Building with mud, glorious mud
06 February 2009
An email arrives from Jean Dethier, director of the Pompidou's architecture exhibitions between 1975 and 2004. Remember Le Temps des Gares, Images & Imaginaires d'Architecture, Architecture de Terre? Great exhibitions, all. Dethier wants to tell me about a lecture he's giving, "Building with Raw Earth: an eco-revolution?" on February 17 at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.
This was a timely message as when it came, I was sorting through photographs I'd taken as a student of a trip through Saharan Africa to Djenne and yes, to Timbuktu, when getting to either town was an adventure even by sturdy Peugeot 404 pick-up.
Last year, I heard a Cambridge student confidently telling her colleagues, "everyone has been to Djenne." Perhaps they have. Magazines, TV documentaries and the internet have made the mud mosque at Djenne as familiar as Notre Dame, and I imagine there must be an Easy Jet or Ryanair flight to Mali for the price of a handful of dust.
What thrilled me at Djenne was the fact that such an ambitious building could be made of mud. Proper religious buildings, indeed all proper buildings, were surely made of brick, stone and timber, or concrete, steel and glass?
When I returned from Mali, I happened to stay with friends at Collompton in Devon, and their venerable cottage proved to be made of... mud. Well, of cob to be exact. This got me excited. I began investigating mud or "raw earth buildings", delving into the history of vernacular structures and how their construction had formed a variety of different styles as rich as it was delightful, a variety nurturing a true sense of place in the days before comprehensive redevelopment and urban regeneration, along with a nationwide developer housing spree, had made everywhere begin to look much of a much.
What I also learned was that modern forms of construction, married to rules, regulations and general bullying by governments and officialdom, meant that houses were built to increasingly similar specifications. Even if a new house tried to blend in with its old neighbours, it stood out because of its scale, proportions, the size of its windows and so on. The art of building with local materials gave us houses with a delightful range of styles, proportions, thicknesses of walls, depths of window reveals, shapes of roof... the list goes on. If we could find economical ways of building modern houses from local materials, we might yet escape the banality of 90% of contemporary housing design, buildings raced up without love and with little respect for locale.
Imagine if British housebuilders were asked to extend Djenne or Timbuktu: these towns would look like the fringes of Doncaster or Telford. It would be good to see some of Britain's most inventive architects learning to wallow in mud. Jean Dethier is offering to show them how.
From BD (Building Design Magazine)