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Hassan Fathy (1900–1989)

Born to a rich family in 1900 in Alexandria, Egypt, Hassan Fathy was an architect, an artist, and a poet. Fathy graduated in 1926 from the Polytechnic School of the University of Cairo where he received an education very much influenced by the French Beaux Arts traditions.5 Apart from working as a practising architect, he was also a professor of architecture and urban studies at the School of Fine Arts, Helwan University, in Cairo. His outstanding work was locally recognised and frequently exhibited, but was also resisted. One of the first important moments of recognition of his work took place at the 1937 Mansoura Exhibition in Egypt. Two decades later, in 1959, Hassan Fathy was the Gold Medal winner of the State Encouragement Prize for Fine Arts. In 1967, he was awarded the National Prize for Fine Arts. However, despite his great national influence and well-known projects in his home country, Fathy was mostly appreciated and lauded abroad. Fathy was a contemporary of well-known and celebrated architects such as Alvar Aalto (1898-1976), Louis Khan (1901-1974), and Philip Johnson (1906-2005).

Although Fathy’s main focus was on designing functional architecture for the poor, he nevertheless developed a distinct aesthetic style based on the specificities of time and place. He highlighted the values of vernacular and indigenous architecture, reviving and utilising mud-brick (rammed earth) architecture in a contemporary way; this approach proved to be both an economical and environmentally suitable solution to the housing needs of the poor socio-economic classes (Hamid, 2010). This functional and pragmatic use of natural building materials led to international recognition and acclaim. Because of his determined focus on sustainable architecture, he was considered to be not only the architectural sage of poor, non-industrialised countries, but of Islamic architecture as well. In 1980, Fathy received the Right Livelihood Award; this was followed by the first Gold Medal of the Union International des Architects (UIA) in 1984. Most importantly, in 1980, he was awarded the first Chairman’s Award of the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture in recognition of his lifelong achievements and commitment to creating architecture representative of Muslim communities and culture.

Contextual inspirations

In the 1950s and 1960s Fathy witnessed the advent and institutionalisation of nationalist ideology in his homeland, a country that was emerging from centuries of colonial rule. His architectural career developing during the popularisation of modernism, romanticism, and Enlightenment trends in literature and art at a national level (El-Wakil, 2018). During his lifetime, he travelled throughout Egypt, gradually acquiring knowledge of and expertise in local building traditions, materials, and crafts. Such techniques and craftsmanship motivated him to emphasise the richness of the Islamic architecture in conjunction with modernist movements and their principles. Fathy’s work addressed many of the key themes of 20th-century architecture; he was fully aware and wary of the impact of fast-changing cultural and socio-economic developments. Like Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, the celebrated architect who revived and restored medieval buildings and landmarks in France, Fathy firmly believed that one should return to and examine the past in order to find inspiration. Unfortunately, in recent years, the trend toward modernism and postmodernism has completely ignored the achievements of the past and instead focuses on modern technologies and universality.

Fathy also adopted and advocated fine arts, tradition, and social responsibility as important aspects of design; he became a strong opponent of the modern movement, firmly believing that architectural styles should represent and symbolise the uniqueness and spirit of each place; this belief included the use of local traditional materials and crafts (El-Shorbagy, 2010). An anti-modernist, Fathy rejected concrete as a building material and opted instead for traditional mud-brick adobe walls, along with self-supporting ceiling vaults in many of his buildings. In this way, he effectively used cost-effective natural materials to create an attractive and utilitarian sense of scale and thereby introduced an innovative architectural response to preserving the old while building the new. Many of his designs used wood, and almost forgotten carpentry crafts were therefore reinvigorated. By adopting a more humanistic approach and inventing the practice of self-help housing, Fathy became the guru of architecture for the poor in the late 1940s. Using traditional constructional techniques and local materials (Fathy, 1973), he felt that involving people in the actual process of building their own homes would help create a sense of identity and ownership, and thus not only benefit them psychologically but also empower them. In trying to solve the housing problems of the poor or the “economic untouchables” of the world (Steele, 1992), Fathy brought together craftspeople, community workers, community advisors, and architects to build these low-cost shelters. Recognising Fathy’s relentless efforts in trying to improve living conditions for the poor, deprived populations, HRH Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, described him as “a remarkable man whose courageous voice deserves to be heard” (Charles, 1989:11).

Maintaining architectural heritage is an indispensable preservation element for any established community, especially for restoration projects. Fathy was a visionary, ahead of his time, and well in advance of postmodernism (1979), in addressing vernacularism, contextuality, metaphor, and symbolic architecture (El-Shorbagy, 2010). He urged architects everywhere to respond to local surroundings, thus underscoring the importance of recognising and embracing the past in a modern context. By incorporating both new and traditional reflections in a rational way and producing an architecture which is a mixture of modesty and grandeur (Pich-Aguilera and Maluenda, 1989), Fathy’s work is characterised by honesty, efficiency, and availability; his housing projects for the poor and underprivileged represent a contemporary usage and version of the vernacular. Aiming to strike a balance between people, nature, and architecture, Fathy sought to create an integrated sustainable and environmentally appropriate architecture that responded to ecological considerations and natural habitats. For example, in completely rejecting the use of mechanical equipment, he devised methods of natural thermal control by incorporating appropriate spatial forms and traditional techniques. Key features of his designs include courtyards and traditional wind-catchers, the latter creating a filtered airflow that reduces humidity; he also reintroduced the traditional use of ceramic ovens for heating purposes.

In line with his notions of sustainability, Fathy went even further: by creating mud-brick buildings that achieved both natural thermal control and traditional aesthetic forms, he revived no-cost earth architecture which he had first observed in Nubia during a trip to Upper Egypt (Holod and Rastorfer, 1983). To validate this approach, the Building Research Centre in Cairo compared rooms built using various materials, including cement blocks and rammed earth mud-brick. They proved that the temperature fluctuation in a 24-hour period was much cooler, only 2 degrees Celsius, in the mud-brick construction, compared to 20 degrees Celsius in a cement block room (Fathy, 1973). Fathy’s revival of the mud-brick construction system, with its rectangular and vaulted forms and its simple beauty made such construction a feasible and economical housing solution for the poor. At the time, this revolutionary idea reinvigorated low-cost housing projects, at not only a national, but also an international level. He was thus recognised as the father of mud-brick or rammed earth architecture.

Architect and engineer G. F. Middleton, a contemporary of Hassan Fathy, was another pioneer who promoted the use of rammed earth architecture. However, his projects used this technique mainly in wall construction. Fathy’s designs were more progressive and functional: he also used this application in the construction of roofs. Prominent architectural figures such as Rudolph Schindler, Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright have also addressed the idea of earth architecture, sometimes in direct contradiction to modern ideologies with their natural response to vernacular materials and forms. Acknowledging his pioneering works in earth architecture, Ruth Eaton (1981) declared Fathy to be the most influential contemporary promoter of earth as a building material.

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