Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, etc.

C.M. Mayo < Marfa Mondays or Short Nonfiction <

(This article is a partial transcript of the Marfa Mondays Podcast # 10)

Presidio's unique adobe teaching house inspired by
the legacy of Egypt's greatest 20th century architect


First published in Cenizo Journal, winter 2013.
Click on the cover to download the PDF of that issue.
I first spied it from a Jeep on Casa Piedra Road: a huddle of oddly shaped brown buildings baking in the sun. I'd arrived at its modest gate after a mile and a bit of crunching over gravel up from the Rio Grande near Presidio on the U.S.-Mexico border. What interested me then—I was just starting my book on far West Texas, focusing on the probable route of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, the would-be conquistador of Florida who got lost—was the landscape. Such raw, open vistas were easy to imagine seeing through that ill-starred Spaniard's eyes. From a cloudless dome, the February sun beat down on the rocks and tangles of mesquite and clumps of prickly pear cactus, and ocotillo that stretched on for what must have been, for anyone on foot, a merciless number of miles. To the northwest loomed the bulk of the Chinatis, to the east, the jagged and lavender Bofecillos, and into Mexico, the Sierra Grande.

"That's Simone Swan's house."

My guide, Charlie Angell, brought down the window to show me the object, until then mysterious to me, of our detour. He'd been showing me the sights along the Rio Grande— the Hoodoos, Closed Canyon, and the narrow shallows in the river at Lajitas where Cabeza de Vaca, then nearly eight years into his odyssey, may have waded across. Even today, in many places along the river, you could walk right up to its bank, pitch a stone, and it would thunk onto someone's alfalfa field in Mexico. Coming up Casa Piedra Road, we'd seen no one—just a flash of a jackrabbit. Already Charlie was making the U-turn back to Presidio.

"It's Egyptian," he added.

This, in a land of décor inspired by what I had come to think of as Ye Olde Cowboys & Indians, struck me like thunder. Well, was it like the inside of a Disneyland ride? Did she worship Isis? Once home, I Googled.

Simone Swan, it turned out, is an adobe visionary with a distinguished career in the arts, including many years with Houston's Menil Foundation; her house, not Egyptian, exactly, nor a whim, but a work-in-progress used by her Adobe Alliance, a nonprofit for teaching earthen design and construction. And the Egyptian influence? Hassan Fathy.

Not Fathy as in "Cathy," as an Egyptian acquaintance was quick to correct me, but Foh'tee.

Another Google search bought up his book, published by the University of Chicago Press in translation from the French, Construir avec le peuple, as Architecture for the Poor. When I got my hands on a copy, I learned that Fathy was Egypt's greatest 20th century architect, renowned for rescuing ancient architectural features and techniques for building with mud brick, a material he passionately advocated for as abundant, and, when used appropriately, comfortable, ecological, sanitary, and beautiful.
In his photo, he might have passed for an elderly Mexican lawyer with his halo of gray hair, mustache, red turtleneck and poncho-like burnouse. He squinted from behind his glasses in an expression at once pained and kind—entirely understable once I learned of his battles with the Egyptian bureaucracy, then enamored of Soviet-style steel and concrete housing, and his nonetheless unyielding commitment to building housing for and with the fellaheen, the peasants who lived in abject poverty.

Born in 1900 into a wealthy family in Alexandria, Fathy did not set foot on one of his own family's many farms until he was in his twenties, and when he did, the wretchedness of its workers' houses shocked him. His solution, in part, was to build with better design and mud brick. Mud could be dug up easily, bricks could formed of the mud, animal dung, and a bit of straw, and then left to bake in the sun. The challenge was the cost of timber for roofing and, for brick vaults, timber for propping them up during construction. Egypt imported its timber from Europe. Then World War II broke out.

Ancient Egyptians built vaults, many of which had survived for hundreds, even thousands of years, without using wood, but how? Every one of Fathy's attempts to construct a roof without wood collapsed in a heap of bricks and dust. But then his brother, who was working on the Aswan dam, mentioned that the Nubians, the dark-skinned people of Southern Egypt and Northern Sudan, roofed their houses and mosques without using wood.

In an a matter of two visits to Aswan, Hassan Fathy found the masons, barefoot and in turbans, who showed him their technique of roofing by means of parabola-shaped layers of adobe bricks laid at an angle against a back wall. The bricks had extra straw for lightness, and a groove, made by the scrape of a finger before they'd dried, on one side, so as to give the mortared brick "grab." Mortar was a mix of sand, clay, and water. Using no tools other than an adze, and a plank for scaffolding, two men threw up a fine mud-brick roof over a 10' x 13' room in one and a half days.

Marveled Fathy, "It was so unbelievably simple."

When Simone Swan was living in New York, a house with two courtyards came to her in a dream. And it seemed like a dream to me that, less than a year after I'd first glimpsed Swan House from the road, I was sitting with its owner in the Nubian vault that was the living room, the shell high above us aglow with the orange light of morning. A graceful eighty-something with a crown of snow-white hair, Simone Swan was telling me how, at mid-life in the 1970s, she had gone to Paris for the Menil Foundation's exihibition of the surrealist Max Ernst's paintings, and at a dinner party, met a filmmaker who had just wrapped a documentary on the world's greatest architect.

Simone laughed. "I said, Hassan Who?"

Intrigued, the next morning, she bought his book, which she read in her native French. It changed her life.

She had been considering going to architecture school, but inspired by the aesthetic and social vision of Architecture for the Poor, she wrote to its author. Fathy answered in his own hand, "I open my country and my heart to you."

Soon Swan found herself in the shadow of Cairo's Citadel, ensconsed in the guest-room of his Mamluk-Ottoman house. She worked on his archive (later taken over by the Aga Kahn Foundation). "When I would pull a book out from the shelves, a cloud of dust would fall on me! Frankly, I thought I was mainly going to write about him. I had no idea that I would become a designer-builder."

Swan House, named in honor of her mother and built in 1997, has the form of an H, the great hall, "an exalting space, like in Italy," as Simone described it, with its 16 foot-high flat truss-roof, connecting four wings: kitchen and living room; master bedroom and guest bedroom, each a Nubian vault. So there were, as she'd seen in the dream, two courtyards, one open to the sunset, the other to the sunrise, in turn providing relief from the harshness of the northern Chihuahuan Desert's sun and wind.

As part of her workshop, Simone had given us students a tour that also included the domed guest-house, two sheds, and then, from the western courtyard, a clamber up the outside stairs to the flat-roof with its latticed parapet above the great hall.

Always, everywhere, from the narrow doors and tiny windows, and especially here, from the flat-roof: that jaw-dropping view. To to east, a hawk disappeared into the maw of the arroyo. South, on the Mexican side of the river, rose the igneous monolith of the Sierra del Diablo where, as the Indians recalled decades later, Cabeza de Vaca had planted a crucifix.

"How could I resist when I saw this?" Simone said. "I was seduced!"

She'd come to the Big Bend as a guest of her friend from New York, the artist Donald Judd. While driving in from Houston, she visited Presidio's adobe Fort Leaton, then undergoing renovation. Welcomed as a volunteer, upon her return from New York, she rented a room in Presidio, put on overalls, and set to making mud bricks, giving talks, and building a Nubian vault. Here on the US-Mexico border, in a climate similar to Egypt's and where she perceived an acute need for more affordable, ecological, and attractive housing, she determined to stay, committed to adobe, to "show people what they could do themselves."

In the three days of the workshop, we shoveled clay and sand through a seive and mix mortar in a wheelbarrow. We met Jesusita Jiménez, an expert mason who had worked on almost every aspect of the house. We talked about Dennis Dollen's monograph, Simone Swan: Adobe Building; and of course, Hassan Fathy.

On a brisk walk across the desert, Simone told me about her childhood on a coffee plantation in the Belgian Congo when "elephants would appear in the jungle." Over coffee in the kitchen, she recounted the successes and travails with Swan House and the local communities on both sides of the border. From the east patio, we watched a full-moon rise as thin as a watermark, then a wafer, then, floating in a sea of stars, a marble. Midmorning, doves came to drink from a pan.

On a windy afternoon, cold enough to want gloves, balancing on the top of a ladder, I lay bricks in the parabolic arch of another Nubian vault—this one for an office. I hacked up a cactus to macerate in a bucket of water for the plaster. A carload of us skipped over the border to make abode bricks in a maestro's dirt yard surrounded, ironically, by cinderblocks. And each time we returned to Swan House, indeed with each hour, it seemed to emanate, like a living thing, charming Sphinx, a subtly different quality of feeling. The walls changed colors, sometimes rosy, sometimes a honey-gray; bright straw-speckled brown; slate. And inside, as one of the participants, architect Paul Dennehy put it, "It is as if the small openings allow only the most beautiful light inside—always pleasing; always just right."
Listen to C.M. Mayo read this essay for PEN San Miguel, plus Q & A.

 Your comments are always welcome.