The New Gourna Village
"If you were given a million pounds, what would you do with them? A question they were always asking us when we were young, one that would start our imagination roaming and set us daydreaming. I had two possible answers: one, to buy a yacht, hire an orchestra, and sail round the world with my friends listening to Bach, Schumann, and Brahms; the other, to build a village where the fellaheen would follow the way of life that I would like them to." Hassan Fathy, ARCHITECTURE FOR THE POOR
In Fathy's own words lies the crux of this project: The New Gourna Village in Upper Egypt on the west banks of the Nile. Though not completely implemented as per the architect's honest desires for a just cause—partly due to polity and partly owing to the steadfastness of the Gournii, as very few of the Old Gourna residents wanted to move away from the land of their forefathers—this project brought about a major change in the way the wider public perceived architecture for the underprivileged. It was both an exercise in sustainability and the architect's challenge—to design not an archetype, but understand each mentality, desire and dream, and make them physical. At this end, Fathy was a resounding success.
The New Gourna Project was devised in 1945 by the Egyptian Department of Antiquities as a move to replace the residents of the Old Gourna village to another location, close to Luxor, in order to continue archaeological excavations in the Valley of the Kings. It catapulted Fathy to the vanguard of contextually appropriate construction technology. As a system, the design worked best in that social and climatic environment, retaining the vernacular and, at the same time, defining better spatial strategies. The project became an eye-opener for many designers who were beginning to take new steps toward sustainability in architectural design.
Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that New Gourna was primarily an architectural undertaking, the goal to design for the poor was met with remarkable results. During the course of the project, we learned that all a community needs to perform effectively is compassion and a strong sense of unity from those who choose to intervene. Furthermore, even though this affinity between the architect and the affected was at the core of this undertaking, there were numerous ideas that governed the physical juxtaposition and overall design strategy for the New Gourna Village.
The key motive behind New Gourna was the relocation of a number of people—the re-establishing of village heads, families, cattle, sentiments, emotional attachments to a new setting were only some of many, much larger concerns for the designers. As the project required all of this and more, it would have been easier to settle for a prototype. Fathy, however, refrained from doing so. In his belief that all individuals are different, and should therefore be sheltered in different ways, he went through the process of understanding each family he designed for. He was therefore able to achieve an accurate design system for all varieties of household.
People did not desire to relocate; they needed a better setting which was still in some way associable nonetheless. Their houses needed, first and foremost, to be at one with the place.
Hassan Fathy always advocated the use of indigenous materials and techniques for the design to not just be dramatic but at one with the region. As he quoted in his book Architecture for the Poor:
"Mud Brick - Sole Hope for Rural Reconstruction
The highest goodness, water-like,
Does good to everything and goes
Unmurmuring to places men despise;
But so, is close in nature to the Way."
In New Gourna, Fathy advocated the use of mud bricks and indigenous dome systems in order to utilise local labour, thus providing a means of employment. People began building for their families and their neighbours, enhancing the feeling of community and oneness.
The planning process for New Gourna was complex. The various community spaces, courtyards and streetscapes that were so much a part of inhabitants’ lifestyles were not only to be assimilated but dealt with more maturely.
This brought about a series of interconnected spaces within the public realm (like the bazaars and flea markets in Luxor and Cairo), adding an exploratory angle to the architecture and planning. Likewise, many public spaces were designed to include meeting spaces and squares.
Though, sadly, many of the Gournii refused to move to this new location, mainly due to their attachment to their ancestry and nobility, this venture—from its many different housing schemes, public buildings, the boys' school, and the streetscape—brought about tremendously valuable global discussion.
Today, when we are trying so hard to embrace sustainability, it is important to remember that New Gourna has always remained for us to glean from. It has taught us how an unassuming architect, passionate about bringing change to his people, used sustainable and sensitive means to be successful not just as a designer, but as a campaigner for the poor.