Green Prophet has railed against projects like Dubai Burj Tower. We have pounded our chests at the audacity of Masdar City’s “zero” footprint claim, and we have decried the potential consequences of unsustainable approaches to building and planning. “USD22 billion” for a building project and “sustainable” simply don’t belong in the same sentence.
What we really need is a compassionate and sensible voice, a voice that calls for affordable and authentic building practices.
Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy died in 1989 but left behind a legacy of 160 building projects ranging from small projects to large-scale communities complete with mosques and schools. His impact can still be felt from Egypt to Greece and even New Mexico, where in 1981 he designed the Dar Ar-Salam community. Fathy received several awards for his work, including the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1980, and founded The International Institute for Appropriate Technology in 1977.
Architecture for the poor
One of his first assignments after graduating in 1926 from what is now the University of Cairo was to build a school at Talkha, a small town along the Nile in Northern Egypt. The absolute squalor of the place “haunted” Fathy: the streets were littered with rotten food and filthy water, the buildings were dilapidated, and the peasants who lived there had accepted their depressing lot. This experience inspired him to improve the lives of those who were powerless to do so without help.
Fathy wrote in his book Architecture for the Poor: “They needed decent houses, but houses are expensive. In large towns capitalists are attracted by the returns from investment in housing, and public bodies…frequently provide extensive accommodation for the citizens, but neither capitalists nor the state seem willing to undertake the provision of peasant houses…”
New is not always better
While other architects were seeking fame and fortune, Hassan Fathy saw the genius of incorporating traditional design and building materials. He wrote “here, for years, for centuries, the peasant had been wisely and quietly exploiting the obvious building material, while we, with our modern school-learned ideas, never dreamed of using such a ludicrous substance as mud for so serious a creation as a house.”
Fathy cared more about improving the standard of living for the people he served than he did about fancy western materials and technology.
In 1946 he was commissioned by Egypt’s Antiquities Department to build New Gourna Village for 3,000 families who were raiding the ruins at Luxor. The villagers weren’t so excited about being displaced, but Fathy committed to smoothing their transition.
He built thick brick walls and traditional courtyards, which both supported cultural values and created passive cooling (see design above), and enlisted the villagers as builders of their own homes. This not only reduced labor costs and created jobs, but also helped the villagers to connect with what Fathy considered a sacred space. Home for him was a place to seek solace and comfort from the outside world.
Finally, Hassan Fathy respected that nature should take precedence in the design of new structures. “Architectural form should consider the forces in nature of wind, rain, even how an earthquake shaking it would make it fall in a pattern that follows the geological formation of a mountain,” he once wrote.
No doubt Dubai’s artificial World Islands would have seemed preposterous to him.
In short, Fathy’s designs were affordable, congruent with nature, elevated the human condition, and they were sustainable. We think this is a model that would better serve the Middle East than other lavish projects taking place.
More on architecture in the Middle East:
Recent Jerusalem Seminar in Architecture Focused on Green Design
Can An Ecological Peace Park Catalyze Peace Between Syria and Israel?
AECOM Teams Up with Ellerbe Beckett to Create More Sustainable Building In The Middle East