The Egyptian architect and master builder, Hassan Fathy (1900-1989) was a great advocate of vernacular architecture as well as the architecture of the past. He established a new approach based on a conception of interpreting old and archaic forms and masses. Fathy was exceptional in believing that this old language could exist alongside that of a modern one that cut all ties with the past. Fathy exerted an immense effort to establish his traditional approach, as well as struggled to improve the housing and living environments of the poor, especially in the Third World. Fathy’s efforts were acknowledged by several awards, including the first Gold Medal of the International Union of Architects in 1984.
Throughout his life Fathy was concerned with the problem of housing the poor. His aspiration found expression in many major community projects, whose layouts were based on traditional concepts, but the most important one was the New Gourna village (1945-1948), his best-known project. The New Gourna village was intended to replace the old Gourna village, which is built on the site of the ancient town of Thebes in Luxor, Egypt. Old Gourna village is built on the site of the tombs of the Pharaohs Nobles and was inhabited by about seven thousands peasants whose houses are built around and over these tombs. In New Gourna, Fathy experimented with and tested his traditional forms and method of construction.
Old Gourna, Luxor, Egypt
The architecture of New Gourna went far beyond vernacular architecture towards more distinguished forms of expression in which broad dispositions of simple masses and sequences of dynamic spaces were stressed. The beauty of the traditional architecture of New Gourna represents an art form that has resulted from an understanding of a unique mode of human life. However, New Gourna is clear evidence that Fathy did not fall into naïve simulation of a generalised vernacular and that he responded positively to the specificity of the local built environment.
New Gourna, Luxor, Egypt
In designing his village Fathy stated that “You must start right from the beginning, letting your new buildings grow from the daily lives of the people who will live in them, shaping the houses to the measure of the people’s songs, weaving the pattern of a village as if on the village looms, mindful of the trees and the crops that will grow there, respectful to the skyline and humble before the seasons. There must be neither faked tradition nor faked modernity, but an architecture that will be the visible and permanent expression of the character of a community”.
The mosque of New Gourna
The site plan of New Gourna village consisted of the mosque, the marketplace, the khan (lodging place for travellers or merchants), the village hall, the theatre, the permanent exhibition hall, the schools and the housing. In designing the streets of the village, Fathy was inspired by the beautiful streets of old Cairo. In designing the New Gourna village Fathy’s primary intention was to express and support the social structures of families and tribes who lived in four distinct hamlets. Fathy’s main concern was to identify dwellings which were a marriage “between the imagination of the people and the demands of their countryside” (Fathy, 1973). A village should fit its inhabitants’ routine of work and recreation and grow to reflect the idiosyncrasy of its community. Fathy believed that bricks and mortar should grow “into a living whole with harvest and planting, with weddings and funerals, with buying and selling, with craft, with trade, with the feelings of family for family and class for class”. Undoubtedly, Fathy’s planning approach unlocked a very important door for architects and planners to create dynamic village planning elements, whose flexibility could allow a new spectrum of possibilities for living.
Hassan Fthy, Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago, 1973.