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Volume 50, Number 4July/August 1999

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Building for the 800 Million

An Interview

Written by John Feeney
Photographed by F. R. Gouverneur

Aramco World writer and photographer John Feeney interviewed Hassan Fathy at the architect's Cairo home, Bayt al-Fann ("House of Art"), in February 1981. Fathy was 80 years old.

Aramco World (AW): Can you mention the recent awards you have received?

Hassan Fathy (HF): First was this award of the Right Livelihood Foundation, where the people are willing to come back to the human scale and the human rhythm of life; their ideas seem to correspond with my ideas about architecture. The other is the Aga Khan Award for Islamic Architecture. The third is the Balzan Prize. These three awards all came at almost the same time.

AW: Does this mean that you are more influential in the architectural world now?

HF: I hope so, because when we talk about architecture we have to think about two sides of the problem: the architect and the client. And the client I am interested in is represented by the statistic used some 20 years ago by the United Nations, which reported that there were 800 million among the people of the Third World doomed to die prematurely because of the bad conditions of their housing. This is the client the architect ought to serve, but architects are not interested in these poor. It's like the barefoot doctors in China: They need barefoot architects too.

To my mind, the less expensive the house, the more art you have to put into it. You cannot oversimplify and design one house for a million people and then, simply by putting three zeros or six zeros after it, turn it into a million houses. The house has to be built for its owner. When an architect builds for a rich man, he does all he can do to satisfy the specific or special requirements of his client, but when we architects deal with large numbers we don't care. We design one house and put three zeros beside and it becomes a thousand. If you say we have too many houses to build to be able to deal with them each individually, well, you have to anyway. If you cannot, if they surpass your capacity to design, then you are in the wrong profession. It's as though a doctor were to operate on a thousand people in two hours: He'd kill them all.

To my mind, the way to evaluate any project lies in asking the question, "Is it for man, or is it for something else?" If it is for man, we can discuss it; we have this psycho-bio-physiological man, and we can see the project's impact on him. But if it is for anything else, if it is for politics or economics, then you can do what you like, but don't talk about man, because then we have discarded man.

AW: Would you like to talk a little bit about design concepts in Islamic Cairothe narrow streets and the courtyards?

HF: What we can call Islamic architecture usually refers to architecture of the hot, dry regions. People who live where the environment is very hostile—heat and glare and sandstorms—have to turn their backs to the outside. So do their houses, which open onto the courtyard and are built on narrow streets.

If you take measurements of air temperature you can compare the two kinds of housing, the one with the courtyard and the other opening outward into the street. The courtyard house is much cooler and nicer. And if you calculate the area of the courtyards plus the area of the narrow, shady streets and compare it to the area of the large avenues that you have in "modern" design, you find that these designs are not modern, they are backward. You will find that many thousands of kilocalories are economized if you have the right solution, which [in this climate] is the meandering narrow streets with the larger areas given to the courtyards.

AW: Could you say a bit about your own house and what you look out onto?

HF: Here is a small bit of Cairo which has been left. I'm surrounded by five mosques and naturally, thanks be to God, they were not demolished like the rest. Here I am living in a skyscape, not a landscape. Because of the technique that's been invested in them and the delicacy of their structures, the minarets around you make you think, and the air makes you feel, that technology has been subjected 100 percent to artistic expression. Every detail has a meaning. They are not made haphazardly or just by the whim of one individual artist or architect: This architecture is a communal art. So I think it is a great privilege to live here, in this environment, and I thank God that I could find this part of the world to build in.

As far as internal architecture, I feel very comfortable not only from the physical point of view but from the psychological and aesthetic points of view as well. Because, you know, the eye doesn't see more than one point at a time, and it sends the experience to the brain one point after the other. And when you hear music, you hear one note after the other, and you send the experience to the brain and it is in your brain that you make the melody. So I continue by exposing the lines and experience of the image that I see, point after point, and sending it to the brain, and you make the image in your brain, like music. In the case of the image, this is done very quickly, and we think it is instantaneous, but no, it is one point after another—and then you have introduced rhythm. So when I am in this house and I see the lines, the intersection of the planes of the walls and the roof with the crown, the floor, the length and height and width of the room, and this and that, the eye goes harmoniously, harmonically.

AW: So architecture is akin to music?

HF: It is akin to music, it is frozen music. It is true especially if you apply what I've been telling you about the rhythm and harmonics, which you have in vision just as in hearing. If the lines go on harmoniously from one measurement to another, then it is like the wave lengths of a string making the fifth, the third, or the octave. So you have these harmonics in architecture as you do in music, only you have to transpose.

AW: Now that your influence and your thoughts are going around the world, are they being taken up by other architects and builders? Or by young architects, perhaps?

HF: The young architects are keen but they have no chance, because they have to have projects to work on and the projects are mostly carried out by governments, and my way is not recognized by governments. The government architects are heads of departments, are a generation of professionals and employees, bureaucrats. To make this system work you have to have it recognized by the governments, by universities.

AW: As a result of your many journeys to North America, for talks and conferences, have some of the architects or some of the organizations who've attended taken up the thought and the philosophy you espouse?

HF: Yes, in Abiquiu [New Mexico]. This experiment proved to be useful because the people were very responsive. The demonstration we carried out there, building a small mosque with vaults and domes, all in mud brick with no centering, interested everybody. But the engineer of the municipality said, "We cannot give you permission because we don't know the calculations and this kind of structure is not known here." But thank the Lord, I had had this done earlier by our professor of structures, who calculated the stresses and forces of the vaults and domes in adobe. And we gave the municipal engineers a copy of these calculations, and they approved because they found out that it was secure. Because when soil mechanics tells you that the brick can take up to, say, 20 kilograms per square centimeter in compression, and the structural engineer calculating the vaults and domes tells you that it is actually subjected to one kilogram per square centimeter compression, then you have a very large safety factor, and the thing is secure and can last forever. The point is, to make this work we have to subject it to modern science, to the knowledge that we have from modern science.

AW: Could you give us some thoughts on the influence of buildings on the soul? You mentioned once how you can walk along the street and be influenced by the buildings that the eye encompasses.

HF: Usually man beautifies whatever he does with his own hands, so the product of his work has an aesthetic element. This is culture. But when we mechanize production, and construction, this reduces the human contribution, the participation of man in the building, and it also deprives the person who looks at the building of a source of culture—construction, invention and creation. Also, there is another thing, about encounters. There is a certain communication among all the members of a family that could not exist if the rooms of their house were put in a row, along a corridor, like in a hotel. This happens also with the city, the street and among people when you walk, when you come out of your house. In the past, your street was humanly designed and alive with people. There used to be children playing, they had a street culture, you would have puppet shows, or games. This has been eased out by the car, and streets have become boulevards. This has to be considered: the effect of the downtown plan on man, especially on children.

You can see this by examining a design of a street and watching the people going out to wherever they are going. The average adult can stand comfortably in a space of half a square meter. In a subway rush, however, he may be reduced to a quarter meter [square] or even less. Walking briskly at about five kilometers per hour, he needs three-quarters of a square meter, a reasonable and safe allowance on a crowded sidewalk. But in a car, he needs a road space of approximately 18 square meters just to stand still in a traffic jam. For driving at an average speed of 55 kilometers per hour, to move with reasonable safety, he would need approximately 55 square meters of roadway, and twice that much to feel relaxed as well as safe. Driving on a 100-kilometer-per-hour expressway he needs twice as much again, that is to say, 220 square meters. If we add up the areas of [modern, 55-kph] roads, and compare them to the area of [traditional walking] streets and squares, there is 75 times the space required!

Another thing is that you don't have encounters with the other people driving in your car. If you are in Venice or Cairo or Istanbul and you go to the market, you talk to the people who surround you. Now you have the supermarket. You come in your car, you have no time, you choose whatever you like, you put it in a shopping cart, you pay and go out. There are no encounters, no contacts. If you go to Khan el-Khalili and you don't bargain, the man won't sell to you, because bargaining is part of his life. After sitting all day waiting for clients, he offers you tea and coffee and talks to you, and he wants you to bargain. The simplification of contact leads to the isolation of man, more and more.

John Feeney, filmmaker, photographer and writer, has lived in Cairo for more than 30 years and has contributed extensively to Aramco World for most of that time.

This article appeared on pages 28-31 of the July/August 1999 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1999 images.