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Joy in Mudville

Architecture for the Poor

by Hassan Fathy
University of Chicago Press, 233, 132 illustrations pp., $5.95 (paperback to be published early 1976) (paper)

When I leafed through Architecture for the Poor by the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, I was at first struck by the illustrations showing domed houses in quaint streets and squares, an arcaded white mosque and market place, arches, vaults, domes, trellises, and massive masonry walls. I saw a beautiful village that seemed to be a superb example of the “indigenous vernacular architecture” built for hundreds of years along the plains of the Mediterranean in North Africa or the Middle East. But when I started to read the captions, I was not sure whether what I was looking at was ten years old or five hundred. The text refers to “the new village of Gourna,” and some of the accompanying photographs suggested that I might be looking at recent buildings. Could this really be an entirely new environment, a single project built from one plan? I soon discovered that Hassan Fathy had designed and built this village in the late 1940s as a prototypical mud brick housing project offering a solution for rural housing in Egypt.

Fathy’s book is important and deserves attention not only for what it tells of his experience in building New Gourna, but also for his ideas on urban and rural building generally. His problem in 1946 was to house some of the poorest people of one of the world’s poorest countries in a peasant village in the upper Nile basin. To judge what he did, we should bear in mind the methods of building he might have used: concrete poured in place; pre-fabricated concrete panels; concrete boxes; steel or wood or plastic construction; and mud brick. We should also consider the materials available, the limited skills of the local labor and its abundant supply as compared with the scarcity of money. When we do this, there seems no doubt that Fathy’s scheme was a wise one.

He reintroduced ancient, indigenous methods using mud bricks, relying on the vault, the arch, and the dome as the most logical forms of mud brick construction; he used traditional groupings of houses around squares, and juxtaposed the houses to the mosque and the village square. Creating a new village by reintroducing the oldest traditions and methods seemed to be the only economically and environmentally acceptable solution, acceptable, that is, for the late 1940s, in a country where industrialization and agriculture were decades, if not centuries, behind the more developed countries and where human labor was cheap. It is architecture for the poor, constructed by the poor for themselves.

But poor peasants of today may be city dwellers tomorrow and bourgeois the next. Will Fathy’s ideas be valid as their lives change? Fathy believes that builders must go back to the primary means of construction, to the materials available in the earth itself, to the labor of the prospective inhabitants. But he also tells us of the insecurity and lack of cooperation among the inhabitants of New Gourna and of the many setbacks caused by this antagonism (an account that reminded me of my own experience in building Habitat).

Fathy tells us in the final chapters that in many ways New Gourna has failed. It was never finished. The local people did not move in. The government stopped supporting the program and bureaucrats plotted against him, which he feels ruined his plans for the village. I accept his explanations, yet I also believe that New Gourna has been a success at least as a model suggesting new possibilities. But in assessing the success or failure of the new village of Gourna, one must distinguish between the intrigues of Egyptian officials and the lack of cooperation of people who felt threatened by the problems raised by Fathy’s solution.

When peasants constructed their own houses and villages over a period of many years, there were no problems of meeting schedules or delivering materials. A house was built in small increments: a few bricks one day, a small room added the next. But Fathy tried to adapt this gradual process to the swift construction of an entire village. He found himself stymied by the lack of sufficient material and equipment, the need to train laborers and keep them continuously occupied. In other words, Fathy found himself confronted by the basic problems of modern production and technology. True, it is not a question of high technology when one cannot ship a pump from Cairo to a building site, or get enough straw delivered for making thousands of bricks; but these are still the kinds of problems of scheduling and coordination that characterize modern production.

To some extent the failure of New Gourna arose from conflicts between the requirements of organizing production on a fairly large scale and building methods which didn’t lend themselves to that sort of organization. Fathy’s account also shows how bureaucrats can be expected to stifle new ideas, whether one is working in a developed or in an underdeveloped country.

Fathy argues that traditional local architecture in Mediterranean countries has through the ages produced an environment that responds to the needs of its builders. He shows how such architecture is adapted to local climate, to economics, to available material, to the local style of life, and how it provides a human environment where scale, identity, and privacy are respected. I entirely agree. When I traveled to similar Mediterranean villages and towns, I was convinced that the vernacular is truly the architecture of humanism. As Fathy writes:

The modern Egyptian architect believes that ancient Egyptian architecture is represented by the temple with its pylons and cavetto cornice, and Arab by clustered stalactites, whereas ancient Egyptian domestic architecture was quite unlike temple architecture, and Arab domestic architecture quite different from mosque architecture.

In Beyond Habitat* I wrote that in studying architecture we come to think of ancient Athens as a collection of Parthenons, whereas most of Athens then resembled the Aegean hill towns we see today. Fathy explains the success of such towns by emphasizing the links between the forms of building and the process used to make them, between the tools used to build and the village environment that is created. For him indigenous building is that which people build for themselves, and the architect should represent and serve the people with whom he is building.

But it is important also to emphasize that vernacular building is not merely a collection of wisely conceived structures, but represents a system of building, a system by which villages grow according to a consistent human scale. If we can understand more precisely how the environment of Mediterranean villages was created, we might learn something about the modern city. Fathy argues that “in architecture the quality of rightness must be felt intuitively,” and he feels that much modern architecture lacks the human qualities that we find in the traditional village:

…most architects…arrange the houses in straight, orderly streets, parallel to one another. This is easy but dull. In fact, when these parallel streets consist of uniform, minimum-standard houses unrelieved by vegetation or other features, the effect is sordid and depressing…. I did not give the streets this crooked plan simply to make them quaint or because of some love for the Middle Ages. If I had adopted a regular plan like a gridiron, the houses would have been forced into a uniform design too…the houses must all be exactly the same if the general appearance is not to be messy; yet the families who live in these houses will not be all the same.

But in emphasizing intuition, Fathy does not carry the analysis of the villages as far as he might. For example, Christopher Alexander, who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley and is the author of Notes on the Synthesis of Form, believes that the “patterns” or “structures” of certain aspects of the environment can be distilled into general rules of building, making explicit the patterns that are implicit in traditional vernacular construction. The articulation of such patterns, Alexander believes, will result from an analysis of the components of the successful environments we find in the villages and city neighborhoods we admire. In this, his approach is quite different from Fathy’s view that architectural “rightness must be felt intuitively” and that “it is the architect’s job to make his village as charming as possible…[his] excuse must be that he can surround them with beauty.”

…the architect has need of the greatest artistic care if he is to create a unity, character, and beauty that will even approach the natural beauty that the peasants create unconsciously in their villages….

I believe, with Alexander, that we must seek out the rules that make the traditional peasant villages so successful; that we must expand and elaborate them into a system of design as effective as the peasants’. The emphasis then would not be on artistry, charm, and beauty, but on order, system, rule, and those organic forms that underlie what we find humanly useful and pleasant.

More specifically, we must consider the value of mud brick construction as a solution to the problem of architecture for the poor. Fathy asks: “What have the Nubian peasants got that our architects haven’t? First, they have a technique—that of vaulting in mud brick.” True, but to what extent can such methods be adapted to the construction of rural and urban housing today? In view of the potentials of technology, the growing cost and preciousness of human labor, and the dying out of traditional skills and crafts, can we still depend so exclusively on brick-making peasants? How can we apply the lessons of the vernacular to modern building, if we bear in mind the problem of growing populations, the differences between hand-crafting and the stamping machine, between the strength of the human arm and that of a fifty-ton crane, between adobe and assembly line construction, between a village for 500 families and a city that expands by 1,000 families a day?

Fathy is aware that urban housing is one of the world’s most urgent problems. While it is true that most people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are poor peasants, it is also true that huge peasant migrations to the cities are taking place. But Fathy seems to believe that traditional methods, local craftsmanship, and organic materials, all available without modern technology, are the answer, both in the city and the countryside; the village of Gourna, built with mud brick, is a prototype for thousands of villages springing up in the underdeveloped world.

This notion, however, depends on how statically one views society. Fathy has a romantic love of the peasantry and one sympathizes with his feelings. But it becomes apparent that he often stands at a distance from the peasants’ lives when he admires them. Discussing the merits of running water versus the central village well, he writes:

In India where certain villages are supplied with pure water on tap in the houses, the girls still preferred to go down to the river and bring back heavy jars of dirty water on their heads. This was because fetching water was their only excuse for going out, and thus their only chance to be seen by the young men of their village.

He goes on to say,

It is hard to imagine a village in Egypt without its black-robed women, erect as queens, each with her water jar (ballas) carried non-chalantly on her head, and it will be a pity to lose the sight. Who knows, too, but that stooping for the bucket to a tap in the yard may destroy the magnificent carriage for which our women are renowned.

Here he is unconvincing. Surely there are few peasants who would not want to avoid the grinding labor of carrying water to the house.

The issue of craft versus technology, of a static versus a changing society is not new. Mahatma Gandhi wanted India to reject technology, to create new environments by returning to traditional crafts. Some years ago, I took part in a debate on Gandhi’s philosophy. I was working in the office of Louis Kahn when he was commissioned to design the Institute of Management in Ahmadabad, India. The project, sponsored by the National Institute of Design and coordinated by the Indian architect B. V. Doshi, called for the construction of a teaching center, including housing for faculty and students. Louis Kahn told us of the wonderful brick work he had seen in India, a craft, he said, that was being lost. He told us that the center must be built in traditional brick architecture, that masons must be retrained and the craft revitalized.

I argued that this was a romantic approach, that the conditions that gave rise to mud brick construction were changing, and that the India of the 1960s was not the India of the nineteenth century. Kahn replied by restating Gandhi’s idea that India’s economy could flourish by providing the world with the traditional crafts. “But surely,” I said, “you would industrialize agriculture.” “Well, agriculture, yes, that we would industrialize.” But this requires tractors and tractors require steel mills and rubber tire factories. Change, in other words, was inevitable. If you introduce anti-malaria serum, for example, which cuts the death rate in half and doubles the rate of population growth, you must also introduce technology to feed the people who will live because of that serum.

Kahn built the center using the kind of perfect brick work that had not been seen in Ahmadabad for years. I visited it some years later and talked to B. V. Doshi, who said: “Well, you know, when we approached Kahn, we felt that this would be for us a way of opening our eyes to new methods, to new techniques that would expand our possibilities. We did not think that the solution would lie in going back to old methods.”

Later, driving from Ahmadabad to Bombay, we saw preparations for a new road. At intervals of several hundred yards there were piles of rocks. Women were sitting next to them breaking them down into gravel with small hand-held hammers. When I suggested that a few rock crushers would do three years’ work in two weeks, I was told that this would put thousands of women out of work. Of course it would; but if the economy is growing and changing they would in time be able to find other more useful jobs. Fathy seems to agree with this when he says, “Mechanized agriculture, for example, will create unemployment unless there are jobs waiting to absorb the redundant farm laborers.”

In the appendix, Fathy presents estimates showing the relatively low cost of mud brick construction: labor rates range from 8 piasters a day for unskilled help to 40 piasters per day for masons and skilled labor. This is from 24 cents to $1.20 a day. In the late Forties, while Gourna was being built, Jewish peasants were immigrating to Israel from the plains of Morocco and Tunisia. By 1970, they were earning 50 to 100 I.L. per day ($12 to $25). This economic transformation took place in two decades. With the higher labor rates of an increasingly affluent society the economics of mud brick construction becomes more questionable.

I do not say this because I disagree with Fathy’s results, or because the Israeli pattern can easily be adopted by others: I consider Fathy’s villages among the most attractive and human environments that have been built in recent times. His architecture responds to the essence of the vernacular process, which creates environments with variety, richness of texture, privacy, and identity; where form is rooted in process and material. But we must bring this to bear on contemporary problems, and we must ask the difficult questions: How can we preserve this human scale in a more crowded environment with a faster rate of construction? Can hand-made craft methods deliver as much as is needed fast enough? How do we deal with the difference between a village that is built over a period of 500 years and a town for 50,000 people built in three? Or with problems of hierarchy, identity, and human scale as we go from a village of 500 families to a city of 3 million?

Fathy, as I have said, seems to agree that urbanization is bound to take place in Egypt, India, Pakistan, and Peru as it has in the West. The real issue then, is whether, using modern technology, the assembly line and stamping machine, we can create an architecture as human as New Gourna’s, in which the individual participates in the building of his environment as the peasant did in the past. Fathy’s work in New Gourna shows him to be sensitive to the qualities of a truly human environment. I hope that he will be able to adapt his concepts to the realities of an increasingly technological world—helping all of us who share his views to create a contemporary vernacular.


Growing Pains March 18, 1976

  1. *

    MIT, 1972.

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