Unfired earth is the most common building material in the world: nearby 1/3 and maybe even half of the world’s population lives in buildings made of unfired clay. This kind of structure is widespread in many countries in the world. In the Middle East, all the traditional architecture is made of adobe or cob. For many years earth architecture has held a minor role. It was often linked to inadequate housing and self-building phenomena, and as such, it wasn’t considered worth being studied in depth.
It was in the middle of the 20th century that Islamic countries in Asia and Africa became independent from European colonial rule. Most of them had fallen into poverty as a result of the thoroughgoing exploitation by great European powers. The search for materials at a low environmental impact due to the energetic crisis of the 1970s caused the re-approach of the world of architecture to unfired earth. As architecture cannot develop without economic stability, those Islamic countries had to start with the war against poverty, while European and American developed countries were to reach the full maturity of ‘modern architecture’. Moreover, since they had few facilities for the training of architects in the colonial era, there was hardly architectural evolution worthy to see.
An indispensable architect in the history of modern Islamic architecture is the Egyptian Hassan Fathy (1900 -89). The Egyptian architect and engineer have been credited with bringing the vernacular architecture of Egypt to a broader audience, and for putting neglected traditional building systems to work for the poor. Fathy was a Muslim architect born in a developing country, devoting his life to the improvement of the built environment in developing countries and the materialization of modern architecture there.
Fathy studied architecture at King Fuad I University (now Cairo University), graduating in 1926 at the height of the European Art Deco and modernist movements, which had their effect on his earliest work. His influence on the ‘Third World’ was as high as that of Le Corbusier on the Western World.
Set in the context of the newly independent Egyptian nation, Fathy’s career encapsulates an anti-colonial stance through a rejection of modernism and the valorization of a culturally specific architecture, which tried to accommodate traditional modes of living while being affordable for the majority of the population.
His approach to building was based on the mud building techniques while incorporating arches and vaults to construct roofs without expensive formwork. Fathy combined this technique with elements from the vernacular urban architecture of Cairo. This vision of his led to the growth of sustainable architecture created along with the surroundings, using local resources and catering to the needs of its inhabitants. He took advantage of desert architecture in harmonious and climatically beneficial ways. By incorporating into his designs traditional vernacular devices and proven methods for cooling structures, by harnessing natural energy.
He re-introduced techniques such as windcatchers, cooling towers, the mushrabiya window screen, interior fountains and the ventilating attributes and air-conditioning principles of the courtyard environmentally into his designs of schools, houses and entire villages. Fathy also revived a lost method of roofing adobe buildings with domes and vaults crafted by hand out of sun-dried bricks smaller in size than wall adobe bricks.
All these elements offered solidity, beauty, cultural and spiritual harmony costing far less than conventional structures of concrete, corrugated steel and other industrial materials which require mechanical temperature controls.
The Egyptian architect was intellectually stimulated by the art of the pharaonic period and was directly influenced by vernacular architecture. He studied the buildings of the old city of Cairo and Nubia to create a national architectural language based on the employment of traditional elements and building techniques
His work took him to many countries, especially since the publication of the 1973 English edition of the book Architecture for the Poor. Fathy went on to international fame as the Architect of the Poor, lecturing and consulting with the United Nations and the Aga Khan Foundation which awarded him a specially-created Chairman’s Award for his lifetime achievements in architecture in 1980. 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.
While other architects were seeking fame and fortune, Hassan Fathy saw the genius of incorporating traditional design and building materials. He wrote, “here, for years, for centuries, the peasant had been wisely and quietly exploiting the obvious building material, while we, with our modern school-learned ideas, never dreamed of using such a ludicrous substance as mud for so serious a creation as a house.”
- The theater at New Gourna, 1946
- Abd al-Ladi House at New Gourna
- The Souk and residential buildings at New Bariz, 1967