Earthen architecture: the environmentally friendly building blocks of tangible and intangible heritage

© UNESCO/F. Bandarin
Bam - Iran (Islamic Republic of)

Nothing’s more common than earth, mud, dirt; the inexhaustible and versatile material that has served to build some of the world’s most stunning cultural landmarks: the sun and moon pyramids of Teotihuacan (Mexico); the churches and palaces of Old Havana (Cuba); the Alhambra (Spain) as well as Shibam (Yemen), often described as the Manhattan of the Arabian Peninsula.

UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre has been working with architects and conservationists around the world to maintain, extend and disseminate knowledge of earthen architecture and technique through its World Heritage Earthen Architecture Programme (WHEAP). In December the Organization hosted a Colloquium : World Heritage Earthen Architecture at its Headquarters in Paris.

© Yvon Fruneau
Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou - Morocco

One third of the world’s population is believed to be living in structures that are at least in part made of earth and the techniques used to build them are extremely varied. They include raw adobe bricks, compressed mud blocks, wattle and daub and more. Structures partially or wholly constructed with earth—some of them erected and maintained by entire communities drawing on ancestral know-how—account for 20 per cent of UNESCO’s universally admired cultural sites and are inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Studying and maintaining earthen architecture is important for the safeguarding of heritage sites but earthen architecture also offers attractive solutions for environmentally friendly buildings in the modern context.  Indeed, earth is always available locally and using it reduces the need to transport heavy building materials.

Moreover, walls made of earth have proved to have excellent thermal properties, keeping out both the heat of summer and the cold of winter.

Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy (1900-1989) invented sustainable or environmentally friendly architecture in the middle of the 20th century by drawing on the building technics of traditional Egyptian earthen constructions.  He demonstrated the functional, as well as artistic pertinence of this type of building, creating a contemporary Arabic idiom of architecture with which people could identify more readily than they did with the more costly modern styles of design imported from Europe and the USA.

Fathy’s constructions also proved functionally effective and highlighted the value of maintaining such ancestral building features as the Nubian vault, the technique of using mud bricks to build curved roofs without a supporting grid. His work has inspired many architects around the world today—including celebrated contemporary greats such Rem Koolhaas,, Alvaro Siza and Wang Shu, to name but a few—proving the tremendous stylistic and functional potential of earthen architecture to meet domestic and corporate needs in a contemporary idiom.

© UNESCO/Song Xiang Lin
Fujian Tulou - China

© UNESCO/ADA
At-Turaïf District in Ad-Dir'iyah - Saudi Arabia

In much of the world earthen architecture is produced by communities, involving the participation of the users of these edifices under the guidance of much respected master builders. Such communal and democratic building practices are to be found in America, Africa, Asia. Edifices such as the mosques of Timbuktu have been maintained through the ages by the entire community of users, in Haiti groups of families band together to build each other’s houses; houses which have proved particularly resilient to earthquakes.

But in many cases the dissolution of traditional community structures because of social change and massive urbanization makes it difficult to maintain such practices.

Concerted efforts are underway to save and develop earthen architecture buildings and construction techniques and UNESCO has been working on this with CRAterre ENSAG / Labex AE&CC, a specialized branch of the Grenoble School of Architecture in France, the Getty Conservation Institute, the World Monuments Fund, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Proterra and more.

Earthen architecture experts at the conference issued an appeal highlighting the role of communities and the need to maintain their involvement in the upkeep of existing earthen structures. They also called on the World Heritage Committee to reinforce the standing of earthen architecture in cultural heritage preservation. All this is important not just to maintain existing constructions but also to preserve the know-how that has been used in their construction and upkeep.

The experts also stressed the need to promote earthen architecture for its potential to help fight against poverty and environmental protection. Earth is not just the ground we stand on, it is also the fabric with which to build our future.

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