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Editorial: breaking new ground

Djenne sr 1

Exploring earth in all its permutations becomes the focus of the February issue

Vittorio Gregotti provocatively suggested in 1983 that the origin of architecture was neither the primitive hut nor the cave: ‘Before transforming a support into a column, a roof into a tympanum, before placing a stone on a stone, man placed a stone on the ground to recognise the site in the midst of an unknown universe, in order to take account of it and modify it’.

‘As we construct thickness and inhabit the depths, as we burrow and excavate, we carve a space for ourselves on this tired planet’

Taking the marking of ground as the primordial tectonic act, we turn to soil. This mixture of organic matter, minerals, gases, liquids and organisms that together support life has for millennia constituted a primary building material, including the clusters of ancient mud ‘skyscrapers’ soaring above the desert floor of Hadramut in Yemen (p52). Djenné is perhaps the most famous example, with the annual replastering of its biscuit-coloured mosque, masons and mortals climbing the facade’s torons (bundles of rodier palm sticks) as the entire city celebrates. The surrounding low-rise adobe houses shown on the cover are starting to crack, and they threaten to crumble if not cared for. Peoples all around the world have relied on unbaked, raw earth to lay the foundations of new settlements and build monuments (p6), but today it is overlooked as a building material. When earth is used, by architects rather than the many hands of craftsmen and builders, it is often the source of controversy due to the addition of stabilisers in the mix, and runs the risk of becoming just another iteration of greenwashing (p50). 

editorial djenne mosque architectural review

editorial djenne mosque architectural review

Source: Wikipedia Commons | Gilles Mairet

The great mosque at Djenné in Mali proudly displays the torons that are used to climb the facade in order to replaster it year after year. This tradition is re-enacted to seal any cracks which appear across the smooth surface. The building groans and morphs as parts of the structure washed away by seasonal rains are rebuilt

Ranging from small houses to large campuses, from art to landscape to infrastructure, Martin Rauch’s portfolio of work brings together disappearing traditions with technological innovations to prove the relevance of rammed-earth constructions to contemporary practice (p28). The subject of this month’s Retrospective understood when studying ceramics that ‘the potential of the unfired material interested me much more, since it offers a lot of scope with respect to expression and applications’. The UK’s Bushey New Cemetery (p40) is a rare example of rammed earth in this country, while Ethiopia’s Zoma Museum (p58) shows the decorative potential of adobe reliefs. As the legacy of Hassan Fathy, discussed in this month’s Reputations (p24), is under renewed scrutiny, this issue seeks to reconnect architecture to the patch of soil on which it stands. 

The soil on which we walk, into which we dig foundations, from which we grow our food and into which we bury our dead provides us with the ability to read and understand our own history. As a living archive it bears testament to the most difficult periods of our history, from nuclear disasters to Nazi ideology (p16), begging the question of how we should warn our descendants of deadly waste and tragic episodes. 

It seems misleading to consider the ground as membrane or datum since it is itself fabricated and manipulated: the line separating the telluric from the atmospheric is a construct. A vertical journey begins, through the infinitely folded layers of the earth. Through the materiality and heterogeneity, through the thickness, the dust and the humus, through the successions of strata. In Bas Princen’s photographs (p90) the Earth’s crust dissolves and reveals a three-dimensional world exploding into multicoloured seams.

Muzeum Susch offers visitors a glimpse into the belly of the Swiss Alps (p80) while architects the world over experiment with soil as shuttering (p100). As we construct thickness and inhabit the depths, as we burrow and excavate, we carve a space for ourselves on this tired planet: we reconnect with soil to stretch the confines of time.

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