The Art of Earth Architecture: Past, Present, Future by Jean Dethier - review by Phineas Harper

Phineas Harper

Build Brown, Go Green

The Art of Earth Architecture: Past, Present, Future


Thames & Hudson 512pp £98 order from our bookshop

In December 1893 Mao Zedong was born in Shaoshan in an earth house built by his father. The childhood home of Sir Walter Raleigh in Hayes Barton was made from cob, a mix of earth and straw. In 1825 the German lawyer Wilhelm Wimpf built one of the tallest rammed-earth buildings in the world in Weilburg, where it still stands, two centuries later. A vast earth-brick ziggurat over ninety metres high is thought to have given rise to the Tower of Babel myth in ancient Mesopotamia. Of all the 869 cultural, architectural and urban UNESCO World Heritage Sites, more than 160 were built either wholly or partially from earth. For ten millennia, earth has been one of the most widely used construction materials on the planet.

Yet despite its vanishingly small carbon footprint, earth is almost absent from contemporary architecture. Young architects today are not being tutored in how to design with adobe, cob or rammed earth – indeed, they are barely even taught the terms. Instead, around the world architects utilise a narrow catalogue of highly processed, high-carbon materials, including concrete, steel and cement (processes involving the last of these alone account for 7 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions). To address the climate emergency, few industries must transform as deeply and as fast as construction.

This is a good moment, then, for the Belgian architect Jean Dethier to release a 512-page survey chronicling earth construction from prehistory onwards across five continents. Proportioned and priced as a coffee table filler, the book is in fact ferociously polemical. Within pages, Dethier is raging against the climate-wrecking paradigm of contemporary construction: ‘The excessive use of industrialized building materials, often under the pretext of rationality, is one of the main causes of climate change.’ He argues that ‘prevailing building practices of today are often exploitative and dangerous, forced upon us by a lobby of multinational manufacturers of industrialized materials that have come to dominate our lives’.

While there is a hint of the Luddite romantic to Dethier’s writing, his core argument – that the marginalisation of earth building is a political product of industrial capitalism – is persuasive. Pulling together an unlikely alliance that includes the English landscape designer Capability Brown, Egyptian pharaohs, Chinese Pritzker Architecture Prize laureates and the Dogon people of Mali’s central plateau, Dethier makes a powerful case that a re-evaluation of earth construction might provide a blueprint for the future as well as revealing much about our past.

A popular criticism of earth constructions is that they often require regular upkeep, a feature widely considered a weakness in architecture. The materials that define our built landscape have often been chosen not for their aesthetic or ecological value but to reduce the burden of periodic maintenance. Thatched roofs, for example, have been tiled, green spaces have been paved and tarmac has been poured over cobbles. Any gardener or parent knows that frequent small acts of care are preferable to intense bursts of activity that punctuate long periods of neglect, but construction, a largely male industry, conflates care with weakness, venerating the toughest of materials, often at the expense of higher carbon emissions.

Dethier casts light on earth construction traditions that embrace and even express the principle of architectural care, such as those of the Musgum people in Cameroon. Climbing eight metres high, with earth walls tapering in thickness from just thirty-five centimetres at the base to ten centimetres at the top, the Musgum’s tolek houses are remarkable feats of engineering. These dwellings take the form of catenary domes – the same mathematical principles underpin the dome of Florence Cathedral by Brunelleschi. The facade of each hut is arrayed like a pine cone with a spiralling pattern of grooves and ridges. This striking detail is not just decoration but also a multidirectional ladder, providing hand- and footholds. When maintenance is required, builders can easily scale the walls to apply earth render. In the hands of the Musgum, the humdrum implements of repair are transformed into a rich architectural motif. The American architect Louis Sullivan, who practised in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, coined the phrase ‘form follows function’ to express his proto-modernist philosophy that the aesthetic qualities of buildings should derive from meeting pragmatic challenges, yet in Cameroon this principle was flourishing centuries before.

Dismissal of the Global South has a long history in bourgeois architecture. Jane Drew, a pioneer of Tropical Modernism, built in West Africa, India and Iran, yet even she remarked that reviving ‘mud walls and thatched roofs’ would be ‘sentimental’, conflating indigenous traditions with nostalgia. In 1964, the Austrian architect Bernard Rudofsky attempted to expand his profession’s frame of reference by staging an exhibition entitled ‘Architecture Without Architects’ at MoMA. It presented images of monumental and arresting structures from across the globe and well outside the conventional canon of architectural history: the vast amphitheatres of stepped Incan cities; seas of wind scoops in Hyderabad; anthropomorphic Sudanese granaries. ‘Architectural history, as written and taught in the Western world,’ Rudofsky said, ‘has never been concerned with more than a few select cultures … Skipping the first fifty centuries, chroniclers present us with a full-dress pageant of “formal” architecture, as arbitrary a way of introducing the art of building as, say, dating the birth of music with the advent of the symphony orchestra.’

Rudofsky delighted in celebrating buildings locked out of the term ‘architecture’ but ultimately failed to break the lock. For all the research that it incorporated, the exhibition reaffirmed a divide between normal architecture – something taught, accredited and practised by the professional classes of industrialised economies – and something other. Rudofsky had many epithets for this other architecture: vernacular, anonymous, spontaneous, non-pedigreed, primitive and so on. These terms are not necessarily derogatory but gently prise apart the making of buildings into real architecture and the rest.

At the heart of Dethier’s mission is an attempt finally to dismantle this antiquated divide by recasting earth buildings and builders as players in the same narrative as the Gothic and Le Corbusier. He writes about mud buildings without the telltale modulations other critics use to distance so-called vernacular construction from the canon of high architecture. The mosque in the village of Nando in Mali is, therefore, affirmed by Dethier as a ‘masterpiece’ – who cares that there is no professionally accredited master to attribute it to? The Art of Earth Architecture is ultimately a decolonial book, taking on the aesthetic and cultural prejudices that fuel colonialism and lead us to devalue earth construction, neglect indigenous knowledge and heat the climate. It challenges the received canon of architectural history and calls for a paradigm shift in how architects relate to materials and the planet. As we face the climate emergency, Dethier’s holistic politicisation of the earth beneath our feet is ground-breaking in all senses.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

The Incomparible Monsignor

Kafka Drawings

Follow Literary Review on Twitter