Archive | May 12, 2010

Hassan Fathy: The Barefoot Architect

Hassan Fathy: The Barefoot Architect

By Hwaa Irfan

With increasingly hot summers occurring around the world and concrete buildings not proving their strength in unstable conditions, I am reminded of a time when 50°C (122°F) was an experience far less threatening, with fewer straight lines, corners and squares defining the nature of the buildings we used to live and work in. With low buildings and open spaces, it was not the clock that defined the day, but the Adhan/call to prayer that beckoned as it travelled with the wind as if natured intended it too. Life was almost a prayer with each part of the day lending a sense of purpose towards the next.

The home was a part of that purpose. The rooms looked inwardly onto the courtyard, where women and men both had their own time and space, and not onto hot dusty streets. The air was cool, clean and serene. As traditions weakened to external pressures, the art of living has only remained in the homes of those who choose to hold onto traditional designs that allow for inner rest, heartfelt sharing, and a common bonding that is open to the community. An outsider might consider the occupants to be simple people if not in harmony with the type of communication which demands fewer words and more thought.

One would enter a home made out of local natural resources with dome shaped ceilings and no electrical air-conditioning, to find a sudden descent of peace and calm within a cool atmosphere allowing the body to breathe. The power of one’s voice would adjust to become compatible with a world away from the outside world. If we are fortunate we can find or build a home accordingly, but for those who cannot….!

Conscientious architecture of today struggle with the precepts of the past when a home was a place of physical, spiritual, and psychological nurturing based on what were essentially scientific principles. In this context a mason was more than a builder.

    “The quality and values inherent to the traditional and human response to the environment might be preserved without a loss of the advances of science. Science can be applied to various aspects of our work, while it is at the same time subordinated to philosophy, faith and spirituality,” said the great Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, who was born at the turn of the 20th century.

As a violinist, his musical sensibilities nurtured within him a fine sense of harmony that was to carry through into his architectural designs. Inspired by Pharaonic and traditional Nubian architecture, Fathy was engineer-architect, musician, dramatist, teacher, professor, and inventor. Hassan Fathy re-inspired the living art of adobe architecture, giving it a mission for the 20th and 21st centuries.

Employing energy-conservation techniques, six fundamental principles underlie Hassan Fathy’s work:

a.. Belief in the primacy of human values in architecture

b.. Importance of a universal rather than a limited approach

c.. Use of appropriate technology

d.. Need for socially oriented, cooperative construction techniques

e.. The essential role of tradition

f.. The re-establishment of national cultural pride through the act of building

Hassan Fathy developed his own ideas, inculcating traditional Arab styles like the malkhaf (wind catcher), the shukshaykha (lantern dome) and the mashrabeya (wooden lattice screens). He designed complete communities including utilities and services, country retreats, and special projects and homes. Hassan Fathy had already worked for decades in his beloved Egypt before he designed and built for the homeless community of Gourna, Upper Egypt, which attracted international acclaim.

The old Gourna village was situated near archeological Pharaonic sites on the western shore of Upper Egypt. The Department of Antiquities commissioned Hassan Fathy to meet the challenge of providing a home for a poor community of 7,000 people. His solution differed drastically, not requiring the machinations of the established building industry of concrete and steel. For New Gourna he utilized natural resources using mud-brick, a signature of adobe architecture, and features of Egyptian architecture such as enclosed courtyards and domed vaulted roofing. He worked with the local people to develop the new village, training them to make the materials to construct their own buildings with. In this way, he was able to provide an environment specific to the inhabitants’ needs and revive decorative techniques that were quickly disappearing with the expansion of the Global Village.

While many may suffer from the amplified ultraviolet rays that hit our concrete structures and rebound onto us in hot weather conditions, Hassan Fathy’s contribution reminds us of the need for the climatically conducive, cost-effective, cooling promises of certain traditions that would force modern city planning to think more wisely about future development, and is eaiser on the family budget.

His work took him to many countries, especially since the publication of the 1973 English edition of the book Architecture for the Poor. In Athens he joined international planners, looked at the concept of cities for the future in Africa, and focused on natural energy solutions in major community projects for Iraq and Pakistan. He participated in the United Nations Habitat conference in 1976, served on the steering committee for the Award for Architecture and founded the Institute for Appropriate Technology.

For this level of dedication, Hassan Fathy received the Right Livelihood Award for saving and adapting traditional knowledge for adaptation to the needs of the poor. Known as the “Alternative Noble Prize,” it was established in 1980, the same year that Hassan Fathy was given an award that “embodies the principle that each person should follow an honest occupation which fully respects other people and the natural world. It means being responsible for the consequences of our actions, and taking only a fair share of the earth’s resources”.

Ambitious goals to be applauded, the principles of Right Livelihood are ones that are intrinsic to Islam, principles that, with commitment, create a pathway towards instilling balance within the societies in which we live.

Hassan Fathy died in 1989, but his legacy lives on in his disciples with ideas of their own. Muhammed El-Sharkawy and fellow young architects spent 1969-1972 under Fathy’s tutorship, researching the region for the viability of the Luxor Cultural Center in Upper Egypt.

    “We spent five months studying the region, going from village to village to understand what would be appropriate for the locals and tourists in order to conceptualize and then draw up the project.”

Now his focus has been the extended family which, despite its importance in Egyptian society, has an aspect that is rarely considered in building design. The materials used in modern building obstruct the flow of air, making air-conditioning essential. Sharkawy does not use Nubian vaults and domes, which would be difficult to employ in highly , populated Cairo but he worked on a design in the less populated 6th October City on the outskirts of Cairo. There, he re-introduced the internal courtyard on the first two floors. The stairwell serves as a ventilation shaft with a malkhaf (wind catcher) at the top.

Soheir Fraid and Ramy El-Dehan met under the tutelage of Hassan Fathy. More faithful to the principles of Hassan Fathy, their partnership in business as well as marriage has attracted much admiration in the tourist industry. They began the construction of Quseir Movenpick resort in 1987 and completed it in 1994. Their aim is not to challenge, impose on, or obstruct the local topography, nor to upset the social fabric of the region. Built on a peninsula:

    “We did not dig or fill the site, but we began by making a topographical map and study of the site. Every room is at a different level, depending on the curvature of the land,” said Soheir Farid.

The domes and vaults add a sense of mystery to the place, providing a natural means of ventilation.

American architect Michael Graves was impressed by Farid and El-Dehan’s self-assured and beautifully accomplished application of Fathy’s techniques in the vaults and domes of the staff dormitories in El-Gourna, southeast of Cairo. He was so impressed that he managed to convince Egyptian construction magnate Samih Sariwis to forget about concrete and steel for the five-star Miramar Hotel. Commissioned by Sariwas for this purpose, Graves built the Miramar entirely of brick, covered with concrete and gypsum and accessorized with domes and vaults. Ramy El-Dehan felt that Fathy would have been pleased because he also built for the rich, in the knowledge that the poor like to emulate the rich, and in this manner the taste for vernacular architecture would find its way back to the source. How fortunate it is that there are those who choose not to live any other way other than this because they feel claustrophobic within concrete walls. In this way, we can be reminded.

In his book An Architect for the People, American architect James Steele wrote of Fathy:

    “…rather than believing that people could be behaviorally conditioned by architectural space, Fathy felt that human beings, nature, and architecture should reflect the personal habits and traditions of a community rather than reforming or eradicating them. While he was certainly not opposed to innovation, he felt that technology should be subservient to social values, and appropriate to popular needs”.

If we think about it long enough, we might find that it is not us controlling our own personal spaces at all, but we are accepting those spaces with all their demands. If we were to adapt them according to our psychological, spiritual, physical, and economic needs, we might begin to experience a little of what Hassan Fathy set out to achieve.

This was orginally written in 2004…


Associated Press. “Legacy of Egyptian Architect, Seen in Graves Hotel.” 08/24/00.

A.U.C. “Hassan Fathy – An Outline of his Life”. 2. 06/16/04. “African Art and Architecture: Hassan Fathy- The Silent Dialog Between Tradition and Modernity.” 3. “Village of New Gourna”. 2.

Right Livelihood. “The Right Livelihood Award.” 06/16/04.

Saddiqui, Yasmeen. M. “Through a Master’s Pupils: Four Projects by Disciples of Hassan Fathy.” Medina.15 (2000) 38 – 46. Egypt.

Fathy, Hassan. “Architecture and Environment”. Arid Land Newsletter. 36(1994). 4. 02/06/02. “The Virtues of the Dome”. 1. 04/27/01. Sacred Geometry

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To the Person with the Worst Job in the World

To the Person with the Worst Job in the World

By Hwaa Irfan

To be placed in the position of hero, savior, the only world leader capable of changing anything, all on a promise of the “Change we need”, is not an enviable position to be in not at least in my book. To top it, to be the president of America is like being the fall guy for the men who really run the U.S. Then because your hands are tied right in front of your very eyes, the people you swore to defend and protect, i.e. the voters are not really having a very pleasant time under the “new” Administration, especially if you are under a certain income bracket. This is no way to keep voters, and is the surest way for the bank rollers to buy time, and then to get rid of their fall guy who “seemingly” came into power in the middle of a crumbling America.

Under such conditions, the people to be feared are not the people at the top, but the people at the bottom – the disenfranchised.

Be afraid from the curse of the oppressed as there is no screen between his invocation and Allah” (Al-Bukhari 3: 43 #628)

The untold expense in bank-rolling Israel, the WOT in Iraq and Afghanistan, when in one’s own country:

• One in four California students lives in poverty, compared to one in six before the recession began.

• Students’ health, psychological and social service needs have increased with the recession.

• An epidemic of hunger grips many counties – a lot of students don’t eat at all when they go home.

• Homelessness among students is growing.

This is according to UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access (IDEA) and the University of California All Campus Consortium on Research for Diversity (ACCORD).

A California-wide database reports:

• 18.5 children aged 0 to 17 lived in families that struggled to put food on the table a majority of whom were non-Caucasian.

Well this is just California one might say, but if that is California, then what state is New York, the most expensive state in the U.S.

In Flint, Michigan where there was once 80,000 jobs with General Motors, there are now 7,500 jobs, growing unemployment, crime, sexual violence, human and drug trafficking, prostitution all to the extent the children are afraid to walk to the schools that offer nothing but failure.

As a result of the recession, the study “The Family Violence Prevention Fund” shows that:

• One-in-three teenagers reportbeing the victim of verbal, physical or sexual abuse.


Children are the ones who suffer the most being at the receiving end of whatever calamity are being faced by adults. If everyone could wake up to the economic crisis has a sign to change, rather that hold onto, the situation might not look so gloomy, and the innocent could at least for a little while longer remain innocent. However, since 2007, in Canada and the U.S., there has been a sharp increase in head trauma being experienced by children. Hospitals faced a sudden rise in shaken baby syndrome, which resulted in death of babies in 2008.

Child abuse is likely to increase if there are situations like withdrawal of domestic abuse services. Maria Chavez told reporter Inga Buchbinder:

    “We turned away 624 families from our emergency shelter and we turned away 771 families from transitional housing” in 2009, Chavez said.“This is not because of funding cuts, but [with a] normal operating budget”.

A representative from the Domestic Violence Consortium said to New America Media:

    “The recession stops all the options because people are afraid to leave their jobs, afraid to go into shelters, afraid to lose their housing,”“It cuts down all the options for survivors, so sometimes they stay in very dangerous situations because they’re afraid of immigration issues.”

Maria Chavez, director of the Riley Center, which provides support groups, a crisis hotline, and emergency shelter to battered women, said a cut to funding would mean the Riley Center would have to turn away more women and families than it did last year.

The 2009 U.S. Child Being Index which declares that it has no political or other interest, play down their findings it would seem by making comparisons with their findings in the 1970s, which is unhelpful to any fiscal policy that would be so inclined to consider the needs of the population.

Smoking, drinking, drug abuse, obesity, and violent crimes has gone up significantly amongst youth. This alone are clear indicators that there is something seriously wrong on the familial level whether the members fall within the low income bracket or not.

The Index admits deterioration in health, social relations, and social/spiritual well being, which are clear indicators in the disintegration in the social fabric.

Cutbacks in tax revenue and social programs, means not just an “impact” on families, but the increased inability of low income families to support themselves. This in turn lays the ground for increased social instability, due to increase of personal insecurity which in turn feeds instances of emotional, psychological and physical abuse of members, which have reportedly increased significantly since the economic crisis though not mentioned in the Index. It is irresponsible to say that the positive side is that young people will be forced to stay in college longer because of the lack of job opportunity, when it costs to stay in college, who will pay the bill when families cannot? The reality id for Class of 2009, 1/5th of all graduates had found a job at the time of graduation, as compared to 50% from the Class of 2007.

It is not adequate to give an end date as to when it is “assumed” or in research parlance “ projected” as to when the unemployment crisis will peak. In the mean time, many families will and have been ending up without a home, at a time when the social safety nets have also been cut.

It is not adequate to reinforce stereotypes of certain members of the community, because they have a history of low income without objective supporting evidence. If they have a history of low income, then they will also have a problem with their youth staying in school, let alone college, and as we know there are many ways to make money illegally when money is the only solution to a depressing and potentially pathological situation. The Index only redeems itself in as much as it states:

    “Virtually all the progress made in family economic well-being since 1975 will be wiped out.” Young children and children from disadvantaged families will be particularly hard-hit. However, with continued investment in early childhood education and support for families, many of the negative impacts can be mitigated…”

However as we know, the only real investment taking place is on the level of Wall Street, and the military. The

• $708,853,235,820 that is spent on occupation of Iraq

• $2.70 billion to Israel (double the U.N’s entire budget)

• $636.3-billion to Afghanistan

All the above and more could be better invested in the low income families of America, in terms of education, health and vocational re-training. In fact these problems were self evident before the denied recession.

All policymakers, and politicians should spend 6 months, no a year as a member of a low income family with no external help, before they contemplate how these families should be left to survive. Shouldn’t one get one’s house in order before telling the rest of the world what to do?

American Academy of Pediatrics (2010, May 7). “Children’s Well-Being Another Casualty of Recession: Researchers See Marked Increase in Abusive Head Trauma Cases During Economic Downturn”.

Axelrod, J. “In Flint, Unsafe Streets, Failing Schools”

Buchbinder, I. “Groups Rally to Save Domestic Violence Services”

Couric, K. “Tough Job Market For College Grads”;contentBody
Zuehlke, E. “How is the Economic Recession Affecting U.S. Children Population Reference Bureau.

Sharp, J. “U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel” Congressional Research Service.

Sundaram, V. “California’s Kids Fall Deeper into Poverty, Homelessness”.

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