Hassan Fathy

For the founder members of Development Workshop, as young architectural students concerned with problems of poverty, a study trip in 1973 to Egypt gave us the opportunity to meet and subsequently to work with Hassan Fathy (1900-1989), in Egypt, and in the Lebanon and Oman. Known to us by his honorific title, Hassan ‘Bey’ became our mentor and offered us an approach that at last promised to marry our architecture with the concerns of the poor. His bold vision and practice pioneered the idea that the building activities of the poor and the apparently humble technologies they used, were to be learnt from and not dismissed, that rigorous scientific methodologies should serve mud as much as machines, and that the architects' role lay in villages at least as much as in villas. He made his point when ridicule was the result and years before appropriate technology and housing the poor became the fashionable thing to do.

Hassan Fathy (1900-1989), born in Alexandria, Egypt, became a world-renowned architect, artist and poet with a lifelong commitment to architecture devoted to building with the poor. Early in his career he began to study the traditional building systems of Egypt to understand their aesthetic qualities, to learn what they had to teach about climate comfort and economical construction techniques and to find ways to put them to contemporary use to meet the needs of the poor (Richards J.M et al., 1985), work that gained international acknowledgement with the publication of Gourna, a Tale of two villages, (Fathy, 1969), translated into French as Constuire avec le Peuple (Fathy, 1985)  and republished in English as Building for the Poor ( Fathy, 2010).

His truths endure but his contradictions remain: implicit in his practice and those of others, like ourselves, fired by his vision; the contradictions of an elite committed to their class yet wishing to serve the poor, the architect in love with design yet reaching to those for whom design is no priority, the technologist strong on science but justified by the economics of technology choice, and the pure professional unprepared for the politics of vested interests that shape decisions.

It is a lasting tribute to Hassan Bey that he, more than any one, taught us both through his successes and his failures, what it is we must know to serve architecture in development (Development Workshop, 1985).

Hassan Fathy was one of the first architects to break with modern architecture and to found a new approach based on a conception of interpreting forms and masses from the past. He was unique in believing that this language could exist alongside that of an aggressively modern one that cut all ties with the past. In addition to Fathy's tireless efforts to establish his traditional approach, throughout his life he struggled to improve the housing and living environments of the poor, especially in the Third World. Fathy's efforts were acknowledged by several awards, including the Chairman's Prize, Aga Khan Awards for Architecture (1980), the Right Livelihood Award (1980) and the first Gold Medal of the International Union of Architects (1984) (EI-Shorbagy, 2001).

Thank you, Hassan Bey.
Farokh Afshar, Allan Cain, Mohamad Reza Daraie, John Norton
Based in part on An Appreciation by the Development Workshop, published in Richards J.M., Serageldin I., Rastorfer D., Hassan Fathy, Mimar/Concept Media, London 1985

EI-Shorbagy  A M, “The Architecture of Hassan Fathy: Between Western and Non-Western Perspectives". A thesis submitted at University of Canterbury 2001, accessible at https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/35469027.pdf.
Fathy H, Gourna, a Tale of two villages, Ministry of Culture, Cairo, 1969.
Fathy H, Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt, Phoenix Books, February 2010.
Fathy H, Construire avec le peuple, Sinbad, 1979.
Paquot T, Hassan Fathy, construire avec ou pour le peuple?, Cahiers d’histoire. Revue d’histoire critique; Architecture et politique au XX siècle, Dossier 109/2009.

Photo: Hassan Fathy and Allan Cain, Tyre, Lebanon 1973.