Earthen Architecture and the Axis of Evil
Every three years, failing only once since 1972, several organizations committed to the preservation and advancement of earthen architecture have gathered in some interesting part of the world to share information, commiserate on the losses, and strategize about how best to promote our favorite building material. The first of these meetings was held in Yazd, Iran. Since then, the meetings have traveled to Turkey, Peru, New Mexico, Portugal, Italy and Great Britain. The latest, held in the fall of 2003, found us back in Yazd.
The choice of venue seemed a bit precarious at the time, the Axis of Evil having just been identified, but it was entirely appropriate from an earthen architecture point of view. Besides, who hasn't always wanted an excuse to see Persia on the Silk Road? Not only is Yazd one of the centers of world-class earthen architecture, Persia is historically one of the great artistic and geopolitical crossroads of the world. Could there be a more appropriate location for representatives from every continent except Antarctica to discuss the past and future of mud construction?
I was pleased to have been invited to present a paper in Yazd. My topic was structural underpinning of massive earthen buildings and was based on our experience in conserving such buildings in New Mexico and elsewhere. That's interesting and challenging to me and, I trust, was to the other delegates as well. But it was not nearly so interesting as hearing what my colleagues worldwide are doing, or as challenging as overcoming the threats to historic buildings in conflicted areas. That, in fact, has become an increasingly important topic at preservation symposia and is worth taking a look at in a future column that will not, let's hope, include Iran.
Since I have, in a previous column, reviewed the proceedings at Yazd, I have chosen to use this space to contemplate the general direction these conferences have been heading over thirty years. One fact is salient; during those three decades there has been an astonishing increase in interest in earthen architecture. At the first conference, only eleven papers were presented and they were mostly regional and entirely technical, dealing with weathering, use of chemical consolidants, etc. In 1993, when we met in Silves, Portugal, 110 papers were presented and in 2000 at Torquay, England there were 108. In both cases, many of the presentations were of a technical nature, but there was a blossoming of papers that dealt with the modern use of earthen architecture, with threats such as war and civil strife, and with the idea that there is simply too much to preserve unless the communities of use are involved. In other words, there has been a tendency to look not only at the science and technology of earth, but to the social implications as well.
That is good news for two reasons. First, the attention to the builders and users (present tense) of the structures, as opposed to those who have a purely academic interest in them, validates the idea that earth as a building material is not anachronistic. That earth still provides shelter for half the world's population is fact and serves to instruct the "green" movement by demonstrating that earth is the most available, the lowest energy embodied, the most sustainable, has enjoyed the longest use, and is the cheapest building material on the planet (with a few notable exceptions, like Santa Fe).
Second, for those of us who are interested in the conservation of the existing inventory of historic earthen buildings and see them as the precursors to present and future constructions, the communities of use are our instructors. Those who have read this column over the years may recall some of the lessons learned: how to site, how to found, how to plaster, how to deal with parapets, even how to make multi-story earthen buildings seismic resistant.
The site for the next general assembly of earth builders and conservators has not been selected, though the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization, who hosted the last event, has offered to host us on a regular basis. My preference would be to take it to Africa for several reasons. Every African country has an inventory of earthen structures, and some nations have assemblages that are simply over the top -- Burkina Faso and Mali, for example. And, though there has been African representation at all of the conferences, it has historically been small delegations due to the cost of travel. I would like for an African nation to host us because we have, I believe, drawn tremendously upon their experience without having been there.
Wherever the next gathering takes place, I am confident that the tendency of balancing and directing technical matters toward some of the overwhelming societal ones will continue, and that earth as a viable material in the developed as well as the developing world will be advanced.