Architecture For The Poor

Posted on October 3, 2010


In the 1940’s Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy attempted to start an architectural revolution. Soon after dedicating himself to rural or ‘peasant’ architecture and starting work with the Nubian Vault roofing and mud brick building techniques, Fathy took on the enormous and not-so envious task of re-locating the inhabitants of the village ‘Gourna’, near Luxor in Egypt. A village grown out of tomb-raiding, the government wanted the Gournis moved off of a historically significant site. With this in mind it should be noted that in this case it was always going to be necessary to build a completely new village. To cut a long and complex story short, despite an exceedingly well thought out and considerate plan, the new village was never completed, due in large part it would seem, to the mysterious unseen forces of bureaucracy.

The doomed project was led by tradition techniques and cooperative building, attributes that are, certainly in this case, both economical and sustainable. The application of traditional techniques (the mud bricks used in both walling and roofing) led to beautiful, timeless architecture that clearly belongs to its landscape. The materials and techniques have their limitations of course and while ‘limitation’ may sound a negative force it can be an important, positive element of design, the handmade approach limits spans and stories, automatically maintaining the human scale that is integral to the beauty of these buildings.

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I’ve found a lot of inspiration in Fathy’s approach that is applicable to my contemporary intentions for rural architecture in this country. Some obstacles that were troublesome to the New Gourna scheme I think would be less so in Britain, today. For example, one major problem lay in the relationship between architect and the villagers, when the project is to involve cooperative building this relationship is crucial. With less dramatic differences between classes and living conditions we should be able to overcome this communication problem (time will tell whether that is a naïve statement or not).

Money, the unavoidable, ever present bane of our modern society would be as much a priority now as it was then. In 40’s Egypt the project was dramatically less costly than the conventional approach and I’m afraid that to be taken seriously by authorities or developers a project is always going to have to offer a money saving/making opportunity. I suspect managing to convey any saving down to the occupants will be a real challenge of course but if a methodology can be illustrated to a level of comprehensiveness as to have at least matched the cost of conventional developments then it should stand a chance in our competitive climate.

My one reservation about the New Gourna project is the fact that the villagers didn’t actually want to be moved. The whole situation could easily start a raging moral debate I’m sure but it does seem an unlikely target for a cooperative building project. I think when embarking on this kind of development the new inhabitants must be involved to make it truly successful and I really think that in Britain we could make this work. Not all the time of course but there are a lot of people out there now entering the right frame of mind to get more involved and commit to such schemes. Perhaps the time is right to start our own revolution.

The New Gourna project is covered in Fathy’s book; Architecture For The Poor (1973)