Architecture for the Poor
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 …
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Growing Pains March 18, 1976