20 novembro 2023

Text excerpt _The Potential of Earth_Upscaling Earth: Material, Process, Catalyst

The Potential of Earth

from Upscaling Earth: Material, Process, Catalyst,

Earth can serve as the basis for infinite conceptualizations and take on many colors and forms. From a historical perspective, earth is our oldest and single most important building material: it encapsulates qualities that anchor architecture in its very roots. 

As Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, founder of the Snøhetta Architectural Design practice, has noted: 

The essence of creation is captured in one material as old as the world itself and brand new as fast as it dries. It is as warm as the colour tones of the ground it comes from, as hard as rock to equally withstand the forces that made it, controlling humidity, temperature. Show me one other material that can do the same (4).”

Earth can be found almost anywhere in the world and translated into a contextually unique structure. Whether in the desert climates of North Africa, the tropical monsoon regions of Asia, or the frost-laden contexts of Central Europe; whether a peripheral single-family residence or highly urban, multi-story building: earth is both a viable and palpably sustainable material with which to design our world.

Archaeological excavations have revealed that earth has consistently been one of the most widely used building materials, traversing climates and continents, and that the building culture of earth has existed for more than nine thousand years (5). Its typologies include not just residential structures but the religious buildings, statues, and monuments, the ziggurats and fortifications that remain a part of the urbanized world today. The cities of Jericho, Chan-Chan in Peru, or Babylon in Iraq, the Alhambra in Spain, and even the original parts of the Great Wall of China were all constructed using various earth building techniques, from adobe brickmaking to ramming (6). 

Three thousand two hundred years ago, parts of the temple complex of Ramses II were constructed with earth bricks in Gourna, Egypt; the core of the sun pyramid in Teotihuacan, Mexico, was primarily constructed with rammed earth between the years 300 and 900 CE (7). Moreover, the earthen elements of these edifices did not contain any form of further structural reinforcement or stabilization beyond wooden ring beams or lintels of stone. These works demonstrate the ability of earth to withstand the tests of time and -particularly when well maintained - to survive weather events and even natural disasters such as earthquakes.

Currently, earth is the only material that completely aligns with fully sustainable building principles, such as the cradle-to-cradle concept (8). Like no other building material, earth is not only suited to its local climate but also has the capacity to generate an equally localized building culture, one in which investments in construction are grounded in social capital. 

It is this key aspect that gives earthen architecture the potential to break the cycles of financialization that extract profits from localities to enrich global conglomerates and corporations, and that so often dictate the course of development around the globe. Instead, the ever-varying characteristics of earth promote a broad range of socially sustainable and economically viable solutions.

More than this, earth also provides a rich aesthetic palette that mirrors and expresses cultural diversity. Anyone who has stood inside a house made of earth is familiar with the strong sense of place the material generates. 

Earth is healthy, not just in regard to sustainable construction, but also in the sense of physical and psychological well-being. It creates an emotional, familiar atmosphere and an unparalleled interior climate. While earth itself is not technologically advanced, it is capable of highly technical feats; for example, its ability to absorb water vapor like no other human-made material. Elevated and edified or not, earth contains great potential to meet contemporary needs. As described by Iranian-American architect Mohsen Mostafavi: “The limitations of a material’s use, or misuse, depend solely on our capacity to imagine alternative and unexpected means of incorporating it into the design process.” (9)

Architecture, as a design practice, began to eschew building with earth hundreds of years ago. The evolving specialization of the design world and fascination with more technologically advanced methods has relegated earth to a primitive, basic material. Only recently has this perception begun to change, and the potentials of one of our most ancient building materials explored anew. The challenge, therefore, as formulated by Mostafavi, is: 

How can we use dirt from the surface of the earth to make an alternative architecture that is both technically and aesthetically responsive to the conditions of our times?” (10)

(4) Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, as location in Venice in “Mud WORKS!” poster for the 15th International Architecture Exhibition, Biennale architettura 2016: Reporting from the Front, May 28 to November 27, 2016.

(5)  See Gernot Minke, Building with Earth: Design and Technology of a Sustainable Architecture (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2012, 3rd ed.), p. 11.

(6)  See David Easton, The Rammed Earth House (White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007), p. 4.

(7)  Ibid. pp. 3–9.

(8)  See William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (New York: North Point Press, 2002).

(9)  Mohsen Mostafavi, as cited in “Mud WORKS!” (see note 4).

(10)     Ibid.

Text excerpt from: Heringer, Anna, Howe, Lindsay Blair, Rauch, Martin, Upscaling Earth: Material, Process, Catalyst, GTA publishers, February, 2020

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