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Volume 50, Number 4July/August 1999

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Building on the Past

Written by William Facey
Photographed by Hamed Al-Abdeli
Additional photographs by Salih Al-Azzaz

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.

Tradition is Modernity’s Future
Written by Dick Doughty

An Interview with HRH Prince Sultan ibn Salman ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz

Prince Sultan ibn Salman ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz spoke with Aramco World assistant editor Dick Doughty on April 6, 1999 at al-'Udhaibat.

Aramco World (AW): / read in your book [Back to Earth] that building in mud brick is often regarded as "backward" in Saudi Arabia. Do people come right out and say that? How do you address this attitude when you run up against it?

Prince Sultan (P.S.): Oh yes, they do come right out and say it, especially the older people who have lived in mud houses. They keep telling me, "Look, we don't want to go back to living in mud houses." In fact, though, the mud houses they lived in were not built well enough: They were bad mud houses, and that experience stayed with the people. Also, you have to understand we're not promoting building with mud. We are promoting traditional architecture, which implies that we go out and improve local materials and make them adaptable to changing conditions and changing times.

AW: How did you come to this point? You're the royal patron of the national architects' society, but much of your career has been in aviation. You were an astronaut, and generally you have a reputation as a technophile. Now you are promoting mud-brick construction.

P.S.: This farm used to belong to King Faisal, and when I bought it, this house was already here. It was dilapidated, and I had never had the experience of living in a mud house—many in my generation have never had that experience. So I had all these ideas about tearing down this house and building a new one in place of it. I wanted it to be all glass, because the scenery is so beautiful here, and what could be more beautiful to look at than the palms and the wadi? Then I discussed this with Abdel Wahed [El-Wakil] and he said, "Let's take a trip." We visited the Alhambra in Granada, the towns of Sicily, and Venice, and as we traveled he explained many things to me, including why the best architects always framed the view: Because if you don't see it, you'll miss it, you'll start taking it for granted. He helped me understand what traditional architecture is all about—not design and form alone but the interactions and relationships between the building and the soul—not just your eye.

On those trips I realized that I found the most happiness in the old, preserved towns and villages of Europe, Spain and the Middle East. I began to ask, "Why do I feel good in this environment, and not as good in an artificial, 'modern' environment?" I realized through the reading—it was then that I began to read Hassan Fathy and many others, such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Ruskin—that it wasn't just because these buildings were old, but that they were built on a human scale and according to principles that made them comfortable and beautiful. This is why, when we visit a new town, one of the first things many of us do is put down in the old part of the town.

AW: That's often true for us Westerners, too. There is something that feels comfortable and attractive in those places, but a lot of us would have difficulty describing it.

P.S.: That's because that's a missing part of your life—and in Saudi Arabia, of our lives, too.

When we decided to rebuild this house, our philosophy was to do gap-bridging between the past and the present. We saw that mud architecture had stopped developing in Saudi Arabia. So we faced many questions, like "Should we add electricity? Should we have plumbing?" Sometimes we talked about not putting in lights, just putting in candles or something. And then I realized that if we did that, it would just be a retro thing, it would just make a museum. We decided to continue the evolutionary process. But even the bathrooms are made simply and inexpensively, using local stone and local modern fixtures, because we wanted everyone in Saudi Arabia to be able to duplicate this. I thought about importing some beautiful stuff from Mexico, from Morocco, or doing something in mosaic, but I stopped short because that would have made it difficult to imitate.

That is another aspect of this project: developing the local economy and saving our traditional crafts. The cushions you are sitting on were made by 40 families through a benevolent organization in northern Saudi Arabia, in al-Jawf. Imagine this on a national scale! Imagine if our crafts were brought up to a first-class level again. This requires interest and patronage: People have to regain respect for these crafts. You see many of them here in this house. So what we're doing is really bigger than just a building, bigger than just architecture.

AW: So which is more costly, a set of these handwoven floor-cushion covers or an upholstered couch from a Riyadh furniture dealer?

P.S.: No comparison—it would have to be the couch. But I'm not calling for people to go back and live the way they did in the past, or sit the way they did in the past. In fact, I'm calling for people to live the way they live today, and sit the way they sit today, but, in doing that, to aid the national economy, aid a lot of these skilled craft families, these organizations, pick up on our roots. So you see, my enthusiasm is not purely for architecture: It's enthusiasm for what architecture does to human beings and what architecture does to society.

AW: I've been told that you've begun to cut down on the number of visitors to this house recently because you and your family have been spending a lot more time here yourselves.

P.S.: Now that the book is out and people can learn about [the house] from that source, I want to make this more of a family place. My family loves it here. You know you have succeeded in traditional architecture when you go away and you miss being in the building—and that is what happens to us. The next step is to see if we can build something else, maybe a shopping mall or something that actually can be a modern public building, where technology plays an important part. And I want to do it with mud brick. I want to raise mud buildings to a different level, to bring back respect to mud buildings, because people who were much better than us, including our Prophet and many great men and women of our nation, all lived in mud buildings. They produced great wisdom in mud buildings.

AW: Who do you see picking up on these ideas?

P.S.: To talk about that, we have to move from talking about mud buildings to talking about traditional architecture in general. That term doesn't just mean "old"—it never meant "old." Traditional architecture always meant that fantastic wealth of knowledge that has accumulated over time, and which continues accumulating unless people stop dealing with it and interacting with it. (In that case the tradition goes stagnant.) What we want to do is to develop our tradition, to make it more modern than what is today called "modern architecture." Modern architecture, to me, doesn't mean abstract buildings, it doesn't mean crazy structures. It means human-scale buildings, buildings that are respectful of their environment, of energy consumption, respectful of maintenance issues—buildings that are accessible to the community.

In Saudi Arabia, I truly believe, we are at a turning point. The younger generations are beginning to look back and say, "We are proud of our traditions, and these traditions don't mean we are backward or primitive." Many friends have expressed that attitude when they visited here. They say to me, "We go all around the world trying to find beautiful things to bring to our country, and yet all this beauty is right here to begin with!"

In the immediate area of Riyadh, the Ar-Riyadh Development Authority has been busy—you see the National Museum and the surrounding area. In the past, we only wanted the buildings to look the way they used to look. Now we've passed on to something more: wanting buildings also to have the same meanings, the same effects, to embody the same principles and have the same feeling inside as the traditional buildings. To do this, for the past couple of years there have been people working to rewrite the national building code and the national town-planning code to respect traditional architecture and town planning.

AW: That was one of Hassan Fathy's great obstacles.

P.S.. Yes. but I want to talk about him later, because you asked me about examples. We're also working with the universities. You know we found little information at the schools and universities, especially at King Saud University, on traditional local architecture. There has been no course in traditional architecture there—not one! This was a shock, because a university that is not entrenched in its own local tradition cannot be a modern school of architecture. So we proposed to the university to make traditional architecture the umbrella for the study of everything else—the history of architecture, Roman, Greek, modern, New Modernism. Students would have to study it all, of course, but the umbrella, the context, would be the study of our traditional architecture, because that will serve our local community best in our own way in the future.

Last year there was a big conference in Riyadh, the first time that every professor and every dean of every school of architecture and construction in Saudi Arabia assembled under one roof. I spoke to them, and I stressed that we could really teach those students differently. I said that what we're doing now is graduating draftsmen, copyists. We need to go into our own architecture, dig deeper into it, be the ones to carry the flag, carry it forward, make it more modern, make it even more advanced. And then we gave a big dinner for the participants here in this house, in this room. I tell you, I've never seen those people happier. Seventy percent of them had doubted what I was saying—I had heard it from some of them plenty of times, that we were wasting our time talking about such things. But when they came here, it was as if they had been struck by lightning. And I said to them, "Which one of you can today point out to me a new house in Saudi Arabia that is more beautiful, more harmonious than this building?" And there was no one to argue about it.

AW: What has come of this since?

P.S.. Some of the colleges have begun to adopt some of the programs that were recommended at the conference. Basically, we proposed that the goal of every university should be producing an architecture that is unique to us, appropriate to us. Orient your program toward traditional architecture and that will open the door for you to be modern schools of architecture, to become fully modern.

Specifically, we proposed, one, that they extend research to local materials, developing them, making them cheaper, making buildings less maintenance-intensive and also paying attention to the effects of buildings on our society, the social effects of town planning in relation to crime, disease and so on. Then, second, the universities should also create a national database of traditional architecture. One day we will have that on the Internet. If you want to know why we have triangle-shaped vents in Najdi buildings or why you have something else in Jiddah, you will have available a complete, extensive encyclopedia of local, traditional architecture in Saudi Arabia. And this would aid not only us, it would aid internationally.

Then the third proposal is that the universities require at least three months of work on a construction site from each student before he could graduate. It's beyond me how you can send an architect out to torture the contractor and the worker when the architect has never been on a site, never actually worked on a site. Yet this is what happens now. And the site should not be just any building site, but a traditional building site, where the student can work with local craftsmen to learn not just the techniques, but also the ethics of these simple and humble people. I speak from experience, because I've spent a couple of years working on this house, and I have learned from the local builders, especially [al-'Udhaibat lead mason] Ibn Hamid, and the craftworkers, and thoroughly enjoyed their comments and dedication and their focus on their work, which I couldn't find anywhere else. I think kids just coming out of university and about to charge through the offices of some contractor should have had that same humbling experience. They would have respect not just for the workers but also for the materials they work with, respect for temperature changes, respect for some degree of aesthetics.

AW.: How realistic do you think these proposals are?

P.S.: I know they sound far-fetched, like dreams, but you can't say I'm a backward-looking person. I've been around technology all my life; I love it. I fly the most modern airplanes, I spend a lot of time on my computer. I read about new developments every day. I'm not a romantic person, and I'm not naive. But I do feel, and I really believe, that something has to happen to change the way people approach the future, otherwise we'll develop in a way that is uncontrollable. The word "futuristic" has always connoted things that are fantastic and incomprehensible, but to me "futuristic" implies a very deliberate, clear effort to improve life in the future. There has to be deeper thought given to the future as being shaped and guided by principles.

AW: You told me earlier that you wanted architects to become more aware of choices in their relationship to society. What are your thoughts about this? What is the difference between the architect's role in Saudi Arabia today and that role before this century?

P.S.: Well, a lot of Saudi architects—I won't say all of them—have become businessmen. As businessmen, they want you, the customer to be happy. So they are immersed, most of all, in what the building looks like. Often, in spite of the architect's good intentions, that building becomes, essentially, a failure, because the look has no connection with what the building should be doing in the first place. But an architect working traditionally is different. I worked with [Abdel Wahed] El-Wakil for four years on a house and I didn't ever exactly know what my house would look like when it was finished. I was frustrated with him for years, until I realized what he was trying to do: He was working from the inside out.

I'm not the most knowledgeable person in the world, but I have managed to read a few books with a critical eye, and I think sometimes that I understand the issues more clearly than an architect who has the load of his schooling, his many years of research, and all that kind of wealth, to defend. There's nothing wrong with a person being excellent, and his work being recognized as his, as the work of that individual—but there is a lot wrong with the work being directed toward promoting the individual himself.

This has never been our tradition. In the history of this country, individuals act to serve the community. People pray together in the mosque as a community; people open their houses and exhibit hospitality to the community, and so on. I told the people [at the conference] a story I found about a master builder in Makkah—it might be a bit exaggerated, but it is really a metaphor. Every day this respected man, this craftsman who was designing and building buildings, who had high rank in Makkah, would go to the mosque for each of the prayers, and he would pray in the back, although in Islam it is preferable to pray in the front, if you can. He would pray almost in the last row, and when he was finished, he would quickly run out of the mosque and go back to his home or back to his work, almost covering his face to avoid being recognized and praised. He wanted only the reward from God for work well done. The building wasn't his, in his mind, it was the community's. And when he built it he was careful not to be recognized for it, because he did it so well he wanted the community to enjoy it, for it to become the community's building. That attitude is what we have lost, and I don't think we'll ever get it back.

AW: Can you extend this thought to bring in Hassan Fathy?

P.S.. I'm going to criticize him first, asking why Hassan Fathy only became important on the national scale, in his own country, in Egypt, after his death. Hassan Fathy came to Dir'iyyah, you know, [in the early 1970's]. King Faisal brought him, he loved it and, according to El-Wakil, Hassan Fathy's wish was to build something in Dir'iyyah. But he came at the wrong time: He came when the concrete was flowing. King Faisal wanted him to do rural architecture, to build houses for all the people. And Fathy recommended using mud-brick architecture. That was discarded as being against the times, and people soon began to build with cement.

I think Hassan Fathy's biggest...not mistake, but his biggest disadvantage was that he started with the poor people, among the fellaheen, at the village in Gourna, and wanted to do more for the farmers and the country people. Now how many people do you know who decide to build a house and tell you, "I'm going to go out and find me a poor person so I can duplicate his house to build mine"? People don't do that. People usually follow the higher echelon, copying or imitating from the top down, not from the bottom up.

Yet Hassan Fathy's influence is lasting because his books and his work have such incredible depth. I have given away so many copies of his book [Architecture for the Poor]. It certainly influenced a paper I gave once called "Riyadh, the Human City." I explained why I think Riyadh could now—should now—become a human city, instead of just continuing to be a vibrant government center and an industrial city. So you live in the city, but then what? Can you really, mechanically, go to work every day at seven o'clock in the morning, drive your car back home at night, and go to bed? You can do that perhaps for six months, but when do you begin really enjoying life?

AW: Do you think these thoughts are relatively new within Saudi society?

P.S.: You know they are not new, but now they are being said and they are being heard. People have traveled, they've seen the world; we have a new generation that is beginning to wonder why modern Saudi Arabia is the way it is, and are saying, "Let's have a life, let's relax, let's have a city that is beautiful and that is good to live in." And therefore we have the National Museum effort, and the old Riyadh airport that is now going to become a park. Now Dir'iyyah will be restored to its original luster—though parts of it will be left destroyed, because that's part of our heritage too—and it will not be just a stagnant restored city, but one where you can find culture, museums, schools and institutions.

Hassan Fathy is a traditional architect. I keep telling people that traditional architecture is not old architecture. It is not retro. But the minute I stop saying it people revert to understanding traditional to mean "old." So I'm beginning to call it "human architecture" instead.

AW: If that is "human architecture," is all the rest "inhuman"? That seems problematic.

P.S.: Well, it is, because you can't really define what is not traditional or human. You'll never drag me to point out a few buildings and say, "That is not human architecture," because all architecture has human aspects, human values. But by "human" I mean an architecture that satisfies the human soul, that interacts with the human being, that reflects a human initiative. It doesn't have to be mud architecture. I am not defending mud architecture—I'm actually the first person to explore its faults systematically. That is why we are documenting this building in every way. We document its faults, in hopes that we can improve the materials.

When our population exploded [after World War II], the need for housing was very acute. With free land, free loans, it was a rush to live in a dignified way. Now we can reflect on that time. Every country has to go through its own experience. We're still growing fast—more than 60 percent of Riyadh's population is under 20 years old—and the need is staggering. I want to promote something sustainable, something that's modern in the full sense of our traditions, an architecture that looks to the future in a sane way. I think that's something that every human being in Saudi Arabia wants in their heart.

This article appeared on pages 32-45 of the July/August 1999 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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