Hassan Fathy: The Barefoot Architect

By Hwaa Irfan


Hassan Fathy

With increasingly hot summers occurring around the world and concrete buildings not proving their endurance in unstable conditions, I am reminded of a time when 50°C (122°F) was an experience far less threatening, when fewer straight lines, corners and squares defined the nature of the buildings we lived and worked in. With low buildings and open spaces, it was not the clock that defined the day, but the Adhan that beckoned from the wind. Life was almost a prayer with each part of the day giving 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 and clean and serene. As traditions weakened to external competition, the art of living has only remained in the homes of those who choose to hold on to traditional designs that allowed for inner rest, heartfelt sharing, and a common bonding. An outsider might consider the occupants to be simple people if he were not in harmony with a level of communication demanding fewer words and more thought.

New Gourna, Upper Egypt

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. 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 architects 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.

Hassan Fathy’s architecture in Ouagadougou, West-Africa

“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 (Kmtspace p.1), 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:

Belief in the primacy of human values in architecture

Importance of a universal rather than a limited approach

Use of appropriate technology

Need for socially oriented, cooperative construction techniques

The essential role of tradition

The re-establishment of national cultural pride through the act of building (Kmtspace p.2)

Hassan Fathy’s architecture: Dar al-Islam Village, Albuerquque, New Mexico

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) (Al-Ahram, p.1). 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 (Aucegypt p.1).

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.

Ablution area, Dar al-Islam Village

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 (Aucegypt p.1, 2).

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” (Right Livelihood p.1).

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 (Siddiqui p.40, 41).

Quseir Mövenpick Resort

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 (Siddiqui p. 40).

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.

Miramar Hotel, al-Gourna, Egypt

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” (Tresilian p. 1).

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.


Associated Press. “Legacy of Egyptian Architect, Seen in Graves Hotel.” 08/24/00. http://www.cnn.com/2000/STYLE/design/08/24/egypt.graves.ap/

A.U.C. “Hassan Fathy – An Outline of his Life”. 2. 06/16/04. http://www.aucegypt.edu/hassanfathy/Outline/outline.html

Kmtspace.com. “African Art and Architecture: Hassan Fathy- The Silent Dialog Between Tradition and Modernity.” 3. http://www.kmtspace.com/fathy.htm

Grove.ufl.edu. “Village of New Gourna”. 2. http://grove.ufl.edu/~jrosier/gurna.html

Right Livelihood. “The Right Livelihood Award.” 06/16/04. http://www.rightlivelihood.se.

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. Arizona.edu. 02/06/02.http://ag.arizona.edu/OALS/ALN/aln36/Fathy.html

Integraton.com. “The Virtues of the Dome”. 1. 04/27/01. Sacred Geometry http://www.integraton.com/5SacredGeometry/SacredGeometry.html

* Hwaa Irfan is a councilor and is specialized in alternative medicine.