Hassan Fathy's career was notable not only for his commitment to the poor, I but also for the imaginative, environmentally and culturally sensitive houses he built for wealthy clients. So he would perhaps find it unsurprising that adobe should be taken up in Saudi Arabia by Prince Sultan ibn Salman ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud, honorary chairman of the Saudi 'Umran Society, a group of architects in the kingdom.
In using adobe to rebuild a farmhouse estate called al-'Udhaibat on the northwestern outskirts of Riyadh, Prince Sultan has constructed more than a residence: Al-'Udhaibat is a proposition in a cultural dialogue exploring both the role of vernacular style in contemporary architecture and the viability of adobe as a material suited to the needs of modern living—a dialogue with which Fathy would have found himself entirely in sympathy. "Al-'Udhaibat should be thought of not as a final destination," says Prince Sultan, but rather as "a practical guide for the next generation of Saudi builders."
By staying true to traditional materials and yet adapting and updating them—much as Fathy did—al-'Udhaibat demonstrates that tradition and modernity can be integrated gracefully. In this sense, the house is a bit like Prince Sultan himself, now in his mid-40's. As a grandson of 'Abd al-'Aziz, the first king of Saudi Arabia, he is rooted in the soil of central Arabia's Najd region, and in the history of the Al Sa'ud, the family that has ruled the region from its capital near al-'Udhaibat since the 18th century. (See Aramco World, January/February 1999). Yet Prince Sultan is also an accomplished F-16 fighter pilot—he still keeps his ratings current —and in 1985, he was part of the seven-member crew of the US space shuttle Discovery, becoming both the first Arab and the first Muslim astronaut. (See Aramco World, January/February 1986.)
"Tradition must be thought of as dynamic," he says. "It is the accumulation of past experiences, social beliefs and technology, and no society can develop without understanding it." However, he adds, "our present generation in Saudi Arabia lacks a fixed point of reference in its own heritage."
Not long ago I was describing al-'Udhaibat to a young man accustomed to the desert conditions of the Arabian Peninsula. I explained that the house had electricity and plumbing but that, so that it could be put through it paces as a naturally ventilated house, it did not have air-conditioning. "Ah," came the predictable reply, "then it cannot be a modern house!"
Embedded in his response is an assumption, widely prevalent throughout the arid regions of the developing world, that by definition a modern house is sealed off from the outside and dependent upon mechanical means to regulate interior temperatures. This idea originated largely in Europe and the Americas, where cooling needs are far less than in desert regions, and while it may have appropriate applications there, it is fundamentally at odds with the historic tradition of vernacular building from Morocco to Central Asia.
At al-'Udhaibat, says Prince Sultan, "we have aimed to build a bridge across a divide, a period of time during which our native architecture fell into complete disuse. That time of neglect, from the 1950's to the 1980's, was also the period of greatest economic growth in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and it was as a direct result of that unprecedented boom that modern building methods were introduced in our towns and cities. During the boom we rushed, without pausing for careful study, to adopt the prevailing international schools of architecture, with their differing directions and conflicting ideologies, and attempted to impose their thinking on our society."
Al-'Udhaibat demonstrates that if you reduce your expectations of comfort a little, well-planned, passively (non-mechanically) cooled house can suffice. Indeed its exterior requires periodic maintenance more frequently than a house made of concrete or structural clay tile, but the methods are simple, inexpensive, and require less attention that many people in northern climes give to the maintenance of lawns and gardens. For Prince Sultan, the decision to build such a house seemed to go against the grain of a society that had come to look derisively upon the material cultural of its pre-industrial era. But the reward is apparent at once, because for eight months of the year, al-'Udhaibat's natural ventilation and thermal inertia—by which thick walls absorb sunlight during the day, keeping the house cool, and radiate that heat at night, keeping it warm—provide perfectly satisfactory living conditions. The added boon is one that David Pearson, author of The Natural House Book (Fireside, 1989) describes as "spaces where heat, humidity, air flows, color, scent, sound, materials and green plants combine to create a 'living climate.'"
Al-'Udhaibat easily charms visitors with its gentle interplays among mass, textures, colors, light and shadow along with breezes and temperature. Like all traditional Najdi houses, it has smooth exterior walls of undecorated adobe plaster that belie a colorful interior. Plank doors and shutters are painted using traditional pattern designs (see Aramco World, January/February 1999); intricate frescoes in carved gypsum plaster (juss) decorate walls and bright, handcrafted cushions and rugs furnish the courtyard and interiors with patterns based on deep reds that complement the ochre plaster walls.
At the entrance, the division between the public and the private realm is firm, which is traditional in Najd. A massive, intricately decorated door swings open toward the blank wall of the reception foyer, in the traditional "bent entrance" that obstructs views into the interior. The long, high-ceilinged main men's reception room, the diwaniyyah, is adjacent to this entrance, and can be entered without viewing the family quarters. It has the highest ceiling of all the seven rooms in the single-story house, and a row of white columns marches down its center.
Inside, all rooms open off the eight-by-nine-meter (25x29') courtyard, whose three-meter (10') deep claustra shade it on three sides, and whose main feature is a central green area presided over by a grapefruit tree. The courtyard provides privacy and what Fathy referred to as the homeowner's "own piece of sky."
The story of the al-'Udhaibat project began in 1986 when Prince Sultan acquired what was then a half-collapsed mud-brick farmhouse on the 50-hectare (124-acre) estate. It was one of a cluster of centuries-old farms in Wadi Hanifah that had been owned by Prince Sultan's uncle, the late King Faisal, from 1928 until his death in 1975. Located some 15 kilometers (9 mi) from al-Turaif, the settlement from which the Al Sa'ud began its rule in 1824, al-'Udhaibat had been uninhabited for a decade. The date plantation on the southern part had been abandoned, and in the larger northern part, building contractors had freely excavated valuable soil and used the remainder as a materials dump.
While setting his mind to restoring the house, Prince Sultan realized that the project would only be meaningful if the palm groves, the old well and the rest of the land were restored, too. This reclamation, now largely complete, has added to the house not only aesthetically but also thermally: The palms filter wind-borne dust and cool the sand-heated breezes by up to eight degrees Centigrade (14°F.).
Although the first plan for the house was to build up the crumbling adobe walls, it turned out that adobe masonry had become so uncommon—in a region where a generation ago it was universal—that no builder remained who could handle the task. It was at this point that the legacy of Hassan Fathy began to influence al-'Udhaibat.
Architect Abdel Wahed El-Wakil, Fathy's leading protégé who had designed more than a dozen mosques and houses in the kingdom, was a friend and mentor to Prince Sultan. He encouraged the prince to seek a way to restore or rebuild using traditional principles, and introduced him to the writings and work of Hassan Fathy. It was El-Wakil, too, who pointed out to Prince Sultan that, in 1975 and under the patronage of King Faisal, Fathy had actually constructed a prototype house, now destroyed, for a village that was never built almost within sight of al-'Udhaibat. With El-Wakil's advice, Prince Sultan went on to enlist the talents of Saleh Lamei, an Egyptian conservation architect and Aga Khan Award winner whose career had also been deeply influenced by Fathy.
The attempt to restore the house that followed exposed the problems that attend all restorations of adobe buildings: How much of the original material can be kept when it is known to degrade structurally if left unmaintained, and when termites have been permitted to do their worst with the mud-reinforcing straw and the structural ceiling and roof timbers?
The building quickly gave its own answer. Half-way through restoration, when the walls and most of the new roof was in place, the wall of the highest room, the diwaniyyah, collapsed. Work halted immediately. It was then the Prince Sultan decided to rebuild rather than restore. Although the siting and the basic floor plan of the original house would be maintained, this key decision allowed a 75-percent increase in wall thickness, from 45 to 75 centimeters (17.5" to 29"). This made the building more thermally efficient and gave it the overall feeling of solidity that is one of its attractive qualities today.
Under Lamei, the project began to take on a scientific aspect as he subjected the various traditional mud mixes of clay, silt and straw to chemical and mechanical analyses. One of the last traditional Najdi master-builders, Abdullah bin Hamid, was hired 'to lead construction, and an internationally experienced Turkish engineer was made project manager. Together they tried various proportions of materials and methods of mixing them, and they varied the "fermentation" period—the length of time the mud mix stands before being formed into bricks. To their surprise, they found that of all the variables, fermentation was most significant: While local builders traditionally allowed the mix to sit for a day, they found that three weeks' standing resulted in a noticeably harder mud brick, one that had more than double the compression-strength of the best of the old adobe bricks on the site. The team also tested carefully the beams and rafters, made of unmilled athl, or tamarisk wood (Tamarix aphylla), the most common tree of the Najdi oases after the date palm. The stoutest trunks, they found, could safely span up to five meters (16').
Although the accent at al-'Udhaibat is on using traditional materials where they can be shown to do the job, improvements were made. For example, to fend off termites—often the nemesis of older Najdi buildings—both the straw in the mud mix and the roof rafters were treated chemically. Yet in making such changes Prince Sultan insisted that they not alter the fundamental link with tradition. "No solutions were allowed beyond what the original building materials permit, and nothing structural is hidden from view which does not accord with the basic principles of this type of building," he says.
As with materials, so with aerodynamics: As centuries of desert-dwellers have known, courtyard houses have good natural ventilation properties so long as they are carefully proportioned. The courtyard acts a sink for the cold night air, distributing it into the rooms in the early morning. As the sun strikes the floor, the courtyard acts as a chimney for the rising hot air, which pulls cooler air through the rooms from the surrounding palm groves. Prince Sultan decided that if his courtyard house was to be properly tested, air-conditioning should be avoided, even though in the Najdi summer, where temperatures frequently top 50 degrees Centigrade (122°F), putting one's head outdoors can feel akin to opening an oven.
Two years on, the reality of that summer heat has led to the introduction of two modest, portable air-cooling units during the hottest days. These compensate for the one drawback of the high-thermal-mass mud house: The thick walls, while protecting the interiors from the heat by day, do so by absorbing heat, and in practice they have remained uncomfortably hot during the night. This has been true for centuries in Najd, where people frequently slept on the roof during the summer, but this is one area where tradition and the needs of modern living no longer easily meet.
One aspect of the house that has far exceeded expectations, however, is the coating of straw and mud that overlies the. structural bricks. Late winter in Najd is notorious for hail and torrential rains, and the thick mud roof has thrown off storm water flawlessly. One especially dramatic downpour in 1996 wrought havoc with many concrete buildings throughout Riyadh, yet the house at al-'Udhaibat was virtually unscathed.
It is perhaps ironic that Fathy's housing-project prototype, built so close to al-'Udhaibat, was unknown to Prince Sultan until the philosophical direction of al-'Udhaibat was set. Thus, though it would be wrong to claim for al-'Udhaibat a direct lineage from Fathy, there is a no less meaningful lineage of the mind. Through his students El-Wakil and Lamei, Fathy has deeply influenced al-'Udhaibat and all it represents. The concerns for the preservation of traditional craft skills and the sustainability of a structure's relationship with its natural environment are among the enduring themes of Fathy's work.
Al-'Udhaibat is continually monitored for thermal properties, and adjustments and experiments are continuous. Prince Sultan and his family use the house privately with increasing frequency and, perhaps most significantly, it has become the Prince's preferred place for entertaining guests from Saudi Arabia and abroad, who almost invariably depart enchanted by the simple beauty of the house. With that experience comes a gentle but unforgettable challenge to dominant assumptions about architecture.
"When my six-year-old son asked me, 'Why are you doing all this?'" says Prince Sultan, "I replied, 'I'm doing it for you, and for a generation that needs its heritage to maintain its balance.'"
Al-'Udhaibat, built from the soil from which sprang modern Saudi Arabia, appears well on its way to a landmark role in Saudi culture.
William Facey is the author of Back to Earth: Adobe Building in Saudi Arabia (Al-Turath/St. Martin's Press, 1997, ISBN 1-900404-13-3) as well as four other books on the history of Saudi Arabia. He is a director of the London Centre of Arab Studies.