Sustainable lessons from ‘The Art of Earth Architecture’

The city of Yazd is nestled deep in the desert in Iran’s central plain. This world heritage site is home to a mighty collection of domes – structures made entirely from local raw earth bricks and covered in kah-gel, a protective layering of earth and straw. They are intersected with ingenious wind towers too – early air-cons sending cool air into homes. Then, a clever network of wells and underground water channels, known as quanat, provide Yazdis with water collected from mountains and over long distances. There are intricate mansion homes built during the Qajar dynasty (1789-1925) too, some of which have survived the desert climate and even earthquakes. This is urban planning for people and places, with spectacular visceral impact.

The sensually shaped domes of Iran © André Stevens

We didn’t quite make it to Yazd on a recent trip to Iran – harsh desert storms kept us locked away in nearby Kashan. So, it is hugely exciting to leaf through ‘The Art of Earth Architecture’, and explore the pages dedicated to the raw beauty of Yazd. Published by Thames & Hudson, the book presents a panorama of raw earth structures from around the globe, from ancient times to the present day. And it is a fascinating voyage into an area that seems to have been largely neglected from the history of design. ‘Raw earth is the most humble, most ecological, and most accessible of all construction materials,’ writes the author Jean Dethier in his introduction. ‘It is a treasure lying beneath our feet.’

‘The Art of Earth Architecture’ by Jean Dethier © Thames & Hudson

It turns that for some 10,000 years we have been building homes and schools and palaces and forts and more with raw, unbaked earth. Available in abundance, this simple material is extremely durable and ideal for construction. Often confused with cooked earth (which is treated either baked or fired), raw earth is essentially drawn from the mineral undersoil beneath the fertile land which typically grows crops. There are various forms of raw earth construction too: adobe and rammed earth, cob, wattle, and daub. Civilisations have made villages and cities from this earth, and Dethier sees the material as a means of democratising architecture.

Imaginary buildings using concepts of earth architecture © Josep Esteve

With over 800 photographs and illustrations, the author surveys 450 sites from 75 countries across continents. Featured are the temples and palaces of Mesopotamia and Egypt, the Great Wall of China, the Alhambra in Spain, as well as vernacular heritage and historical cities such as Shibam in Yemen, Djenné in Mali and Marrakech.

Dethier observes contemporary raw earth buildings too – the work of pioneers of modern earth architecture, Francoise Cointereaux and Hassan Fathy, as well as those by celebrated architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, Frances Kéré, Wang Su, Norman Foster and Renzo Piano.

Houses in Wadi Dawan, Yemen © Trevor Marchand

‘The Art of Earth Architecture’ brings together archaeology and history, culture and technology with a speculative eye on how we can harness lessons learned from the ancient art of sustainable raw earth building to benefit the now and the future. Dethier is an architect himself, as well as curator, essayist, and activist who has been awarded the prestigious Grand Prix d’Architecture for his contribution to the democratisation of architectural cultures.

He believes raw earth building to be a viable, ecological alternative to current construction methods, noting that the use of this natural material requires neither industrial transformation nor high energy consumption, and it doesn’t produce harmful gases. The author says contemporary earth architecture has proved its worth in terms of relevance, reliability, and quality, making it a convincing substitute for cement and concrete for small or medium-sized buildings.

Rammed earth columns by Steven Jimel for the 2008 Villa Janna, Marrakech © Nic LeHoux

The book sets out a bold ecological manifesto with articles by renowned researchers and practitioners – including those of the CRAterre group, the research laboratory on earthen architecture founded in 1979. They provide a radical yet real argument for earth construction to play a much more pivotal role in the fight against climate deregulation. The history of raw architecture is about need, resources, and skills. Writes Dethier: ‘It is vital that we change the economic logic of the building industry, creating a new model that favours the use of local natural resources.’

Jean-Louis Cohen, Sheldon H. Solow Professor in the History of Architecture at New York University Institute of Fine Arts, says the book ‘convincingly demonstrates that the renaissance of earth architecture is no longer merely a pipe dream, but has become a tangible ecological reality – and this is very much thanks to the active militancy of its authors’.

Artist Silla Camara works on a mural in Djajibinni, Mauritania, 1985 © Josep Esteve

And perhaps the incredible architectural beauty and heritage sites spread across the pages of ‘The Art of Earth Architecture’, including the Yazd that I’m destined to see one day, teach us a valuable lesson: sometimes the best solutions are to be found in the most humble, the most low-tech places. This is the history of buildings and architecture, cities and settlements, of planning spaces for people and places.

‘The Art of Earth Architecture’ by Jean Dethier is published by Thames & Hudson and out on 27 February 2020

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