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Steele, James, 1997. Architecture for People: The Complete Works of Hassan Fathy. New York: Whitney Library of Design.

Reviewed by Ganapathy Nagasubramaniam

This book reviews the ideas and designs of Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy (1900-1989), best known for his striking Architecture for the Poor (University of Chicago, 1973), which described his efforts to create the village of New Gourna for 7,000 displaced Egyptian peasants known as the Gourni. Fathy sought to empathize with their lifeworld and to find architectural means whereby the new village would sustain their traditional way of life yet at the same time make life better by drawing on sustainable technology.

Steele, an architect himself, presents Fathy's built projects and discusses the design philosophy underlying his work. Steele's book is a tribute to Fathy as a compassionate designer and as a master craftsman who held strongly to traditional values and beliefs at a time when the historical amnesia and standardization of Modernist architecture dominated.

In his first chapter, Steele identifies six major principles that form the crux of Fathy's work (p.16):

·        The belief in the primacy of human values in architecture;

·        The importance of a universal rather than a limited approach;

·        The use of appropriate technology;

·        The need for socially oriented, cooperative construction techniques;

·        The essential role of tradition;

·        The re-establishment of cultural pride through the art of building.

Drawing on these principles throughout, Steele organizes his discussion chronologically into four chapters: Fathy's Early Career: 1928-45, New Gourna: 1945-47, Further Testing of New Ideas: 1948-67 and Late Career: 1967-89. The book includes 213 drawings, plans, and photographs of Fathy’s built projects, 100 of which are in color. These images are of great value in bringing out the architectural qualities of Fathy’s works. In addition, Steele provides, as appendices, a chronology of  Fathy’s major works and a bibliography of writings, films, and audiotapes by or about Fathy.

Steele’s chapter on Fathy’s early career demonstrates the crucial importance of Fathy’s study of traditional Egyptian architecture—for example, the Fatimid Tombs, the Deir al-Samaan monastery, the Christian Cemetery of Bagawat, and the vaults behind the Temple of Ramses II. These constructions stimulated Fathy’s interest in traditional building materials like mud brick and traditional construction techniques like brick vaulting. This historical aspect and the obvious analogic connection between the earth and the nation it represented were strong factors behind his search for a new Egyptian architecture, both equal to his desire to be free of costly foreign materials like concrete, steel and glass. From Steele’s examples, it becomes clear that Fathy’s choice of building materials and techniques was not based on impressionistic whims and fancies (as some critics have charged) but, rather, arose from firsthand knowledge of an architectural tradition that had sustained itself for thousands of years.

Steele devotes a full chapter to Fathy’s New Gourna project, which undoubtedly, could be called the most important professional effort of his career. Though the project faced much opposition and finally stalled, it was instrumental in making explicit the values and benefits of a cooperative way of construction and rehabilitation, laying stress on the adoption of traditional materials and techniques of construction. Steele also gives a picture of the village in its current state and discusses the condition of the mosque (regularly used for worship and, as a result, well cared for) and the buildings in the public square (still largely unused, though the theatre has been recently restored).

The reader also learns that New Gourna was located on the main tourist road from the west bank of the Nile to the Valley of Kings. At one point, Fathy included a tourist hotel in the plan for New Gourna, imagining that the busy tourist traffic would be drawn into the main square of New Gourna to buy the crafts that the Gournis would learn to make. According to Steele, Fathy felt a certain ambivalence about the hotel (p.79) and, in fact, in Architecture for the Poor, he mentioned neither the building nor potential economic value of tourism.

In his third chapter, Steele explains that, after New Gourna, Fathy faced powerful adversaries, particularly the owner of one of the largest construction conglomerates in Egypt. This man believed that, “if left unchecked, Fathy’s reliance on natural materials rather than steel and concrete would lead to lower building costs and lower profits for construction companies” (p. 91). This man lobbied government officials to block Fathy from government commissions and to prevent him from teaching in Egyptian universities.

As a result, much of Fathy’s work from 1948—1967 was private commissions that he acquired through social connections and private recommendations. We also learn that, in 1956 after the military coup that put Gamal Abd al-Nasser in power, Fathy fled Egypt and moved to Athens, where he took a position with Constantinos A. Doxiades at his Athens Centre of Ekistics. During his five years with Doxiades, Fathy participated in many projects, including a weavers’ village near Cairo (1957) and an Iraqi housing project (1958). Fathy was also heavily involved in Doxiades’ City of the Future Project, which sought to go beyond architecture and to invigorate the physical form of cities using methods derived from the biological, ecological and anthropological sciences.

In the fourth chapter dealing with Fathy’s late career (1967-89), Steele discusses how Fathy was commissioned by the United Nations Organization for Rural Development to design a prototypical house (1974) that could be used in the small oasis village of Dariya, Saudi Arabia. As in  New Gourna, his design (see plan and elevation, right) centered on the preservation of the Dariya’s distinct architectural style and drew on a reverence for regional traditions and customs. At this time, Fathy was also commissioned to design the village of New Baris (1967) for the Kharga Oasis in the Egyptian desert. Never completed because of the Israeli-Egyptian war, the design was to be an agricultural community of some 250 families, half of which were to be farmers and the remainder service personnel.

Steele also describes Fathy’s last community project--the Dar al-Islam village, an American Muslim community in Abiquiu, New Mexico,  fifty miles north of Santa Fe. During construction, Fathy came to New Mexico along with two Nubian masons, who demonstrated Egyptian mud-brick construction to the local people. Although the community was intended to be a religious, educational and residential center for 100 families, only the 220-square-meter mosque was constructed. The themes of climate, cultural differences and finances determined the course of the project–for example, American social habits did not encourage cooperative building, and strict state building codes required elaborate foundations and mud brick sufficed in concrete. Difficulties like these, according to Steele, caused costs to escalate, forcing the Saudi businessmen backing the project financially to reconsider their support and withdraw (p.142).

In the conclusion of his book, Steele discusses how Fathy’s philosophy of architecture might well be categorized as an effort  to defy what writer Edward W. Said calls Orientalism--“a system of representation framed by a whole set of forces that brought the Orient into Western training, western consciousness and later, western empire”  (p. 180). According to Steele, Fathy was a victim of cultural  “marginality”–in other words, a personal struggle to integrate his experience with both Arab and Western cultures. He was proud of his Arab heritage and wanted to preserve and defend it against further foreign intrusion, yet he also admired the alien Western culture he blamed for this corruption.

Steele ends his book by highlighting two successors of Fathy who ground their work in Fathy’s legacy—Saudi Arabia’s Abdel Wahed el-Wakil and Jordan’s Rasem Badran. Steele claims that, like Fathy’s, the work of these two architects emphasizes the important issue of national identity and pride as expressed through its architecture. Egypt, a nation so proud of its ancient architectural heritage, has just a handful of people whose works are directed toward continuing their country’s long lasting and vital tradition. In this regard, Steele emphasizes that it is solely because of  Fathy and his few successors that this important issue of regional identity has gained renewed attention. Fathy’s efforts were unique in the sense that, when considered sincerely, they get people thinking about the gravity of the situation.

The question of how these Third-World countries and belief systems will eventually address the issue of cultural, regional and religious identity has not yet been answered; in fact, what the answer should be is a hotly debated theoretical issue today. But the fact that this question is being asked at all is directly attributable to Hassan Fathy. This, according to Steele, is his most important and enduring legacy. Whether or not this legacy will continue, only time will decide. Whatever the answer, this book is a tribute to Fathy’s architectural works and ideas.