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A Back-to-the-Earth Approach to Housing

By Dethier, Jean | UNESCO Courier, March 1985 | Go to article overview

A Back-to-the-Earth Approach to Housing

Dethier, Jean, UNESCO Courier

A back-to-the-earth approach to housing

A realistic picture of the new trends in architecture and housing techniques that are destined to prevail at the end of this century would be incomplete without reference to a domain in which rapid and important developments are already taking place--building which uses unbaked earth as its prime material.

Earth building as an architectural technique, which in its up-dated form has an important role to play in meeting the needs and challenges of our time, has very long history. Since towns were first created, some ten thousand years ago, men have used this material to build entire cities--places and temples, churches and mosques, warehouses and forts, defensive walls and proud monuments.

Readily available over most of the globe, this seemingly humble material has been used in every continent and climate, in all latitudes and in nearly every pre-industrial culture and civilization, in long stretches of the Great Wall of China, built over twenty centuries ago, as well as in both the simplest and the most imposing dwellings. It has proved its versatility and the extraordinary variety of forms and functions to which it can be applied. Its solidity and strength, when it is correctly used, have been abundantly demonstrated.

Over recent years Unesco has helped to promote recognition of this part of the universal heritage by proposing the classification of towns with fine examples of buildings in unbaked earth such as Ouro Preto, in Brazil, Shibam, in the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, and Sanaa, in the Yemen Arab Republic.

Since the beginnings of modern science attempts have been made to rationalize and improve the empirical earth-building techniques used in pre-industrial societies all over the world.

The pioneer in the use of these techniques in modern times was the French architect Francois Cointeraux (1740-1830). As early as 1797 he invented several processes for stabilizing earth to increase its mechanical and chemical resistance and its adaptability to the new creative trends in architecture which had been launched by such visionary architects as Claude Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806) and Etienne Louis Boulee (1728-1799).

Cointeraux was not only a theoretician, he was also a practitioner and an enlightened teacher and published many works which were widely read not only in Europe but also in the Americas and Australia. For the best part of a century his designs were used in the construction of factories, schools and public buildings as well as of dwellings of all kinds, ranging from stately homes and middle-class residences to housing estates for workers and five-storey city apartment blocks.

Cointeraux can thus be considered to have invented modern earth architecture two centuries ago. In the Grenoble and Lyons areas of France, where Cointeraux lived, several specimens of his creative talent survive in perfect condition, adding their contribution to the age-old traditional urran and rural architectural heritage of buildings made of earth. So this region is a kind of vast open-air museum of the oldest and the most modern earth-building techniques.

But in France, as elsewhere, the irresistible commercial progress of industrial materials such as cement, convrete, baked bricks and steel has led to a gradual decline in the use of earth during the present century. It was only when violent crises interrupted the production of these materials that architects and builders again had recourse to unbaked earth. This happened in Europe during and after both world wars. Tens of thousands of earth dwellings were built, especially in Germany, during the 1920s and again in the 1940s. Also during the 1940s some of the great stars of modern architecture--Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) in the United States and Le Corbusier (1887-1965) in France--designed a number of projects in unbaked earth.

During the same period this new architectural approach had its first repercussions outside the industrialized countries.

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