Lightly perched

The crumbling houses of Cairo's old quarter still hold lessons for architects, even as their frail structures are dwarfed by concrete high-rises.

In the searing summer heat, "wind catches" draw the breeze into the shaded courtyards of these dwellings. There, fountains moisten the air as plants filter out the dust. And in the inner chambers, high domes and wooden latticed windows provide natural light and ventilation.

It's a deceptively simple system, perfected through centuries of living with blasting desert heat. Yet its sophistication has long since been discarded for modern technology, concrete and glass - materials that, ironically, often intensify the heat.

Hassan Fathy tried to stay that trend. Perhaps the most renowned Arab architect of modern times, he drew attention to the natural refinement of native Egyptian architecture.

He once wrote that the architect should "test the truth of his work in relation to the people and the place."

This truth doesn't preclude the juxtaposition of ancient and modern, it simply harmonizes it. Reconciling past and present was a lifelong goal for Fathy.

In Bonnie Churchill's interview (page 13) with Sir Norman Foster, this year's winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, we see one such juxtaposition that takes the best of modern materials and engineering to offset the old.

Foster's Carr d'Art in Nmes, France - a glass-walled arts center - perches lightly next to a 2,500-year-old Roman temple. Acting as a calm reflective foil to the time-worn monument, it is a complementary rather than incongruous presence.

*Susan Llewelyn Leach is the assistant Ideas editor.

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