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An Architect's House: a Paradigm of a Living Tradition

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Hassan Fathy’s own house is so remarkable because of the way it combined influences, yet transcended them, so implying the ingredients of his own style. The design of Fathy’s house possessed sobriety and a noble quality of human scale. Thus all pa

Although, aged 71 years, the prominent Egyptian architect, Hassan Fathy continued to announce and promote his traditional architectural ideas and philosophy with a high degree of confidence. In the early 1970s, there was a growing tendency towards the promotion of tourism in the form of tourist villages along the coasts of Egypt. Fathy believed that to confirm the success of such villages “one has to inspire the guest with a feeling of hospitality, intimacy, beauty and permanency. These qualities should be conveyed to man by respecting the indigenous character of the design down to the smallest detail”. As a demonstration of his traditional principles, in 1971 Fathy decided to build a house for himself in Sidi Krier on the North Coast of the Mediterranean, Egypt.

                       Image credit A general view of the house

The architect intended the house to be a successful prototype for a considerable low-cost and beautiful structure as well as a model for a tourist-unit. Fathy’s main aim was to encourage the Egyptian government to use this model-house as a nucleus for a future research institute in desert settlements. He believed that “while all the elements of design were of the most traditional, all the materials were of local origin, yet the building is absolutely contemporary”. He considered his house as an experiment to show that “man can build with beauty, little expense and simplicity anywhere, even in the desert, if he tried to work in harmony with nature”.

Image credit  An arched staircase leading to the roof of the house

Image credit  The roof of the house showing the arrangments of domes and vaults

Fathy’s intention was to crystallise the best qualities of Arab domestic architecture in the design of his own house, although it was small. “As the French proverb says ‘Big lady small hat, small lady big hat; this is a very small lady”, Fathy said. Built as a summer retreat, the plan of the one-floor house consists of a simple rectangle which contains all the essential constituents of the Arab house, such as qa‘ah (reception area), dorqa‘ah (central part of the reception), iwan (a recess attached to the qa’ah) and the courtyard. It is one of the most beautifully studied plans imaginable for a small house.

             Image credit  Claustras in the open courtyard and a vaulted sitting area

          Image credit Interior archway                     Image credit  Mashrabbiya from the interior

The various elements of the house are clearly articulated and marked in the elevations. The different functions can readily be perceived without entering the house, especially the domed reception area which dictates the plan. Although the main façade is dominated by the big dome, Fathy balanced the composition by another smaller dome and vaults which gave stability to the façade. In so doing he was successful in achieving a contrast in proportion between forms of the same type, and general contrast of geometrical shapes. He also designed a blank wall facade towards the public side and another one opens to the view of the sea to gain privacy.

                                            Image credit Domes on the roof

In front of the house, Fathy situated a pump-room for an artesian well to supply the house with water source. Simple in its structure and form but complicated in its function, this room represents a lesson in the application of a wind-escape. The architect admitted that it happened by accident when he had to put the pump room about six meters below ground level because the level of the underground water was twelve meters deep. It was feared that the exhaust gases of the pump-engine would pollute the air in this room. However to generate a steady air movement, Fathy provided the room with an opening overlooking the well for the passage of water pipes as well as for inspection. On the ground level he covered the room with a slanting-vault roof with the higher end toward the leeward side and covered the well with a bell-like wind-catch to let the air in. According to the aerodynamic concept the vaulted-roofing arrangement represented a low-pressure zone and created a strong air current, which drew air through the well-shaft opening at ground level.

                 Image credit   The pump-engine room  covered with a slanting vault

The sense of dwelling as a religious influence was a theme in the culture in which Fathy was brought up and worked, but probably had a special personal relevance to him. However, themes on their own do not make architecture without forms. What made Fathy’s own house so remarkable was the way it combined influences, yet transcended them, so implying the ingredients of his own style. The design of Fathy’s house possessed sobriety and a noble quality of human scale. Thus all parts were drawn into a symphony of ideas and forms, moods and materials. The house also engaged with the very idea of dwelling, its practical needs. Fathy’s house represented a seminal expression of the themes of his mature architecture.

Sources:

1. Fathy, To Build a House: the House in Sidi Kreir, c.1971. Ms., FAAUC, no. 193. pp. 2-3.

2. Author’s visit to Fathy’s own house in Sidi Kreir, 2000.

3. Fathy, Construction of the North-Coast Centre in Sidi-Krier, a Report submitted to the Minister of Construction and the New Settlements, 24 November 1978. Ms., FAAUC, no. 189, p. 1. (in Arabic).

4. Fathy, a Letter to the Planning Commission for the Development of Sidi Krier, 10 December 1978. Ms., FAAUC, no. 190.

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Abdel-moniem El-Shorbagy

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