The pioneering modernity of Ancient Egypt

Atalayar_Hassan Fathy

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Hassan Fathy (Alexandria, 1900 - Cairo, 1989), known and extolled as the architect of the poor, is a genuine representative of Egyptian modernism and ahead of his time as the father of sustainable and vernacular architecture. He was born with the first rays of the 20th century sun, when Egypt's millennia-old culture was torn between fully embracing the new patterns and European dominance, or finding its own way from its own roots. Painters such as Mohamed Naghi, Mahmoud Saïd and Ragheb Ayad, and sculptors such as Mahmoud Mukhtar are the "pioneers" ("al-ruwwad") of the Egyptian modernist movement, artists who embody the intellectual reflection of the cultural renaissance ("nahda"), but who are also capable of ultimately innovative interaction. 

Fathy can also be considered as one of these pioneering innovators, capable of going deep into the roots of his own culture, of assimilating the teachings of the traditional peasant, the "fellah", of observing and learning the time-honoured customs of the Nubian builders of the south, the same ones who have always built domes, arches and sloping vaults, without frameworks, as they have done since time immemorial. 

This is the context and background of the exhibition that Casa Árabe in Madrid is dedicating to the architect, under the title "Hassan Fahty: against the current", curated by José Tono Martínez, who, since his time at the 2008 Expo in Zaragoza, decided to do memorial justice to the man who rejected international imposition in the matter of new materials. 

A contemporary of the great architectural gurus of practically the entire 20th century, Fathy rediscovers the millenary properties of adobe, clays and sands dried in the sun and mixed with straw. A building material available at the foot of any village, cheap and with high thermal insulation capacities.  In short, he put his profession at the service of the vast majority of the population, i.e. the poor. 

Perhaps the best expression of his convictions is the construction of the New Gourma neighbourhood, intended to house the families who lived off the looting and plundering of the tombs of the Valley of the Kings, which is displayed in the exhibition in the form of plans, models and photographs of this emblematic work, carried out between 1945 and 1948, just after the Second World War. Fathy thus does anthropology by incorporating into his design an entire treatise on the customs and habits of the inhabitants of that village, who were offered dwellings embedded in millennia of history in exchange for abandoning their activity as tomb raiders, driven by hunger.   

The exhibition covers many other emblematic works: the Hamid Saïd House, Fayum, 1942; the Lulu at al-Sahara Mosque, Cairo, 1950, the Casaroni House, Shabramant, 1980, and its traces in Spain: Sa Bassa Blanca, Alcudia, Mallorca 1978/80, and in New Mexico, with the Villa Dar al-Islam. 

In addition to a highly representative selection of Hassan Fathy's pictorial work, the curator José Tono has included three complementary contributions in the exhibition. A panel focusing on "earthen architecture in the Iberian Peninsula", with typologies of techniques and works from contemporary studios; an installation dedicated to the artist by the Englishwoman Hannah Collins, entitled "I will make a song and sing it in a theatre with the night air over my head", and a work by the artist Chant Avedissian, a direct disciple of Hassan Fathy.  

As Nadia Radwan, professor at the University of Bern, says, the works of the "al-ruwwad" are rooted in the political project of a cultural awakening. An artistic event, which opened the way for the Egyptian avant-garde. The millenary modernist Hassan Fahty is showing his work at Casa Árabe in Madrid until 16 May.