Learning from sustainable raw earth architecture

Houses in Wadi Dawan, Yemen © Trevor Marchand

Once-upon-a-time, we built shelters, homes, communities, and villages out of simple raw earth. These settlements relied entirely on local resources and the skills of its people. Planning and construction responded to the place and the needs of its inhabitants, and the buildings were a pure expression of sustainable architecture. Yet, this extraordinary global heritage has been largely edited out from the pages of design history.

A new book sets out to challenge this by capturing history’s most exciting examples of raw earth architecture while suggesting its potential for modern urban design. ‘The Art of Earth Architecture’ by Thames & Hudson presents a world panorama of some of the most visceral structures of ancient times through to the present day. ‘Raw earth is the most humble, most ecological, and most accessible of all construction material,’ writes the author Jean Dethier in his introduction. ‘It is a treasure lying beneath our feet.’

For almost 10,000 years, mankind has built with raw, unbaked earth. Available in abundance, this simple material is extremely durable and ideal for building tough structures – homes, palaces, temples, forts. Often confused with cooked earth (which is treated, as in baked or fired), raw earth is essentially drawn from the mineral undersoil beneath the fertile land which typically grows crops. Civilisations have made villages and cities from this earth, and Dethier sees the material as a way to democratise architecture.

Architect Mariam Kamara's 2018 raw earth domes at Dandaji central mosque, Niger © James Wang

With over 800 stunning photographs and illustrations, the book 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, the Iranian heritage cities of Yazd and Bam, as well as vernacular heritage and historical cities such as Shibam in Yemen, Djenne? in Mali and Marrakech. Dethier observes contemporary raw earth buildings too, including chapters dedicated to the pioneers of modern earth architecture – Francoise Cointereaux and Hassan Fathy – and developments by celebrated architects – Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, Frances Ke?re?, Wang Su, Norman Foster, 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 building to benefit the now and the future. Dethier is an architect himself, as well as a curator, essayist, and activist. His view is that raw earth building can be a viable, ecological alternative to some current construction methods; that the material can replace environmentally harmful concrete in certain build scenarios. The use of this natural material requires neither industrial transformation nor high energy consumption, nor does it produce harmful gases. Contemporary earth architecture has proved its worth in terms of relevance, reliability, and quality, to be a convincing substitute for cement and concrete for small or medium-sized buildings.

The 2005 rammed earth building designed by Marci Webster-Mannison at Charles Sturt University, Australia © Germain Rozo et Claire Guyet

With articles by renowned researchers and practitioners, including the CRAterre research laboratory on earthen architecture, the book puts across a compelling case for this style of construction to play a more pivotal role in the fight against climate deregulation. The history of raw architecture is about need, resources, and skills. ‘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,’ writes Dethier.

‘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,’ says Jean-Louis Cohen, Sheldon H. Solow Professor in the History of Architecture at New York University Institute of Fine Arts.

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

And perhaps the incredible architectural beauty and heritage sites spread across the pages of ‘The Art of Earth Architecture’ 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, and the future.

Images from top: The city of Selyun, Yemen © Javarman Shutterstock.com; The sensually shaped domes of Iran © André Stevens; Architect Mariam Kamara’s 2018 raw earth domes at Dandaji central mosque, Niger © James Wang; The mausoleum of Koi Krylgan Kala built with abode and rammed earth in 4th century BCE; 2005 rammed earth building designed by Marci Webster-Mannison at Charles Sturt University, Australia © Germain Rozo et Claire Guyet; rammed earth columns by Steven Jimel for Villa Janna, Marrakech 2008 © Nic LeHoux.

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The Art of Earth Architecture jacket
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