From the ground up

In March, some of the foremost names in earthen architecture are meeting in Yemen’s Hadramut region – the centre of the world’s mud-brick architecture heritage. 

The wadis and valleys of the Hadramaut in eastern Yemen are coloured grey by shale and wash orange in the early morning light. A spine of mountains separates this scrubby, tree-speckled landscape from the desolate expanse of the Empty Quarter, a desert which stretches across the peninsula to the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Those crossing this vastness would see, upon entering the more habitable Hadramaut, clusters of small skyscrapers that appear to rise from the very earth of the wadi floor.

Shibam, Seyun and Tarim are three of the best-preserved examples of such earth architecture in this part of Yemen. Shibam, commonly dubbed the ‘Manhattan of the desert,’ is a cluster of high-rise buildings – reaching up to 11 storeys – built entirely in mud bricks. The city developed in the 16th century, long before any notion of vertical living programmes had taken root in urban planning in the West, and was designed to respond to the proximity of local marauding Bedouins. Entirely walled, and built up so as to maintain a tightly-knit unit to shield these attacks, cities in the Hadramaut were also positioned strategically near to otherwise scarce sources of water. The stacked, multi-level apartments meant that residents were always relatively close to a city’s well.

Mud is surprisingly versatile. These cities not only contain domestic towers but also palaces, schools, administration buildings and mosques. Tarim’s Al-Mudhar Mosque features an exquisite minaret – built entirely from mud, and with a distinctively cuboid shape pocked with ornate windows, the minaret rises to 46 metres above the city.

There are key environmental benefits to the form: walls are often a metre and a half in mass, thereby creating a system of passive cooling as the thick walls prevent hot air from passing through them. Repairs to houses as they naturally degrade can be completed by using the existing earth in the valleys. A minimal amount of wood is used, and all materials can be sourced and prepared for building locally. It is a time-honoured vernacular tradition, and one that has evolved to integrate perfectly with the needs of the region’s inhabitants and the surrounding landscape. The buildings are of the earth, visually harmonious with the valleys and, if left to ruin, return to the earth without a trace.

The late Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy once said, speaking at a conference in Dar-Es-Salaam, that, ‘The God-made environment is the landscape, the atmosphere, the flora, the fauna and the human beings that live in this environment. In this God-made environment there is nothing that is inharmonious.’ He continued, ‘Beauty, then, is obtained when form considers the forces that are working on it. It is only when man has ignored the environment and been cut off from nature that problems arise.’

Fathy was a pioneering force in raising awareness internationally of the virtues of earth architecture. In his seminal work, Architecture For The Poor, Fathy studied the use of mud brick building in traditional building practice amongst the poor of Southern Egypt. Despite the privation of these rural communities, Fathy observed the inherent genius in their technique of digging directly from the earth, baking bricks from the mud in the hot sun and using this to create a house on however small amount of land each owned. This ‘heaven-sent material,’ as Fathy described the glorious mud that abounds in these rural communities, formed the basis for a vision of architecture that could do away with the stifling, inappropriate practice of cement speculation – the building of wasteful, cheap-to-produce cement hutches across the country.

‘People adopt his ideas but have a problem acknowledging the fact that these are Hassan Fathy’s ideas,’ says Dr. Salma Samar Damluji, the author of The Valley Of Mud-Brick Architecture and The Architecture of Yemen. ‘I used to say to Fathy, “Look – all these people are copying your ideas!” He would reply, “I wish they everyone would imitate me.”’

Damluji is a disciple of Fathy’s architectural practice. She has spent the majority of her career holed up in Yemen’s Hadramaut region; at turns marvelling at the local mastery of form in mud construction and at others despairing at its rapid disappearance. ‘Ever since Yemen was united in 1990, there has has been a lot of construction creeping in that is essentially commercial and mediocre. Very bad construction techniques are being used, mostly with cement and steel. That’s helped in defacing a lot of the existing towns and the facades of these mud-brick cities.’ She goes on to say that an absence of legislation is at the root of the reason why an imported architectural language is changing the shape of these cities. ‘There is no culture of awareness any longer. There are just those who call themselves businessmen who want to build a quick and cheap product. We cannot convince them that their urban culture is more civilised than the style of building that’s taking place across the Gulf.’

Damluji has brought together 36 of the foremost figures in earth architecture to meet in Seyun in March. It’s an impressive lineup: ‘The key speaker we have at the conference is Abdul-Wahed El-Wakil, who was a colleague of Fathy’s and has built a lot in Saudi Arabia. I’m also particularly pleased about Austrian architect Martin Rauch coming over with one of his disciples Anna Heringer who won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2007 for her design for a school in Bangladesh.’

Marcelo Cortes from Chile makes use of traditional cuincha style building of using tightly packed mud and straw, but incorporates a contemporary steel structure instead of wood. Cortes is on the bill for the Yemen conference, alongside several other major figures in the field. 

‘The focus of the conference is to enact a dialogue between north, south, east and west to understand the importance of the architecture in the Hadramut and, hopefully, help support a form of architectural campaign in developing these techniques internationally.’ 

In 2008, the Hadramaut was devastated by flooding. This decimated the agriculture, economy and stability of the region, and caused the deaths of a number of locals. Recovery efforts since the disaster have been long and drawn-out, and destruction to the existing architecture is extensive. Assessment and discussion of how best to preserve these decimated buildings is high on the agenda in Seyun, as is the devising of an effective rebuilding operation.

But it’s vital to get Damluji’s position on the continuing importance of the form. ‘Essentially it’s a much better architecture. Yes, it’s much more sustainable, user-friendly and not thermally more viable. But it’s also more socially, ethically and aesthetically viable. Contributing to the building of cities that are aesthetically and spiritually pleasing, as well as one that functions well, is the basic canon of architecture.’ 

She continues, ‘The interiors of these buildings are much more comfortable – there’s a certain sense of proportion that doesn’t exist in the mediocre, bad quality construction that is taking place. It’s not necessarily about being environmentally friendly, and the storage of energy, but also the dignity of the urban setting and an entire ecosystem that it contributes to with the irrigation, the orchards, the agriculture. Think about it: While they’ve abandoned constructing buildings with natural materials and resources, they’ve also abandoned local agriculture and are more into importing food now. It’s a vicious cycle and an interwoven, complex environmental system.’

Talk returns to Fathy, and Damluji explains that prominent in the conference will be the announcement of an architectural prize in his name. ‘It’s very important to acknowledge Fathy’s role in drawing the attention of the Western world to the use of mud-brick.’ Fathy, centrally, returned architecture to an awareness of the importance of material in building, whether it be mud or otherwise. ‘If there’s ever any sense going to be made in architectural universities in this part of the world, then really an approach has to be adopted on teaching the importance of material. I think Fathy has had a lot of influence in that sense.’

Dr Salma Samar Damluji is currently working on a project in the Dawan region of the Hadramut, renovating 12 mud-brick buildings into a hotel.

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