loved what so-called modernity offered in terms of comfort, view, relaxation," Hamed notes. "They thought Arab or Islamic architecture would hamper this. Today we know that Hassan Bey's work coincides very well with modern principles of comfort. You can live, and live comfortably, in such houses, in the world of today, in the context of modern man."

In fact, some argue that his houses were better suited to life in the Arab world than the "matchboxes" so many families -- and not only the low-income sectors of society -- live in today.

In an article entitled "Hassan Fathy: A Living Spirit," Nawal Hassan notes: "When architects built low-income housing without balconies, Fathy wrote an article in the newspaper to remind them that the poor buy their onions and garlic in season and store them on the balconies where they also keep chickens in coops, their only cheap source of meat."

Serageldin's comments run along the same lines: "Culturally inappropriate elements that are so inserted into the fabric of the harmonious built environment will undoubtedly generate contradictions, and will, with time, corrode and degrade the traditional culture."

Fathy himself used to say that "whatever technology presents as ease should always be viewed with prudence, for not every ease is tantamount to progress."

Having said that, however, both disciples and visitors are quick to note that his theories embraced suitable elements from the West. Upon returning from New Mexico, Fathy incorporated a unique entrance into a sketch. When asked about it, he replied: "I was in Santa Fe and we were invited to tea in someone's home, and the neighbour had an entrance that recalled the passage we are recreating now. I found it amusing."

Fathy sought inspiration in people's way of interacting with the world around them. He absorbed various influences not only from his travels, but also from literature, art and music.

"Architecture is music frozen in place," he is known to have said. "And music is architecture frozen in time."

This sensitivity and awareness -- to link that architecture is concerned with the science of the environment and sense of place, with the art of rhythm, harmony and proportion -- is what all those evenings over tea, with Beethoven or Brahms playing in the background, were all about.

"He was very aware of the world around him," Hamed stresses. "Very aware that the poor are not being housed. He had a very strong scientific imagination. Not romantic; scientific."

After all, this was the man who once asked a group of listeners what Islamic architecture would have looked like if Islam had appeared in Scotland, and not the Hijaz.

It was such questions -- advanced beyond the time -- which attracted the likes of Hamed, and others such as Omar El-Hakim and Abdel-Wahid El-Wakil, whose father used to ask him why he was wasting his time with such a man whose name he saw on no buildings.

"But we knew," Hamed says, "that whatever knowledge -- architecture and other -- that was passed from him during those hours, could not be acquired through any formal form of education."

Today, they still firmly believe he was right.

Fathy once said, "A house where the children play happily is a happy state." Today -- at a time when architects the world-over are indeed reviewing the place of children -- such ideas seem revolutionary.

At the time, though, his critics said he was wasting space, living in another world, or at best another time. Today, Fathy's revival of the mud-brick building techniques is slowly acquiring "cult status," as James Steele writes in Architecture for the People. His work earned him the first-ever honourary Aga Khan Award for Architecture, and the courtyard he used religiously is no longer seen as a waste of space. Rather, it is the skyscrapers that are beginning to look a little absurd.

If modernity is about dressing impeccably, Hassan Fathy -- clad in Brooks Brother's suits or cashmere cardigans and grey flannel trousers -- was ahead of his time. Perhaps his sense of style was just another aspect of his belief in the importance of true comfort. Then again, he had a flair for dramatic moments: as he built New Gourna in 1946, a gramophone played by his side.

He wasn't a conventional man, by any means. For one thing, he gave of his time and attention unstintingly.

"He always had time for an anecdote or a joke," Hamed remembers. "He loved to laugh, and had a wonderful sense of humour."

Time never meant money to Hassan Fathy. Rather, it meant knowledge, sharing and learning.

So as the sun set on Cairo, and the cool evening air drifted into his home, laughter filtered through the rooms of the house on Darb Al-Labban Street. There never was an evening without the laughter of friends. For it was, after all, the house where Hassan Fathy lived.


The house that he built

Hassan FathyArchitects, scholars, friends and media representatives from around the world are gathering at the American University in Cairo today to commemorate the centenary of internationally renowned Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy's birth.

Preceding the public opening of the joint exhibit, "Hassan Fathy: Centennial Exhibition," Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni will join the gathering in a forum, "Hassan Bey as We Knew Him," in which friends and disciples will join to talk about the man they used to call "the Master." Following will be a screening of documentaries on Fathy.

The Sony Gallery exhibit, "Desert Architecture: Bariz and Sidi Kreir," will show 34 black and white photos of Fathy's work taken in Sidi Kreir in 1974 and Bariz in 1978 by famous architectural scholar Christel Kessler. The exhibit will continue until 27 April, and is open Sunday to Thursday, 9.00-12.00am and 6.00-9.00pm.

The Rare Books and Special Collections Library exhibit, "Selections from the Hassan Fathy Archives," which will run until 31 July, will provide an introductory survey of the broad scope of the library's Hassan Fathy Archives. The RBSCL is open from 11.00am to 5.00pm.

The Fathy family donated his archives to AUC in 1994, where they are grouped into project files, drawings, speeches, and writings and correspondence.


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