Hassan Fathy

(1980, Egypt)

...for developing an 'Architecture for the Poor'.

About

Dr. Hassan Fathy, born in Alexandria in 1900, became one of the outstanding architects of his generation in Africa, demonstrating that it is possible to build for the poor and teaching people to build for themselves.

Contact Details

Website

Biography

Fathy taught at the Faculty of Fine Arts of Cairo University and served as head of its Department of Architecture. In 1981 he established the International Institute for Appropriate Technology in Cairo to develop and apply his approach.

With the publication of Architecture for the Poor, University of Chicago Press 1973, Fathy's work came to international attention. This book, which has since become a classic, describes in detail Fathy's experience in planning and building the village of New Gourma, using mud bricks and employing traditional Egyptian architectural features, such as enclosed courtyards and domed and vaulted roofing. Fathy worked closely with the people to tailor his designs to their needs. He taught them how to work with the mud bricks, supervised the erection of buildings and encouraged the revival of ancient decorative techniques.

Although New Gourma remained uncompleted, due to bureaucratic red tape and other problems, it has been said of Fathy that he produced 'not only answers but inspiration; his thought, experience and spirit constitute a major international resource.' In 1980 he received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and in 1984 the Gold Medal of the Union of International Architects.

Dr Fathy died in Cairo in 1989.

Speeches

Acceptance Speech by Dr. Hassan Fathy

December 9th, 1980

We need a new way of knowledge. The enforced academic knowledge of schools has alienated us from nature just as industrialisation by force has taken away the possibilities of our participating in satisfying our needs. We have only ready-made solutions, prefabricated ideas to be carried out. In the fields of life which need a high cash outlay, like housing, we have been cut off from solving our problems by using our own hands and own potential. We have been integrated into the cash economy. By this integration we have imposed on the poor the cash economy without the cash. The annual income per capita in the Third World is between 25 and 30 Pounds. How can someone with such an income hire an architect and a contractor to build his house for him with industrialized materials which need cash? Imposing the cash economy on these people has created a class I call the economic untouchables, because they cannot be integrated into the cash economy and have been deprived from doing anything themselves. The effect of this is that, according to U.N. statistics, 20 years ago there were 800 million people in the Third World doomed to a premature death because of bad housing alone, not to mention nutrition and other needs. I thought that this figure must have surpassed the billion by now. But they tell me it is "only" 900 million.

The system prevailing now is the architect/contractor system by which the owner has been completely set aside as the architect designs and the contractor builds. To solve the problem of the 900 million we have to have not low cost housing but no cost housing. We must subject technology and science to the economy of the penniless, the people, instead of the other way round. This is the role of the conscious modern architect, this is our great responsibility. Up to now many governments and international organizations have tried to solve the problem by trying to find some means of reducing the costs of building and of the industrialized materials. They have produced what they call aided self-help for the Third World, by providing concrete shakers and vibrators to make prefabricated panels for building. But after 20 years of experimenting with this system they have had to confess that it does not work. Because a man with an income of 25 Pounds a year cannot afford any industrialised materials like cement and concrete. The problem is not in the shaker and the vibrator, the problem is what to shake and vibrate. We have to rely on the materials we have and can afford to have, on our labour, on our own hands, on what we find under our feet. Nature itself has provided the solution. The cave man noticed after threshing corn that straw mixed with earth makes big lumps which hold together. The earth molecules do not hold together enough so we have to have a stabilising factor. The straw mixed with mud at harvest time showed man how to make mud bricks, Adobe, to build walls. When he came to the problem of roofing primitive man used timber or other materials. But timber was not always at hand.

In Iran, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia they found a solution. If you build a boat, every ring is pulling on the other, and it is working entirely under tension. There is no compression or it would crumble. If you reverse this upwards it will be working entirely under compression. Mud brick can take compression but not tension. They invented a system to build roofs with just bricks end to end, leaning the vertical a little against an end wall so that the brick is on an incline plane. The sticking power is the weight of the brick multiplied by the cosign of the angle divided by the area of the brick. They found that they had to have very light adobe bricks, 25 cm by 15 cm and only 5 cm thick.

Once all this is recognised, modern science can help by giving us the qualities of mud, the physical, mechanical qualities and so on, and even solve the problem that mud brick does not last long in more humid areas through stabilisation with bituminous emulsions.

Those who want to play with mud-brick ought to be a trio. The cellist would be the soil engineer deeply in tune with the vibrations of the soil. The violinist, highly strung, would be the structural engineer. The architect would be the conductor. We can use mud-brick adobe, which costs nothing except the hand labour, with the same security as steel and concrete. We have examples which have lasted from antiquity. Bolting goes back in history to the very earliest period. The first example I know in Egypt is from the Third Dynasty, something like 5,000 years ago. They used the parabolic bolt as a centering and built an arch. We have another example in an oasis in Upper Egypt. In the 4th century A.D. the Christians were persecuted by the Romans and a group fled into the desert. They had nothing, only what was under their bare feet, but they built something like 250 structures, all vaulted with domes, using mud-brick from under their feet. These models are still standing. The "experts" say that mud-brick would not last and the maintenance costs would be astronomical, due to the fragility of the mud. But these buildings have been studied by architects and engineers.

To my mind the value of any project, any idea, lies in the answer to the question: is it for people or for politics, economics, etc? When we think about housing people, we have to think about the quality of life of the people we are serving. For example, when you have 20 people sleeping in one room the airing requirements are different. We have to consider the aesthetic factor. When they were working with their own hands men used to beautify everything they made. Even if it was a war ship it was carved with the most fantastic designs because man was interacting with the wood. But machinery does not care for beauty.

It takes time for certain changes to show their effects. If we could jump from the sixth floor and our legs would not break until six months later, we would have many people with broken legs because they would not associate cause and effect. Some of the mistakes we commit need time to reveal themselves. If a family of five can farm five acres, and somebody gives them a tractor and a mechanical plough so they can farm twenty times five acres, it is seen as progress. But we have dispensed with 19 other families. What are they going to do for a living? We have dispensed with the plough carpenter, the village weaver and all the crafts that were being satisfied in the village. The tractor does not eat from the ground like the cow, or give milk, nor does it give any manure, only poisonous gases. It needs fuel and spare parts and changes the economy of the countryside. God created man in Nature, surrounded by plant and animal life. In our cities we have only asphalt, steel, aluminum and concrete. The best material you can surround yourself with when considering cosmic radiation is wood. The worst is concrete which stops the beneficial radiation. Water is affected by the cosmic rays coming from the moon and as our bodies are almost all liquid, all water, they are affected too. But we never think about these things. Modern man has lost this cosmic consciousness. The cathedrals of France were built on the geographical area reflecting the sign of the Virgin in the sky reflected on earth. Why? We are part of a system. If I integrate myself into the system all the elements in the system will come to help me. If I cut my finger all the elements of my body will come to heal it. But if my finger were isolated it would never heal.

How do we go from the architect/contractor system to the architect‑owner/builder system? This needs quite a change in the relationships between the people concerned. In the communities with 25 Pounds per head income, nothing can explain their remaining alive, unless they live outside the cash economy, depending mainly on co‑operation. One man cannot build a house, but ten men can build ten houses very easily, even a hundred houses. We need a system that allows the traditional way of co‑operation to work in our society. I cannot co‑operate in a city if the moment I get out of the door I am launched into the anonymity of millions. We must create new neighbourhoods where I build for you and you build for me (i.e. I will have the same help from you when I come to build my house). 

What a waste of energy not to use our muscles properly for building, for culture, for modeling, beauty! When I think of the energy wasted on football: take a ball and run after it and have a goal and finito. If we could only make the millions have the same interest in construction as in football:

Instead of hatred and destruction we would have love and construction, because construction itself has that impact. Every act, anything we do has an impact on our basic nature. In the old societies they used to have the temple architecture reflecting the sky. So when the sun changed signs they would dismantle the temple and rebuild it according to the new measurements and directions: What is our standard of reference when we build? The findings of modern science, of physics? But we do not even take those into account. We put huge windows in the "modern" houses we build in the desert nowadays, each one letting in thousands of kilo calories of heat an hour. They need a lot of air conditioning, a lot of cash, and when this cash runs out what will the people do with their houses and with themselves?

We must subject technology and science to the economy of the poor and penniless. We must add the aesthetic factor because the cheaper we build, the more beauty we should add to respect man. When man built on his own he used to beautify everything with his own hands. When architects build for the poor what do we give them from the aesthetic point of view? There is a book called "Architecture without Architects". When I see the present architecture, the regular architecture, I don't know which is which. Which is the architecture with or without the architect? Because we have over‑simplified and over‑reduced our efforts. The modern house is the paid portrait of the owner. When we are designing for the rich we take care of the aesthetic factor, the functional and the demographic. But when we design for the 900 million, we design one house and have it multiplied by the million in Europe as it is in Africa, as it is in India and everywhere, because we are using concrete and concrete does not allow any manipulation of space or articulation of the material. 

I would like to introduce in our villages and our cities musicality and harmonics. The eye physiologically does not see more than one point at a time and sends these to the brain, one point after the other. We hear music, one note after the other, and have the melody in our brain. We have the image in our brain. It happens very quickly so we think it is instantaneous but it is not. When I look around a room my eyes go round the lines. If they are harmonic I feel happy. But if they are hectic I feel nervous, but do not know why. I wish that the eye would suffer like the ear and when it sees ugliness become red and have tears! Unconsciously we feel the dissonance. 

The material is amorphous, neutral. With half a cubic meter of clay, Rodin made the Thinker. The palaces of the Pharaohs were all in mud‑brick. In New Mexico we have a style of architecture all in mud‑brick from the time of the Indians. In Iran they have used a most interesting technique. I have see a village school built in adobe covered by three vaults, one next to the other, to catch the breeze. The span was 6 meters! By combining the modern science of soil mechanics and structures with the skills of master masons we can have such vaulting in millions of houses. Instead, in hot humid zones, we get corrugated iron roofs that have to be paid for in cash and are not insulated from heat. We once invited all the architects and engineers in Egypt to present ideas for rural housing. Model buildings were put up in the grounds of the building research centre in Cairo. There was one entirely prefabricated, ultra‑modern, and one in mud‑brick. Air temperatures in the prefabricated house were 7 degrees centigrade higher than in the mud‑brick one in April. The temperature in the mud‑brick model didn't fluctuate more than 2 degrees in 24 hours and never came out of the acceptable temperate zone. In the ultra‑modern concrete model the temperature didn't enter into that temperate zone except during one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. It was at times even higher than the outside temperature So this 'modern' house ignored the findings of modern physics, aerodynamics, sociology, social psychology, physiology and so on. If you want to be modern, you have to consider all these sciences. In architecture the human sciences are the most important. 

This is what we mean by Right Livelihood. God has not changed the design of the face of man, having the nose above the mouth or in the back of the neck, just to be modern. When God created man out of mud‑brick he asked the angels to bow down to Adam. They all bowed down except Satan who wanted God to make man out of concrete! Because we have reached the moon we think that we can discard our physique, our values, our traditions, our nature. But even the astronauts have egg and bacon for breakfast. They don't have something from space to feed on.

Question: Can you only build one‑storey houses in mud‑brick?
No. 

In Morocco there are houses with six floors. But the high‑rise has other problems. If you have a glass with a volume of 100 cc. you cannot put 101 cc. of water in it, except if you freeze the water. When we put people one on top of another we are freezing something in the community. The U.N. studies show that the majority does not want to live higher than 4 floors.

  Pictures
 Videos

Hassan Fathy's New Gourna

Contact

Right Livelihood Award Foundation

Head office:
Stockholmsvägen 23
122 62 Enskede
Sweden

Phone: +46 (0)8 70 20 340
Fax: +46 (0)8 70 20 338

Geneva office:
Maison de la Paix
Chemin Eugène-Rigot 2, Building 5
1202 Geneva
Switzerland

Phone: +41 (0)22 555 09 55

E-mail: