In 1959, the Suez Crisis led to oil shortages and the rise of fuel prices across the western world. British Motor Corporation responded by creating an economy car which was affordable and used little petrol. The Sir Alec Issigonis design for the original Mini was genius. The tiny motor car he invented for BMC could pack in more passengers than any other in its comparable size – and it was super-fun to drive too. The Boomers and young hip urbanites fell for its no-frills approach and go-kart drive. The Mini felt democratic; it was effortless and iconoclastic and starred in The Italian Job alongside thoroughly cool Michael Caine. It became and remains a symbol of 60s counterculture.
With the traditional motor car experiencing what only can be described as an existential crisis, modern MINI has a chance to become a symbol of the progressive 2020s. Maybe it can even become the future personal transport choice for gen Z. The MINI cars produced under BMW Group ownership in the last two decades are stylish products. They are good-looking, like the original they handle a little go-karty and don’t feel too elitist for urbanites. Yet I can’t help thinking there is something missing from the modern MINI formula. The marque could be so much more. Enter the MINI Vision Urbanaut, a shape-shifting electric vehicle that rethinks personal transport’s form and function, and it feels like the right direction for the brand.
Talking to the BMW Group creative director Adrian van Hooydonk earlier when the brand revealed its radical future vision under #NextGen, he told me: ‘MINI customers typically live in urban environments and I believe they are even more ready for electric drive and new ways of looking at mobility than perhaps our other brands. We can definitely go faster in this direction. The Vision Urbanaut shows how MINI can take our BMW iNext thoughts to another level. I think we can use MINI to push these concepts further.’
Take a closer look at the MINI Vision Urbanaut here Images above (c) Hartmut Nörenberg and below (c) MINI
The Microlino by Swiss maker Micro is a tiny electric vehicle imagined entirely for city commutes and short distance travel. Its shape is inspired by the bubble cars of the 1940s and 50s – think of the brilliant L’Oeuf Electrique by French industrial designer Paul Arzens or BMW’s Isetta – with its single front door design which allows you to step right onto the pavement when cross parked.
The Microlino can transport three adults and their luggage, will speed up to 56mph and there is an option of a 77 or 124-mile range battery. Essentially, this bubble will make city commutes easy and (I suspect) hugely fun. It would be hard not to smile if you saw one drive by. To me, it represents a simple and relevant design idea.
The Urban Mobility Vehicle hovers somewhere between a motorbike and a conventional car. It is agile like a two-wheeler, but with the comfort and safety of four wheels. the UMV runs on electricity has a much smaller footprint than a standard city car and is around 34% more energy efficient than your average electric vehicle. Plus, it is designed as a premium product by former creatives from Pininfarina. Possibly even more exciting is the brand behind this inaugural product, Komma. See my interview with the creative team leading this new Swiss start-up setting out to rethink our future cities here.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
‘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.
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’.
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
We are at a really critical time in history – more than 70% of the world’s population is migrating to cities over the next 30 years, and technology is completely altering our reality. We have to rethink how we live, work, interact, consume … I see this as a hugely exciting time. And there are some very exciting innovators and thinkers and designers working on highly progressive concepts. Here’s the latest one I came across