Nasser Rabbat

Aga Khan Professor and Director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture
Department of Architecture
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA


Hassan Fathy, Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt, 1973 -

Construire avec le peuple: Histoire d'un village d'Egypte, Gourna, 1973

This is both a story of an unusual architectural experience, the building of the village of New Gourna in Upper Egypt, and a loosely-structured philosophical musing on society, ecology, poverty, pride, craft, the built environment, modes of empowerment, and architectural professional engagement in community building.  It is also the book that marked my formation as an architect more than any other book, even though I came to be very critical of the book and the ideas of Hassan Fathy later on when I became a historian and a critic.  I read the book in its French edition in one night in 1978 (No Arabic edition was yet available anyway).  I was a fourth-year architecture student looking for ideas for a graduation project.  Fathy’s book was a revelation, an eye-opener, almost a transcendental experience (for a materialist man at least).  I stayed up all night reading and bursting with identifications with what I read.  Not only did the book inspire my graduation project but also my plans for my academic and intellectual future.  It was through my interest in environmentally sensitive architecture, which I learned from Fathy, that I graduated to looking at historical examples, and ultimately to history pure and simple.  I also learned from Fathy a certain architectural idealism, which still informs my academic politics, and a certain social realism, extracted negatively from Fathy’s writing, which still encumbers my attempts to be optimistic towards the possibility of building a fair and civic society in the Arab and Islamic worlds without a critical and sustained struggle against established socioeconomic and religious structures.


Oleg Grabar, The Formation of Islamic Art, 1973

Grabar was my PhD advisor and I learned a lot from him, both in the classroom and outside, mostly over meals or drinks.  He was a charming, sublimely erudite scholar.  His impact on the study of Islamic art and architecture is immeasurable.  His opus magnum was The Formation of Islamic Art: a series of highly speculative and provocative lectures delivered in the early 1970s, the book remains till today one of the most thoughtful attempts to theorize Islamic art and architecture.  Focusing on the problems of the emergence of Islamic art and architecture in the first three centuries Hegira and their relationship to the art of Byzantium and Persia, the book investigates how a nascent Islamic artistic tradition acquired and disseminated distinct forms and meanings primarily in conjunction with its cultural, social, and ideological contexts.  This strongly historicizing framework gives the book its energy and underscores its palpable sense of purpose.  It also endows it with remarkable coherence despite the otherwise selective character of its content.  But the book's significance lies ultimately not in answering questions about the formation of Islamic art, which it actually avoids doing; it is rather in setting the tone for a whole generation of historians of Islamic art and architecture to begin to reassess the geographic, historical, religious, and cultural boundaries of their discipline.  As such, The Formation of Islamic Art became the foundation upon which most historical interpretations in the field have depended until now.


Georges Candilis, Bâtir la vie: Un architecte témoin de son temps, 1977

Candilis was an Azeri/Greek/French member of Team Ten, but I did not know that when I first met him.  He was the teacher of one of my teachers, who was not particularly kind, but very intelligent, and who invited Candilis to give a talk at our school at the University of Damascus. I was mesmerized by the life story of the architect and its entanglement both with his professional pursuit and his architectural modernist ideology.  Reading his book later just reconfirmed my first impression.  Here was a compassionate modernist who tried to practice what he preached, even when his firm was involved in very large, government-sponsored projects.  He and his two partners built elegant, streamlined housing projects and university campuses in the Arab world that distilled the essence of a self-historicizing, or evolutive, modernism.  His book reads like a novel with a strong but utterly sympathetic central character with a strong mission who managed to convince colleagues, bureaucrats, and ordinary citizens of the validity of his design, and built it.


Lisa Heschong, Thermal Delight in Architecture, 1979

This short, sweet, and lyrical book opened my eyes to the aesthetics of environmentally responsive design.  Scanning the history of spatial and architectural solutions to environmental constraints from Roman bath to Islamic gardens, Heschong presents a convincing argument about the embeddedness of environmental considerations in many human activities, cultural preferences, and design.  She explores how the senses work together to achieve what she terms delight in architecture: an aspiration for architecture akin to the kind of feeling one experience with music, nature, and art.  This small book was like an exegesis for me as I was negotiating my way around the hard science of climatology, passive solar design, and the mechanics of sustainability during my March years at UCLA.  I recommend it to every architect committed to environmentally responsive design who wants to maintain the ethics and aesthetics of his/her commitment.


April 17, 2014