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Breaking the mould: soil as shuttering

E01 richard serra verblist soil architectural review

Casting on sand or directly into earthen pits, architects are letting the logics of making generate their architecture, anchoring the work to the site and stretching the constraints of time

Before working on large Corten structures in industrial mills, Richard Serra made ‘splashings’ and ‘castings’ in situ with molten lead. Wavy and fragile, but weighty, the very first of these early pieces was created at New York’s Castelli Warehouse. The residue of lead, hurled against a wall and cast at its juncture with the floor, bears in its form, its texture, the marks of the act of making. It was the late ’60s, Serra was at the beginning of his career, and ‘the lead went right back in the hopper’, he said.

In the Verblist he drafted in 1968, the sculptor compiles ‘actions to relate to oneself, material, place, and process’, making the process transparent while simultaneously giving it legitimacy. The artist described the act of making his splashes as experimental and playful – and while the list shows his debt to action painting, he also insisted ‘the Pollock ethic is more a dance, this is more work’. Characterised by its site specificity, its materiality and its gestural expression, it is sculpture permanently embedded in its architecture. As the lead cools, it bonds to the site. Whether left in its spot or dragged across the floor in the middle of the room, the splashes retain their intimate connection with the place of casting.

‘If kept raw, earth never turns into trash’

The difference between lead and earth is that the latter can be moulded ad infinitum – hydrated, pressed, spread, rolled, compacted, thumped, torn, cracked, joined again, dried, ripped and hydrated again. Think of a bowl on a potter’s wheel slowly emerging out of a lump of clay, spinning into shape and hardening with heat. Or of the Ganges floodplains lying still below the high waters of the holy river during the monsoon, patiently waiting for the water to recede to reveal fertile mudflats, drying under the scorching sun, scarred with zigzagging crevices as the heat and drought persist. The cycle of the seasons imposes its rhythm and shapes the landscape. Because of its malleability, its endless morphing and moisturising, earth becomes a material of endless possibilities.

Unlike the hard surfaces Serra hurled molten lead against, mud can virtually disappear when washed off, returned to the ground. The installation Lo que me llevo (Taken Away) by Paraguayan Gabinete de Arquitectura and Argentinian Rovea Sargiotti Arquitectos is a wall of unbaked mud bricks joined by a thick layer of sand, cement and lime. Once the concrete has set, the bricks are removed. Over time, the erosion of the unfired earth would slowly erode but here high-pressure washers are used to accelerate the process. What is left is a sculptural concrete skeleton 30mm thick, perforated by an array of rectangular openings – a brick wall forever missing its bricks.

E02 lo que me llevo gabinete soil shuttering brick architectural review

E02 lo que me llevo gabinete soil shuttering brick architectural review

Source: GABINETE DE ARQUITECTURA + ROVEA

E03 lo que me llevo gabinete soil shuttering brick architectural review

E03 lo que me llevo gabinete soil shuttering brick architectural review

Source: GABINETE DE ARQUITECTURA + ROVEA

The installation Lo que me llevo is a brickless brick wall, built by Gabinete de Arquitectura and Rovea Sargiotti Arquitectos in Córdoba. Once the mud bricks are washed out, a thin concrete skeleton is left standing

When a wall’s joints start to fret and crumble, the mortar looks as if recessing into the wall, leaving the ageing bricks to jut out. Here, subverting the natural process of erosion, the architects are constructing an absence, presenting us with the negative of what we think we know – an inverted reading. The pattern is easily recognisable but uncanny, the proportions are slightly off and the great volume of voids contradicts the familiar solidity of a brick wall.

‘The essence of an object has something to do with the way it turns into trash’, wrote Roland Barthes when analysing Cy Twombly’s degradation of graphic symbols. If kept raw, earth never turns into trash. In the 1976 essay on the work of Twombly, the French philosopher distinguishes between ‘action’ and ‘gesture’, defining the latter as a ‘surplus of action’. The action is ‘transitive, it seeks only to provoke an object, a result’, he writes, while he understands gesture as the ‘indeterminate and inexhaustible total of reasons, pulsions, indolences which surround the action with an “atmosphere”’.

Borrowing this term from Barthes, Dutch architect Anne Holtrop speaks of architecture as ‘material gesture’, whereby material properties and gestural expression are integral to the built output. Fingers and hands have traditionally left their mark on the lime plaster covering the walls of stacked coral stone rubble in the streets of Bahrain, where Holtrop is now based. In his practice too the process is fully integrated in the outcome: the material dictates the gestures and the process becomes the outcome – the process is the outcome. The architect refuses predefined steps, arguing that his architecture is ‘never the execution of an idea’ and that knowing the outcome in advance would defeat the purpose. Instead, he is driven by ‘consequential steps’ and admits to finding himself building-in tricks to prevent advanced judgements, guaranteeing open-endedness and leaving room for the unexpected – some might opt for drugs or hypnosis, he prefers chance.

E05 anne holtrop batara pavilion soil shuttering architectural review

E05 anne holtrop batara pavilion soil shuttering architectural review

Source: Studio Anne Holtrop

E06 anne holtrop batara pavilion soil shuttering architectural review

E06 anne holtrop batara pavilion soil shuttering architectural review

Source: Bas Princen

Initiated with Bas Princen, the Batara pavilion retrospectively marks a turning point in Holtrop’s work. A trip to Petra forced him to realise that ‘it is about the removal, rather than the addition, of material’

For the souq rehabilitation currently on site in Bahrain’s old district of Muharraq, Holtrop is not directly involved in any of the casts taking place on site. Here, the moulds for the walls’ large pieces are filled with sand at their edges, raggedly and inconstantly, before the concrete mix is poured in. Human intervention introduces limits and constraints, adding both focus and tension. From its colour and composition to its particle size and moisture content, the sand naturally and directly affects the cast result. And on the surface, there is a delicate but uneven coating: specks of sand seized and imprisoned when the viscous mix hardens. ‘It looks and feels as if you can still move them around’, says the architect.

This misperception might sound trivial, but it renders the material less static, suggests that time will continue to alter it. There is an immediacy to the casting process, a rigorously orchestrated sequence of actions to be expressed in a list – drawing is a verb, casting is a verb – and executed within compressed time. Yet once the poured liquid has set and time supposedly stands still, it simultaneously starts to stretch, both backwards and forwards. Once cast, the piece, whether artwork or building component, no longer belongs to the present. The material sets, the timeline unbolts. 

E04 anne holtrop batara pavilion shuttering soil architectural review

E04 anne holtrop batara pavilion shuttering soil architectural review

Source: Studio Anne Holtrop

Pigmented gypsum is poured directly into pits of earth or sand, giving the pieces one rough side and one smooth one

When cast against sand or soil, the rugged textures and earthy reliefs further blur the confines of time. Somewhere between geological remains and extraterrestrial artefacts, earthworks by Ensamble are peppered around the 11,000 acres of wilderness of Tippet Rise Art Center, at the edge of Montana’s Yellowstone Park. They are ‘structures that stir existing matter and reinforce it, using highly engineered processes while welcoming unpredictable results’ and giving the impression they are the result of millennial processes of sedimentation and erosion. Archaic and provocative, they appear unique and unfinished.

The Spanish practice now based in Boston tends to start with models, to construct structure, space and materiality simultaneously. Rather than mere beautiful objects, these models are ‘quick, rough, robust, structural, cheap, not afraid of the outdoors’. Descriptions and representations, measuring and engineering come later. The understanding of models as working tools and testing devices rather than pure representation seamlessly transitions into the ‘reality’ of the 1:1 construction on site. 

Currently working on converting a former Marés stone quarry into a home on the island of Menorca, Ca’n Terra (the house of the earth), Ensamble Studio believe that living and being below ground or somehow inside the earth liberates us and ‘moves us away from what a “comfortable” life looks like’. This is an architecture that takes us back to the underworld of caverns and grottos, to the mysterious and still fascinating paintings of our Neolithic ancestors. As Georges Bataille has pointed out, the cave is immediately the site of an essential scene: the encounter between humanity and time. At Tippet Rise, the architects were at the mercy of the weather, adapting work plans and methods, while Ca’n Terra is the most extreme example of what it means to design on site: ‘It excites and celebrates the construction process, introducing a surprise factor that architecture usually lacks’, as Ensamble founders Débora Mesa and Antón Garcia-Abril believe. 

E07 cairo museum egyptian stone soil shuttering architectural review

E07 cairo museum egyptian stone soil shuttering architectural review

Source: Studio Anne Holtrop

E08 qaisariah souq anne holtrop soil shuttering architectural review

E08 qaisariah souq anne holtrop soil shuttering architectural review

Cast on sand, the concrete pieces for Qaisariah Souq by Anne Holtrop bear uneven and rugged edges, reminiscent of the broken stones of ancient artefacts displayed in Cairo’s Museum of Egyptian Antiquities

There is something primal about mud, something elemental. And there’s an inevitable poetry in the idea of inhabiting the guts of the earth. While they involve particularly complex construction processes, the aesthetics of these projects take us back to archaic forms of living. To a world of caves, of worms, of shelters, of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. The building site becomes a locus of confrontation between the conscious and subconscious intentions of the architect. The impossibility of predicting the outcome forces the architect to constantly readjust his lines. Mesa and Garcia-Abril speak of ‘entering the space like explorers would do, equipped with the technology that expands our vision in the dark, throwing millions of laser points on the wrinkles of the continuous stone surface’. 

The architectural reading of a ‘geological discovery’ also occurred in a quiet suburban neighbourhood of Yamaguchi, where a client had asked Junya Ishigami + Associates for a new home and ‘something like a wine cellar’ in which to live and install his restaurant. Giant holes were dug in the ground and concrete poured into them. The soil around these curved pillars was then burrowed out to reveal a sunken labyrinth of galleries and alleys. Ishigami likens his way of working to that of ‘an archaeologist inspired by documents from the past’. Tools, measurements and data are brought together to refine and redraw the plan, get closer to the reality of the outcome. The concept, drawing, design, building, model, site are all incomplete and all equally valid. 

‘The carving of space, blindly at times, comes hand in hand with the sculpting of time’

Creating formwork out of earth can allow for minute precision and accuracy, but on a large scale, when digging straight down into the ground, it blindfolds the architect. Ishigami compares the excavated concrete volumes to the spaces he had envisaged in models and drawings ‘to identify, in those muddy clumps of dirt, architectural possibilities that would never have occurred to me then’. Once the terrain was excavated and the mould was going to be washed away, the architect was surprised to like the earthy quality of the rough surface, the soil sticking to the poured concrete and forming an uneven brown skin – ‘this is very similar to traditional Japanese earthen walls, why don’t we keep it like this’, he recalls. 

Since not all can get resolved through drawings or models, the construction site becomes instead a source of architectural thinking. Dirty hands prompt visceral feelings, less rigidity and more unpredictability. On-site learnings, adjustments and discoveries challenge the idea of absolute architecture, of controlled and hermetically complete structures, final object in themselves. This logic of making comes closer to what Gerhard Richter does on canvas: ‘Painting like nature, painting as change, becoming, emerging, being-there, … and incomprehensible’.

These structures invoke a conception of time that is both instantaneous and eternal – instantaneous in that the moment of casting is a dot on a timeline, then stretching out slowly the meticulous removal of the earth by diggers, the careful washing away of the sticky remnants, the slow digestion of the hay by the cow – but once moulds have been removed, the solid artefacts sit there, as if they had always been here. The carving of space, blindly at times, comes hand in hand with the sculpting of time. Not yet complete, already a ruin in the making. Just like Serra pointed out, ‘It’s how we do what we do that confers meaning on what we have done.’

Qaisariah Souq in Muharraq, Bahrain by Studio Anne Holtrop, 2019-2020

The Qaisariah Souq played a large role in the pearling economy. Deals to purchase pearls were made in coffee shops that lined the souq, and wood destined for the bows of pearling fleets was received and stored. These traditional markets are intrinsic to the urban fabric of Bahrain. The first idea for Muharraq’s rehabilitated souq was a section of tent-like, softly pitched roofs, extruded along the length of the site. The architectural language felt adequate and natural, but it was an automatic and preconceived response to the brief.

Opting instead for a much less controlled proposal, Holtrop argues that non-referential architecture is more interesting and more contemporary – he isn’t interested in nostalgia. The traditional coral stone material characteristic of the area is still put to use, and concrete elements are cast with ‘unconstrained’ sand borders. These amorphous edges ‘emphasise the forms of the coral stone slabs that can be found in the old structures’. What results is open to interpretation – the transformation from intuition, through a process of refinement, to a final building which hints at the spirit of place. 

Cs01 anne holtrop qaisariah souq model soil shuttering architectural review

Cs01 anne holtrop qaisariah souq model soil shuttering architectural review

Source: Studio Anne Holtrop

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Cs01 anne holtrop qaisariah souq drawings architectural review

Cs01 anne holtrop qaisariah souq drawings architectural review

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Green Corner Building in Muharraq, Bahrain by Studio Anne Holtrop, 2019-2020

Currently on site just behind Valerio Olgiati’s recently completed visitor centre for the Pearling Path, the Green Corner Building is an art collection and storage archive in Muharraq, Bahrain. The elongated plan, two long rooms with a core in between, makes a stretched facade which is itself the main spatial element. Ideas from the Qaisariah Souq are taken a step further in this project, and Holtrop introduces cast elements in the building’s interior. Lunar aluminium landscapes on the shutters and door, as well as sand-casted floor elements which provide a relief to the ceilings, can be glimpsed from outside through the windows.

The edge of these precast elements is visible as a ‘geological cut in the ground’. Each element has an imprint which is unqiue; the casts were made on the ground next to the building, but are assembled as a well-orchestrated whole. Casting is about the positive as much as it is about the negative – by nature, it is a process of recording, an endless back-and-forth between negatives and positives that carry the memory of each other. As material flows and forms into the mould, there is an inevitable loss of control: the way gypsum flows is different to that of concrete, the way aluminium bubbles, shrinks and sets is dependent on temperature. 

Cs02 anne holtrop green square market architectural review

Cs02 anne holtrop green square market architectural review

Source: Studio Anne Holtrop

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Cs02 anne holtrop green corner building drawings architectural review

Cs02 anne holtrop green corner building drawings architectural review

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The Truffle in Costa da Morte, Spain by Ensamble Studio, 2010

Following on from their early quarry experiments, Antón Garcia Abril and Débora Mesa created this rugged 25m2 living room by the sea in Costa da Morte. The project was self-generated by the studio, challenging the role of the architect and what new situations might result from inventive experimentation. First earthworks involved a hole made in the ground, the mass of soil extracted and placed around the edges of the pit. The excavated volume was filled with hay bales, and flooded with cement. Straw alchemised with poured concrete and an amorphous mass was formed, the fabrication of a stone achieved. Quarry machinery was used to make cuts, to explore the internal spaces and to reach the captured hay inside.

The unlikely process also involved the keeping of a cow for one year, to make use of the food source and to gradually reveal a useful void that might be lived in. The outcome of this process is a surprising architecture. The small room has a rough form that is compliant with its surrounding landscape, it is indeed ‘built with earth, full of air’ as the architects proclaim. Internal smooth concrete finishes imbue the space with both a contrasting sleek practicality and comfort. What is magical is where the material has petrified, the ceiling a suspended stone sea, and an aperture frames the real Atlantic outside, holding the horizon within it.

Cs03 ensamble studio truffle house soil shuttering cow architectural review

Cs03 ensamble studio truffle house soil shuttering cow architectural review

Source: Roland Halbe

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Cs03 ensamble studio truffle house soil shuttering cow architectural review 3

Cs03 ensamble studio truffle house soil shuttering cow architectural review 3

Cs03 ensamble truffle drawings architectural review

Cs03 ensamble truffle drawings architectural review

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Structures of Landscape in Yellowstone Park, USA by Ensamble Studio, 2016

Previously contained in the land in a ‘state of rest’, Ensamble’s Structures of Landscapes are ‘born out of the landscape and they in turn give it order, they echo the immensity and the roughness of their site, exacerbate the silence of the landscape, turn matter into shelter, uninhabitable space in which to listen to piano recitals’. The architects claim this mode of working is ‘habitation without exploitation’. Given the loneliness of the expansive site, it is hard to imagine this as a place for gathering. However, a constellation of programmes ‘among the plateaus, ridges, canyons and hills’ is envisioned, and the solidified structures are dramatic backdrops for such situations to play out. The site is at the edge of the impressive Yellowstone Park in Montana, and the project is intended to create a ‘destination for the arts’, with large-scale outdoor sculptures and musical performances. Proximity and risk to local fauna and ranching activity are a challenge that the studio is aware of, for which the architects once again look to the existing landscape for guidance. It is exactly this landscape that is imprinted onto the structures, which rise from the ground as crumbling wings. The earth is grasped and played with, transformed into habitable space. With soil as their formwork, a bold intimacy is still realised in the forms that sit amid a vast expanse of solid terrain.

Cs04 ensamble studio beartooth portal soil shuttering architectural review

Cs04 ensamble studio beartooth portal soil shuttering architectural review

Source: Ensamble Studio

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Cs04 ensamble studio mesh tippet rise soil shuttering architectural review

Cs04 ensamble studio mesh tippet rise soil shuttering architectural review

Source: IWAN BAAN

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Cs04 ensamble structures of landscape drawings architectural review

Cs04 ensamble structures of landscape drawings architectural review

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House and Restaurant by Junya Ishigami + Associates, 2016

For an architect renowned for his ethereal structures which challenge the limits of architecture and the laws of physics, this cave-like house-cum-restaurant is an unexpected addition to his body of work. While appearing as a straightforward excavation, in fact the first step was to create a moat-like perimeter from which interior spaces emerged and were connected as diggers descended into the trenches to shift and manipulate the earthly matter.

A sizeable 450m3 of concrete was poured into the holes in a single day without interruption. The soil around the resulting curved pillars was removed to reveal the sunken labyrinthine alleys beneath, now the home of both the client as well as his new restaurant. The bulk of earth removed, the last layer leaves its imprint and traces on the outer concrete skin. These internal spaces remain below the ground’s horizontal datum, leaving only a polished screed of light concrete on the site’s surface. Even if labour-intensive processes have never stopped Ishigami before, the madness of this project is intriguing, as is the counterintuitive process. The idea of ‘preserving the underground condition’ as expressed by the architect, feels somewhat naive. Concrete is poured into this delicate ecosystem. Here, lightness is traded for the weight of elephantine legs stomping across the substratum. 

Cs05 junya ishigami house restaurant soil shuttering architectural review 1

Cs05 junya ishigami house restaurant soil shuttering architectural review 1

Source: Satoru Emoto / saruto Photography

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Cs05junya ishigami house restaurant drawings architectural review

Cs05junya ishigami house restaurant drawings architectural review

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Lead image: Richard Serra’s Verblist testifies to his commitment to ‘carry out verbs’ in different mediums. He famously said ‘drawing is a verb’ and casting can also be understood as a language-based practice.
Image © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2020 / © 2020. Digital image, the Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala, Florence

This piece is featured in the AR February 2020 issue on Soil – click here to buy your copy today

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