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Hassan Fathy (1900-1989)

HASSAN FATHY, the Egyptian architect and poet, environmentalist and planner, died at his house in Cairo on November 30th, 1989. His book Construire avec le peuple, 1972 (To Build With The People), published in 1973 as Architecture For The Poor, title given by University of Chicago Press, triggered a world following. It revealed in poignant prose, in philosophical terms and pecuniary detail how he focussed his experience and vision on championing the human right to decent housing for all. Fathy’s commitment was to his “ideal clients: the economic untouchables,” who live outside the cash economy and to “the billions throughout the world condemned to a premature death for lack of adequate shelter.”

Hassan Fathy is best known for devising and promoting in arid areas the social organization of public housing built cooperatively by the owner-dwellers, with the guidance of the architect and under the supervision of craftspeople, using local — preferably free — materials such as earth, reed, straw or stone. One third of the planet’s population lives in earthen structures.

Fathy’s oeuvre is that of a modern architect schooled in European curricula who took advantage of desert architecture in harmonious and climatically beneficial ways. By incorporating into his designs traditional vernacular devices and proven methods for cooling structures, by harnessing natural energy, he practiced and taught appropriate technology in a world careening headlong toward wasteful, toxic high energy use.

Working on behalf of his clients within strict economic limitations, he re-introduced environmentally sound techniques such as windcatches, cooling towers, the mushrabiya window screen, interior fountains and the ventilating attributes and air-conditioning principles of the courtyard into his designs of schools, houses and entire villages. Fathy also revived a lost method of roofing adobe buildings with domes and Nubian vaults crafted by hand out of sundried bricks smaller in size than wall adobe bricks.

All these elements offered solidity, beauty, cultural and spiritual harmony costing far less than conventional structures of concrete, corrugated steel and other industrial materials which require mechanical temperature controls.

Simone Swan, New York 1990



Hassan Fathy Quotes

Beautiful Mud

Mud, besides being mercifully cheap, is undeniably beautiful: Structure dictates form and the material imposes the scale. Within the limits imposed by the resistance of mud and by the laws of statics, the architect finds a sudden freedom to shape space within the building, to enclose a volume of chaotic air, and to bring it down to order and meaning to the scale of the human being. In one’s house there is no need for decoration slapped on afterward. The structural elements provide endless interest for the eye.

Adobe and Money

If houses have to be built at all, in sufficient quantity, they must be built without money. We must go right outside the framework of the monetary system, bypass the factories, and ignore the contractors.

From Architecture for the Poor, p. 25

One man’s effort can bring about an altogether disproportionate advance, if he is building upon an established tradition. It is rather like adding a single microscopic crystal to a solution that is already supersaturated, so that the whole will suddenly crystallize in a spectacular fashion. Yet is differs from the physical process in that this artistic crystallization is not a once-and-for-all occurrence, but an act of reaction that has to be perpetually renewed.

Hassan Fathy (1900-1989)

Quoting Isak Dinesen:

Straight is the line of duty, curved the line of beauty.