Sunday, June 17, 2012

Designing for the Individual: Analysis of the Work of Hassan Fathy


Countless work has been published on the phenomena of dwelling. How people inhabit spaces, seek shelter from the elements and gather in communities is a topic of great interest to those who design these spaces in order to fully facilitate harmony between the space and the inhabitant. Modernism brought about a reorientation in these ideals, a new view at dwelling. A key text to mark the end of this movement as noted by Diane Ghirardo in her book Architecture After Modernism is the book Architecture for the Poor by Hassan Fathy.1  
In his work Fathy address key changes to the way one should think about mass housing from a design standpoint as well as a bureaucratic one. Fathy had the opportunity to design and build a new settlement for a group of people, the Gourni, who were at the time living among the tombs at Luxor and making a living from grave robbing.  Placing an emphasis on individuality as well as culture and tradition, the Gourna Project had a chance for success beyond that of typical government housing, but bureaucratic powers were startled by the project’s attention to detail and the project was ultimately terminated for fear of the project becoming too expensive. This paper will attempt to address how culture, tradition, and individuality are important in mass housing and how the lessons of Fathy could potentially be used in similar projects outside the third world and in today’s standards.
1 Fathy, Hassan. Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.
Ghirardo, Diane. Architecture After Modernism. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996.


Much of the critique about architecture has to do with specific styles, an interesting dilemma because architects insist that their designs are not powered by styles. However, one cannot argue that different regions, cultures, and sometimes religions create such different designs that sometimes referring to a specific style is the most coherent way of researching specific groups of buildings. Also from a construction point of view, style can be helpful when attempting to create something that fits with the regional specifics. A style can be a source of pride for a specific culture. Egypt however, did not have a style that was original to itself. While Egypt’s temples and palaces are studied the world over simple domestic architecture was typically borrowed and so became a medley of traditions from the surrounding regions, the result being a complete lack of cultural pride by Egyptians in their architectural heritage. 2
                “Tradition is the social analogy of personal habit, and in art has the same effect, of releasing the artist from distracting and inessential decisions so that he can give his whole attention to the vital ones”3. Tradition in architecture is typically given the role of public buildings and residences because in the modern world it seems like what is coined “Traditional Architecture” has somehow taken a back seat to the contemporary. The ease and cost of building traditional architecture in the United States makes it the prime choice for structures where form is less important than function and so it has become boring without any thought to the spaces themselves. In Fathy’s work however, a need for tradition was demanded because of the climate and availability of building materials required that he work using the methodologies created by his predecessors. This is a valuable lesson for contemporary architects today. “Modernity does not always mean liveliness and change is not always for the better” 4.
2 Fathy, Hassan. Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.
3 Fathy, Hassan. Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.
4 Fathy, Hassan. Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.


With the world progressing thoroughly into a global economy and the ability to have parts made in China with materials from Germany all being assembled at a site in New York, the architect can easily loose sight both of the intended occupant of the space he or she has created but also the tradition for that region, until we begin to see bland layers of technicality that lack a sense of placement and depth. “The individual artist’s duty is to keep the tradition going, with his own invention and insight to give it that addition momentum that will save it from coming to a standstill, until it will have reached the end of its cycle and completed its full development” 5.

Before the advent of the role of architect, the client would work directly with the buildings, expressing each desire and watching his wishes be carried out. The disconnect between the owner and the craftsman in modern construction has created entire neighborhoods of identical houses, row upon row. Housing for the masses is a different question entirely. How when one architect can spend several years on one home for one family just to be able to have that dwelling fit the needs of that individual family can one possibly begin to consider designing for 200,000 families? What happens then is statistics are involved and people begin to be lumped into groups based on size and age and then the designer only has to develop several designs which are then conveniently mixed about to create a dwelling site which caters to all the factors present, except that now a few families are representatives of thousands and the individuality of those thousands of families has been lost. The government funding this project is not concerned with this however. All the government sees is poor people who need roofs over their heads and not a people that need a fresh start. Because of this certain aspects begin to suffer. “The labor processes can be classified as follows: 1) creative labor; 2) technical labor; 3)administrative and organizational labor; 4) skilled labor; 5) semiskilled labor; 6) unskilled labor” 6.
5  Fathy, Hassan. Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.
6 Fathy, Hassan. Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Each of these various classes is necessary to the completion of the project. Remove any one and the project will not be completed. In order to economize then designers often skimp on certain aspects of the overall whole. For example Creative Labor can be drastically reduced by the previously mentioned practice of designing by statistics and only creating a very few styles of home for very many different families to inhabit. Technical Labor can be reduced by reducing the quality of the home, and so on until the government funded home is bland, characterless and damaging to the family’s health that will eventually live there.7
                        This is one of the primary problems with other modern housing projects typified by the Pruitt-Igoe housing blocks of St. Louis. On top of this the Housing Act of 1937 laid out that the goals for public housing be “decent, safe, and sanitary”, and where these goals meant to be the minimum guidelines they in fact became the typical plan for public housing(Fig.1).8
                        How then should the dilemma of public housing be addressed? Fathy would propose that you give each individual family it’s necessary means to provide for itself and it would, and would do so according to its varied and independent needs, thus producing a rich community that was fueled off the fulfillment of their work. Examples of this do exist. In China entire villages were created family by family underground, partly out of material necessity and partly because by moving their dwelling underground the ground is left open for crops to be cultivated (Fig. 3, 4, 5). The Dogons, a people that number a quarter million that live along the plateau of Bandigara have fashioned mud huts, the complexity of design and master planning of which is simply incredible (Fig. 6,7).9
 

7 Fathy, Hassan. Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976
8 Bauer, Catherine. “The Social Front of Modern Architecture in the 1930s.”   The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Mar., 1965), pp. 48-52
9 Rudofsky, Bernard. Architecture Without Architects. New York: Modern Museum of Art, 1964.


The truth of the matter is though that this is not a viable option for the majority of the world’s poor. The disadvantages that Fathy has in his project, the terrain, remoteness, and climate are actually advantages to him if using this system. The poor in a New Jersey slum would not be able to simply find ways to make shelter aside from their typical use of refuse and given the modern drug problems of many of the underprivileged a monetary donation by the state to provide for materials would probably never make it to the lumber yard (Fig. 8, 9). Here lies the other advantage of Fathy’s situation, the ground. His ability to make sufficient mud bricks on site makes this project perfect for an exercise with the inhabitant where both share the responsibility for the construction. While the idea is of true worth, the builder owner relationship that he suggests needs substantial development before it can be used beyond the Egyptian countryside. 10
The spread of the American Ideal into areas where it has no place has proved to be very damaging to local customs and traditions. Where Egyptian craftsman would typically construct their millwork from pieces of smaller timbers, due to the availability of wood, and were able to create very complex and unique patterns, now they see pristine solid wood doors on American homes and simply copy them. This goes back to the problem of American traditional architecture. The creation of standardized materials, while allowing certain constructions to be built simply, everything begins to look the same when used incorrectly. A resurgence of craft into the built mainstream would not only provide for a much greater complexity, it would also return jobs to the craftsman who know their work better than anyone else.11


10 Fathy, Hassan. Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976
11 Fathy, Hassan. Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976


 This is where modernism begins to lose some of its design credibility. With the focus on a function driven form and a removal of detail from structure, standardization makes perfect sense. But there can only be so many of the typical modernist forms before they too become bland and unappealing. In his work with New Gourna Fathy attempted on many fronts to bring the craftsman back into the design. In his setting this was especially wise, it was a ground to begin to convince the people who were going to be living there to be excited about the prospects of both being able to work on their homes and to revive certain cultural techniques that had begun to die out. This has deep social implications. Many of the poor in third world areas such as Egypt are so because their trade is no longer needed. If one can find a way to revive the need for that trade and juxtapose it with a modern design technique, tradition may be preserved while design can progress.12

                Again, Fathy was lucky to have the availability of the mud and to be almost required to use it because of budget. The technique that he used in his project was revived from an ancient Nubian tradition of corbelling that was becoming harder to find. By using this material he was able to revive a lost art while taking advantage of a plentiful resource. Beyond that fact, the masons whose craft was to build these mud brick structures were so efficient that the construction of nine-hundred homes in at a rate of thirty houses per month was not unreasonable. A clear lesson can be learned her for modern design. Construction is the civilized world rarely takes the time to think about local resources and techniques and often specify certain systems and techniques that are very difficult and expensive simply because the material or the skill of that specific workforce is not available, therefore the need for outside labor and shipping of materials must be added to the budget. Knowing that in the context of the construction site there is a specific material or group with specific talents would be a great asset to any design, and as designers this must be carefully planned.13
12 Fathy, Hassan. Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976
13 Fathy, Hassan. Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976

With the reestablishment of the relationship between the designer and the craftsman the only party unspoken for is the owner, the inhabitant. Fathy had much difficulty however, getting any input whatsoever from the Gourni people. This can only be expected. A people fully content with where they are and how they live being asked to pick up and move to a new location away from the only source of income that they’ve ever known has no motive to move. While this may not be entirely true for projects attempting to house people in similar situations elsewhere, the desire to stay where one feels safe and secure, and with all the accoutrements of home would be very difficult even if promising a well design place to dwell. How then should the crucial party be reached, for without their input the entire system of individualized design would be flawed. 14
                In order to make an attempt to design for the Gourni people without their input, Fathy made two studies that he hoped would allow him to grasp a style that would suit these people. First he made a study of the vernacular architecture at old Gourna, making specific note of buildings with the least luxury. Secondly, he compared his designs to the landscape, and by setting his design to flow around the natural terrain, as well as several things of great importance to the Gourni people, his designs began to be more tailored to the people who would live there.15  
                Another major consideration Fathy must make in order to make his houses work is the extreme climate in northern Egypt. Passive strategies for this climate call for large thermal masses that take a long time to heat up, but store heat allowing it to radiate throughout the considerable cooler night. Here a mud brick construction is the perfect material choice.16
 

14 Fathy, Hassan. Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976
15 Fathy, Hassan. Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976

 Typical thermal massing techniques involve the use of concrete with a transfer coefficient of .8 where mud bricks have a coefficient of .22, thus allowing them much longer periods of heating and cooling. Ventilation is also a key factor in this climate. Because of the dryness of the air cooling can be achieved simply by the movement of air, therefore adequate ventilation is mandatory.17
When designing for maximum passive gain and ventilation orientation must be derived from the sun and the wind. Designing for homes in large quantities like the Gourna Project presents some interesting difficulties because of reflected radiation off of neighbor’s houses which can sometimes be more intense than the sun itself. Fathy in his design chose to orient the houses so that the living rooms face south rather than north despite the harsh desert sun. He did this because while the southern side receives the most radiation from the sun the angle at which is impacts the south-facing wall is much greater than the angle at which radiation impacts the north facing walls that is reflected off surrounding homes. Any light that does directly impact the southern wall can be nearly eliminated by the addition of an overhang to shade that elevation. The northern fa├žade would be designed in such a way as to allow sufficient northern breezes to enter the building and carry the hot air up and out of clerestory windows that would line the top of the walls which were extended an extra half story to allow for the hot air to rise. This attention to detail, the dominance of passive strategies seems second nature in Fathy’s work. To him it makes perfect sense that when designing for poor who have no means to afford the extravagant costs associated with temperature control and electric lighting, to use systems where these luxuries are not required. At what point in modern design were these critical details deemed unnecessary in public housing projects.18
 


17 Fathy, Hassan. Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976
18 Fathy, Hassan. Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976

 “The rational approach was abandoned, because it would have required open minds and a real kind of collaboration and teamwork: architects working with engineers and social scientists, continuously trying to find better solutions, making experiments and testing them, working with business and government to encourage more research, experiment, and improvement” 19 (Fig. 10).    Working at this level of detail provides many opportunities to bring those lost local customs back into the design. One such detail the Malkaf, or wind catch, is a chimney like element that rises above the roofline to catch cooler fresher air and funnel it into the heart of the home. Baffles are often placed within this airway that may be wetted to add humidity to the air and in turn cool the room.20
Fathy compares community to a shoe. When it’s new it’s rough and awkward but with use it breaks in and becomes comfortable. Likewise a community, through multiple generations begins to achieve complexity through the quirks and stigmas that imply individuality. Therefore to successfully pick up one fully functioning community and move a deep investment in social studies must be made. Everything must be known from the number of children each family has to knowing personal grudges and community gossip. “The visual character of a village, like the habits of its population may change beyond recognition while to the undiscerning eye of the statistician it remains exactly the same. Statistics will completely miss such vital information as how the people celebrate personal and religious feasts. By remaining ignorant, for example, of the custom whereby anyone who has come back from Cairo stays the first night not in his own house but in the mayor’s madyafa, to give out news, an architect would fail to make provision for the custom”21.


19 Bauer, Catherine. “The Social Front of Modern Architecture in the 1930s.”   The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Mar., 1965), pp. 48-52
20 Fathy, Hassan. Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976
21 Fathy, Hassan. Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976


The layout of this new development proves to be the part of the design where an in depth knowledge of kinship structure and local customs is most necessary. Egyptian peasant towns are typically composed of many tightly pack homes both to protect from hostile nature of the countryside and to preserve precious farmland from sprawl. Preserving local custom in street design proved to be very difficult. While typical straight lines can provide certain efficiency they are a true western icon which has no place in the Egyptian countryside. Straight lines also bring buildings together in parallel lines that can create monotony in the street elevation by pressing each home together and squeezing out vegetation. In New Gourna the homes were composed in blocks which allows for a semi private entrance on the courtyard side while the density of each block brings a level of urbanity to the development the complexity of which adds vibrancy to the lifestyles of the inhabitants. Furthermore the courtyards created by these blocks carry a local signature of the Arab world. Because of the harshness of the ground in the desert the sky was the focal point of divine concentration to those who inhabit this par t of the planet. The courtyard then allowed for the house to have a central room onto which windows would open allowing the viewer to see sky from any window in the house without having to see the ground itself. These courtyards are the last stronghold for sanctity in the Arab home, the addition of a fountain creates a path from harsh world outside, through a cleansing mediator into the heart of the home. In his layout Fathy designed each home around a courtyard and in turn each group of homes around another courtyard with each block of homes designed for one badana, or tribe.22



22 Fathy, Hassan. Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976


Each badana consists of ten or so families each centered around a central patriarch living independently, but with strong internal ties. For example a member of one badana would not shop for groceries at the shop of another and so forth. In this way the courtyard was able to act as a common ground for meetings of the entire badana on the occasion of weddings and ceremonies of the like.23
                Knowing this specific kinship structure was necessary for the success of the design for not only must each family must have its own individualized home but each badana its own individualized block. A designer without this knowledge could have all too easily separated these badanas according to family and because of it the entire development would fail because of his or her lack of understand of these social underpinnings.24
                        Above and beyond the family orientations and its requirement on layout the simple question of subsistence became a worry for Fathy during this project. While in Old Gourna the people were able to make a living from the scourging of tombs, the act that was the reason for their relocation in the first place. By moving them to a new location however and stripping them of the only income they’ve ever known this entire people was now virtually unemployed. The new development did allocate roughly 2,500 acres for farmland but this was only enough to grow food for about 3,000 people leaving an excess of 3,000 still without a way to survive.25



23 Fathy, Hassan. Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976
24 Fathy, Hassan. Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976
25 Fathy, Hassan. Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976


 Two apparent answers could potentially relieve this problem. This first is somewhat in line with the Gournis previous occupation which is that their location is strategically placed near the great monuments and the ability to take advantage of tourism from these sites could greatly help support the Gourni people. The second option while requiring a considerably more skill is to revive culture and traditional crafts and trade that had been lost over the years.26
 Alabaster turning, blanket weaving, construction and jewelry if reinstated into the community could be sold to surrounding areas for enough profit to allow Gourna to not only survive but prosper and not only would their livelihood no longer be at risk but they would have the opportunity to maintain tradition that was being lost for future generations.27
“The most serious assaults on the Modern Movement had lasting impacts. Four
books published within less than a decade signaled the forthcoming change: Jane
Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), Robert Venturi’s
Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), Aldo Rossi’s The
Architecture of the City (1966), and Hassan Fathy’s Architecture for the Poor
(first published as Gourna: A Tale of Two Villages, in 1969).28


 

26 Fathy, Hassan. Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976
27 Fathy, Hassan. Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976
28 Bauer, Catherine. “The Social Front of Modern Architecture in the 1930s.”   The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Mar., 1965), pp. 48-52

Architecture for the Poor is a critical text to mark the end of modernism because Hassan Fathy’s design work is centralized around a collectiveness, a focus on individuality but furthermore he seeks to surpass the stereotypical norm for architectural design and begins to make serious commitments to the preservation and fulfillment of tradition, culture and an overall desire for the wellbeing of the humanity his architecture directly contacts.
His attention to detail moves beyond the strive for harmony beyond form and function and begins to look at dwelling as an organism much like the work or Le Corbusier but by design each organism for each person a level of symbiosis begins to be achieved that is lacking in the work of the great modernist designers.29
“Pietro Belluschi defined communal architecture as, “” a communal art, not produced by a few intellectuals or specialist but by the spontaneous and continuing activity of a whole people with a common heritage, acting under a community of experience.”30
That quote summarizes the entire work of Hassan Fathy and sets a standard that was unheard of in typical modern design. For designers in the postwar era this is a standard that should be strived for, to use a collective of professionals to design spaces that are individually tailored for each inhabitant where the attention to detail leaves nothing overlooked. From such a design process a knowledge of form should emerge to rival that of the modernist greats. 


29 Fathy, Hassan. Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976
30 Rudofsky, Bernard. Architecture Without Architects. New York: Modern Museum of Art, 1964.

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Bibliography

Bauer, Catherine. “The Social Front of Modern Architecture in the 1930s.”   The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Mar., 1965), pp. 48-52

Fathy, Hassan. Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.
Ghirardo, Diane. Architecture After Modernism. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996.
Rudofsky, Bernard. Architecture Without Architects. New York: Modern Museum of Art, 1964.



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