On a warm day in May, I make my way to the Qalaa district to find Beit El-Mimar El-Masry (House of Egyptian Culture), which, at the end of last year, opened to the public as a museum. Flanked by iconic Mamluk-era mosques, such as El Refaei and Al Sultan Hassan, the house was the home of the late Hassan Fathi, who is not only the best architect of his generation, but the only one back at the time concerned with what he branded “architecture for the poor.”
I’m here to meet Fathi’s grandson Adel Ezzat for a tour of the house his grandfather lived in with his lifetime friend and neighbor Prince Sadr Al Din Khan (the nephew of Sultan Muhammad Shah who was buried in Aswan in 1957 at the Aga Khan Mausoleum).
“My grandfather was strong willed, someone who pays attention to small details and listens intently to everyone he encounters, especially children and those who come from more modest backgrounds,” Ezzat begins after showing me in. “I was lucky to accompany my grandpa in his last years and live in this beautiful house in the late 1980s,” he reminisces.
Ezzat, who works as a tour guide, does a great job explaining the history of the house, which has a peculiar mix of Turkish and Arabic Islamic design and dates back to the late 1700s. “It was originally named the ‘Ali Afandi house’ after its gatekeeper and it was customary during the Mamluk era for many houses located in Old Egypt to be named after their gatekeepers, particularly those buildings which belonged to the public,” Ezzat explains.
The Ali Afandi house has been home to a number of prominent figures such as Italian Poet Eugenio Montale and distinguished film director Shadi Abdel Salam. In 2010, former Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni announced the renovation of the house, in collaboration with fine arts Professor Essam Safy El Din, and it was officially opened to the public last November.
Still keeping its traditional look but now with a feel of a museum, the house is divided over three floors and a basement, which “some people claim used to be a horse stable,” Ezzat says. We start at the first floor, which was home to Prince Sadr El Din Shah.
Today, it is dedicated to the history of architecture and houses maquettes of different building styles across different eras, including the ancient Egyptian, Roman, Greek and modern eras.
The first hall includes a presentation of ancient Egyptian architecture and its development in shape and building material. “Ancient Egyptians used mud bricks that were mostly oval or circular then gradually transformed into being rectangular and square.
Photo by Mohsen Allam
Their homes had only one door, and eventually windows found their way into their architecture,” Ezzat explains. “Many of these houses in reality were an inspiration to my grandpa who wanted all his designs to stand out as uniquely ‘Egyptian,’” he adds. A second hall showcases architectural styles from Roman and Greek eras, mostly characterized by extravagant columns, large open plazas and in-depth interior shaping.
The second floor is dedicated to renowned architect and artist Ramses Wissa Wassef (1911-74) who was also friends with Fathi “but did not reside at the house during the same time,” Ezzat points out. Divided into two sections, the floor houses some of Wassef’s architectural designs and drafts, in addition to several of his belongings such as his bag, pens, medals and personal family albums.
Like Fathi, Wassef was inspired by Ancient Egyptian buildings, but even more so by its artistic beauty and his designs incorporate elements of traditional local heritage. Wassef’s popular works and designs include Saint Mary’s Coptic Church, Harrania Art Center, Mahmoud Mokhtar’s sculpture museum and the Lycee school in Bab El-Louq.
Ezzat then walks us up to the top floor where Fathi lived. “I asked them to keep everything the way it was when he lived here,” Ezzat says, pointing out the late architect’s office, a small kitchen, a living room and his bedroom.
Strikingly simple, warm and cozy, with a vast balcony and a rooftop overlooking the heart and soul of Egypt, the house occupied by Fathi from 1963 until his death in 1989 still has Fathi’s furniture and many of the his belongings including his personal notebook, memoirs, a telephone, as well as the prizes and certificates he was awarded.
Striding over to Fathi’s desk, Ezzat picks up his grandfather’s notes and memoirs, in which he shared many of his thoughts on life and his passion for architecture, and hands them over to me for a look. Gingerly, I flip through the pages until my eyes fall on the following excerpt:
“Surely it was an odd situation that every peasant in Egypt with so much as an acre of land to his name had a house, while landowners with a hundred acres or more could not afford one. But the peasant built his house out of mud, or mud bricks, which he dug out of the ground and dried in the sun. And here, in every hovel and tumbledown hut in Egypt, was the answer.
Here, for years, for centuries, the peasant had been wisely and quietly exploiting the obvious building material, while we, with our modern school-learned ideas, never dreamed of using such a ludicrous substance as mud for a serious creation as a house.
But why not? Certainly, the peasant’s houses might be cramped, dark, dirty, and inconvenient, but this was no fault of the mud brick. There was nothing that could not be put right by good design and a broom. Why not use this heaven-sent material for our country houses? And why not, indeed, make the peasants’ own houses better? Why should there be any difference between a peasant’s house and a landowner’s? Build both of mud brick, design both well, and both could afford their owners beauty and comfort.”
Photo by Mohsen Allam
Architecture of the Poor
In 1937 Fathi started designing country houses using mud bricks and held an exhibition in Mansoura and Cairo portraying the concept of his work. People were both astonished and thrilled, and many clients who resided in the country asked him to build new houses for them at reasonable prices. Yet Fathi’s journey in the world of architecture was not just about constructing beautiful houses using mud, it was also about preserving Egyptian heritage and identity.
“During the Nasser era, Fathi offered his services with the goal of preserving Egyptian identity, particularly in projects out in the desert. He did not see the point of building houses in the desert using steel and concrete, costing millions, when we could construct strong, well-built houses at half the cost. However, he knew that his ideas would not be liked by contractors at the time.” Ezzat explains.
In addition, Fathi contributed to teaching the art of building to many villagers in Upper Egypt. “They learned how to build their own houses using just mud, bricks and water only,” Ezzat adds, recalling his grandfather’s motto that “one cannot build a house but 10 people can build a village.”
The malqaf, or windcatchers was a main element used in Fathi’s designs, particularly of houses built in Luxor. “The temperature in Luxor during the summer is usually around 40-45 degrees outdoors. Up till today, if you enter any house built by Fathi, you will immediately notice the difference—the temperature is no more than 28 degrees without any fans or ACs,” Ezzat says.
Writing in his memoirs, Fathi recalls he had two wishes as a young man: “one, to buy a yacht, hire an orchestra, and sail around the world with my friends listening to Bach, Schumann, and Brahms; the other, to build a village where the fellahin ‘peasants’ would follow the way of life that I would like them to.”
In 1947, Fathi fulfilled his dream when he helmed the Gourna village project, on Luxor’s west bank. The village is home to a large farming community (estimated at 7,000 people at the time) crowded into five clusters of houses, built over and around tombs. “Seven thousand people living quite literally upon the past. They—or their fathers—had been attracted to Gourna some fifty years before by the rich graves of their ancestors, and the whole community had ever since lived by mining these tombs. Their economy was almost wholly dependent on tomb robbing,” Fathi recalls in his memoirs.
Gourna was Fathi’s first project to receive international acclaim, and shortly after the architect was invited to build houses in Greece, Europe, and Pakistan. In 1955 Fathi led the design and construction of the Ministry of Education. He also won a number of awards, including the prestigious International Union of Architects Gold Medal, the Right Livelihood Award, the Balzan Prize and Aga Khan’s Chairman’s Award for Architecture.