In 1946 Hassan Fathy, Egypt’s Green architect, built a model village near Luxor called ‘New Gourna’ out of mud. But what happened to this stunning village?
Hassan Fathy, author of Earth & Utopia is the Middle East’s father of sustainable architecture. Before it was fashionable or even fathomable, he was championing earth architecture in the hopes of bringing decent housing to Egypt’s impoverished masses. Using mud and other natural resources, he wanted to liberate Egyptians from the ‘concrete matchboxes’ that they lived in the crowded and bustling cities and give them spacious, earthen homes they could be proud of. He came from a wealthy family but wanted more for Egyptian society.
Fathy also brought a new found respect to age-old (and sustainable) architectural techniques that were still in use by Egypt’s poorest to build homes. His world-famous book ‘Architecture for the Poor‘ extolled the virtues of vernacular architecture and the skills and knowledge that the poor possessed. But what happened to his model village ‘New Gourna’ that was built in the forties?
Well, years later the model village is falling into serious disrepair. Buildings are crumbling and others have disappeared completely or have been changed beyond all recognition. But for all its fault those will live there are proud of their village and are desperate to see it repaired. In 2010, the World Monument Fund visited the village to survey the damage. As well as producing a stunning little video they documented all the repairs that would be needed to restore the village to its former glory.
What’s happened since then isn’t so clear. I got in touch with the WMF to find what the future holds for New Gourna. Erica Avrami, who is director of Research and Education at WMF explained: “We would very much like to follow-up on this work, and UNESCO – who is our institutional partner for New Gourna efforts and the lead organization in its preservation – has been working with the government bodies in Egypt to get approval for the project’s continuation.”
World Monument Fund – “I Wish I Had Better News To Convey…”
“Unfortunately, due to the political situation and the many changes in ministry leadership that have occurred over the past year, this has proven difficult. At present, we are in limbo as we await these permissions. I do wish that I had better news to convey with regard to our work at New Gourna.”
It’s a shame that the project hasn’t lead to more concrete action so far. Yes the instability of the region is a huge and understandable stumbling block but New Gourna represents so much of what is creative, innovative and great about Egypt that I hope it remains a priority to see it restored. As the seasons pass and erode away at the earthen walls of Hassan Fathy’s model village, I also hope that the restoration happens before it’s too late.
For inspiration I highly recommend Fathy’s book Earth and Utopia which you can buy here. Or Hassan Fathy, An Architectural Life (links to Amazon).
The leading editorial review sums it up:
“Hassan Fathy is Egypt’s best-known 20th-century architect. He was also a man of contradictions. He came from a wealthy background and had a western-style training. Yet he embraced traditional, vernacular forms, techniques, and materials and throughout his career promoted their use as part of a campaign to improve the conditions of Egypt’s rural poor.
“Earth & Utopia chronicles this lifelong commitment through personal interviews conducted by the author, photographs, and drawings from the Hassan Fathy archives, and Fathy’s own writings on the subject, many of which are published for the first time. This beautiful, fascinating, and scholarly book will be essential reading for students, academics, and general readers interested in Fathy, and the development of Arab and vernacular architecture, earth construction, architecture for the poor, and sustainability.”
For more on Fathy and Gourna see:
Remembering Hassan Fathy – Egypt’s Green Architect Of the People
Hassan Fathy is the Middle East’s Father of Sustainable Architecture
13 Principles of Sustainable Architecture