Hassan Fathy is one of Egypt’s most well-known and revered architects. He was far ahead of the thinking of the times and was widely known for his ideas. He is one of the few architects who gained his fame not through flashy and complicated structures but through simple, cost-effective designs for the people. Most of his fellow architects did not share his notions and preferred more modern methods. Fathy was most interested in improving the standard of living of the less fortunate. He used traditional mud and brick to build housing units in contrast to modern concrete and steel. Not only is this much more cost-effective but it also highlights one of his main ideas that people in the past knew how to build much better than the kind of destructive construction modern architects use. He was dedicated to creating housing units which were individualistic, sustainable, affordable, and a huge improvement for the lower class. Another significant factor in his work was creating designs that took Mother Nature and her wrath into consideration. For example, he created beautiful courtyards which provided passive cooling by focusing it around the north westerly winds. His ideas greatly contrasted most architects of the time but today his ideas are highly respected.
Childhood & Early Life
On March 23, 1900 this prolific architect was born in Alexandria, Egypt. His family was quite wealthy and as a child he loved painting and drawing.
In 1908, his family moved to Cairo. His childhood love for drawing followed him into young adulthood, and his talent allowed him to be accepted into ‘King Fuad University’ now known as the ‘Cairo University’, to study architecture.
In 1926, he graduated with a focus on engineering and architecture. The same year he landed his first significant job as an engineer in the ‘General Administration of Schools’.
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From 1930 to 1946, he worked as a professor at the ‘Faculty of Fine Arts’. During his early time as professor, he was enlisted to build a school at Talkha.
In 1946, Egypt’s Antiquities Department hired him to build the ‘New Gourna Village’. He used traditional brick and mud to build with and enlisted the villagers to build their future homes. He was extremely successful in creating buildings that were sustainable and affordable.
In 1949, he was appointed to be the ‘Director of the Educational Buildings Department’ of the ‘Ministry of Education’. His time here highlighted the differences between his architectural style and modernist trends.
He became the ‘Head of the Architecture Department’ at the ‘Faculty of Fine Arts’, in 1953. During this time, he completed multiple projects including the ‘Alexandria Resthouse’, the ‘Muhammad Musa Villa’, the ‘Harraniya Weaving Village’, and the ‘Fares School’.
In 1959, he temporarily left Egypt and worked for the ‘Doxiadis Organization’ in Greece. He worked on major projects in Iraq and Pakistan advocating his traditional designs which were much more congruent with nature.
In 1963, he returned to Egypt and began his work involving public speaking and public consulting. His main mission was to promote his ideas involving architecture in contrast to the expensive modern approach.
In 1969, he published the book ‘Architecture for the Poor’ describing his experiences with the building of the village of New Gourna. He highlighted his contrasting architectural view and demonstrated the effectiveness of building with mud bricks rather than modern concrete and steel.
In 1976, he participated in the U.N. Habitat conference in Vancouver, Canada. This led to his serving on the committee for the ‘Aga Khan Award for Architecture’ and holding several government positions in Cairo until he passed away.
In the late 1930s, he completed his first project design, the village of new Gourna. The village was built to resettle the tomb robbers that had settled in the ‘Valley of the Kings’ and ‘Valley of the Queens’.
His visions were rattled with economic issues, but his design earned him international acclaim as he appeared in British professional journals, a British weekly, and praised by Spanish, French, and Dutch professionals as well. This opened up doors for him and launched his career forward.
Awards & Achievements
In 1980, the ‘International Balzan Prize’ foundation awarded him with the ‘Balzan Prize’ for his outstanding achievements in the field of architecture. This prize is generally awarded for innovative ideas which promote humanities, the natural sciences, and peace endeavors.
In 1980, the honor of the ‘Right Livelihood Award’, commonly known as an alternative Nobel Prize, was bestowed upon Fathy. This international award is given to support those who appear to have answers to the challenges of the time. He was the first to receive this award, which continues to honor today’s bright minds.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married his loving spouse Aziza Hassanein. Though the couple did not have any children of their own, his nephews and nieces were sure to preserve the legacy of their uncle.
Fathy’s most significant contribution to architecture was his concerns with the problems of the poor in contrast to modern architects. Modern architecture called for mass housing and the use of expensive material compared to his love for the more traditional and economical mud. His ideas may not have coincided with the times, but today they are greatly respected.
This great humanitarian passed away at 89 years old on November 30, 1989. He died peacefully in his home.