As the Egyptian Ministry of Culture and UNESCO celebrated their joint efforts to restore and safeguard the village of New Gourna on December 23, stories of the architectural and human brilliance and inspiration of the late Hassan Fathy have been told.
Fathy (1900-1989) was an internationally renowned Egyptian architect, honored and recognized worldwide. He won a gold medal from the International Union of Architects (UIA) in 1984.
More than 33 years after his death and more than 70 years since he created New Gourna, Fathy remains very present in the premises of the village of New Gourna, the first of an ecological architecture in green earth founded between 1946 and 1952. .
“Every stone has a meaning”
“You see, architecture is one of the most authentic arts and it is the specialty of Egypt. The Arabs excelled in poetry, the Greeks in sculpture and the Egyptians in architecture. Since the ancient Egyptians, every stone has had a meaning,” Fathy explained in one of her rare TV interviews.
Fathy is best known for his book which continues to inspire generations, Architecture for the Poor, translated into 22 languages. The book documented his plan to create a new residential village in the Gourna area, away from excavations and graves, in the mid-1940s. Fathy’s philosophy was not celebrated in his own country and he had to face many challenges at the time.
Bringing low-cost, durable and environmentally friendly housing to market would have easily cracked the concrete construction industry. The fact that the relocation to the village of New Gourna was implemented by the government was not attractive to people who have lived all their lives near the excavation area of Old Gourna. This has led to minimal occupancy of homes in New Gourna. However, Fathy was persistent and tried to lure the villagers in several ways.
The oldest house in New Gourna
“I was born in the mountain of Gourna. My father worked with Hassan Fathy in 1946 and we moved from the mountains to the village where Hassan Fathy built us schools, a tourist souk, a commercial souk and he even made a loom to move traders from the mountains,” explained Ahmed Abdel-Radi, the owner of the oldest house in New Gourna.
“There was a school for girls, one for boys and one for crafts. He built an open-air theatre, a mosque, a khan, a tourist market and an annual commercial market. In our old village, education was for the wealthy, where people enrolled their children in schools on the east bank, so we only learned to read and write in the village kottab. Hassan Fathy made us take a very big step forward, even the people who refused to come out of the mountain, because they did not like all the domes which looked like tombs, in their eyes, and the idea of schooling their children would divert the children from helping them in the excavations. Hassan Fathy succeeded in obtaining aid from UNICEF, so that each child who goes to school receives a subsidy of flour, oil and milk. People started enrolling their children in schools that filled up,” Abdel-Radi told Ahram Online.
Abdel-Radi, owner of the oldest house in New Gourna
Construction of the village had been completed before Egypt built the Aswan High Dam, which resulted in rising groundwater levels which greatly affected the foundations of the 70 houses Fathy had built in the village.
People started demolishing buildings fearing for their safety, others sought more space for their extended families. The result was that 65 of the 70 houses were demolished. Then, Fekry Hassan began to restore the houses and what remained of Fathy’s architecture, Abdel-Radi explained.
“Currently we have a team and we are building and training people to build with raw brick. I am not an architect, but I teach them subjects that are not taught in universities, such as How to prepare bricks of raw earth, as they are a key element in bringing the temperature down from 43 degrees outside to 22 degrees inside,” added Abdel Radi.
“The City We Need Now – Gourna”
The premises of the Hassan Fathy Center for Architecture and Development in New Gourna are a living manifestation of his philosophy. During a guided tour by Professor Fekry Hassan, director of the center, it was easy to note the connection between green architecture and its modern functionality, a perfect example of how heritage meets modern functionality and resolves its most big ecological problem.
“In February 2021, on the occasion of World Cities Day, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, UN-Habitat, chose Luxor as the host city for this year’s theme Architecture and Cities in the Face of Climate Change. In this theme, Hassan Fathy is the pioneer, so we organized a seminar on this subject and a global initiative was launched on the type of city in which we want to live. Gourna is where the global initiative started and it was called: The city we need now — Gourna,” noted Hassan, director of Egypt’s first higher education program in cultural heritage management at the French University of Egypt, and Emeritus Professor of Archeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London.
“The Hassan Fathy Center is a place where we adopt the ideas of Hassan Fathy and the philosophy and architecture that reflect his ideas in this village. I think we have been very successful in getting that message across and visitors appreciate and understand the importance of his philosophy. He built each family their own quarters and did it organically and without intersecting lines, which gave a feeling of ease, because it reflects nature — nothing in nature is a straight line. — so have curves, like domes,” Hassan added.
“He built when there was no electricity in the 1940s in the village. He created a natural air conditioner, using domes and adding malaaf hawa (where the air is cooler), which greatly decreases the temperature in the house in the summer and in the winter the house becomes warmer. He used local raw materials, which meant less transportation. It’s better for the environment, where less fuel is used and fewer emissions are produced. He believed that the building is a house, not a house, it is a maskan, which in Arabic means a place to live and the root of the word, sakina, means serenity. This is why Fathy used this term to describe her housing philosophy,” Hassan noted.
What is remarkable about Fathy is his human connection with the people of New Gourna: how he genuinely cared about their well-being; how he staged plays to raise awareness of schistosomiasis, a common disease linked to poverty resulting from contact with fresh water infested with larval forms of parasitic blood flukes.
“He would wear one of the old masks from the First World War and play the role of the bad guy Mr. Bel to raise awareness among the children and their parents,” Hassan recalled, adding that Fathy had designed a linen costume and soaked it in flaxseed oil. to make it waterproof, thus preventing schistosomiasis from plunging into fresh water.
Building prototypes in Spain and Latin America, and awarded numerous architectural prizes, Fathy continues to surprise us with foresight. In 2008, when 4,036 Palestinian houses in the Gaza Strip were demolished, the UN thought of building Fathy-style houses, to be built out of mud. It turned out that he had already designed a housing map for the reconstruction of Gaza since 1957, Hassan continued.
An artistic inspiration
Fathy also inspired the artists of her time. Among those who believed in its New Gourna and attracted the people and the place was the famous Egyptian painter Mamdouh Ammar.
During the official New Gourna opening celebration, a rare selection of Ammar’s paintings were on display, handpicked and curated by his daughter-in-law, Abeer Helihal, in the presence of his daughter.
Ammar (1925-2012) was an Egyptian painter who spent his two years of artistic sabbatical at Marsam in Luxor in 1952, directed by Fathy. Ammar was inspired by Fathy and drew the women of Gourna and the place that inspired him to build his own house adopting the philosophy of Hassan Fathy while reflecting his own identity.
“Art is the most honest documentation of civilization. To capitalize on this, the Ministry of Culture should create many more artistic sabbaticals, so that artists are free to create while maintaining a decent living. This is what Mamdouh Ammar has always demanded,” Helihal explained.
Helihal with one of the famous painter Ammar’s paintings
“When I open my window, the most beautiful thing my eyes see is the Dome of Kaienbey Al-Rammah, and every time I see it, I tell myself that no university-educated architect in the world could to create something like this.Behind such work are 500 to 600 years of heritage and craftsmanship which are guided by a Sufi man who teaches them all about the words that adorn the dome because every line has a meaning , like the pharaonic temples where each stone had a meaning. , as they say [of Antoine de Saint-Exupery] that every step in my father’s house had a meaning, life at the time also had a meaning,” Fathy had said.