Hassan Fathy, Building in the Desert in New Baris
With the New Baris project, Hassan Fathy experimented for a new community a project combining urban planning, social organization, natural passive cooling and vernacular architecture.
An architect against the current of his time
Hassan Fathy was an Egyptian architect (1900-1989) who very quickly freed himself from the neoclassical teaching that was the rule for architects of the time. As new modernist theories began to emerge, he moved away from them and focused on the architecture of Ancient Egypt. Very quickly his first projects showed a deep understanding of Egyptian vernacular architecture. He was confronted very early with rural poverty, a population for whom he began to build large constructions in an affordable and local medium, mud brick. All his life Hassan Fathy has wanted to use the architectural language of his country to rekindle the people’s faith in their culture. He drew from traditional construction techniques, reused traditional forms of simple rural dwellings or from his research, and used local materials such as mud. However, there is also a strong community and social dimension to Hassan Fathy’s projects. When he builds it is often for peasants, reproducing their traditions and rites at the risk of sometimes falling into a kind of paternalism. In short, he builds modest and basic constructions for traditional Arab communities.
Building a new community in the desert
20 years after the community experience of New Gourna, Hassan Fathy was mandated on a similar project in the middle of the desert. In 1963, a large water source was discovered 60 kilometers south of the Kharga Oasis. The Organization for Desert Development estimated that it has the capacity to continuously irrigate about 1000 acres of land. It then decided to set up a farming community to occupy this isolated land. The intention to accommodate several families, to build them a village at low cost, while wishing to federate the community logically guided the choice of the architect for Hassan Fathy. Contrary to the New Gourna project ,where the villagers already formed a community, the 250 families who were to live in New Baris had no ties and Hassan Fathy was not able to get to know them. Half of the inhabitants had to be farmers, while the other half had to be in personal service. Thus it is with little data that Hassan Fathy built a community in the middle of the desert, creating through architecture a link between the inhabitants, spaces forming the different parts of this micro-society.
A global natural cooling strategy
In 1963, Fathy began to study the available data: demographic, geographic and climatic surveys. He also studied the ruins of the Bagawat Necropolis, a mud brick construction dating back to the 4th century AD. The traditional village of Kharga allowed him to observe constructions capable of reducing the feeling of the 50 degrees temperatures. The orientation and size of the streets of this village, built according to the winds, was also a theme that Fathy took up in his natural ventilation system in New Baris. This new village, in addition to being located in the middle of the desert and subjected to very high temperatures, was intended to be an agricultural village. This added an extra parameter: storing crops where no artificial cooling system was possible.
Once again the solution used by Hassan Fathy is the use of clay. It is a very economical material, which allows a wide variety of uses. Moreover its thermal mass allows very important temperature differentials between the outside and the inside. First of all, the plan of the village is drawn along a north-south axis which allows to take advantage of the shadows of the buildings on the streets all day long. For the dwellings, a continuous ventilation system is set up, they are gathered around courtyards (Sahn/Hosh system), and integrate different architectural systems such as the Taktaboosh, a covered outdoor sitting area at ground level. But also the Rasha/Taka, a small opening at an upper level of a wall or the Shuksheika, the vented or fenestrated lantern over the main hall. The domes and vault are an architecture element that also facilitates the passage of air. All these natural passive ventilation systems are part of a global strategy of ventilation and humidification.
The Suk, the architectural epicenter of community life
The community buildings essential to the village are also subject to the same considerations of traditional ventilation. The market, the Suk, is the active heart of the community. It is equipped with many Malkaf, an earthen wind catcher, and secondary towers to speed up air circulation and succeed in reducing the temperature by 15 degrees. Crops are stored underground to take advantage of its natural inertia. The market is the symbolic place of this village, from a social and economic point of view, but also by its architectural success and its natural cooling and ventilation systems of large scale. In the village, systems taking advantage of the proximity of water are set up on different scales to support the natural ventilation systems. These include the Salsabil, a water-fed cooling plate or a fountain named Nafora, which help to provide natural humidification helped with vegetation.
Construction began in 1964, but was interrupted in 1967 because of the war between Egypt and Israel, in addition to new regulations on earthen buildings. Only a few buildings were constructed such as the market (55x45m), the building in charge of the district administration (30x40m), the outer shell of the museum and the social center, and a few villas. Nevertheless, Hassan Fathy’s constructed and theoretical work in New Baris is remarkably intelligent. By using an almost unique material in a hostile universe, he multiplies the architectural devices in order to build naturally ventilated buildings, to create a community that can work in the middle of the desert, and this at a lower cost using vernacular inspired architecture.