Hassan Fathy

Tradition’s Role


Culture springs from the roots
And seeping through to all the shoots
To leaf and flower and bud
From cell to cell, like green blood,
Is released by rain showers
As fragrance from the wet flowers
To fill the air.
But culture that is poured on men
From up above, congeals then
Like damp sugar, so they become
Like sugar-dolls, and when some
Life-giving shower wets them through
They disappear and melt into 
A sticky mess.

Tradition is the social analogy of personal habit, and in art has the same effect, of releasing the artist from distracting and inessential decisions so that he can give his whole attention to the vital ones. Once an artistic decision has been made, no matter when or by whom, it cannot profitably be made again; better that it should pass into the common store of habit and not bother us further.

Tradition is not necessarily old-fashioned and is not synonymous with stagnation. Furthermore, a tradition need not date from long ago but may have begun quite recently. As soon as a workman meets a new problem and decides how to overcome it, the first step has been taken in the establishment of a tradition. When another workman has decided to adopt the same solution, the tradition is moving, and by the time a third man has followed the first two and added his contribution, the tradition is fairly established. Some problems are easy to solve; a man may decide in a few minutes what to do. Others need time, perhaps a day, perhaps a year, perhaps a whole lifetime; in each case the solution may be the work of one man.

Yet other solutions may not be worked out fully before many generations have passed, and this is where tradition has a creative role to play, for it is only by tradition, by respecting and building on the work of earlier generations, that each new generation may make some positive progress toward the solution of the problem. When tradition has solved its problem and ceased developing, we may say that a cycle has been completed. However, in architecture, as in other human activities and in natural processes, there are cycles just beginning, others that have been completed, and others at all stages of development in between, that exist simultaneously in the same society. There are, too, traditions that go back to the beginning of human society, yet which are still living and which will exist perhaps as long as human society does: in bread making for example, and in brick making.

There are, on the other hand, traditions which, although they have appeared only recently and ought to be in an early phase of their cycle, were in fact born dead. Modernity does not necessarily mean liveliness, and change is not always for the better. On the other hand there are situations that call for innovation. My point is that innovation must be a completely thought-out response to a change in circumstances, and not indulged in for its own sake. Nobody asks that an airport control tower be built in some peasant idiom, and an industrial structure like a nuclear power station may force a new tradition upon the designer.

Once a particular tradition is established and accepted, the individual artist’s duty is to keep this tradition going, with his own invention and insight to give it that additional momentum that will save it from coming to a standstill, until it will have reached the end of its cycle and completed its full development. He will be relieved of many decisions by the tradition, but will be obliged to make others equally demanding to stop the tradition dying on his hands. In fact, the further a tradition has developed the more effort the artist must expend to make each step forward in it.

Tradition among the peasants is the only safeguard of their culture. They cannot discriminate between unfamiliar styles, and if they run off the rails of tradition they will inevitably meet disaster. Willfully to break a tradition in a basically traditional society like a peasant one is a kind of cultural murder, and the architect must respect the tradition he is invading. What he does in the city is another matter; there the public and the surroundings can take care of themselves.

Let him not suppose that this tradition will hamper him. When the full power of a human imagination is backed by the weight of a living tradition, the resulting work of art is far greater than any that an artist can achieve when he has no tradition to work in or when he willfully abandons his tradition.

One man’s effort can bring about an altogether disproportionate advance, if he is building upon an established tradition. It is rather like adding a single microscopic crystal to a solution that is already supersaturated, so that the whole will suddenly crystallize in a spectacular fashion. Yet it differs from the physical process in that this artistic crystallization is not a once-and-for-all occurrence, but an act of reaction that has to be perpetually renewed. “Completeness without completion is useful. Fulfillment without being fulfilled is desirable” (Lao-Tze).

Architecture is still one of the most traditional arts. A work of architecture is meant to be used, its form is largely determined by precedent, and it is set before the public where they must look at it every day. The architect should respect the work of his predecessors and the public sensibility by not using his architecture as a medium of personal advertisement. Indeed, no architect can avoid using the work of earlier architects; however hard he strains after originality, by far the larger part of his work will be in some tradition or other. Why then should he despise the tradition of his own country or district, why should he drag alien traditions into an artificial and uncomfortable synthesis, why should he be so rude to earlier architects as to distort and misapply their ideas? This happens when an architectural element, evolved over many years to a perfect size, shape, and function, is used upside down or enlarged beyond recognition till it no longer even works properly, simply to gratify the architect’s own selfish appetite for fame.

For example, it has taken men very many years to arrive at the right size for a window in various architectural traditions; if an architect now commits the gross error of enlarging the window till it takes up a whole wall, he is at once confronted with a problem: his glass wall lets in ten times as much radiation as did the solid wall. If now to shade the window he adds a brise-soleil, which is nothing more than an enlarged Venetian blind, the room will still receive 300 percent more radiation than one with a solid wall. Furthermore, when the architect enlarges the width of the slats of the Venetian blind from 4 centimeters to 40, so as not to upset the scale of the glass wall, what is the result? Instead of admitting a gentle diffused light, as a shutter or Venetian blind does, it dazzles the eye of anyone in the room with a pattern of broad black bars against a brilliant glare of light.

Not only that, but the view, the securing of which was the initial object of the glass wall, is permanently spoiled by these large bars cutting it up; the brise-soleil has not even the virtue of folding away, as have the shutter and the Venetian blind. Even in a cool climate like that of Paris, the glass wall can prove to be an unmanageable extravagance; during the hot summer of 1959 the temperature inside the UNESCO building, due to the “greenhouse effect” of its glass walls, and despite the labors of the air conditioning machinery, rose so high that many of the employees fainted. Superfluous then, to comment on the introduction of glass walls and brise-soleils in tropical countries; yet it is hard to find an example of modern tropical architecture that does not employ these features.

If the architect walks soberly in the tradition of his culture, then he must not suppose that his artistry will be stifled. Far from it; it will express itself in relevant contributions to the tradition and contribute to the advance of his society’s culture.

When the architect is presented with a clear tradition to work in, as in a village built by peasants, then he has no right to break this tradition with his own personal whims. What may go in a cosmopolitan city like Paris, London, or Cairo, will kill a village.

Any man’s mind is so complex that his decisions are always unique. His reaction to the things around him is his alone. If in your dealings with men you consider them as a mass and abstract and exploit the features they have in common, then you destroy the unique features of each.

The advertiser who plays upon the common weaknesses of mankind, the manufacturer who satisfies the common appetites, the schoolmaster who drills the common reflexes, each in his way kills the soul. That is, each, by overvaluing the common features, crowds out the individual ones. To some degree the individual must be sacrificed to the mass; otherwise there can be no society, and man dies of isolation. But all people should ask themselves how, in human personality, the common and the individual factors should be balanced. Inexorably and largely unchallenged, the promoters of sameness have prevailed and have eliminated from modern life the tradition of individuality.

Mass communications, mass production, mass education are the marks of our modern societies, which, whether communist or capitalist, are in these respects indistinguishable.

A workman who controls a machine in a factory puts nothing of himself into the things the machine makes. Machine-made products are identical, impersonal, and unrewarding, as much to the user as to the machine minder.

Handmade products appeal to us because they express the mood of the craftsman. Each irregularity, oddity, difference is the result of a decision made at the moment of manufacture; the change of design when the craftsman gets bored with repeating the same motif, or a change of color when he runs short of one color or thread, witness to the constant living interaction of the man with his material. The person who uses the object thus made will understand the personality of the craftsman through these hesitations and humors, and the object will be a more valuable part of his surroundings for this reason.

Posted: May 2021
Category: Essays