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Hundreds of millions of people in the world today live in poor housing under adverse climatic conditions that stress their undernourished bodies toward the limits of human endurance and occasionally beyond. The poverty of these people severely restrains their ability to procure the energy required to provide healthful climatic conditions within their homes. Yet their ancestors survived, and often lived comfortably, for centuries under the same climatic conditions in dwellings of traditional design. They were able to do so because they made use of the energy available locally in the environment. Many traditional societies in climates with cold seasons relied on firewood and organic waste to provide them with the heat they needed. People living in the hot, arid climates, however, were faced with a different problem: high daytime and cool nighttime temperatures with very little humidity. More than firewood is needed to solve climatic problems of this type. The solutions that were found relied on energy from the sun and wind and the innovative, architectural structures and forms that were developed to make use of this natural energy. The vernacular architecture of the Arab World and neighboring regions not only solved the climatic problems but did so with a combination of beauty and physical and social functionality. This book describes some elements of the vernacular architecture developed by these societies over many generations to provide a comfortable microclimate using natural energy.
Yet, there is much more to be acquired than scientific understanding and aesthetic appreciation of the vernacular architecture of a people. A topic such as this can open the door to a recognition of the contribution traditional knowledge can make to the solution of many contemporary problems. The fact that most traditional societies, in the developing as well as in pockets within the industrialized nations, have not been able to maintain the economic pace set by the industrialized societies has led to their generally being viewed as backward, primitive, unsophisticated, irrational, naive, and, at best, perhaps quaint communities. They are seen as having little knowledge of the "real" world about them with which they seem largely unable to cope, as manifested by their poverty.
It is rarely remembered that, at some time in the past, most of these societies or those from which they are derived were among the most sophisticated of their time, greatly surpassing their contemporaries, some of which have since become the industrialized societies of today. The survival of traditional societies over hundreds and thousands of years indicates that they surely possess knowledge that can still be of great value either in its original form or as the basis for new developments.
Ironically, in general, it is the poorer societies that are the custodians of this important knowledge which could do so much to relieve their poverty. The traditional techniques employed are rarely costly in terms of materials or energy and are thus not only largely within the economic grasp of such people but are often directly within the realm of their understanding. Thus it is these societies that should logically, as well as morally, benefit first from this knowledge. But much remains to be done to convince the populations of poorer societies to look to tradition for the solutions to many of their problems. It is important that they be encouraged to do so by their political, economic, and social leaders and by those governments, organizations, and individuals wishing to assist them. It is wise to remember that not only will modern solutions be frequently out of their economic reach but that these solutions may not in fact be relevant to the local climatic, ecological, social, cultural, and economic conditions.
In trying to look realistically at the conditions of many poor societies, it can be argued that they are poor for the very reason that they have relied upon traditional knowledge, which has proven largely inadequate to the task of improving their economic conditions. There is some truth to this argument. Many of the situations under which traditional techniques were effective have now changed to the point where the original techniques are no longer appropriate. Populations may have become too large to be sustained by traditional methods, climates and ecologies may have changed (often through overexploitation) producing a situation unfamiliar to the original society, and markets for traditional products or goods produced by traditional techniques may no longer be viable. Rather than develop a new solution rooted in tradition, societies often opt for a modern answer. Unfortunately, in far too many cases, the traditional devices, methods, and systems have thus been supplanted by modern solutions that are inappropriate to and untried under the local conditions.
What appears to be needed, therefore, is an appraisal of the conditions under which the traditional solutions are technically, environmentally, socially, and economically valid, so that use can be made of this knowledge in appropriate situations. It would be of great benefit also if societies with similar conditions could share their traditional solutions to specific problems. Following appraisal, some solutions may be rejected as inappropriate, but a scientific understanding of the principles upon which they are based could serve as a useful foundation upon which to develop new solutions more in keeping with the local economics, environment, and society than those that have replaced the traditional ones. Many traditional techniques could be improved, using new materials and knowledge, rather than totally abandoned.
Fortunately, recent "discoveries" of the value of traditional forms of medicine, technology, and agriculture have led to a revived interest in preindustrial knowledge. This information, which is an important part of the human heritage, is the focus of a new project of the United Nations University, the Archive of Traditional Knowledge.
The field of vernacular architecture offers an abundance of concepts that can be of use today in solving the critical housing situation now facing millions in the Third World. The example chosen to illustrate this by the UNU Energy Subprogramme covers the vernacular architecture of the hot, arid zones of the Arab World and neighboring regions.
It was felt that the person best suited to prepare a monograph on this subject was Professor Hassan Fathy. Not only is Professor Fathy a master architect and an expert in the area of traditional architecture, especially in the Arab World, but he has been so for more than half a century. His work has also demonstrated the value that traditional architecture can have in improving the housing and living environments of the poor of the Third World. As a theoretician and practitioner of environmental planning design, Dr. Fathy's approach is based on a set of principles that are useful in opening the mind to the value of vernacular architecture and to adapting it to the situation in which a large fraction of the world's population find themselves today.
Professor Fathy's approach is based on the concept that architectural form should be determined by spiritual, artistic, climatic, and social considerations as well as function, material, and structure. He emphasizes that due consideration must be given to a number of elements including harmony.
One principle of this approach requires the adoption of designs appropriate to local conditions, thereby eliminating the possibility of settling on universal or international designs for buildings that must be used in all countries and all climates. Another rule is the use of natural locally available materials to the maximum extent possible, traditional building methods with adaptation appropriate to the demands and conditions of modern life, and the use of climate-oriented design. Building techniques, methods, and material costs are to be tailored to the economy and capabilities of the people for whom the structure is intended rather than matching the tenants to the techniques, methods, and costs of the intended structure. Thus, citizens must participate in the design of buildings, thereby leading to a triangular relationship between the citizen, the architect, and the builder. This means that the task of the architect is not to express his own ideas in the building but those of the locale, the people, and the culture. Finally, Professor Fathy insists that architects must thoroughly analyze traditional building methods and forms using scientific principles and an understanding of social and cultural requirements before discarding any of them. At the same time, however, an equally thorough analysis is required of modern architectural techniques and forms using the same considerations before adopting any of them.
Professor Fathy's work demonstrates the application of these principles and has shown how useful they can be in the development of viable solutions to the problems of contemporary architecture, especially to that of adequately housing the people of the Third World.
In an effort to further the understanding of these principles and promote sharing of traditional solutions developed by the Arab World and neighboring areas with peoples in other hot, arid regions, as well as to show the ingenuity and beauty with which these solutions were executed, the United Nations University presents this volume.
The editing of this book afforded not only an extremely pleasant opportunity to work with the author but also with one of his disciples, Dr. Abd-el-rahman Ahmed Sultan. His long association with the author and intimate knowledge of the author's work made Dr. Sultan's contribution to the meticulous editing process invaluable. In addition to his generous donation of time and knowledge, Dr. Sultan has provided many photographs from his personal collection and prepared the drawings for publication.
Senior Programme Officer
United Nations University
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