The Visionary (with Hassan Fathy in Cairo)

The Visionary (with Hassan Fathy in Cairo)

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hassan, hasan fathy, Egypt, green sustainable architect

Hassan Fathy, vernacular architect for the folks of Egypt


A private view by H. Masud Taj, 1980

The visionary flight of large stone steps. Through the ages its centre has flattened right into a ramp. By the facet, an historic construction, the color of sand, and forward within the hazy heights the citadel touching the sky.

Turning left into a brief lane, dusty and unpaved — urchins enjoying about within the 9 o’clock warmth. A bit of additional, a large wood door. There isn’t any knocker or bell so I push and it opens relatively easily.

It is darkish and funky. My eyes modify; I’m in a courtyard a Thousand and One Arabian Nights in its particulars. I name out the title of Hassan Fathy; nobody solutions. There is an earthen pot within the centre and a low arch reverse. Through it, I emerge into one other courtyard, cooler and fewer darkish.

By a stairway sways a slim white twine. I pull. Somewhere above a tinkling sound. Bells. I had heard all of them by my travels. In the distant islands of Yugoslavia on the stroke of each hour; the electrically-controlled bells in Ronchamp, France; low octave ones around the neck of Swiss cows, and the often out-of-tune Big Ben.

I pull once more, and once more the scrumptious sound. Yesterday I used to be in Athens, within the library of Doxiadis leafing by magazines and papers. I got here throughout an article on bricks. It was easy and refreshing. The creator was Hassan Fathy. I received his tackle from the librarian, it was in Cairo. Although Egypt was not on my schedule, I made a decision on impulse to go to it.

I pull the twine once more. Perhaps he isn’t at residence, however I resolve to linger awhile. There is a serenity about this courtyard which I need to soak in earlier than dealing with the Cairo outdoors — chaotic, dusty, exuberant, abounding with life and other people.

I choose up a chunk of paper and tackle it to Fathy. I’m a pupil searching for Architecture. I’m right here for 2 days and can be leaving tomorrow night. I’m engrossed in writing and look as much as discover him subsequent to me. I greet him in Arabic and spontaneously hand over the notice. He smiles. Although nearing eighty there’s a childlike innocence about him. Immaculately wearing earthy browns, it’s his eyes that impress – dreamy and really expressive. I used to be flawed about leaving the subsequent night. I stayed for a month.


The Garden City is a modern zone in Cairo. On the map, it seems like a tangled mass of rope that some town-planner forgot to choose up. Once inside you lose all sense of route.

Garden city, Cairo, Egypt 🥰Photo by: Nour Elmassry

Garden metropolis, Cairo, Egypt. Photo by: Nour Elmassry

Fathy and I are heading for the Arab League’s Headquarters. “What a multitude,” he tells me. “These streets, just like the automobile, are ambiguous — you’ll be able to hardly inform the entrance from the rear. For town-planning, take a look at the timber. See how the principle trunk flows into branches, twigs, stems, and veins of the leaf — there’s hierarchy and you understand the place you’re.”

He pauses. “Academic coaching is nonsense, faculties prove pupil machines with no creativeness. It took me ten years to purge myself of it,” he says. Again the leaf, earlier than it joins the twig there’s the stem — the stem is the transition; just like the musician who strikes from the mode to the melody — there’s a system of connection. In reality, I’m making an attempt to introduce musicality within the instructing of town-planning in faculties. A music composition has extra to do with melodies than with scales; likewise, structure is extra to do with house than with form — it’s the house between the partitions and never the partitions themselves.

Music is vital to Fathy; somebody informed me that he’s an ready violinist. In the primary few days, he stated he had problem getting accustomed to the musicality of my voice — I suppose he meant my accent. One night time after dinner Fathy put a Brahms on the stereo. The western classical was not misplaced within the Arab setting. He then sat down and continued to work on a township he was planning across the oasis of El Kharga. He labored late into the night time. I watched. I started to know by his drawing what I had been unable to know in his phrases.

oasis of El Kharga

Oasis of El Kharga, Hassan Fathy


We pace in the direction of the traditional metropolis of Alexandria in a black six-seater. Fathy has designed a home there which I feel he significantly likes. Perhaps that’s the reason he desires me to see it. We move a manufacturing facility, a concrete field squatting uneasily within the desert sand. Fathy seems away — he doesn’t like what he sees, and I perceive.

There had been sure areas, nonetheless, the place I tended to disagree along with his viewpoint. To give an occasion, there are numerous buildings within the West which I’ve seen and for which I’ve regard. I like Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel very a lot and he doesn’t. Fathy additionally feels strongly in regards to the automobile. The man behind the wheel, he says, is lowered to a mechanist being.

Corbusier's Ronchamp Chapel

Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel

“But,” I interrupted, “had been it not for the automobile it might have been inconceivable for us to go all the way in which to Alexandria to see a home you’ve designed, and return the identical day.”

“Not so,” he smiles. “In that case, the home would by no means have been that far, it might be inside a radius of half a day’s stroll after which we’d be strolling by breezy lanes and timber as an alternative of being confined in a machine for 3 hours.”

The home; like all Fathy’s homes, is remarkably cool. The mud-brick dome is pierced with spherical holes which have coloured glass panes. When I climb to the highest of the dome I discover them to be merely coloured glass bowls that had been fastened inverted, overlaying the holes. I had seen them being bought in lots by the road facet, in Cairo’s crowded bazaars. From dusty pavements to the highest of the dome — such transformations are attribute of Fathy’s fashion. The inside of the home is naked. Fathy is asking the caretaker what has occurred to all of the curtains, tapestries, and carpets. The man provides evasive solutions — it’s clear that he’s behind all of it. But Fathy doesn’t accuse, solely his eyes present his shock. He is harm. And so it has been all through his life. If it’s not the officialdom, it’s the petty thief.

When we go away, Fathy asks me what I consider the home. I inform him, additionally saying that it wanted taking care of.

“And but noble,” he provides. When we attain the highway, a brief distance away, I can now not see the home. It is hidden by a dune.


Fathy’s weight loss program is ascetic however he dines like a king. The cutlery is an efficient instance of Turkish silver craftsmanship. The translucent dishes and bowls, I feel, are Alexandrian. Chicken broth with breadsticks. Followed by sweetened guavas. And a crimson sherbet from Sudan fabricated from dried petals. We eat in silence, his cat Mish-mish at our toes. In the wall behind him is a distinct segment with a lamp. The area of interest is roofed by a hinged traditional wooden screen (mushrabeya) which diffuses the sunshine. When he wants extra gentle he merely opens the display screen. Next to it’s one in every of Fathy’s miniature work.

Red hibiscus sorbet from Sudan tea or karkade

Red hibiscus sorbet from Sudan tea or karkade

My eyes are on it whereas I eat. I discover it puzzling. It reveals a dome and vaulted constructing as seen from the entrance, and but the courtyard of the identical constructing is as if seen from the highest. Both viewpoints in the identical scene. “Is that constructing in plan or elevation?” I ask Fathy.

He doesn’t like my query. “That is irrelevant,” he says. Through subsequent discussions, I started to know. A perspective views the world from a selected standpoint and in doing so imposes its personal order. Things seem huge or small, vital or trivial relying on the relative place of the viewer. It is subjective. The miniature portray, then again, is ‘realist’ within the sense that it strives to seize the essence of issues and never merely their appearances.

Every week later Fathy provides me the keys to his home in Gourna, the place I keep for a while earlier than transferring in deeper into the Valley of the Dead. There I come throughout the ramped Temple of Deir El Bahri with a backdrop of a sheer rise of limestone mountains and the extreme blue sky above. In its colonnade, I discover a bas-relief. It reveals Queen Hatshepsut’s ship as seen from the facet with a row of oarsmen dipping their oars within the water which with its number of fish swimming in all of it proven as if seen from above. Both viewpoints in the identical steady scene.



Evenings with Fathy, and he’s relatively silent. The solar begins to set. “Come,” he says, “I shall present you my piece of sky.” The sight from his terrace is gorgeous. The home is at a peak and we stand degree with the highest of the big historic mosques. The solar’s rays are bursting from behind a minaret.

“The Earth should meet the Sky,” he says, “the physique with the soul. Look on the crestings working upon the size of the wall. The form of their Earth-mass is a reproduction of the form of the sky-void between them. The form itself is that of a tri-foil lily (brides of the sky’ the Arabs name them). With the cresting, the contact is made on a person degree, with the minaret it’s on a neighborhood degree.”

The sky was now a spreading crimson, the silhouette of the mosques and minarets stood outlined darkish and highly effective. “See how the minaret accelerates your imaginative and prescient upwards. It is split into sections that rhythmically shorten the upper you go, like an accelerando in music. And the sections hold getting narrower and their shapes additionally change — from sq. to octagonal to cylindrical, including to the acceleration.

Fathy talked on until twilight merged into darkness and the celebrities gathered their depth.

H Masud Taj is an award winning adjunct professor at Azreili School of Architecture & Urbanism with both his studios and seminars being premised on the ethics of alterity. His lecture courses at Carleton's Centre for Initiatives in Education are on topics of Muslim Civilizations.

H Masud Taj is an award profitable adjunct professor at Azreili School of Architecture & Urbanism with each his studios and seminars being premised on the ethics of alterity. His lecture programs at Carleton’s Centre for Initiatives in Education are on matters of Muslim Civilizations.

A private view by H. Masud Taj, 1980, Inside Outside Magazine. Reprinted with permission.