Hassan Fathy’s New Gourna (video)

26 Jan

Hassan Fathy’s New Gourna

“The village of New Gourna was designed and built in the 1940s by the Egyptian Architect Hassan Fathy. He pioneered the use of sustainable materials and environmentally friendly design to build housing for low income families who were being relocated from their original village at Old Gourna. 60 years later, many of the now historic New Gourna buildings have fallen into disrepair and others have disappeared or been changed beyond recognition.”

A beautiful and powerful video by Oliver Wilkens on the sense of and attachment to place.  I find it interesting that these earthen structures built in the 1940’s along the west bank of the Nile River are disintegrating (40% of the original buildings are gone), especially at the foundations. Comparing this to adobe and other earthen structures in this country that remain standing 100 years or more, I wondered what contributed to their destruction. Without knowing details of the environment, I cannot say for sure. However, some clues can be found in the video.

Several points can be raised:

1. A building, made from any material, is only as good as its feet and hat, aka foundation and roof. Two comments from the video raise concerns. One is the presence of a shallow water table, which should be factored strongly into the foundation construction. The other is comment regarding roof collapse.

2. Know your materials. Several references in the movie to the foundation stone being made of ‘salt’ suggest that despite plentiful access to local rock, perhaps the type of rock was not the best choice as foundation material. One of the men in the video comments that if sandstone had been used for the foundations, they would not have degraded as quickly. Match the construction materials with the environment.

3. Fathy is known world-wide for his application of incorporating local resources and sustainability concepts with vernacular architecture. However, premature degradation of the New Gourda earthen structures underlines the importance of integrating modern, innovative technologies with traditional and culturally-sensitive materials.  Additionally, residents need to learn and acquire the skills to meet the needs of community while preserving the past, including repair and renovation of their structures. This is especially true in light of changing environmental and economic conditions.

4. A home, any shelter, is an ongoing interactive process, especially when constructed of earthen components. When visiting most of the pueblos in the southwestern US, it is common to see people administering to their homes and buildings, such as plastering or other maintenance. Anyone with a conventional home constructed of wood will know that as the structure ages, repairs and maintenance are required. Several comments in the video attest that frequent and ongoing maintenance and repairs are required for these buildings. In this case, both the local people and the UNESCO World Heritage Center are re-evaluating the existing conditions, design and materials to rebuild and/or repair the structures.

This is an engaging and powerful video to watch.

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