The Response of Western Architects to Hassan Fathy's Earth Architecture
Through his designs and his writings, The late Hassan Fathy influenced a younger generation of architects, not only in Egypt, but also in the western world. His ideas and philosophy opened opportunities and became a source of inspiration for architects to recognise and appreciate their traditional architecture. The response to Fathy’s approach from architects in the Developing World differed from that of Western architects. The response of Western architects to Fathy’s architecture and ideas varied. While some architects admired the new possibilities of building domes and vaults with a primitive material such as mud, others were inspired by Fathy’s philosophy and his humanistic approach.
Mimi Lobell argues that Fathy’s experiments in New Gourna “shows us by example what architecture should be for us all. We all have a right to expect the buildings we live in to respond to all aspects of our humanness, not just functional ones”. Like Lobell, Labelle Prussin of the University of Washington believes that the knowledge and experience gained from Fathy’s experiment in New Gourna “provide new hope and new inspiration for those of us who tried, and the ideas which New Gourna generated will some day mature and flower”.
Image credit: A Street in New Gourna (1948), Egypt
In England, David Sims, an urban planner, and Olivier Sednaoui, an architect, were influenced by Fathy’s traditional approach and were, specifically, impressed by his New Gourna village. During their three-year’s stay in Egypt, they built a pilot project house (1978-1980) in Luxor. They built domes, vaults and walls using mud-brick and traditional building techniques. Like Fathy, Sednaoui believed that when peasants saw foreigner-trained architects build in mud, their faith in their indigenous materials would revive and they would “realize that they are à la mode”. He also hoped that young architects would build in mud which creates “a sublime piece of art at low cost… The challenge is unique”.
Image credit: David Sims Pilot House, Aswan Egypt, 1978-1980
Unlike England, the attitude towards Fathy’s earth architecture was more heightened in France where there are two centres inspired by Fathy’s approach of using traditional building materials and techniques. Both institutions employ the owner-builder system in West Africa and the Middle East. These are the Development Workshop of Lauzerte, which has helped to introduce the Nubian technique of mud-brick dome and vault construction among villagers in Mali, Niger and Iran and the Centre de Recherche et d’Application: Terre (CRATerre). In 1981 the CRATerre undertook an experimental village in earth at L’Isle d’Abeau, between Lyon and Grenoble. The village was intended to incorporate an open air museum where examples of earthen architecture and prototypes of unbaked earth houses were displayed, including designs by Francois Cointeraux, Le Corbusier, Wright, Schindler and Fathy. Orientated towards Third World needs, the village formed part of the Earth Architecture Exhibition, ‘Le Genie de la Terre’ at the Georges Pompidou Centre in France in 1981.
1. Mimi Lobell, review of Architecture for the Po or by Hassan Fathy, 1973. East West, June 1976, p. 53.
2. Labelle Prussin, review of Architecture for the Poor by Hassan Fathy. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, v.37, no. 1, March 1978, pp. 55.
3. Neil MacFarquhar, Mud Brick. Arts & The Islamic World, v. 2, no. 2, Summer 1984, p. 46.
4. Ruth Eaton, Mud: An Examination of Earth Architecture. The Architectural Review, October 1981, pp. 222-230.
5. , p. 230.
6. Martin Meade and Jean-Caude Garcias, Return to Earth. Architectural Review, v. clxxviii, no. 1064, October 1985, p. 66.