The Village of New Gourna
by Lara Iskander
Famous architect and artist, Hassan Fathy was born in Alexandria in 1899 to an Egyptian father and a Turkish mother. He studied at Cairo University and later became a professor at the Faculty of Fine Arts and was head of the Architectural School.
He was an architect who devoted himself to housing the poor in developing nations. He aimed to create affordable and livable spaces suitable to the surrounding environment, thus improving the economy and the standard of living in rural areas.
Nevertheless, Hassan Fathy was not very successful at convincing the state of his ideas. His work was considered to be ahead of his time as they were not always welcomed by the government bureaucrats neither were they to the tastes of poor Egyptians peasants who longed for the "luxury" of the concrete city buildings. Fathy's buildings were distressingly inexpensive. This was seen as a back draw.
Hassan Fathy was strongly against Western techniques and materials like reinforced concrete and steel which he found inappropriate for Egypt's climate and the craftsmen's limited skills.
"Matchbox houses" were too hot in the summer and too cold in winter. He encouraged ancient design methods and materials. He saw a more appropriate method of building in the Vernacular Architecture of the Nubians (region of southern Egypt), which influenced his ideas greatly.
Nubian craftsmen were masters at constructing domed and vaulted roofs of mud brick which they also used for the walls. The structures were cheap, cool in the summer and the walls were heat-retaining in winter.
While implementing the Nubian building techniques, he aimed to train Egyptian craftsmen to build their houses using mud brick or Adobe, which was ideally suitable to the local conditions of Upper Egypt and at a fraction of the cost.
New Gourna Project is one of his best known housing projects. This is due to the international popularity of his book, "Architecture for the poor" published originally in French, 20 years after the beginning of the project, in which he explained his vision for the village. This book details his thoughts, processes, dealings with the politics involved, and his theories behind the forms.
The idea was launched by the Egyptian department of Antiquities in 1946 to build a new town near Luxor to relocate the inhabitants of the Gourna Village or also called "Sheikh Abd el-Qurna".
The old Gourna village is built over Pharaonic tombs, many of which were not discovered yet. The residents were famous for being able to bring up suspiciously authentic Egyptian monuments from their cellars. The antiquities were having trouble controlling the tomb-robbing occurring in the areas of the Valley of the Kings, Queens and Nobles nearby. And so, the perfect solution seemed to be to move the seven thousand locals whose economy depended on tomb looting. This came as Fathy's perfect opportunity.
The new location is about five miles downhill towards the river, not far from the old village. Hassan Fathy's saw this as a challenge, as he says in his book. Faced with a 50 acre land intended to home 7000 people unwilling to leave their homes was not to be an easy task.
His designs depended on natural ventilation, orientation and local materials, traditional construction methods and energy- conservation techniques. He carried out detailed studies of temperature and wind patterns.
Hassan Fathy did not believe that the locals should be housed in similar homes. Each had different needs, tastes and comforts apart from the number living in the house.
Fathy worked with the villagers to tailor his designs to their needs with creativity and variety keeping the same spirit to the entire village.
Fathy included an open air theatre, a school, a "Suq" (market) and a Mosque, famous for the unusual shape of its minaret. He also built himself a house in the same spirit of the village, using the same materials.
The "Gourna Village experiment" was not just an architectural experiment. To Hassan Fathy it was more like the development of a town on a cultural, social level following the regional traditions. Relating to the people and knowing their needs while asking them to participate in the construction of their town was a major part of the project.
The village was never completed. The locals did start moving into their new homes, but eventually they did not settle down.
The reluctance of the people to cooperate in the design and building of the village was mistakenly understood as a sure sign of the inappropriateness the project. Normally, the people resented the change and took every opportunity possible to sabotage their new village in order to stay where they were and to continue their own secret ancient trading.
It did not take long to see the beginning of the failure the village. The village was never completed.
All what remains today of New Gourna is the mosque, market, a couple of houses and Hassan Fathy's. Even the school was demolished and rebuilt in modern materials. As for the rest of the houses, most of them were rebuilt in a more "suitable" way according to the people's taste. In 1967, he had another trial similar to Gourna called the village of Bariz in Kharga. It didn't not prove to be a better success from the previous because of funding problems. His numerous honors include the International Gold Medal Award from the International Union of Architects and the Aga Khan award he received in 1980.
Hassan Fathy's ideas are now more in vogue. Though not exactly his aim, his style of structures has become very famous between the upper classes that tend to use the traditional vaults and domes for roofing. Also, many touristic resorts such as El Gouna near Hurghada have followed this theme. It was partially built by one of his students and is obviously a great success.
The remains of these villages are worth a visit. His buildings have proven to be very efficient, comfortable, spacious, always based on natural resources and most convenient to hot climate. Fathy designed several projects abroad in such places as New Mexico and India. His files, drawing and notes are all kept at the AUC rare collections where they are exhibited.
Original research by Lara Iskander