Hassan Fathy's research and principles, his publications and built projects—though they dated back to the 1940's—became known to western architects only in 1969, and it cannot be said that they have been fully absorbed, let alone widely embraced, even now, a generation later. The "modern movement" in the West, which aimed to use new architectural materials and technology to improve the life of the ordinary city-dweller, had foundered on aggressive stylistic innovation and an arrogant disregard of the past; Fathy showed how social needs could be met using familiar, vernacular styles, materials and techniques, and with the participation of the "consumer." Though he worked in the Egyptian context, his principles have a much wider potential application—yet throughout the world there is little building being done in his spirit.
In an effort to understand the nature of Hassan Fathy's influence on present-day architecture, and the reasons why that influence finds so little expression, a conference was convened last May at the University of Texas at Austin. It was sponsored by the university's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, School of Architecture, and Department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures, and by Aramco World, and it brought together Abdel Wahed El-Wakil, professor of architecture at the Prince of Wales's Institute of Architecture and Fathy's foremost student; Hasan-Uddin Khan, visiting professor of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former editor of Mimar magazine; and James Steele, author of several books on Fathy and professor of architecture at the University of Southern California in San Diego. Joining the discussion were Akel Kahera, professor at the University of Texas and convenor of the conference; Simone Swan, director of the Swan Group and practitioner of Fathy's principles; Andrew Voorney, associate dean of the UT School of Architecture; Michael Moquin, editor of Adobe Journal; Timothy J. Driscoll of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers; Sami Saleh Nawar, director of the Jiddah Historical Preservation Department; and Aramco World editor Robert Arndt and assistant editor Dick Doughty. What follows is excerpted from the primary speakers' informal presentations and the subsequent general discussion.
Fathy as a Precursor of Sustainability
I suggest that Fathy is the earliest, clearest example of a sustainability-oriented architect we can find. He took Cairo as his text, particularly the medieval part of the city, the one-square-kilometer area that was actually founded in 1969 by the Fatimid sultan al-Mu'izz. The area is very rich, very dynamic, and very difficult to understand. It is a cacophony of sound and life. Within that area, he began to look at how an architecture might be developed that would reflect his national background and roots. At the [17th-century] Bayt Suhaymi, he discovered how convection kept the house cool: The private, family courtyard on one side of the takhtabush screen was planted, and the formal, public courtyard on the other side was paved. The resulting temperature differential created a flow of air from the cool, planted courtyard into the hotter paved courtyard, and the room above the courtyard that benefited most from this airflow was wonderfully cool, even on the hottest days. This construction is testimony to the traditional understanding of natural forces, and Fathy began to appreciate that and to incorporate that into his ideas.
He began to observe this kind of phenomena and to research them. Nobody had done this to the extent he did when he was young. He began to understand that the courtyard itself is one of the primal forms in the Middle East.
He began to understand that traditionally the choice of building materials was based on the environmental forces in the building rather than the pursuit of a decorative effect. For example, the decorated wooden cupola inside the qa'a, the central airshaft in a house, at the top, was put there to help the air rush up faster. All our sophisticated research about solar chimneys—such as that going on now, for example, at the University of Arizona—is really in many ways simply trying to recover traditional knowledge of the qa'as. Fathy looked at mashrabiyyah screens and found that they were not only decorative and good at soaking up the glare from the sun, but also that they had hydrometric properties, for the wood soaks up humidity, too. This sort of relationship between environmental aspects and the traditional elements in the houses he began to incorporate into a language.
The use of materials is key to the idea of sustainability today, specifically the use of local materials, directly from the area, and telluric materials, which are in a primary relationship with the earth—wood, stone, mud brick and so on.
It wasn't all perfect though, as there were some misreadings of context. For example, the idea of the dome, which he thought was very much symbolic of the past and could be used in the house and in the buildings that he built, was often seen by others with a negative connotation, as it had traditionally been used for a tomb or a mausoleum in this area.
But it was a very courageous act for him to take mud brick and build with it, to go back into the millennia and look to something that was really essential to the Egyptian countryside. He developed a language based on natural materials, natural ventilation and natural systems. If I can just say so, with great trepidation, I think Abdel Wahed el-Wakil is the true successor of Hassan Fathy, because he took the mud-brick architecture and brought it into a more pragmatic realm, using fired brick instead of mud brick, which is more acceptable to more clients and also performs environmentally the same way, if not better in certain aspects.
Fathy lived what he taught. He used these ideas in his own house in Sidi Krier, near Alexandria, and also in the Mamluk house that he bought in Cairo in 1933. He was not above practicing what he preached.
The current trend of sustainability began in the 1970's, when Earth Day 1970 marked the beginning of an awareness of environment-friendly architecture. As you recall, Fathy's Architecture for the Poor was actually first published in French in 1966, and it was brought out in English in 1973 by the University of Chicago Press. So he was, in a sense, vaulted into international recognition by the rising interest in ecological issues. Ian McHarg wrote Design With Nature in 1966, about the same time, and he was one of the first people to popularize the idea of ecological zones, or ecoregions—but Fathy had been there long before him, saying that each building should respond to its microclimate, to its ecological region and its own kind of context.
I should distinguish between ecological and sustainable architecture. They overlap some, but I would argue that the difference is that ecological architecture is concerned with materials and effects of methods, while sustainability deals with that as well as the community and social issues. It deals with understanding culture and understanding that architecture need not be beautiful to be effective. It's hard to get students, faculty, and schools of architecture to buy into this, because schools of architecture typically want students to design beautiful buildings. But I believe that the situation today, 10 years after Hassan Fathy's death, desperately calls for his ideas and a realization of what he stood for.
In Los Angeles, where I come from, there is a project being built now called Playa Vista. It is one of the largest areas of urban development in the world today, considered sustainable development because it combines the ideas of mixed-use, low car traffic, high pedestrian use, green areas and clustering to create open areas. Well, I hate to say it, but it sounds a lot like [Fathy's vision] at New Bariz Village to me. Hassan Fathy was there 25 years ago, but Playa Vista is being heralded as the model of the sustainable American community of the future. Every sustainable principle you can mention or want to talk about, Fathy wrote about, thought about, built, gave us living examples of. That is why his work is important.
Inventing Tradition and the Paradox of Continuity
I'd like to take a historical view. We start in the period from the 1940's to the 1960's, when the project of modernity and modern architecture, which had been developing since the 1920's, reached the developing world. We, in what was then named the Third World, were coming out of colonization and into independence and beginning a search for new national identities, aspiring to be part of a modern community of emerging nations. There was a great deal of poverty in our countries, with people coming into the cities in unprecedented migrations. There were new symbols of modernity from the West, with new buildings in the international style, and new materials, such as concrete and steel. The race for modern development was in full swing.
Fathy, on the other hand, was producing an alternative model for us. He was drawing from two strands: the vernacular and the historical. The vernacular meant the contemporary indigenous, and the historical was that which belonged to the local or regional cultural roots. Most of the great political leaders of that time, Gandhi and others, were similarly looking at their precolonial local history and drawing from it. In Egypt, you looked back to the pharaonic or the Mamluk. In India you looked back to the Mughal or the Hindu. In order to understand Fathy and his impact, and to assess the significance of his great successes and failures, this is important.
I feel that the words I am going to say now are perhaps less adulatory, but I also realize that Fathy is a great enough, fine enough and big enough figure to withstand this more critical look at his life and work. I believe he deserves that from us.
I'd like to start with Fathy and people. I think Fathy had, in some ways, a romanticized view of "the people." Don't forget, he was trained in westernized institutions and came from a well-off family. He went into the villages with a kind of paternalistic relationship with the people and with Egypt. He was brought up in that post-colonial moment, and he was thus looking for a new Egypt. He was a man of Egypt, but he was also very much a man of the world. He had a romantic view of what the village is, and what architecture there means.
New Gourna needs to be talked about in this sense. We can see in this project that Fathy was interested in the vernacular and in history. He brought together traditions of Upper Egypt, [architectural] proportions from the pharaonic system of measures, and a different kind of technology to help the government settle a population in a village near Luxor. I have suggested that this is an amalgamation of traditional sets of models; that's why I call it an "instant vernacular," because he begins to produce what is basically a reconstituted idea of what village life is like, or should be like. It is an amalgam of different traditions that do not belong entirely to one place.
Fathy wasn't alone in what he was doing, in Egypt or elsewhere. At the same time and in the same milieu as Fathy, there is also Ramses Wissa Wassif, who used the same social ideas as Fathy and created a village that is still today training kids—orphans—and others in the art of weaving tapestries as a means of giving them an economic basis for a community. There is an architect in India called Laurie Baker, an Englishman with Indian citizenship, who has worked with vernacular, lower-income and indigenous building materials in southern India with amazing impact for 50 years, though he is not very well known. Jorge Anzorema has worked with building for the poor in Japan, and there are others elsewhere.
Remember that four years after Fathy's Architecture for the Poor came out in English, Robert Venturi published Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, other architects were bringing out books about the death of modernism, and we had the beginnings of the post-modern movement. This broad questioning of modernism was in some ways more active in the developing world, and Fathy fits into that moment of questioning.
Then there is what I would call the first generation of Fathy disciples—the generation of the 1960's and 70's. There were a whole lot of us from the Third World who were unsatisfied with what modernism had to offer, as we saw an economic misfit between what was going on with the modernists in Europe and what might be applied to our countries. Fathy came to London and spent a week or so talking to students. He gathered a bunch of us, and we went to Cairo to do climatic study measurements at the Bayt Suhaymi. The group later became the Development Workshop, which is still working today around the world.
Fathy tried to relate processes of building to culture, place, and milieu, but what happens as time goes on is that gradually there is a kind of deterioration, as forms and symbols begin to be used with less and less discrimination and less understanding of the process that brought them about or their meanings to society. Two things happened in the 1970's and 80's with Fathy's vernacular model. First, it began to be equated with the vernacular, though it is rather a coming together of a set of different traditions of the place. The second thing that happens is that this amalgamation—the instant vernacular—begins to be associated with Islam and with Islamic architecture. This is very interesting, because indeed it becomes the prime model for the contemporary Islamic architecture of the Middle East. Domes and vaults become associated with Islam and are used to differentiate structures associated with Islam from other contemporary buildings.
This reached a kind of apotheosis in the 1980's, when Fathy, for the only time in his career, built in America; this was the Dar al-Islam project. It was a community set up as an Islamic community, partly funded by individuals from Saudi Arabia, and its architecture has been appropriated from the vernacular into the Islamic. There is an equation, in terms of the poetic ideals of the spirituality of the desert, of this location in New Mexico with the Middle East. But the climate in New Mexico is quite different. The winters are really cold, so the building performs in a very different way from the way it would have done in the Middle East. The adobe cracks. It's quite beautiful as a piece, but it doesn't actually do what the vernacular of that place would suggest it should do. It is rather an image of the vernacular, and an image of Islam.
Now, in the 1990's, what is happening is a third phase. The second generation of architects, all these young Egyptians who had some contact with Fathy during the course of his career, are now suddenly being taken over by the international tourism industry. Since about 1989, large companies have been forming in Egypt, and it is essentially Fathy's stylistic model, that "instant vernacular," that they are choosing for their holiday hotels. These are not business hotels downtown, but the ones tourists go to in order to experience the place, and which say, with their forms, "This is what Egypt is about"—or at least, "This is an environment that we tourism promoters like, as an image of our country and ourselves, and want foreign visitors to experience." Tony Mallor, a developer working in the country, said, "The business of reinventing style by replicating a piece of the past is an essential dilemma of architects working to be authentic." The question that I would raise is this: Was even Fathy being "authentic"? What it even means is highly questionable. To be authentic in terms of a location, any location, has become quite a problem for architects. But I would argue that this third phase, this "Disneyfication," represents a deterioration and a denaturing of the signs and symbols that Fathy used and intended. I don't want to emphasize this too much, but the process is occurring, and it needs to be talked about in reference to the continuity of Fathy's ideas and his heritage.
I would like to end by saying that he did influence a whole generation of architects, including myself, and my life would have been different without him. Even though I might talk critically about his work today, he did make me look at my own culture and my own place in a way no one else did. To me, his strength is not his architecture: I think New Gourna is a heroic failure. Much of his architecture has moved, ironically, from what it was supposed to be, an architecture for the poor, to architecture that is built and used by other groups of people who are by no means badly off. He is a reminder to us that there is more to architecture than economics, that what is valuable is looking at our own places and at who we are. I think those lessons, along with involving people in the ritual of building, and embracing a way of being in community, are things we should carry with us. He is amazingly important for those reasons. But we need to look at him with our eyes open.
Abdel Wahed El-Wakil
The Vital Aspects of Hassan Fathy's Work
I have a technique for evaluating things and ideas. I believe that the only ways to see what you have done—I used to paint and sculpt—is either to step back and get some distance, or to turn the thing upside down so that you look at it differently. So I go to antiquarian bookshops to buy and read books that present ideas before they have become very sophisticated, intellectual and, in a way, arrogant, that date from when people were more simple in their thinking. Hassan Fathy's ideas are not new! Neither are our problems. If you read pharaonic texts and stories, they make you think that it is happening today.
Architecture and its forms arise from the whole revealed doctrine of a culture and religion. They do not emerge like a wild plant in the forest; they are crafted. I suggested to the Prince of Wales, when he wanted to found an architecture school, that he needs to create a new subject—the science of forms. We don't understand them. We talk about forms, play with forms, and we are, as we say, formalistic, but we don't understand them. The science of forms is the study of how they emerge and fill our environment.
In pharaonic architecture, the forms all came from a specific religion and culture that has since been lost. In Egypt there are Muslims, Copts and—until the revolution—a Jewish community. These three cultures lived together and they had the same architecture. You never heard a house described as "Coptic" or "Islamic." The architecture belonged to a unified community. A difference between our age and earlier ages is that, until the 15th century, people seemed to live better with their differences. In our age, you might ask how this was possible? I believe it was possible because they lived in a universe that was primarily spiritual, and that primacy has been largely or entirely destroyed today. It has been destroyed because our whole point of view has changed. Before, people lived according to a vertical axis: Man was related to heaven and to God. Then Darwin came along and tipped that axis horizontal, and it became a time axis.
This came about with a very important change of attitude. Today many people try to find something that they feel has been lost. And it has been, because once you have this different perspective, you can no longer see things holistically. You only have this horizontal view. And this is the view that predominates in schools of architecture. It is why Fathy was so hated. Because on this horizontal line, time suddenly becomes important, and there comes the idea of "progress," and the notion that anybody behind a certain point on the timeline is "religious" or "traditional" and therefore not "progressive," whereas anyone beyond that point is "avant-garde" or "futuristic." This division between the past and the future has led us astray. Architecture and space are intimately related to our ideas. When you say up and down, front and back, left and right, it is significant, it is qualitative, there are values connoted in all these terms. Going forward is progressive. All of these ideas are reflected in our speech.
I see Fathy as a person who looked beyond the time. What is important is not what is "Islamic" or "authentic" or who is rich or who is poor. The problem is that today you want to create an environment, and there are two environments in this world: the natural world created by God, and the man-created environment. The man-created environment is the footprint of culture. You can make of it either a hell or a paradise. Which do our cities with their high-rises resemble?
One day when I was first teaching, I came back to my professors and told them I had discovered Hassan Fathy. After that it was as though I had to wear a bullet-proof vest. They did everything to discourage me, to isolate me, but I knew what I had found. What inspired me about Hassan Fathy was this: I had a dream that one should always have an internal space inside oneself, and that this space needs to be reflected in architecture. I saw this in pictures of Japanese houses and in movies that showed Moroccan houses. But I never saw these in my country; I did not know that these houses existed in Egypt. And then Fathy introduced me to what was to me a miracle—the courtyard house. At the time it was something unbelievable. At the time, the whole environment of Cairo was influenced by colonialism, it was an extroverted architecture. Where did this model originate? With Palladio! In the English "gentleman's villa." This pavilion, basically, that looked out with four arches into nature, was brought into the city, into Cairo. Before that there were no individual plots of land, there were just buildings stuck together, and the life was inside—in the courtyard. This was a treasure-house of ideas to me. Coming out of the university and teaching there without knowing these things gave me a culture shock. How could I not have known this architecture?
In a building, materials are one issue. But there is also the architecture, the design, the composition of the building. All these things came from the elements and components of an architecture that has no tension—everything is in repose. Everything follows nature. The parabolic arch and the catenary are the forms of nature. Any object that you throw in the air will come down in the trajectory of this arch. Yet very few architects know the equation of this curve. The catenary was used in pharaonic times not just as a structural element but also as a constructional element, by tilting it and thus making it possible to build vaults without wooden forms. But the principle of the catenary never appeared in Western history books until the 18th century and the schools of engineering. This is the importance of understanding that science is universal and timeless—it is only technology that is particular. Technology is the way you do something to solve a problem, the way you overcome limitations. Fathy said that an artist without limitations cannot create his art. When you have limitations, the mind is so creative that it begins to absorb these problems and from the intricacy of the solutions come the expressions that we call architecture. Fathy saw architecture as a choreography of movement: going upstairs, coming down, looking out from a loggia. It was not just a matter of building materials, of mud brick or whatever, it was a way of looking at life. So you can't say this is Islamic or not. The pointed arch is not a form, or a style. It is first and foremost a structure, a structural arch that hides the catenary that solves a problem.
The fatal blow to traditional architecture was the destruction of the traditional craftsman, the mason. He was the one that kept tradition going. When you lose the craftsman, I believe, you lose architecture. When I nominated my mason for [a prestigious architecture award], they sent me— the snobs—a message saying, "We didn't create this award for masons." "Well, I replied, whom did you make it for? For mit professors only?" It is through these craftsmen that the architecture of the Third World can flourish. It is not by importing steel from England.
Dick Doughty (DD): We heard a lot about sustainability early on this morning. Can we define it, and how would our definition differ from Fathy's?
James Steele (JS): Sustainability is really the first institutionally driven movement about the environment, in the sense that it was backed by the United Nations and the World Bank as a way of solving the "growth-no-growth" dilemma of the late 60's and early 70's. It's the sincere desire to come to terms with the need to grow, but to do it in a way that satisfies environmental issues. The definition that came out of the Rio Conference on the environment was that sustainability means meeting the needs of today without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. For the World Bank and the United Nations, the question then became how to define needs. Are the needs of a family in Bangladesh the same as the needs of a family in Brooklyn? No, because in western societies we use about 20 times the resources of the family in Bangladesh. So issues of equity arise.
The architects calling themselves the New Urbanists are the first group in the last 30 or 40 years to actually produce a manifesto, and they've adopted the idea of sustainability as a driving force. What are the relevant principles? I've written some down, not necessarily in order of importance: Use of local materials to save on the energy of importing materials. The recognition that there is embodied energy in material, basically that energy that was needed to create it. The idea of studying traditional architecture, not for its quaintness or style or form but for the lessons it has to teach us related to the environment. The idea of acting locally but thinking globally—that is, that every move we make in architecture relates to another culture and another economy. All these have been adopted as principles by the New Urbanists, but also, I have to say, by more and more municipal planners around the United States. Sustainability is a force that's not going away, and Fathy was at the forefront of it.
Abdel Wahed El-Wakil (AWW): Since, as you say, the people who use the most energy in the world are in the United States, then the country that's really having the sustainability problem now is the United States. There are computer models that have shown that high-rise buildings do not save space but in fact devour more space in a city. People have misconceptions, and when you talk of advocating low-rise construction they ask you, "How will you solve the population crisis with that?" The misconception is that the high-rise solves the problem of the city. It does not: It solves the problem of the land speculator. So when you talk of sustainability, you have to ask what elements are essential to it.
Student: Shouldn't education have something to do with exploring these questions, in instilling a sense of consciousness about what you're building?
AWW: Yes, education is very important.
JS: There's a lot of lip service given to this now in universities, but there's very little action. If you go around to the architectural studios, it's business as usual. The focus is on "object buildings," buildings as objects consisting of forms, rather than as social entities.
Andrew Vernooy (AV): Architecture can't situate itself outside the technological hegemony. I think what's most interesting about Hassan Fathy's work is that he approaches it from a critical point of view. He's not trying to solve these problems with hypertechnical means, he's trying to situate the answer to the problems within the culture in which the problems exist. I've always thought that the importance of Fathy is not necessarily the exact examples, but rather the attitude that he instills in us, a way of inquiry, of critical review. Remember that Fathy also didn't just stick to mud and stone. He looked at concrete structures and many other materials. We always associate him with this kind of wonderful vernacular, but his range of inquiry was much wider.
Michael Moquin (MM): I'm a craftsman, and I also happen to be editor of Adobe Journal. The craftsmen are often left out of this discussion.
DD: What's your relationship with architects?
MM: It's almost adversarial. We excerpted some of your writing, James, about Hassan Fathy, in one of our early issues, and I was struck by the need to bridge the gap between the builders and the architects. There's a huge chasm between them. A couple hundred years ago, builder and architect were the same person, and now it's very specialized and different.
Robert Arndt (RA): But wasn't Hassan Fathy the first one to separate the builder from the architect, by his mere presence? The Nubian masters whom he was imitating, or following or learning from, were both architect and builder. So the first level of abstraction from the authentic comes with Fathy himself, when he, as an architect, said, "Okay, we're going to bring this back."
AWW: No, [the separation] was already there. What Hassan Fathy did was to say to the government, "Instead of doing those horrible housing schemes for the poor, why don't you work with the architecture that they are doing already, and use your architects to improve it?" Technology was important to Fathy, and it is important today, but in relation to facts, not hype. Fathy used adobe bricks, he used stone, and so did I. But these days I use fired red bricks because the cost of firing is nothing compared to cost of mud bricks. Mud bricks are more expensive because of transportation and manual-labor costs, even among poor people. I am using red bricks because they are cheaper than mud bricks, and faster to handle.
MM: I think that one of the big problems with using traditional materials and traditional techniques is that today's engineers and code writers have locked themselves into current construction technology. They aren't looking at the tradition and why traditional methods worked within the tradition. I've faced that problem many, many times here in the us, bringing brick makers from Mexico or working with adobe. There is finally an adobe code in New Mexico, but you have to use stabilized adobe. That's because the people who write these regulations don't understand how adobe works. Try to build a house out of unstabilized adobe [as used in traditional construction] just about anywhere in this country and they'll laugh you out of the building-permit office.
DD: Is this a matter of vested interests, habit or what?
MM: Well, there is some of that. I was commissioned to do a vault of wood-fired brick. I brought it over, the engineer saw it, and the project was killed because it's a "weak" brick. It was more than structurally adequate, but it just wasn't what he was used to.
DD: Are there places in this country where there is a more progressive attitude toward these things?
MM: You have to have a ranch of your own somewhere. There's an old saying in Mexico that for a good house, you need good shoes and a good hat—that is, a good foundation and a good roof. I can take you to jungle areas where it rains all the time, and there's unstabilized adobe that's been there for three hundred years—but try to get that message through the building-permit offices here.
RA: I believe there has been some success in getting building codes adjusted for straw-bale buildings. Some of those have been built here in central Texas, haven't they?
MM: Well, that's kind of separate. The pressure of that group right now is incredibly strong compared to that for adobe.
RA: So it's a political success?
MM: And it's a common enthusiasm.
RA: So why is there no such political momentum in favor of adobe?
MM: Its momentum was in the 70's and early 80's, and by the mid-80's it had pretty much fizzled out.
Hasan Uddin-Khan (HK): Why do you think that is?
AWW: Fashion, fashion.
MM: I think there was so much problem with the code people. Even though we have the most enlightened adobe code in New Mexico, it's still very restrictive. You can't use a natural mud plaster with unstabilized brick, which will work fine but implies periodic maintenance. It's a cultural thing: Traditionally you would get your family or your community together every two or three years to re-apply the plaster as a group project. Now that we're kind of a non-extended-family society, we just don't think that way any more.
JS: I think that's another reason why [Fathy's project at] Abiquiu has been questioned. It was a lifestyle difference. If you listen to the lectures that Hassan Fathy gave at the opening of Dar al-Islam, he was talking about adobe but the people who were asking questions were saying, "Well, we think it's too cold here for adobe, and we don't know if we can maintain the buildings." This self-build, hands-on maintenance approach does not really work in America.
AWW: It's more than this. Hassan Fathy is not just introducing a construction material. He was introducing a style and even a quality of life that we are losing. When I went and saw the Amish people I was stunned: I think if Hassan Fathy had gone there he would have found his hometown in America.
RA: So aren't we saying that if you take a building out of its culture it's not going to work?
DD: What about these so-called New Urbanist projects and the neo-traditional town planning projects? There's one in Houston that just started up and the plots were sold almost instantly. That implies people feel that such projects could meet social and environmental needs, could be something more sustainable.
AV: Well, you have to look at who bought them. It's not really meeting a social need. It's meeting a need for people who want to make their life structure an object of desire. And what kinds of materials will these buildings be built with? I think they're pretty conventional. It raises the question not only of forms and materials, but also the nature of authenticity. I think this is the problem we have in this country, trying to find something that is, indeed, authentic. What's selling is some image of authenticity. I think what's interesting about Fathy's work is that he was somehow able to find a compromise between being original, on the one hand, and, on the other, appropriating and synthesizing. He was able to do things that were original, but to do them in ways that were embedded within the culture. What would be sustainable yet also authentic in the United States? I don't think there's an architect who can answer that question today.
JS: On the issue of authenticity, Fathy said that tradition is the social analogue of personal habit. I think that's true. What traditions are today are whatever people do. And those traditions change. Fathy also said that traditions that can be retained are valuable, while the ones that can't be retained should be discarded. To answer Hasan-Uddin Khan's question about whether Fathy was authentic or not, I've written down some interesting transitions: Roman architecture followed Greek architecture—the Romans copied it, but they also reinvented and evolved it. Ottoman architecture followed Christian architecture. Hellenistic architecture followed Greek architecture. Renaissance architecture followed Roman architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright was influenced by Japan. Who is authentic? We find ourselves throughout the history of architecture borrowing, adapting, evolving—that's what the human species does.
AWW: I'll tell you who is authentic: those who follow tradition. And tradition is related to place more than it is to time. If it is related to time, a building becomes stylistic. But if it is related to place, it is timeless. One of the best compliments I ever received came at an exhibition, when one of the students there asked, "Who is the architect of this building?" "Abdel Wahed El-Wakil," he was told, and he had never heard of me, so he asked, "What century did he live in?"
AV: The avant-garde, up until the 19th century, was almost always a return to time-tested principles, a search for tradition. It's only after the 19th century that the avant-garde became this sort of pushing beyond.
DD: In that case, modernism is an aberration. Is it going to go back to that search in the coming years? Are we going to be looking back, someday, at modernism as a little historical anomaly in an otherwise relatively consistent process of building on tradition?
AV: Without crisis, I doubt it will change. It's part of the positivist, historicist myth about the world, that indeed things progress and get better and better—it's part of what Marcuse called "the veil of technology."
AWW: There is this so-called modern idea that every moment in time is just one step along a line, but nature works in cycles, not along an endless line.
JS: This issue of craft, and of divorcing craftsmanship from architecture, is an important issue. I think that divorce happened somewhere around the Bauhaus. To return to your question of a while ago, Rob, it wasn't Fathy who stood back and said, "I'm not going to work with craftsmen." He actually saw himself as an advisor, as Abdel Wahed said: The architect brings the knowledge, the craftsperson brings the skill. He wasn't trying to divorce himself from craftsmanship; he was trying to revive and protect the crafts in a new era that was trying to efface them.
Timothy Driscoll (TD): Since you bring up crafts, I'd like to talk for a moment. My organization is the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craft-workers. We represent bricklayers and stonemasons in the US and Canada. About eight years ago we attempted to come up with a program to address the relationship between architecture and crafts, and we now have a two-week summer camp where architectural students in their fourth and fifth years meet with our third- and fourth-year apprentices to try and walk in each other's shoes.
DD: What kinds of results have you seen?
TD: Well, as most of you know, in your first three or four years of practice after architecture school you're not really given much latitude, so in terms of them going to work for some high-profile architectural firm and doing something innovative that can be traced to us—we're not quite there yet. But we've had several architects come to work for an industry organization, which we're very happy about.
DD: Is your program unique?
TD: We're not aware of other craft unions doing this.
AWW: But a lot of young people do not want to follow this path of craftsmanship. That is part of the problem.
DD: I'd like to talk a bit about Fathy's commitment to humanity in general. He cites in Architecture for the Poor a statistic of some billion people who are condemned to die sooner than they otherwise would due to problems that come along with bad housing. In the 10 years since Fathy's death, that number has only increased. Are there people today whose work either builds upon or parallels Fathy's, who offer any glimmer of hope that this statistic might change?
Audience member: I'm not really sure what becomes of all the architects who are churned out by architecture schools. How many of them really end up being involved in housing, let alone low-cost housing?
AWW: Exactly. They are supposed to do the dream projects, the artist's studio, the villa and so on. You have to reevaluate. I didn't stop at what I learned from Hassan Fathy. I've developed techniques in construction, I've looked at different types of energy. The point is not to worship the legacy of Hassan Fathy, it is rather to see how his thinking came about and what he tried to achieve. His problems started with the Second World War, when there was a shortage of materials in Egypt. So he sat down with his brothers, who were engineers, to help him, to solve such problems as how to roof a building, because that's the greatest cost. But it's not just materials, it's a man who is a visionary, a reformer, one who is saying, "What can I do for my community and its people? What can I do to help in my capacity as an educated man?" People don't ask these questions much, at least architects don't. It's not part of the training at all.
DD: What can any of you say about specific projects, people, or things that are being done today that further Fathy's architectural legacies and dreams? How much impact are they having?
JS: I think there's been an evolution over the last 50 years in terms of housing in general. If you look at the examples of government-sponsored housing, in Asia and India and so on, right after the colonial experience, you have tower blocks. This was seen as the solution to housing the poor, especially in Singapore and Hong Kong. But that solution brought with it infrastructure and maintenance problems that the governments found difficult to solve. That led to a second stage, the "self-help" stage, of which Fathy is the major paradigm. The idea is that if you give people the means and the material and the financial help, then they can do it for themselves. But that proved problematic too, as many people found it a bit offensive to be required to do it themselves, or to do it in the way that the donor agency or other authority required. They lost dignity.
Now there's a third stage, dating perhaps from the late 60's to the 70's, which turns on empowerment, where people don't get the pieces handed to them, but get legal and financial encouragement. An example of that would be the Grameen Bank, and now other microcredit organizations. But this empowerment drives architects who are in the conventional mode crazy, because it marginalizes them. In a sense Fathy bridged this gap too, because he saw giving people the means to do what they want to do as the first step toward helping them, and the architect he saw merely as the advisor, as Abdel Wahed said. But that role remains a marginal one.
HK: I think it's true that architects are being marginalized in this process, because the decisions are becoming economic ones. The decisions at higher levels are being done on a structural basis, in terms of whether it's lending, legislation or community mobilization, all of which has to do with ethical issues and your role not as an architect, but as a member of the community. But there are groups working with communities. Take Laurie Baker, who decided that what is needed is very cheap housing that people had to build for themselves—and he builds in brick, by the way, in an area of south India which doesn't have much wood, in Trivandrum. He manages to cut the cost of building to something like 20 percent of what a normal government building costs. He has produced a whole series of buildings, starting with individual houses for particular people who are very poor. Then he started building institutional buildings, and training the local population—again, as with Fathy, a very important part of it. The difference, though, is that his ideas and his training have been taken up generally, and you see his work being reproduced by local builders and local people all over the state.
DD: Why didn't this happen to Fathy?
HK: Well, I would say that Baker's buildings meet some image of modernity that the people had in mind. Fathy's buildings, at the time, actually went in the opposite direction.
DD: Are there other people or projects you can think of?
HK: The architects of the Development Workshop who were working in Iran before the revolution went into the villages, worked with the villagers. These architects actually learned how to build vaults with Fathy, took their technology across to Iran and taught it to the local masons in a setting where the conditions were suitable for adapting the ideas well. There's a fair number of schools built there, and there were four or five villages that were actually built after the Development Workshop left. But once their patronage in the country was gone the program died out.
Audience member: I want to ask Mr. Driscoll what else his organization is doing.
TD: Our union, in conjunction with 19 others across the globe, formed the International Construction Institute, whose goal is the betterment of construction workers throughout the world. An adjunct of the ici is the Hassan Fathy Institute for Construction Workers. We simply appropriated the name, but we find it quite fitting because his principles are guiding us. The aspect of Hassan Fathy that appeals most to us, quite logically, is the role of the craftsman and how he fits into the building process. We are following up on the Istanbul Statement from the 1994 Human Settlements Conference, a best-practices document from the craftsperson's point of view. The Hassan Fathy Institute is now helping, mostly through in-kind contributions, to provide craft training for workers overseas, so far in Egypt, El Salvador and Poland.