The Art of Earth Architecture

Studio Rick Joy’s Tucson Mountain House was constructed from rammed earth an is a mix of modern minimalism and vernacular construction.

This house is one of 250 buildings in The Art of Earth Architecture: Past, Present, Future, a new book by Jean Dethier and Princeton Architectural Press. Dethier is a curator and historian and has dedicated his 50-plus-year career to exploring architecture made from earthen materials. This book is both an informative global survey of buildings—from ancient Egypt to today—and a call to action. “As we face the dangerous and deep crisis related to climate change, we absolutely and urgently need feasible alternatives,” Dethier writes.

Reducing the building industry’s reliance on carbon-intensive construction materials is an important step for fighting climate change. Rammed earth, which is a focus of Dethier’s book, along with other earthen techniques like adobe and cob, is one of the better options because of its structural stability and small carbon footprint.

Designed by the firm Atelier Koe, this rammed earth house located 30 miles outside of Dakar, Senegal, was intended to be a reprieve from city life. © By Reg› – Régis L›Hostis from The Art of Earth Architecture, published by Princeton Architectural Press.

Architects are looking at indigenous and vernacular design as greener alternatives to conventional construction and The Art of Earth Architecture shows how it can be applied to modern buildings.

Shibham, in Yemen, is nicknamed the “Manhattan of the Desert.” A UNESCO World Heritage site, the city features tall towers dating from the 16th century, which are made from stone foundations and mud brick walls. Aga Khan Trust for Culture/photo by Anne de Henning

“The traditions have been largely ignored because they were victims of a huge cultural amnesia,” Dethier says. “It was high time to honor them. Of course, the idea is not at all to ‘copy’ the past…It is to clearly understand the many lessons we can learn from it with the aim to modernize and adapt this technical and cultural sophisticated knowhow to present-day needs.”

Traditional rammed earth is made from clay-rich soil, water, and natural stabilizers like animal blood or urine and plant fibers that have been packed down. Today, it’s used around the world in homes, like the Tucson house by Rick Joy, offices, shopping centers, places of worship, and more, which are featured in Dethier’s book.

The Yaama mosque, in Niger, was built in 1962 using mud brick. Designed by the master mason Falké Barmou, the mosque was deconsecrated and fell into disrepair. Recently, it was transformed into a public library. James Wang

“The optimal new uses of raw earth as a construction material are now increasingly adopted all over the world for three main reasons: It does not need any industrialization process, does not consume fossil energy, and does not emit CO2,” Dethier says. “Housing and buildings appropriately designed to use the local resource of raw earth are providing high climatic comfort, as well as a very pleasant living experience…generating sobriety, economy, beauty, sensuality, harmony with nature and eco-responsibility.”

“To efficiently face our world’s ecological crisis, all the citizens have to be informed about realistic ways to adopt a radically new and progressive way of life and consumption,” he says, “including, in priority, how we build and live in our houses, and more broadly in our built environment.”

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1 thought on “The Art of Earth Architecture”

  1. Wow ,that’s a great picture of the Yaama mosque. We have beautiful red clay deposits throughout Virginia. Imagine the possibilities!


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