12/11/2019 by Servane Hardouin
Nubia is the name given to the region which encompasses the south of Egypt and the north of Sudan, between the cities of Aswan and Khartoum. The Nubians, the modern inhabitants of the region, are an ethnolinguistic group which originates from an ancient people living in the central Nile Valley even before Pharaonic Egypt. Nubia has an extremely rich history, land of the kingdom of Kush, the great rival of the Egyptian pharaohs, then home of various ancient kingdoms, Christian, and Islamic, followed by a period of British occupation, then by a division of the Nubian territory between two modern states, Egypt and Sudan.
The architectural heritage of the Nubian region has unique characteristics; the technic of the “Nubian vault” is especially remarkable. It consists of an arch built of mud bricks stacked without the need for any support structure, enabling the construction of houses with vaulted roofs. This relies on the use of a local building material, adobe – a mix of clay, water, and straw, shaped into bricks dried in the sun. Its durability, its simplicity and its aesthetics were already known by the ancient Egyptians: in Luxor, the ancient Thebes, one can still see several brick vaults in the precinct of the Ramesseum, the temple “of million years” of the pharaoh Ramses II, built around 1250 BCE. Since antiquity and for centuries, the vault continued to be used in the Nubian region to build houses, tombs, and royal palaces.
It is the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, the first laureate of the Alternative Novel Prize in 1980 and a pioneer of sustainable architecture, who re-established the use of the Nubian vault. He discovered this technique in 1941, in the Nubian village of Abu al-Riche, near Aswan, in southern Egypt. Between 1946 and 1952, while conceiving and creating from scratch the village of New Gourna, near Luxor, Fathy decided to reinterpret the principles of architecture and urbanism established until then, by using traditional methods and local materials. He drew from ancient practices in the region, especially the Nubian vault, as well as the use of adobe and earth as the basic material, in order to respect new principles of sustainability and social cohesion. The result: a village with an innovative humanist vision and exceptional aesthetic properties, the conservation of which is today organised by the World heritage Centre of UNESCO and by the World Monuments Fund.
For those same humanist principles, the Nubian vault sparks interest in the neighbouring countries of Egypt and Sudan. In the 1980s, the NGO Development Workshop, whose founders had worked alongside Hassan Fathy, identified the vault as a sustainable solution to settlement problems in Africa. There are several reasons for that: the use of earth, a material which is local, economic, and plentiful in a region where wood is rare and sheet metal expensive; and, the simplicity of the method, the durability of the resulting construction, its thermal comfort and energy efficiency, and its aesthetics rooted in local traditions and expertise. In 2000, the French-Burkinabe NGO La Voûte Nubienne took up the torch by standardising the method to allow its adaptation and appropriation by populations of Western Africa. Today, the organisation has initiated the construction of around 3,500 economical and sustainable houses for populations in Mali, Ghana, Benin, Senegal and Burkina Faso. Through this choice of an architecture steeped in local culture and economy, this NGO places itself as heir and keeper of an ancestral heritage.