New Gourna; conserving our heritage and empowering the people that inspired it

Daily News Egypt
8 Min Read

CAIRO: It is widely held that around 80 percent of buildings in Cairo have not involved an architect. Judging from the organic way it looks, I think that figure is not in doubt. We the architects are therefore a rare and endangered species, threatened by what we like to call client ignorance, and fight bitterly over the other 20 percent commissioned by public or private enterprise and the wealthy few that can afford a second home.

There was however an architect that recognized the 80 percent group, all of 70 years ago. In Hassan Fathy’s aristocratic mind he decided to end the squalor of Egypt’s rural villages, all 1000 of them, through an ambitious plan. It involved recruiting 300 volunteer architects that would live for three years in one village each and then move on to another. Over the course of about 10 years all the villages would have been rebuilt in a more hygienic, safe and secure Egyptian style using nothing but free cooperative labor and plentiful mud as bricks.

He managed to build one. Barely.

Hassan Fathy wrote a highly detailed account of his trials and tribulations in Gourna, “A Tale of Two Villages,” later published by the Chicago Press under the somewhat patronizing title of “Architecture for the Poor,” which it is known by today. He elaborated on the complexities of fighting the expensive system of contracting which was already gaining a strong foothold in Egypt at the time, and described this particular village’s diabolic inception as a relocation project rather than a rebuilding one, and so, how it was fraught with the villagers’ resistance.

Despite the title, “Architecture for the Poor” should be made compulsory reading at all architecture schools looking to graduate responsible architects. And, well, despite the promise, New Gourna was built without the cooperative labor Hassan Fathy dreamed of, instead, the exposure of the doming and vaulting techniques of Ancient Egypt robbed the social concept’s limelight and spawned a torrent of imitations for decades after.

Today about half the original 60 or so houses still stand, while some public buildings such as the mosque, theater and khan are holding on to dear life by the skin of their teeth. The souk, a large market square with kiosks, has only recently been partly demolished, while the local council chose to build their headquarters over the open air theatre. The original schools have long since disappeared.

This sorry state has prompted a few architects and historians to call for the conservation of New Gourna. The efforts of Save the Heritage of Hassan Fathy , an Egypto-Swiss NGO, have seen the village added to the World Monument Fund’s watch list, a monitor on endangered architecture. While the UNESCO has indicted it into its World Heritage Earthen Architecture Program and only two weeks ago, pledged $1 million over the next three years to help conserve it — an unprecedented amount by that organization for a 20th century structure in Egypt.

The details of the conservation effort are still thin, but include a “center for sustainable living” to be built on the fields where the original village would have extended. Now news like this would have been met with optimism had Luxor not had such a dark history of relocating the local community in the name of touristic development and heritage conservation.

Criticisms have been leveled at its heavy handed approach to moving the original Gournis out of Old Gourna and to a concrete housing compound near Al Tarfa confusingly named, New Gourna. The governor has also been criticized over the clearing of the Avenue of Sphinxes from any communities built there later than the 2500-year-old route.

For New Gourna it would be an especially cruel irony that the families that have held back from replacing their six decade old mudbrick houses with multi-storey concrete structures, as has happened with most of the original houses, be penalized by eviction for preserving their homes, and keeping the theatre and mosque alive.

In my humble opinion, Hassan Fathy’s legacy could only be conserved by addressing the 80 percent of us that do not have the means to afford an architect. Many of these communities have voiced their need for a better quality of dwelling through human rights NGOs such as the Egyptian Center for Housing Rights, while flood victims in Sinai and Aswan have been represented by the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, who say efforts to rebuild since floods last January have been hampered despite available funds.

Maybe New Gourna could then be a catalyst for a revival of cooperative architecture. It has all of the problems facing most villages and slums in Egypt today, like lack of proper waste water management and high unemployment, as well as comprising buildings of a high heritage value.

It could start by a UNESCO call to the many local architecture schools to bring forward students to volunteer and work in collaboration with the community itself with the support of conservation as well as community design experts, thereby providing them with an opportunity to get out of their studios and literally get their hands dirty. The schools would then be encouraged to develop their programs to incorporate work on New Gourna, and then expand it to other communities in need through local NGOs. Local, as well as international community architecture organizations like Architecture for Humanity could be invited to hold workshops on the work they have done to provide thousands of hours of professional architectural expertise to many communities around the world, and use New Gourna as a regional hub for their efforts.

In all, the New Gournis would benefit in the form of better housing conditions, and would be given the opportunity to capitalize on this national and international attention through business opportunities by way of becoming experts in mudbrick conservation, renting out rooms, running local eateries and shops and most of all, setting an example to the surrounding communities of how there is social and economic gain through the conservation and adaptive reuse of their own heritage.

Yahia Shawkat is a heritage planner with the Tarek Waly Center, Architecture & Heritage and teaches design at AUC’s Construction & Architectural Engineering Department.

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