The Egyptian designer Hassan Fathy was one of those 20th-century architects who were never content with architecture as a straightforward technical discipline, but who used it as a speculative instrument, a means of shaping society towards the realization of a political and social ideal. He was also one of those whose reputation as a thinker and theorist vastly outweighs the number of buildings he actually managed to have constructed. But this is where similarities end to contemporaries such as, say, Buckminster Fuller or Berthold Lubetkin. Fathy’s great enthusiasm, upon which he staked his entire career, was the revival of mud-brick architecture in Africa and the Middle East, as a craft tradition that contained within it the potential to transform social relations in post-colonial countries—what he called a ‘mud-brick revolution’, a phrase he meant very seriously. Accordingly, Earth & Utopia, the first major study of Fathy’s work in some years, could easily have been called ‘Mud and Utopia’.

Born in 1900 into an upper-class family in Alexandria—his father was a judge and rural landowner—Fathy studied at King Fouad University (now Cairo University) in the period following the 1919 Revolution against British rule, and spent a large part of his career teaching in its Faculty of Fine Arts.Late in life, well after the failure of his efforts in self-described ‘Architecture for the Poor’, Fathy was rediscovered as a talismanic figure of the reaction against post-war modern architecture. Aristocrats seemed particularly fond of his work, with the Aga Khan bestowing the first Aga Khan Award for Architecture on him in 1980, and Prince Charles devoting part of his bestselling anti-modernist Vision of Britain (1989) to Fathy, who ‘for forty years had to put up with persistent vitriolic criticism and denigration by the modernist architectural establishment because he continued to espouse the cause of traditional Islamic architecture’. This assessment was based upon Fathy’s 1969 book Gourna: A Tale of Two Villages, an account of an abandoned planned settlement near Luxor, in southern Egypt, which was widely read by radical architects in the 1970s when mit republished it under the title An Architecture for the Poor. Given that the architecture all this polemic was aimed against—the similarly ‘utopian’ but aggressively technocratic modernist architecture of post-war welfarism, which was embraced enthusiastically by most post-colonial non-aligned regimes—is now at a peak of fashionability, it is interesting to look at one of its more serious alternatives. Unlike the facile style-revivalists that the Prince of Wales praised, Fathy’s favouring of tradition was driven by his belief in a complete change in the relationship between architects and clients, peasantry and intelligentsia, in which the ‘traditional’ appearance was not the aim, but a partial side-effect of the building technologies used. Moreover, his interest in ‘self-building’ was not libertarian, but communitarian and anti-capitalist, a world away from the slum romanticism that has been so popular among architects and neoliberal economists since the 1990s.

The authors of Earth & Utopia, Salma Samar Damluji, an architect who practiced with Fathy before his death in 1989, and Viola Bertini, an architectural historian who wrote her thesis on his work, portray him as a sort of post-colonial William Morris. The scope of his work as revealed in their book does in some ways resemble that of the great Victorian Marxist medievalist, who likewise sprang from a comfortable bourgeois background. The book contains essays on and interviews with Fathy, alongside various of his works across different media—his play The Story of al-Mashrabiyyah; the illustrated, calligraphic short story cycle The Land of Utopia; plans, drawings and paintings; a manifesto for an International Institute for Appropriate Technology; and a concise manual of mud-brick construction. The chronology of his work is lost in the density of material from different periods, and has to be reconstructed by the reader, which is a shame, as it’s a telling story.

Fathy’s early work was typical of the time, with sketches of buildings in the French Beaux-Arts style; his Ruskinian-Morrisian revelation seems to have come after an encounter with the architecture of Nubia in the 1940s, where he purported to find the ‘living survivors’ of Arab structural design, ‘a vision of architecture before the Fall, before money, industry, greed and snobbery had severed architecture from its true roots in nature’. In one of Earth & Utopia’s four prefaces, Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil puts this discovery in the context of the regimes both of King Farouk and of Nasser, who promised in one of his propaganda speeches that ‘all fellaheen [would have] a house built from concrete’. He also notes, crucially, that while ‘it is usual for the working classes to emulate the upper echelons of society’, ‘the central obstacle for Hassan Fathy was that he tried to implement an architectural style from below’. This is one of the many possible explanations advanced across the book for the failure of Fathy’s projects; another, the authors point out, was the fact that ‘a local building system’ such as mud-brick ‘would eliminate commissions, brokerage fees, contracting and the legal and illegal gains that are accrued before, during and after the construction of any housing project’. As Salma Samar Damluji notes, this stepped on so many toes that it effectively ‘required revolutionary measures’, and a wholly ‘new programme for rural and city development’.

What Fathy found in Nubian villages, where mud-brick was still being used without wooden supports to create sophisticated domes and vaults, was partly an architecture that was more suitable for the Egyptian climate than that being built by the developmentalist state. His play The Story of al-Mashrabiyyah defends the patterned wooden screens of traditional houses against feminist accusations that they were used to seclude women, by arguing that their use was climatic rather than misogynist. Fathy’s most convincing and prescient arguments were about energy-use and the climate—he would later make the seemingly incontrovertible point that ‘in America they have the concrete frame and glass wall buildings, and in Kuwait we have the same thing—forgetting that glass is transparent to the ultraviolet rays, and a glass wall of 3x3m in one room when exposed to the sun’s rays lets in 2000 kilocalories per hour, demanding two tonnes of refrigeration per hour’ (a point that is now even more relevant, with cities of computer-engineered glass shapes spreading across the Gulf).

The shaded internal courtyards and pools of the traditional Arab village and city offered similar relief from heat and humidity, and through their intersection with surrounding public areas, Fathy found a ‘musicality’ of sequential spaces, a promenade architecturale that was one part medieval, one part Le Corbusier. This was combined with an insistence on people remaining in their place. ‘When the peasant modernizes and uses concrete in the village, or uses what he thinks is modern, it becomes worse than anything in the world’, he asserted in a 1984 interview with Damluji—you can expect him to play a tabur drum but shouldn’t put a piano in front of him. In 1983, Fathy claimed that ‘I am interested in the poor, in the 800 million poor people . . . Are the clients we want to serve the people with millions? We want to serve the people with milliemes (piastres), the poor, with an architecture for the poor. As for architecture for the rich, let them do what they want’. Yet just as with Morris, it would be largely the rich who would manage to actually live in Hassan Fathy houses.

Fathy’s reputation rests on New Gourna, the venture which formed the subject matter of An Architecture for the Poor. Begun in 1945 in the vicinity of Luxor, it was a project to resettle a community of tomb robbers and antique dealers on a site near the Colossi of Memnon and the Ramesseum, moving them away from the tombs. In Fathy’s words, ‘a whole society had, as it were, to be dismantled and put together again in another setting’, something which he took as an opportunity to rethink how a village should function, from top to bottom, and how an architect should relate to the people they’re building for. In Bertini’s phrase, ‘the intention was to initiate a consultative mechanism as a sort of visionary experiment in participatory planning, involving the inhabitants in all decision-making processes’. The resultant village was to be in four parts, corresponding to the four different clans living in old Gourna; a system of private courtyards and public spaces was designed specifically with each family for each prospective house, which they were expected to help construct themselves—in the context of the European New Towns of the 1940s, where a choice between a house and a flat was usually the extent of public consultation, this was extraordinary. Fathy lived on site throughout the construction of New Gourna.