One of the oldest, if not the oldest, building materials used in construction is earth. From one generation to another, we have witnessed how creative humans can get with a piece of earth. It’s no surprise that most of us enjoyed building almost anything using clay and dirt when we were younger.
A Material Admired
Earth as a material is undeniably a gift from nature. However, it has suffered a decline in usage in the past few decades. Fortunately, due to the need to go green, Earth Architecture might be enjoying a comeback soon.
Earth is as flexible as it is sturdy. This might be one of the reasons why Jean Dethier admits that he's been obsessed with it all his life. It clearly shows in his latest book: 'The Art of Earth Architecture: Past, Present, Future (Thames & Hudson).' The book is a heartfelt plea for the comeback of the widespread use of mud. Mud is not only flexible but is also a sustainable material in this ever-changing world.
Dethier used to work at the Centre Pompidou as a curator. He has worked on his goal with exceptional persistence over the years. His objectives made together with his team are now being learned, experienced, and shared all over the world. This has been achieved with the institutional heft provided by the UNESCO programme (chair) in Earthen Architecture, Building Cultures and Sustainable Development.
Take Time To Reconsider
Now, it's time for us to reconsider earth structures, which has become a recurrent cycle. An Egyptian architect, Hassan Fathy (1900-1989), spearheaded the revival of mud as material in construction. He led the revival of clay in Egypt during the 1940s. Fathy figured out that the use of dirt in building peasant housing remains, which suggested that the skilled workers who are still familiar with Earth Architecture could enjoy more sophisticated and more ambitious projects.
Fathy explored the roots of Earth building and avoided working with cement and iron. During the 1940s, Fathy designed a village near Luxor. The town, New Gourma, was completely rebuilt using mud. Fathy brought back the ancient technique of the Nubian vault. The technique is a method of building a roof by laying several bricks leaning against a table wall. It creates a self-supporting structure. The structure is essential in areas where using timber is almost impossible.
Fathy also worked on New Baris in the Western Desert, his second Egyptian village. It was abandoned due to the Six-Day War.
Fathy was so influential in the revival of earth building together with structural innovation that Indian architects are following his lead. The Indians used his example when working on structures all over the country.
The Art Of Earth Architecture
The book entitled 'The Art of Earth Architecture: Past, Present, Future (Thames & Hudson)' has plenty of references to Aga Khan Award winners all over the Middle East and Africa. In 1980, Fathy got the Chairman's Award. At that point, his work had already extended into New Mexico. The country is the center of Adobe building, which first started with an earth-brick mosque.
The book finishes in a Nigerian village, Dandaji. There, you'll find an organic structure which is an old mosque. The mosque, which is now a public library, seems like it was contoured by hand. On the side of the new library is a new mosque that has a soaring dome supported by concrete ribs and earth brick. The beautiful building is revered by renowned architects such as Yasaman Esmaili and Mariam Kamara.
How to approach Earth Architecture depends on the climate and geology. In Britain, during the early 20th-century, there were plenty of techniques and versions used. Each of these drew inspiration from practices in different regions. Experiments with Mud and Earth architecture were common choices during the time of the dreadful rural housing situation. This occurred after the First World War when the crisis was worsened by the scarcity of building materials, most especially brick.
An architectural and civil servant, Lawrence Weaver, said, ‘materials always work well in the place where they are naturally found.’ Using a dry, shuttered pisé, clay marl or chalk was promoted by a young architect, Clough Williams-Ellis. He also supported clay lump and cob, which were all included in the trail project for economical cottages by the Ministry of Agriculture. The cottages, thirty-two of them, were built at Amesbury in Wiltshire, using various materials.
Afterwards, Weaver reported that brick was chosen by the Ministry as the best material. Brick can be used in earth building with specific local skills. The base and deep eaves, made with brick or concrete, offer protection from pests and elements. This feature is popularly known as a 'hat and a pair of shoes.' Clay lump was used for farmyard walls or gardens in Berkshire.
From The 'Dust'
Once the Earth Architecture knowledge and skills disappeared, the buildings started to crumble. Fortunately, in South Devon, you'll still find barns and farmhouses constructed from the earth that they're standing on.
From the dust, earth architecture is enjoying a revival all over Britain. In Cornwall, at the Eden Project, you'll find a visitor center that showcases low-impact building methods. The best example is a tall, red, and rammed-earth walling that has been skimmed with clay plaster where people can go in and out. Waugh Thistleton designed several prominent pavilions in 2017. The structures were built almost entirely of rammed earth. They resonate with the Judaeo-Christian phrase: 'earth to earth.'
Slowly, earth architecture will make a comeback, especially now that more and more architects are going 'green.' Who would've thought we'd be seeing wooden skyscrapers in the middle of the city? Or who would've imagined electric cars would make their way into traffic? With all the efforts everyone is making, especially those in the field of architecture, it won't be surprising to see Earth Architecture enjoying a worldwide revival.
Do you think that earth architecture will make a comeback? Will earth become an essential material for the future in the industry?