With the New Gourna project, Hassan Fathy experimented for traditional communities a project combining urban planning, citizen participation 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.
A project between the ruins
The New Gourna project is probably the most emblematic of Hassan Fathy’s career. Located on the west bank of the Nile, under the Theban Hills opposite Luxor, the village of Gourna was built between the 1940s and 1950s to rehouse the inhabitants of the now abandoned Qurna. This village, located some five feet from the temple of Seti I, was inhabited by poor peasants who found their livelihood in the theft of ancient tombs in the Valley of the Kings. The construction of New Gourna was motivated by the expropriation of the inhabitants of this land for a new settlement. The most fervent resistants to the expropriation ordered by the Department of Antiquities had to be housed in this new village, designed by Hassan Fathy.
The experience of New Gourna
Between 1946 and 1952, New Gourna was built on a site located between the colossus of Memnon and Gezira on the Nile, at the level of the main road of the Theban Necropolis. It is a particularly striking example of urban planning associated with vernacular architecture. Hassan Fathy wanted to use local materials, and involve the villagers in the construction of their own houses. This was made in order to limit economic dependencies, ensure landscape continuity, architectural unicity and acceptance of the project in the communities. A cooperative system was put in place, and masons were trained among the villagers. The idea is to build houses at the lowest possible price, in order to make the village a test project for other communities in the country. Fathy borrowed from Nubian and Gourna architecture to create representative enclosed courtyards, vaulted roofing and chose to build in mud brick. He also reproduced the social and spatial organization of Old Gourna. The plan layout was designed to arrange one neigborhood unit to each of the five tribes living in the old village. A theater in adobe was also designed as a cultural center for the community. However Fathy had to give up the project after 3 years. The state disengaged and the Gourna experiment finally failed. When Hassan Fathy returns to the village in 1961, the village is as he left it, only the trees have grown. On the other hand, the 46 trained masons used the work learned in Gourna and now work throughout the region.
The experience of New Gourna has the merit of questioning many way of doing architecture. First of all on the participation in the construction of housing and the relevance of vernacular architecture in contemporary societies. But it also questions what makes the city, for Fathy it is mainly its inhabitants, its artisans, its communities. But on a larger scale, what makes a city is a sharing between the civilization that inhabits it and the cultural qualities of its spaces.