Why Even Bother With the Empty Slogans?

Anyone who knows the whole story about the quixotic and ultimately unsuccessful resettlement plan of the Egyptian government for the residents of Gourna (Qurna) on Luxor’s West Bank would have to laugh at the following story if it weren’t so infuriating

 

Hassan Fathy's Plans for New Gourna (with fanciful ancient motifs), c. 1945

Certainly Hassan Fathy’s design for New Gourna was a creative modernist-orientalist design.  But its historical significance does not lie in its creativity alone.  It lies in the authoritarian social aims of demographic engineering that did not work out the way they were expected to.

Have we gotten to the stage where old buildings (however artificial and socially corrosive)–have become heritage just for being officially commemorated in a strange parallel to our celebrity culture’s tendency to make people into celebrities just for being well-known?

The references in the following article to “helping the community” are utterly empty rhetoric.  What indication is there that the second New Gourna Project will be any more successful than the first?  Would, could, should are all conditional promises, not integral parts of the plan.  There is no need to suspect that there is anything behind the slogans but bait for positive PR by credulous journalists and cover for the lucrative contracts for consultants and construction firms that this project will undoubtedly spawn.

 

New Gourna today. Photo: Chant Avedissian, Aga Khan Trust

 

Why is an utter social failure like New Gourna more worthy of preserving than the fabric of 19th-century Luxor?  Egypt is in the process of ruthlessly exploiting and stripmining its material heritage.  No opportunity for a press conference is declined.  But this doesn’t even have the advantage of a lost pharaoh or buried treasure.  It is a willful misrepresentation of a grim social reality.

Isn’t the Heritage Establishment itself the only thing being lavishly funded and celebrated and commemorated here?

*   *   *

Via Nigel Herrington

From Al-Aharam 14 October 2010

Architecture for the poor

Nevine El-Aref reports on a UNESCO scheme to conserve and revive architect Hassan Fathy’s New Gourna village on the west bank at Luxor

Although the heat makes work in Luxor over the summer difficult, a committee of international architects gathered early last week on Luxor’s west bank in order to inspect Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy’s New Gourna village, launching a comprehensive scheme to help preserve this village consisting of mud-brick domiciles for the poor.

Constructed between 1946 and 1952 by pioneering architect Fathy, New Gourna aimed to provide housing for the population of the village of Old Gourna. Villagers from the latter had lived for generations above ancient Egyptian tombs, and they were moved in order to prevent damage to the tombs and to provide a model for low-cost and sustainable housing.

[…]

However, since then time has taken its toll on the village, and some people from Old Gourna always refused to be relocated to the new setting. As a result, parts of New Gourna were sparsely populated, and the village as a whole has been subject to a lack of maintenance and environmental problems, leading to the loss of some dwellings.

Cracks have spread in the walls of some buildings, and concrete buildings commissioned by the local authorities are even being constructed just a few metres away from the magnificent mud-brick theatre designed and built by Fathy.

[…]

International efforts have been made to safeguard New Gourna, but few concrete measures have been taken. Since the village is a key reference for architects, engineers and specialists in earthen architecture worldwide, an international association was set up in 2008 in Geneva in order to try to safeguard Fathy’s architectural work.

However, little work took place until 2009, when the village was declared a protected heritage site by prime ministerial decree, and a committee from the Ministry of Culture, the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), the National Organisation for Urban Harmony and the Luxor governorate was formed to identify the perimeters of the village and the legal measures that could be taken to protect the site.

It was in this context that UNESCO set up a committee of experts in the field of sustainable and earthen architecture to help efforts to safeguard New Gourna. Last week, some two dozen international experts met in Luxor in order to make recommendations on a project aiming to safeguard New Gourna.

[…]

“We are here to begin a new adventure that fulfils the dream of a great man, Hassan Fathy, that his life did not see,” Francesco Bandarin, UNESCO assistant director-general for culture, told reporters at a press conference held to launch the $1 million rehabilitation project for New Gourna, which will last two years.

New Gourna Project Press Conference, Oct. 2, 2010

New Gourna Project Press Conference, Oct. 2, 2010

Bandarin said that Fathy had seen the future shape of architecture before others, a future that he had made concrete at New Gourna. “We are here to make this project a flagship for Luxor, Egypt and the world as a whole,” Bandarin said, explaining that the planned International Centre for Sustainable Architecture (ICSA) aimed to provide training and research facilities for Egyptian and international students in order to promote Fathy’s humanistic vision.

The project would have shorter and longer-term components, Bandarin said. The short-term component would last for a year and would include a geotechnical and infrastructural assessment of the site, its sewage system and road network, as well as documentation of the village’s history. A project master plan would be drawn up, and this would include a management map and details of the architectural task force.

The shorter-term activity would also seek urgently to consolidate the most-threatened buildings and restore the empty houses in order to set an example for later interventions.

“We are here to help the local community,” Bandarin added, explaining that buildings built in concrete in the village would be demolished under the plan and replaced by new ones similar to those in Fathy’s original design. The inhabitants of the demolished houses would be given new ones under the project, he said.

In the longer term, the project would include the construction of the proposed international centre in a central position in the village. The mosque would be restored, as would Fathy’s former residence. The centre would include a guesthouse for teachers, scholars and students, and the project as a whole would include an important environmental component and sewage-treatment scheme.

Overall, those living in New Gourna would benefit from the plan in the form of better housing conditions, and they would be able to capitalise on the national and international attention focussed on the village.

Local businesses could develop as a result of the new emphasis on mud-brick conservation, and villages could become entrepreneurs renting out rooms, running local eateries and shops and setting an example to surrounding communities of the social and economic gains to be made through the conservation and adaptive reuse of their own heritage.

For the full article, click here.

*   *   *

Would, would, could, could, could…  but who will be there to report if the project funding just disappears into the same old pockets?

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