No. 36, Fall/Winter 1994
Desert Architecture III: Building a Sustainable Future
by Hassan Fathy
Since antiquity, man has reacted to his environment, using his faculties to develop techniques and technologies, whether to bake bread or make brick, in such internal psychological balance with nature that humanity historically lived attuned to the environment. Man's creations were natural when built of the materials offered by the landscape.
Learning to manipulate clay, stone, marble, and wood, man penetrated their properties, and his techniques gave expression to his aspirations toward the divine. In architecture, environmental harmony was known to the Chinese, the Indians, the Greeks, and others. It produced the temples of Karnak, the great mosques of Islam, and the cathedral of Chartres in France.
With the advent of the industrial revolution, the inherited techniques and perfected knowledge of creating, using handmade tools, were lost and are now forgotten. Energy-intensive mechanized tools have diminished man's personal, cellular contribution to the fabrication of objects, the building of structures, and the growing of food. The lesser the challenge for man to imprint his genius, the less artistic is the product.
The resulting economic and political disturbances are visible today. Production of beauty, once the prerogative of millions, is replaced by industrialization, even of bread, under the control of a minority of owners. The negative consequences of the industrial revolution have disturbed the natural organization of the divine concept for humanity.
Sixty years of experience have shown me that industrialization and mechanization of the building trade have caused vast changes in building methods with varying applications in different parts of the world. Constant upheaval results when industrially developed societies weaken the craft-developed cultures through increased communications. As they interact, mutations create societal and ecological imbalance and economic inequities which are documented to be increasing in type and number.
Profoundly affected is the mass of the population, which is pressured to consume industrially produced goods. The result is cultural, psychological, moral, and material havoc.
Yet it is this population that has an intimate knowledge of how to live in harmony with the local environment. Thousands of years of accumulated expertise has led to the development of economic building methods using locally available materials, climatization using energy derived from the local natural environment, and an arrangement of living and working spaces in consonance with their social requirements. This has been accomplished within the context of an architecture that has reached a very high degree of artistic expression.
At all costs, I have always wanted to avoid the attitude too often adopted by professional architects and planners: that the community has nothing worth the professionals' consideration, that all its problems can be solved by the importation of the sophisticated urban approach to building. If possible, I want to bridge the gulf that separates folk architecture from architect's architecture. I always wanted to provide some solid and visible link between these two architectures in the shape of features, common to both, in which the people could find a familiar point of reference from which to enlarge their understanding of the new, and which the architect could use to test the truth of his work in relation to the people and the place.
An architect is in a unique position to revive people's faith in their own culture. If, as an authoritative critic, he shows what is admirable in local forms, and even goes so far as to use them himself, then the people at once begin to look on their own products with pride. What was formerly ignored or even despised becomes suddenly something to be proud of. It is important that this pride involves products and techniques of which the local people have full knowledge and mastery. Thus the village craftsman is stimulated to use and develop the traditional local forms, simply because he sees them respected by a professional architect, while the ordinary person, the client, is once more in a position to understand and appreciate the craftsman's work.
In spite of this, we are witnessing a change that is now forcing a complete rupture with the past; every concept and every value has been reversed. For house design in the Middle East, the introverted plan wherein family life looked into the courtyard was changed to a plan with family life looking out upon the street. The cool, clean air, the serenity and reverence of the courtyard were shed, and the street was embraced with its heat, dust, and noise. Also, the qa'a [a central, high-ceilinged upper-story room for receiving guests, constructed so as to provide natural light and ensure ventilation] was supplanted by the ordinary salon, and all such delights as the fountain, the salsabil [a fountain or a basin of still water designed to increase air humidity], and the malqaf [wind catch] were discarded in the name of progress and modernity.
It may seem that, from the functional point of view, mechanical air-conditioning was made possible by modern technology; but we must recognize that such technologies also have a cultural role. In fact, this role may be even more important than the function it serves, considering the special place occupied by the decorative arts in many cultures.
Thus when the modern architect replaced these decorative elements with air-conditioning equipment, he created a large vacuum in his culture. He has become like a football player playing football with a cannon. If the purpose of the game is scoring goals, then assuredly he can score a goal with every shot. But the game itself will disappear, and so will any diversion for the spectators, except perhaps in the killing of the goalkeeper.
Every advance in technology has been directed toward man's mastery of his environment. Until very recently, however, man always maintained a certain balance between his bodily and spiritual being and the external world. Disruption of this balance may have a detrimental effect on man, genetically, physiologically, or psychologically. And however fast technology advances, however radically the economy changes, all change must be related to the rate of change of man himself. The abstractions of the technologist and the economist must be continually pulled down to Earth by the gravitational force of human nature.
Unhappily, the modern architect of the Third World, suddenly released from this gravity, and unable to resist temptation, accepts every facility offered to him by modern technology, with no thought of its effect on the complex web of his culture. Unaware that civilization is measured by what one contributes to culture, not by what one takes from others, he continues to draw upon the works of Western architects in Europe and North America, without assessing the value of his own heritage.
In order to assess the value of our heritage in architecture and to judge the changes that it has undergone, there is a need to analyze scientifically the various concepts of design, and to clarify the meaning of many terms that the modern architect uses freely in his professional jargon, such as "contemporaneity." The role architecture and town planning play in the progress of civilization and culture must be grasped. While change is a condition of life, it is not ethically neutral. Change that is not for the better is change for the worse, and we must continually judge its direction. Architecture concerns not technology alone but man and technology, and planning concerns man, society, and technology.
In architectural criticism, the concepts of past, present, and future are used capriciously, and the present is extended to mean the whole modern epoch. To avoid being arbitrary, we must establish some standards of reference that involve the concept of contemporaneity.
The word "contemporary" is defined as meaning "existing, living, occurring at the same time as." The word implies a comparison between at least two things, and it conveys no hint of approval or disapproval. But as used by many architects, the word does carry a value judgment. It means something like "relevant to its time" and hence to be approved, while "anachronistic" means "irrelevant to its time" and is a term of disapproval. This raises the two questions of what we mean by time and what we mean by relevance, and to what.
Now, if we are to reconcile chronological time with the artist's definition of contemporaneity, we may say that to be relevant to its time, to be contemporary, a work of architecture must be part of the bustle and turmoil, the ebb and flow of everyday life; it must relate harmoniously to the rhythm of the universe, and it must be consonant with man's current stage of knowledge in the human and the mechanical sciences, and in their inseparable relationship within planning and architectural design.
To judge the criterion of contemporaneity, we must sense the forces that are working for change, and must not passively follow them but rather control and direct them where we think they should aim. Physical and aerodynamic analysis has shown that many of the concepts embodied in the design of houses of the past remain as valid today as they were yesterday and that, judged by the same standards, much of what is called modern is in fact anachronistic. We must determine what is basic and constant and thus worth keeping, and what is ephemeral and transient and can be discarded.
Looking to the future, we see that the situation at any given time largely determines the coming stage in development and change. Thus there would be no problem were the present situation of architecture normal, that is to say, truly contemporary. The future would then take care of itself. But unfortunately that is not the case, and it is the responsibility of the modern architect to find a remedy. He must renew architecture from the moment when it was abandoned; and he must try to bridge the existing gap in its development by analyzing the elements of change, applying modern techniques to modify the valid methods established by our ancestors, and then developing new solutions that satisfy modern needs.
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