( John Feeney. traducción del
Inglés por Miquel Ramis)
Building for the 800 Million
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 Cairo— the 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
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.
Ver Hassan Fathy VII