Racing Alone: Thoughts on Advancing Earthen Architecture
Presented at The 3rd Adobe Conference of the Adobe Association of the Southwest
May 2005: El Rito, New Mexico
With a nod to Nader Khalili for the use of his phrase "racing alone," this paper will discuss two phenomena that have emerged in the last forty years since the signing of the Charter of Venice. The first is the unfortunate dichotomy that has developed between architects and architectural conservators. The second is the proliferation of regional schools of thought in the field of earthen architecture that have led to a decided competitiveness and territoriality that has worked against advancing the technologies and traditions of earth building.
Part One: Dichotomy among professionals.
It is just over forty years since the meeting of the International Council of Architects met in Venice and produced a document that would define and guide the profession of historic preservation right up to the present day. It was a seminal document, and though not the first by any means to address the issue of architectural conservation, it was insightful, global in scope and, significantly, it was beautifully timed. The mid-1960s saw a huge loss of cultural property, from the willful destruction of Pennsylvania Station in New York to the massive losses by flooding in Florence and Venice. In response to these events, and the spreading malevolence of Urban Renewal that led to the razing of entire historic neighborhoods, the experts in Venice provided a rubric from which governmental entities could begin outlining standards and statutes that would protect heritage.
The signing of the Charter of Venice was, without question, the most important moment in the history of heritage preservation in the western world. It led directly to any number of national and regional doctrines for the protection of the built environment. From it, for example, were derived our own Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. The Charter of Venice was as influential a document to historic preservation as Magna Carta and The Bill of Rights were to republican thought. And, like the latter, it is still revered.
The problem with the Charter of Venice and its subsidiary documents (including the Standards) is that they are preoccupied with materials, what conservators are so fond of calling "historic fabric." It also refers throughout to buildings as "monuments." In other words, it is preoccupied with what might be termed erudite architecture, buildings like the Parthenon, the Coliseum, the Lincoln Memorial, the Taj Mahal, the Cathedral of Cholula, and any of a host of others. But the host of others, when you think about it, is a diminutive number indeed when it is compared with the inventory of vernacular, or common buildings. Can standards written to protect the material culture of high architectural achievement be applied to the more humble vernacular?
Vernacular buildings are, of course, material. The material, however, is always local, and though often crude or commonplace in appearance and often incorporating long, unwritten traditions in their constant manipulation of materials and space, vernacular buildings are always the unique product of a local population. As a category, vernacular buildings and sites are most clearly defined by the fact that they are occupied and used by the culture or the families who built and maintained them in the first place, and whose identities are inextricably intertwined with their own built environment. And among their defining characteristics is that they are in a constant state of change.
Importantly, as the word "vernacular" implies, they are home-born, not products resulting from the trained eye of an architect.
I entitled this paper Racing Alone because I believe that as important as the Charter of Venice is, it has led over the course of forty years to a deep mistrust between two professions that should logically be progressing as confederates, but are instead following independent tracks. Architects and architectural conservators are almost always at each other's throats and this impacts both historic properties and new stock built of local materials with long traditions (and here I am specifically referencing earth). They are seeking their own achievements and missing collaborative opportunities that could broaden both fields.
It is paradoxical that the Charter of Venice and the Secretary of Interior's Standards were drafted by architects who had a deep respect for the history, traditions and artistic achievements of their profession. Why did they not see beyond the monumental (which probably comprises less than 5% of our built inventory) to include the vernacular (which takes up the majority of the balance)? It is this oversight that, in my view, has left the professions split and feuding.
Consider the professionals that you know in both fields, architecture and architectural conservation. Your friend the architect is both artistic and visionary, concerned with problem solving in a creative (though not necessarily efficient) way. Your colleague in architectural conservation is myopic, obsessed with molecules of paint, constantly testing and experimenting and proclaiming a deep respect for the materials and bemoaning their being disturbed.
And what do conservators say about architects? Probably that they are throbbing masses of ego determined to alter the landscape with their own overblown memorials. And the architect is just as likely to revile the conservator for missing the point of creative achievement and becoming a sideshow to the function and service of an artistic work.
And so on and on. The practical result is that even when both professions are being taught under one roof, as is common at universities with preservation programs, the practitioners will not commingle their skills and resources and will (I have seen it!) avoid each other in the hallways.
My concern here is the affect this nonsense has on traditional architecture. New buildings following old and effective technologies are one of the great promises for solving social problems if architects and conservators can get it together. I can illustrate the principal with an example of the converse, which is the loss of those effective technologies while the "style" is retained. Of course, I am referring to The Style and that can only be Santa Fe.
Part of the absurdity in Santa Fe is that conservators, consulting with structural engineers, have made such a fuss about the limitations of adobe as a building material, its fragility, its need to be respected, that they have (probably inadvertently) convinced the code writers that the material is essentially untrustworthy. The result is that when a house is built in The Style it is comprised of earthen blocks saturated with asphalt emulsion, laid up in Portland cement, bonded with a rigid concrete beam, sprayed with polyurethane, shattered with lathing nails and encased in elastomerics.
Adobe? The Style, perhaps, but not by any stretch of the imagination is this adobe, or even earthen, architecture.
And so a venerable material with the longest history of success of any substance on the planet is relegated to the dark corner of suspicion and its purity is utterly defiled.
Enter the architect with a vision for affordable housing using adobe or, better yet, compressed earthen blocks, in this country or any other, and he is terrified about the safety and longevity of mud because, one has to believe, those folks in Santa Fe are at the vortex of the technology and not even they can rely on it.
It is my contention that it is the obsession with materials, with the desire to place objects under a bell glass as promulgated by the Charter of Venice that has led to this impasse.
I believe that rethinking the issue of preservation standards may help both professions address and understand both the treatment of the old form and its inevitable influence on new process. The two must be reconciled in an attempt to recover the original meaning of the architecture that was handed down and that continued to have value and to be reshaped while still remaining architecture in all its incarnations: this is essential in order to renew the architect's sense of what to do with his vision now and in the future.
In a word, all materials, even reinforced concrete, have limitations. It is the job of the conservator to work in the arena of the positive and tell the architect what the material will do, as well as what it will not. And it is the job of the architect to trust the conservator so that he can draw upon the whole panoply of successful materials that then become available. This is especially true in the realm of earthen architecture.
To accomplish this requires, I believe, getting past the Charter of Venice and amending the Secretary of Interior's Standards. I have been proposing this for nearly 20 years now in national and international symposia, and have published a discussion draft for amended standards in Vernacular Architecture Forum. I have discovered that it is much easier to amend the Constitution. Interestingly, I have found that it is the architects who are the more open-minded. It is the conservators for the most part who have carved out a territory that they defend with rabid determination.
There is hope, however. In that past ten to fifteen years especially, there has been a growing awareness of the utility (we won't even get into the beauty or sustainability) of indigenous building forms. There has been an increase in university offerings as well as in technical/vocational schools of principles and applications of (particularly) earthen building. And there has been some re-writing of architectural conservation standards (in other countries) to include the vernacular, and to underscore the importance of craft and local knowledge, not just in the preservation of existing buildings but in the continuance of living building traditions as well.
This is a good start, but ultimately it is in the academic realm that differences will be made. This is simply because it is always the folks with credentials who will have the most influence over those who write the standards. As much as we may dislike it, advocating for traditional technologies with code enforcers, communities of use and activists on a local or even regional level is futile. It is essential to work with those you know in academia, in both architecture and architectural conservation, to make the point.
In the meantime, I urge architects, designers and builders to smile and have a twinkle in their eye as they look to the past for answers to the problems of the building stock of the future. If you must race alone, at least don't allow your isolation to exclude the proven, regardless of the suspicions of the conservators.
Part 2: The danger of isolationism.
If indigenous materials and local knowledge have been slighted by the arrogances cited above, they are second in consequence only to the tendency of "traditionalists" to (1) maintain trade secrets and (2) to form small, regional, defensive pockets.
I believe it to be true that when others teach a person something, the knowledge is deeply absorbed and, importantly, comes with a willingness to pass it along. The self-taught, on the other hand, tend to be selfish with their knowledge and to harbor what they consider to be trade secrets.
Advocates for earthen building are notorious for this self-taught syndrome, usually because they have taken a traditional idea (that, by the way, they learned somewhere), tweaked it a little and decided that it is theirs to take to the grave. There are those who will not share their "secrets" for mud plasters, fireplace designs, or a snake oil concoction that makes adobe invulnerable. It is impossible to overemphasize both the absurdity of behavior like this and its tendency to retard, not advance the cause of earthen building. I have no trade secrets -- what I know, even if it is something that I believe I have improved -- has come to me via 9,000 years of tradition and at best I may have re-discovered or re-invented some small aspect of the technology.
Having no trade secrets means that I will share my experiences with anyone, anytime, anywhere. In fact, I try to make a habit of posting my lessons (many of them painful), on the web in hopes that they will get someone else a little further along in their program. And, I invite anyone to use the stuff I post for any reason without crediting the source. This because I cannot claim to be the source for technologies and techniques as old and venerable and ubiquitous as these are.
Personal territoriality is shameful enough, but the real danger to the profession is regional isolationism. Every area on the planet with earthen architecture (and that is basically everywhere) tends to have an association of professionals and devotees of the practice. Moreover, and reflecting on Part 1 of this paper, regions tend to have separate associations of those who are preserving earthen buildings and those who are involved in design/build. Just as the conservators and architects often revile one another, so local organizations tend to set themselves apart.
The result is an interruption in the flow of knowledge and experience. Every region has its own response to climate and culture and has therefore developed a certain idiosyncratic way of accomplishing a certain goal -- in this case building with mud. Many of the experiences of one area can be applied in another were there a forum for sharing the information and were the principals involved willing.
The illustration is to Google: Just use keywords Earthen (or Earth) Architecture + Institute, Organization, Society; or try Green + Building or Architecture; or Ecology + Building or Architecture. You will be astounded. In the UK you can get an "ecology mortgage" at a more favorable rate if, among many other things, you build with low energy-embodied materials, including earth. In India, check it out at auroville.org, you can learn to make vaults and domes just as you can in Yazd, Iran and Presidio, Texas.
The world is full of us. We just don't communicate well.
Though any good search engine will help you find colleagues with common goals, there is not one organization, other than the Scientific Committee for Earthen Architecture of ICOMOS (the International Council on Monuments and Sites) that keeps all of its members in touch effectively. I have been a member of that committee (as anyone can be) for fifteen years or more and I have to say that it is they who have given me the leads that I most value.
In 1990, at an ICOMOS-sponsored conference in conjunction with the Getty Conservation Institute and New Mexico State Monuments in Las Cruces, I learned about "ladder belts" in Macedonia and subsequently recognized them in New Mexico and have adapted them into our modern repertoire; at a similar conference in 1993 in Silves, Portugal I recruited a colleague from Mali (and who more than the Malians know about building with earth?) and brought him to Zuni to assist in training for the rebuilding of Middle Village; in 2000 in Torquay, England I met with a Nigerian architect with whom I subsequently joined in the development of several affordable housing projects using compressed earthen blocks; in Yazd, Iran in 2003 I connected with the UNESCO folks who are instrumental in both conservation and new construction and have the influence and resources to advance both. And in between times I have been involved in listserve discussions, received and contributed to newsletters, and asked the advice of colleagues around the world and have in turn been asked.
This is the direction earthen architecture must take: We must break out of regional (as well as professional) confines and communicate openly with like-minded folks everywhere. At the moment, the ICOMOS link is the most effective way of accomplishing that.
Earthships, strawbale, Rastrablock, pumicecrete, bottle houses, bucket walls, and shot paper all play a distant second fiddle to earth. Not one has the low embodied energy, the simplicity of manipulation, the pure beauty, the plasticity in design, to say nothing of the universal availability of earth. There is no question but that we who promote earthen architecture have the knowledge, the technology and the skills to solve one of the most significant challenges facing humankind in modern times, and that is affordable, comfortable housing. Significantly, we all have the passion to advance our profession and our craft.