The Art of Earth Architecture

The Art of Earth Architecture: Past, Present, Future
Jean Dethier
Princeton Architectural Press, March 2020

Hardcover | 9-1/2 x 12 inches | 512 pages | 800 illustrations | English | ISBN: 978-1616898892 | $125.00


For almost ten thousand years, unbaked earth has been used to build remarkable structures, from simple dwellings to palaces, temples, and fortresses both grand and durable. Jean Dethier spent fifty years researching this landmark global survey, which spans five continents and 250 sites. The Art of Earth Architecture demonstrates the wide-ranging applications and sustainability of this building material, while presenting a manifesto for its ecological significance. Featuring raw-earth masterpieces, monumental structures, and little known works, the book includes the temples and palaces of Mesopotamia, the Great Wall of China, large-scale urban developments in Tenochtitlan in Mexico, the medinas of Morocco, and housing in Marrakech and Bogota. This definitive reference features many UNESCO World Heritage sites and contains essays on the historical, technical, and cultural aspects of raw-earth construction from twenty experts in the field, as well as hundreds of photographs, illustrations, and architectural drawings.

Jean Dethier has dedicated his life to the research, safeguarding, and development of earth structures around the world. Dethier worked at the Centre Pompidou as a curator of influential architectural exhibits for thirty years. Winner of the prestigious Grand Prix national de l'architecture, he sat on the jury of the 2016 Terra Award, the first international prize for contemporary earthen structures.

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The most sustainable thing that architects and builders could do is to abandon concrete, steel, and other materials that use excessive amounts of energy to produce; then they would build exclusively with earth: rammed earth, sun dried brick, etc. Such a pivot might be tenable if the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic found a parallel in areas of energy and climate. Although there is a strong sense of urgency with certain groups in dealing with climate change, too many people, corporations, and organizations see climate change as something that will happen in the future, that technology will save, or that will cripple the economy if addressed, much like measures against the coronavirus have disabled certain sectors of the economy and put millions out of work. In regards to the last, COVID-19 has highlighted structural deficiencies in economies and governments, too many of which are set up for the profits of the few rather than the welfare of the many. Likewise, the construction sector can be seen as a vital player in the capitalization of architecture, in which buildings are more important as assets than as dignified places of shelter, work, and the like. Witness the supertalls along 57th Street in Manhattan; these spaces for investment of often foreign money require extreme amounts of energy to build and operate. These and other tall buildings in concrete and steel could never be built in something as humble or labor-intensive as rammed earth.

Perusing The Art of Earth Architecture made me think of many things. Some of those things, like the paragraph above, were about the disconnect between the many positive qualities of earth architecture and the realities of population centers around the world. A future of eco, earthen architecture doesn't see difficulties just in Manhattan and other rich places where energy-intensive materials are basically mandated by building codes. In areas where building with earth has been the norm for a long time, modern materials are often seen as a sign of progress and are therefore preferred; sticking with rammed earth, for instance, would be viewed as a step backward. So if shifting to earth architecture and sticking with earth architecture are both difficult prospects, what is to be done to sway societies to its benefits? One way is to promote the beauty of earth architecture.

The book's name, The Art of Earth Architecture, expresses as much: building with earth is an art that can be beautiful and should be appreciated for its artfulness. The places inside the massive, expensive, but very worthwhile book span the globe and reach back hundreds or even thousands of years. The book's seven chapters basically work chronologically, from archaeological evidence of earth construction and its vernacular heritage to modern and contemporary examples, with essays looking at the future of earth architecture closing the book. It is very much a large picture book, but it is also very smart, with essays by Jean Dethier, his scientific committee from CRAterre (Patrice Doat, Hubert Guillaud, Hugo Houben), and others interspersed amongst the many projects of earthen eco-architecture. 

Does one project stand out above the rest to point a way forward? A favorite of mine (and Dethier, who calls it "a true masterpiece of contemporary earth architecture") is Amateur Architecture Studio's Wa Shan Guesthouse at the China Academy of Art, a building I heard Wang Shu talk about in 2013, the year it was completed. It's larger than most rammed earth buildings but also benefits, in my opinion, from not shouting, "I'm a rammed earth building!" as so many do. It's a playful, idiosyncratic design of earth, timber, bamboo, and other natural materials. Its beauty arises from the melange of materials as well as its form and considerations of use. No single building can overturn the negative trends of a whole industry, but the Wa Shan Guesthouse just might convince a developer who has visited it or seen it in these pages to build apartments or some other building from rammed earth. Such a thing would be an excellent start.