“This is a massacre,” exclaimed Ahmad Hamid as he sat down to talk about his forthcoming book and swiftly scrutinized the Oriental-style architecture of the room. “Look how they cut into the mashrabeya, how the line of that arch has been interrupted….”
It is perhaps hardly surprising that such an observation would come from an architect, especially when he is also the author of Hassan Fathy and Continuity in Islamic Arts and Achitecture: The Birth of a New Modern, a beautifully illustrated study on the aesthetic but also socioeconomic, environmental, and psychological components of Islamic architecture, published by the AUC Press and available next month.
With 30 years of experience as an architect Hamid’s eye is well trained by now. In fact his career began as an apprentice with Hassan Fathy, the world-renowned architect who integrated contemporary design with artistic traditions of Islam. “It was a marvelous riveting experience,” says Hamid about his eight years with the Egyptian pioneer at the Institute for Appropriate Technology, while suggesting that there were also “times of antagonism.”
Today when Hamid reflects on Fathy’s work and influence it is the homogeneity that his mentor was able to create between structure, space, narrative, and pleasure in the same tracing paper, in one layout, that still fascinates him. “He thought of it all. In the one line, they were all present – the people, the marriages, the jokes, the cries, the heat, the dome, the arch, the durability of the material…,” explains Hamid.
“Fathy’s vision is more everlasting than a transient vision of different architectural schools concerned with the ‘isms’ of today or the ‘isms’ of tomorrow,” says Hamid, who attributes part of Fathy’s genius to drawing some of his inspiration from nineteenth century art and architecture.
But Hamid is cautious not to reduce Fathy’s architectural paradigm to simple generalities. Although he does stop to discuss one particular feature commonly attributed to Fathy’s architectural legacy. “Fathy introduced courtyard designs into modern architecture that is not hermetically sealed as a monolithic building but is rather punctuated and punctured by voids and masses,” explains Hamid.
In his book, he elaborates on Fathy’s initial conviction that in modern Islamic architecture tradition and innovation co-exist rather than clash. It is what Hamid calls The Birth of the New Modern. “By that I mean that modernity born in the Occident in the early twentieth century, with its theories that are singularly about progress and revolution, that have occurred and erupted in one place and time, is not really arguable any more,” explains Hamid. “There has to be a precedent, for nothing is created ex nihilo. Nothing erupts like this suddenly.”
In Hassan Fathy and Continuity in Islamic Arts and Achitecture: The Birth of a New Modern, Hamid addresses the psychological effects of modern architecture of the twentieth century, such as segregation and fragmentation of society, and isolation of man in his or her own living space. “Even if the apartments, studios, and lofts are aestheticized, the communal values are completely lost,” notes Hamid.
“Fathy was the first to say that there is something missing in the equation. He brought in the courtyard and the method of planning that is not tyrannically planned around the vehicle,” explains Hamid. “There is everything wrong with insisting that roads, boulevards, and avenues should be wide in order for the ambulance and fire engine to reach the furthest or minutest point in the village or the square,” he adds.
He then jokes about the time when the streets of Cairo were built “as if the poor are all going to ride Volkswagens and Morrises. “It did not happen. The poor are riding bicycles in the heat of the sun,” he comments sarcastically.
“Today with the ecological paradigm, all architectural schools are suddenly preaching that all the streets should become narrower,” says Hamid. “Why? To provide shade, to create a zone of pedestrian access; it is not any more the vehicle access but it took something like 80 years for the West to get that.”
In a world of mass culture, ecological fragility, and wild urban development that he defines as a worldwide “malady and virus,” architects like Hamid look to Islamic architecture for its valuable and multi-dimensional components such as functionality, social responsibility, sustainability, and esthetics. “Islamic architecture speaks to the social, the physical, the pragmatic, the spiritual, the inspirational, and the earthly pleasures of the body, it speaks to all of that and all at once,” says Hamid. “Islamic architecture is a softener and it balances because it is neither fully only pragmatic or solely aesthetic and romantic, it is both.”
When asked what Islamic architecture means to him, Hamid says: “The answer evaded me until I heard the hadith that says that “to everything is a goal to become One.”
“I have been searching for a long time and it is something I came across after I finished the book. This is what Islamic art and architecture is all about: it is this connectivity of bringing everything together to say one – vocally, bodily, physically, consciously, aesthetically.”
Ahmad Hamid, who studied at Cairo University's Faculty of Architectural Engineering, holds an MA in Islamic Art and Architecture from the American University in Cairo. In 1984 he founded Ahmad Hamid Architects and in 2005 he received a Fulbright design study grant at Pratt Institute. He is the recipient of numerous awards.
Recently he attended, as a member of the scientific UNESCO committee, the first meeting of 'The Safeguarding of Hassan Fathy's New Gourna Project' in Luxor, following the declaration this year that the Fathy village is to be part of the Wold Heritage List of protected sites. Earlier this year, Hamid also gave a lecture at Strelka Institute for Architecture, Media & Design, in Moscow. He will be a judge at next month’s World Architecture Festival in Barcelona.
The AUC Press will be holding a Book & Author Reception for Hassan Fathy and Continuity in Islamic Arts and Achitecture: The Birth of a New Modern on Sunday, November 10, at 6:00 pm, at the Hassan Fathy House.
To read more about the book, click here.
An Egyptian Novel
By Mohamed Salmawy
Translated by Raphael Cohen