EARTHEN BUILDING

Building in earth is one of the world’s oldest technologies, and traces of buildings
constructed in earth 4000 years ago still survive in the arid regions of the Middle East and
China. Its versatility (earth can be formed into building materials in at least half a dozen
different ways), its durability, and its economy have ensured its survival as a vernacular
building system in many parts of the world. The same qualities led to its revival in the
20th century in those parts of the world where the availability of suitable soils, the
prevalence of arid-zone climatic conditions, the high cost of industrialized building
materials or components, or the survival of a culture of building in earth have favored the
introduction of earth-based building materials and systems.
Of the several different ways of building in earth, monolithic earth construction, where
hand-formed balls of wet clay, with or without natural additives, are built up in courses
and left to dry and set, is probably the oldest and the most widely dispersed throughout
the world. Buildings in cob (Southwest England), in mud (Central Europe), and in swish
(West Africa) are a few of the many local vernacular manifestations of this method of
construction. Almost as old, and confined to the more arid regions of the globe is adobe:
sun-dried brick formed out of the local soil mixed with water, with or without natural
additives, and either hand-molded or cast in timber molds. In more humid regions of the
world, where timber is, or was, more readily available for building, wet clay was
commonly daubed onto an interwoven vegetal armature on a timber framework in wattle and daub
construction. (Although the term “daub” derives from the same Arab root as “adobe,” this
system is not indigenous in the arid-zone Arab homelands of the Middle East but was
prevalent throughout much of northwest Europe, and still is in many parts of sub-Saharan
Africa.)
A more complex technology is required to build in pisé (rammed earth), where sieved
earth, dampened and with or without natural additives, is rammed into timber formwork
(normally made of timber planks), with the walls being built up in courses, and left to
dry. Of considerable antiquity, this method was common in the lands surrounding the
Mediterranean in the ancient Roman period (3rd century B.C. through the 4th century
A.D), and has survived in many of those lands to the present day. Equally ancient
examples have been found in Central Asia and China, where its use has also survived.
A more recent development is the manufacture of earth blocks in metal molds,
compressed under either manual lever arm or hydraulic pressure, and the similar
stabilized earth blocks, where a binding agent—cement, lime, or bitumen—is added in
small quantities to the sieved earth to give greater compressive strength and waterresistance
to walls built in these materials.
Although the use of these technologies is usually restricted to wall
construction, adobe and pis é and monolithic earth are used in the construction
of roofs, whether flat, vaulted, or domed, and of upper floors. All these
materials and compressed or stabilized earth blocks are used in staircases
and paving.

Newly rendered private dwelling,
Djenne conservation project, begun in
1996 by the Dutch Government and
Mission Culturelle. The city is built
entirely in earth.

Closely related to the above technologies are construction in sod or peat cut from the
ground—found in Ireland, Scandinavia, and North America—and blocks cut or molded
from gypsum—found in parts of North Africa and Arabia.
Inevitably, with increasing industrialization and urbanization and the
commercialization of building construction skills, by 1900 these traditional technologies
had fallen into disuse in the more developed countries of the world and were already
going down-market in the less developed countries (colonies of European metropolitan
nations and independent African, Asian, and Latin American nations). More damagingly,
traditional maintenance skills and practices were being neglected, and many traditional
vernacular buildings were falling into decay through neglect, with the result that earthen
buildings were acquiring a reputation for nondurability.
Several factors, however, led to a revival of interest in earthen building around the
turn of the century. First, among architects, the Arts and Crafts Movement in the United
Kingdom and National Romanticism and Regionalism in Northern and Central Europe
had popularized traditional building materials and construction systems: thatch and
shingles for roofs, for example, and earthen materials for walls. In the decade after 1900,
Edwin Lutyens and Charles F.A.Voysey in England explored the po tential of cob, clay
lump, and clunch in country houses, and in Hungary, Karoly Kos exploited the plasticity
of monolithic earth construction in country houses, most notably in the Artists’ Colony,
Godollo.
Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture 726
Across the Mediterranean, in Africa, the high noon of European colonial imperialism
was opening up the cultural heritage of the continent to European observers; not only in
sculpture, jewelry and textiles, but in vernacular building also. The vigor, spontaneity,
and decorative quality of African arts and crafts, increasingly extensively collected (or
pillaged) and brought to Europe by colonial officials and adventurers, led to a revolution
in the fine arts in the decade before World War I (1914–18): Cubism and Fauvism owe
much of their appeal and their power to their African sources of inspiration. The effect on
architectural formal and stylistic development was less early and less obvious. To French
colonial administrators and missionaries attempting to lay down the infrastructure of
colonial government and Christian evangelism in North and West Africa, the venerable
monuments of Africa’s precolonial past, almost all of which had been built of earthen
materials, provided obvious prototypes for their own rudimentary building projects. A
particularly notable example is the R.C.Cathedral of the Seven Dolours of Mary in
Navrongo, Ghana (1907–10), built by the White Fathers throughout, as are most of the
older surrounding mission buildings, in pis é. Navrongo Cathedral is now a designated
National Monument in Ghana. British colonial administrators and missionaries were
generally not so venturesome, but a successful example of British colonial building in
adobe is the Kano Museum, in Kano, Northern Nigeria. The Anglican Namirembe
Cathedral (1913–19), designed by English architect Temple Moore, in Kampala, Uganda,
also contains much adobe brickwork in its interior walls.
The splendors of the monumental earthen architecture of Algeria, Morocco, and the
French Sudan were widely publicized in Europe, however, and the restoration in 1905 of
the ancient Great Mosque of Djenne, Mali, originally built in the 15th century of adobe
and monolithic earth, became a cause célèbre among avant-garde architects in France. A
generation later, Le Corbusier paid tribute to the architectural and environmental quality
of the adobe and pis é buildings of the ancient towns of the M’zab, in Algeria, in his African Notebooks, and
subsequently, in the dynamic, organic form of his pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamp,
France, for which the towns were a primary source of inspiration. In the outbacks of
Australia and South Africa, as the arid zones there were being opened up for colonial
settlement, earthen buildings were often the only materials available to the early settlers.
In both territories, sun-dried earth bricks were frequently manufactured out of termite
molds.
In the Americas, adobe was still a living tradition, and architects in the arid zones of
the United States were exploiting its plastic qualities in major buildings. The Fine Arts
Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico (1917) by Rapp and Rapp, in a pastiche of vernacular
styles, was less innovative than the later house projects by Frank Lloyd Wright and
Rudolph Schindler in New Mexico and Arizona.
The collapse of the building industry in much of Europe in the aftermath of World
War I gave an added boost to earthen building. British Architect Clough Williams-Ellis,
in addition to designing and building in earthen materials on his own estates in North
Wales—most notably at Portmeirion—was largely instrumental in popularizing earthen
building through his book Building in Cob, Pis é and Stabilis ed Earth, first published in 1919. In it, he convincingly advocated
the use of pis é for utilitarian housing and industrial and agricultural buildings. A second,
amplified and updated edition, edited by J.C.Eastwick-Field, was published in 1947 in the
aftermath of World War II, when similar economic conditions prevailed and a severe
shortage of conventional building materials led to a revival of the techniques advocated
Entries A–F 727
by Williams-Ellis a generation earlier. By this time, however, national and local
governments had become major providers of housing—for the poor, the homeless, war
veterans, and refugees—and many examples of low-cost housing, in pisé, adobe, and later in
compressed or stabilized’ earth blocks, survive in all continents. An example of such
housing is the Queen’s Park Estate, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, built between 1948 and
1953 by then-colonial government of Southern Rhodesia for returning war veterans and
immigrants.
Contemporary with this development was the pioneer village of New Gourna, near
Luxor, in Upper Egypt, designed by Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy to be built
throughout in adobe. At the time, this project was regarded as a failure because most of
the villagers from whom it was designed refused to move into the new village. New
Gourna itself, and Fathy’s advocacy of earthen building, was not widely appreciated until
some decades later, following the publication of his seminal work Housing for the Poo r, in 1973. Fathy,
however, was not alone in Egypt, a country in which there were many surviving
examples of adobe building, both from remote antiquity and in the present—for the
Nubian builders of Upper Egypt had retained the traditional skills and knowledge of their
ancient forebears—in advocating building in adobe. His enthusiasm and commitment was
shared by his contemporary, Wissa Wassef, who in the 1950s began building his magnum
opus in adobe, the group of buildings that eventually became the Ramses Wissa Wassef
Arts Centre, Harrania near Giza (1951–70).
The development of the CINVA Ram and other types of simple block-making
machines was a parallel response to the severe shortage of building materials after World
War II, the repercussions of which were as severe in the British Commonwealth and
European colonial countries and in Asia and Latin America as they were in Europe. The
pioneer work of developing the machine was carried out in Colombia, South America, in
the early 1950s, with the aim of producing a machine that was inexpensive to produce,
simple to operate, and easy to transport to the peri-urban areas of South America’s
rapidly expanding cities. Subsequently, the principles of design and production of
manually operated block-making presses was taken up by governmental and
intergovernmental agencies and nongovernmental organizations as a major tool in the
task of providing shelter for the homeless in all continents.
Meanwhile, in the arid-zone “sunshine states” of the United States, adobe had been
widely promoted as a popular and environmentally appropriate building material,
especially for housing and tourist facilities. In the earlier, midcentury phase of this
development, architects and builders sought to create buildings in a pastiche Indian
pueblo or Spanish colonial style, inspired by the surviving examples of the genuine
article in early mission compounds and Native American settlements. This adobe revival
had been gathering momentum for most of the century and had remained as much real
estate developer driven as architect driven. Fathy’s advocacy of the material since the
1970s has given all earthen materials a higher profile and a greater sense of authenticity
and architectural quality. This factor, together with the influential exhibition on “Des
Architectures de Terre” (Architectures in Earth) at the Center Pompidou in Paris, France,
in 1982, and the accompanying book on the same subject by Jean Dethier, has resulted in
a veritable avalanche of adobe and pis é building throughout the warmer arid-zones of the
globe and in the construction of many examples of earthen architecture of high quality
that look well in the landscape and that provide an interior climate that is thermally
Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture 728
comfortable—comparatively cool summer and warm in winter—and economical to
maintain.
More innovative projects in the United States paid particular attention to the energy
conservation and thermal comfort potential of adobe buildings. More significant
developments included LaLuz Residential Estate, Albuquerque, New Mexico (1975),
designed by Antoine Predock. Both he and William Lumpkin, architect of several houses
in New Mexico such as the Balcomb Residence Santa Fe (1978), are architects who have
revitalized and energized the adobe tradition in the United States. Given the increasingly
high cost of energy, earthen building materials, which require little energy to produce,
and earthen buildings, which require comparatively little energy to maintain at a
comfortable temperature, are likely to retain their popularity and their prestige in the 21st
century.

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