Return To Clay: Why An Ancient Building Material Is Back In Fashion
Concrete and glass are often thought of as the only building materials of modern architecture. But Francis Diébédo Kéré, the first African winner of a prestigious Pritzker architecture prize, works with clay, whose sustainability is not the only benefit.
"Clay is fascinating. It has this unique grain and is both beautiful and soft. It soothes; it contributes to well-being..."
Francis Diébédo Kéré, the first African to be awarded the prestigious Pritzker Prize last March, is paying tribute to clay. It's a material that he adores, which has too often been shunned and attributed to modest constructions and peasant houses. Diébédo Kéré has always wanted to celebrate "earthen architecture”: buildings made out of clay. It's a technique that has been used for at least 10,000 years, which draws on this telluric element, known as dried mud, beaten earth, rammed earth, cob or adobe.
While seemingly simple, "clay is one of the cornerstones of architectural practice," the Pritzker Prize committee says. "Poor, often forgotten or neglected, these techniques that use clay provide a narrative in which architecture becomes an enduring source of happiness and joy," the jury adds.
Working for marginalized communities
By naming Diébédo Kéré as this year’s laureate, the jury is not only recognizing a heritage, but above all, the unique journey of a man "of the earth.” The architect began building for his native village, Gando, in Burkina Faso: from clay, he built housing for teachers, a library, a women's center, a high school, and a workshop for training in construction techniques.
Elsewhere in Burkina Faso, but also in Mali, Togo, Sudan, Kenya, Mozambique and Benin, he developed other projects: all of them reflect the same ethic, that of working to increase the well-being of communities by combining technical knowledge, acquired in Germany, sustainable resources and local traditions.
"I wanted to enrich, to donate to the African continent, so I started with my own community," he recalled.
It's all about chemistry: earth and water are transformed by fire or the sun into a highly sustainable resource. From a basic element like mud, we get an eternal material produced by humans. UNESCO's website points out that one third of humankind lives in such housing.
Its cultural importance throughout the world is evident and has led to its consideration as a common heritage of humankind, therefore deserving protection and conservation by the international community. In 2011, over 10% of the World Heritage properties incorporate earthen structures. The availability and economic quality of the material mean it bears great potential to contribute to poverty alleviation and sustainable development.
These techniques, many thousands of years old, have outlasted others.
Photo of Francis Diébédo Kéré
This brings to mind the Tower of Babel – the Old Testament tells of its brick-built construction – but also the first cities like Uruk, in Mesopotamia, founded 6,000 years ago, the Baths of Caracalla in Rome or the Great Wall of China. Later, mud was used to build the old walled city of Shibam,in Yemen, given the nickname "the Manhattan of the desert" or the Great Mosque of Djenne, in Mali, made out of clay.
This architecture, mainly associated with underdeveloped countries, was widespread throughout urban and rural Europe, until the 20th century: among the French rural housing built before 1914, and still standing, 15% are made from this material. Palaces, fortifications, entire cities, mosques, cultural landscapes and archeological sites constructed in raw clay are still standing nowadays.
“People reject clay because it is perceived as poor. I had to fight against these preconceptions, to make people accept that it can contribute to our growing needs in terms of housing and buildings," says Diébédo Kéré. "Clay is perfectly well adapted, just as reliable as other expensive materials. Earth has the same durability as concrete: it does not crack, although constantly in the sun, and resists the harsh weather conditions as well as the rain. Demand is there."
He shares a local anecdote: fortified with natural and vegetable extracts, the earthen walls are built without any chemical products. According to custom, if the gecko (lizard) does not enter the house, then it is not a good house.
Interior of the library of the primary school building, in Gando, Burkina Faso
The honesty of brick
Although it is no longer fully appreciated, earthen architecture, including brick, has all the qualities needed: aesthetic, economic, structural and environmental. "There is a form of honesty in brick: it fits in the hand. If granite, stone or concrete are austere and imposing, brick is modest, inclusive, accessible," says William Hall, author of the book Brick published by Phaidon. Louis Kahn, one of the great architects of the 20th century, said that brick "knows and can do everything." He used it to build a series of colossal arches for the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh (1982).
It is also the material chosen by Anglo-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare for his latest project in the village of Ikise, two hours from Lagos: an artists' residence built in collaboration with local agency MOE + Art Architecture. The building is made of 40,000 handmade bricks from laterite, a naturally red clay abundant in the region.
"This technique does not require any firing and is environmentally friendly as it does not emit any CO2. It also allows for natural insulation of the building: cool inside when it is hot outside, and vice versa, the porous earth regulates the temperature, which remains constant," chief architect Papa Omotayo says.
Reconnecting with a sense of history
Today, clay connects the past, present and future. It continues to inspire several renowned architects like China’s Wang Shu, 2012 Pritzker Prize laureate, who redesigned the contemporary museum in Ningbo by reusing old Shanghai gray-bricks, with other recycled materials.
This is also the case of Italian architect Mario Cucinella, who is now pushing the limits of 3D prototyping with Tecla, a "3D-printed" residential building made out of clay. Combining essential materials and new technologies suggests a sustainable, global response to the climate emergency.
“Besides being suitable for contemporary use, clay bears important societal issues. The strength of these construction models is their replicability: everyone can participate, especially women, often experts in the field. This is a real virtuous economic system that also makes people proud," Diébédo Kéré says.
After using brick, the architect is now exploring new techniques: he mentions a contemporary form of adobe, a mixture of clay and gravel making it possible to mold a house in one piece. He continues to fight so that concrete and glass are not perceived as the only materials that bring modernity and salvation: "What the West imposes on Africa is not adapted to our climate, it requires imports and destroys thousand-year-old traditional techniques. Today, clay must reconnect with the sense of history and triumph again!”
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