Hassan Fathy’s legacy

16-12-2015 01:31 PM

Mervat Ayoub





New Gourna, the unique village meticulously designed and built by the architecture genius and Nobel Laureate Hassan Fathy on Luxor’s West Bank in the 1940s, is today in dire need of help. The original village has changed almost beyond recognition; its distinct features are no more. The mud-brick buildings designed to blend in and interact with the surrounding environment have been turned into ugly concrete structures.

Taking advantage of the lawlessness that prevailed after the Arab Spring uprising in 2011, villagers have rebuilt the original homes in a ‘modern’ style to suit their tastes, the local school was rebuilt in modern materials, and the town council has turned the village market into a mechanical workshop. This in addition to the destruction caused by groundwater.

UNESCO has approved a team of experts to provide much needed technical support for the restoration of New Gourna. The aim is to rescue the village as a unique architecture heritage, Egypt’s ambassador at UNESCO Muhammad Sameh Amr said, and for UESCO to play an active role not only in the preservation of heritage but also in maintaining the harmony between environmental, social and economic needs of communities.

A UNESCO team visiting New Gourna will draw a work plan for the project, and determine its total cost. Dr Amr said that, after approval of the Ministry of Antiquities, it was decided that a portion of the UNESCO Nubia Fund may be directed to finance the New Gourna project. 


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Experiment in rural Egypt

Back in 1946, New Gourna was built as part of a project to rehouse the occupants of the ancient village of Gourna, which had sprawled for hundreds if not thousands of years in the Valley of the Nobles on the West Bank at Thebes, present day Luxor. Under the houses lay an estimated 100 tombs, as yet officially undiscovered, of ancient Egyptian courtiers and officials. The residents of Gourna know the intricacies of both the over- and underground area in which they lived, and were notorious as tomb robbers who made a living out of selling illegally excavated antiquities. In an effort to stem their activities, as well as to preserve the underground tombs from the residents’ waste water, the Egyptian government in the 1940s decided to relocate the dwellers of Gourna further downhill and closer to the Nile.

Hassan Fathy (1900 – 1989), the famous architect, was commissioned to design the new village. Fathy, who was born in Alexandria to an Egyptian father and a Turkish mother, had studied at Cairo University where he later became a professor at the Faculty of Fine Arts and dean of the School of Architecture.  Having come to admire the simple mud brick dwellings of poor people in Nubia, he believed fervently that such a lifestyle was the epitome of carefully planned and constructed living, and devoted himself to housing the poor, which he helped finance by designing similar dwellings for the rich in other places. He aimed to create affordable living spaces suitable to the surrounding environment, thus improving the standard of living in rural areas.


Nubian mud brick

From the outset, the New Gourna project aimed at creating a sustainable community. A cooperative building system was established with an integral training scheme that provided work, and perhaps more importantly the possibility of a future career for some Gournis, supplying them with skills that could be sold to other villages. Working with the villagers in this way would enable the new village to be tailored to their collective needs and thus stand a much better chance of success.

The main characteristics of New Gourna consisted in the appropriate use of local materials and techniques, as well as an extraordinary sensitivity to climatic problems. For this reason, it was an outstanding example of sustainable human settlement and appropriate use of vernacular technology in modern architecture. Exposed in one of the major architecture and planning references, Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt by Hassan Fathy, published in 1976, these ideas inspired a new generation of architects and planners worldwide.

Fathy’s approach to building was based on the Nubian mud building techniques, where arches and vaults were used to construct roofs without expensive formwork, a technique that he feared had been lost altogether until his discovery of villagers still using the ancient methods. Fathy combined this technique with elements from the vernacular urban architecture of Cairo, incorporating into his designs elements such as the malqaf, a wind catcher; mashrabiya, wooden lattice screening; the qaa, a cool central room on the upper storey of traditional houses with high ceilings and natural ventilation; and the salsabil, a fountain or basin of water positioned to increase the humidity of the dry desert air.

Fathy included an open air theatre, a school, a suq (market) a mosque, and built for himself a house in the same spirit of the village.

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Interrupted by politics

Building started in 1946. Fathy faced several difficulties from the start, among them governmental funding; the project was allocated EGP50,000 to establish 1,000 houses. EGP15,000 was paid to start the project and Fathy began with the suq, the mosque famous for the unusual shape of its minaret, the village school and proceeded to build the homes. However there was political change in Egypt: revolution erupted in 1952, overthrew the monarchy, and established a republic. In 1954, funding for New Gourna was halted and the government redirected the remaining money into a project for workers housing in the Giza suburb of Imbaba.

New Gourna was thus abandoned before completion. With villagers resistant to the move from the start, the settlement was virtually abandoned and much of the architecture has since been lost. Despite the educational value of the scheme and the knowledge and philosophies embedded there, the site has mostly been overlooked for some 60 years and has only relatively recently been recognised by UNESCO.

In the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, the few Gourna villagers who had settled in New Gourna swelled into a larger population who took advantage of the lawlessness to change the original buildings to better suit their taste and needs.

Hopes now hinge on UNESCO’s ability to raise New Gourna to the splendid standards to which Hassan Fathy aspired.


Romantic vision

A question, however, persists. Why—even though New Gourna was in theory the dream village designed to answer the every need and whim of the villagers—did the Gournis so strongly resist moving into it? Researchers who talked to the villagers, among them the writer and journalist Jenny Jobbins who spent several years in the 1970s and 1980s there, found out first hand that Hassan Fathy’s designs did not actually answer the villagers needs; in specific instances the new houses even conflicted with their way of life.

Since they were to be removed from proximity to the tourists and the tombs under their houses in Old Gourna, and since they were no farmers in the first place, none of the old residents wanted to move to New Gourna. Only a couple of families did.

Fathy missed out on concepts and practices rooted in the community, and introduced new practices which the villagers thought were ‘strange’ or unnecessary. His dome-topped homes were too similar in design to contemporary tombs in Upper Egypt, and the villagers felt they were being asked to leave their homes and live in places fit for the dead.

He decorated the walls of some outer rooms and the adjoining cowsheds and stables with open brickwork or ‘claustra’, but the Gournis said their neighbours could see through the holes and cast the evil eye on their cattle. They blocked up the holes.

Also important is that Fathy made no allowance for the fact that some of the villagers had made a bit of money out of tourists and, normally, wanted some modern touches like fired tiles, modern facilities and suchlike.

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Open question

So finally, who moved into New Gourna? Very few of the old Gourna residents did.

After the Suez War, the government rehomed in New Gourna several refugees from Suez, but they had no idea why they were given such ‘primitive’ accommodation and did their best to change the houses to their liking.

A few artists ended up there but they were the only people who ever appreciated it.

The status quo remained till the Arab Spring lawlessness allowed Gournis to do what they like with the buildings in New Gourna, so they promptly moved in and occupied many of the dwellings.

The romantic, gifted Hassan Fathy had attempted to give Gournis, and the wider human race, a dream living place that blends with Mother Nature. Time, however, proved the villagers have needs that Fathy’s artistic designs missed out on. If UNESCO’s restoration project work to bring New Gourna to its original splendour, and will Gournis then rush to move in? Or would the place be put to better use through treating it as a cultural gem that can serve artistic and heritage-related purposes? This remains an open question.


Watani International

16 December 2015





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