The first book on the philosophy and work of Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy

The first book on the philosophy and work of Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy

This first dedicated and cohesive book on Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy (1900-89) compiles an rich amount of diverse material on the modernist architect known for his work developing traditional Arab architecture alongside principles of modernism. The substantial volume combines previously unpublished drawings, personal letters, interviews and photography unfolding the story of his philosophy and work.

The book celebrates a growing global interest in Fathy’s work at a time when the history of architecture is being rebalanced as colonialism begins to be reassessed through a more critical lens. Opening remarks place Fathy alongside a cohort of other modernist architects working within their national contexts who have recently been given the prominence they deserve including Jose Plecnik in Slovenia, Pikionis and Constantin Doxiadid in Greece – who Fathy worked with from 1957-1961 – and Luis Barragan in Mexico.

Fathy was in search of a modernism that would reflect the local context of Egypt, and throughout his career his aim was always to create an architecture that could be a model for the people who needed it the most.

Hassan Fathy architecture in Egypt

New Baris public buildings with the museum in the foreground and the market vaults in the background, 2010. Photography: Viola Bertini

Written by Salma Samar Damluji, an architect and writer who worked directly with Fathy, and architect and scholar Viola Bertini who researched a PhD on Fathy at IUAV Venice, the book takes on a personal approach from the very first pages with a series of forewords that highlight memories of Fathy, quotes and set the local scene within which he worked.

The first part of the book follows Fathy’s research and participation within Egyptian culture, community and construction, alongside architecture, that all became integral to his design thinking: as a Sufi Muslim, he was aware of the history and practice of Islamic architecture; he was also a playwright, completing The story of al Mashrabiyyah (1942) and even designing costumes for it; he was a painter, designing architecture in watercolours; he was a journalist, interviewing community members about their experience of life.

‘If you want to design for the people, you have to go and understand their way of life,’ Fathy is quoted in the book.

American university in Cairo designed by Hassan Fathy

Axonometric view of a farm in Baqliya, gouache, 52 x 72 cm, 1940

Fathy’s lifelong interest was in housing and collective living for which he created multiple models and wrote extensively about. The New Gourna project (1943-7) defined a courtyard system that combined residential and public life, and set a precedent for future work including New Baris (1965), amongst other housing developments, master plans and community schemes in Egypt, Pakistan and Iraq.

Beyond design, he also studied construction, learning from history and the local vernacular to develop modern approaches to traditional Egyptian techniques including earth construction. The second part of the book explores this; publishing The Mud Brick Manual: Vault and Dome Construction written in 1984 by Fathy with Salma Samar Damluji, a text that sought to shine light into processes that could help building dwellings for large numbers of the poor in developing countries. The book also publishes an interview with master builder Alāʾ al Dīn Muṣṭafa who worked closely with Fathy on numerous projects.

Beyond a book, Hassan Fathy: Earth & Utopia is like an album or even a scrapbook, bringing together diverse source materials, it is a valuable document for learning about Fathy, the challenges he faced and his importance today in Egypt and globally. §

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