By Lesley Freedman
In South Africa’s rural areas, indigenous earthen architecture can be seen everywhere. Indigenous Building Systems form the core of most of South Africans’ architectural knowledge, passed down through generations, solving the challenges of waterproofing in the most inspired, resourceful ways.
Some of this knowledge continues to be used, but increasing homogenisation, control and authority threaten these expressions of our cultural identities. Knowing and valuing and defining our cultural identity contribute to our overall wellbeing.
“Earth has been one of the most widely used building materials ever since people began to build homes and cities 11 000 years ago. Earthen architecture is the world’s most ancient and most prevalent existing architectural expression. In most places in the world, earth is the conventional building material” (Houben & Guillard: 1994). For example, in Peru, 60% of the dwellings are built in adobe or rammed earth and in Mendoza, Argentina, more than 80% of the rural population has built their dwellings in adobe. In Uganda, 90% of people live rurally, in earth structures.
Today millions of us continue to house ourselves using these building methods, but not in urban areas where they are most needed. Urban human settlements are being built with materials that contribute little to the comfort of the inhabitants in terms of thermal content, safety or fire resistance. Earth has good insulation properties. It does not consume much non-renewable energy, uses very little water and is recyclable. Earth is a porous, breathable material with a constant relative humidity of 50%, creating a healthy environment in which to live and work; and its transformation into a building material is realised without any chemical processes and produces no chemical or industrial waste. Earthen architecture offers crucial advantages for a sustainable future and the sustainability of the planet (Doat, Hays, Houben, Matuk, & Vitoux 1996) (Norton 1997) (Conti 2007) (Rakotomamonjy: 2006).
It is the revival of identity that will give us back what we lost through the negative attitude towards indigenous black people. The racist discourse started early on in South Africa and went on to be refined into a way that increasingly denied indigenous knowledge, which then lay dormant in urban areas because of official regulations, like these of 1915, which required that “… each tenant shall erect a decent Cottage … and whitewash it at least once a year. No Kafir or Beehive huts will be allowed” (Rodriquez & Pettus 1990). It was these attitudes that put an end to our valuing our customs, forms and cultural ways of knowing and being.
As a result of the political economy of knowledge production and textbook publishing in the world today, educational institutions tend to teach the superiority of the economic processes and political systems of western, modernist society. There is, in consequence, an emphasis on technical answers to social and environmental problems. The energy and vitality and creative use of space found in informal settlements must be a lesson to us in recognising our ability to create our own settlements.
Hassan Fathi (1986) said: “it is this population that has an intimate knowledge of how to live in harmony with the local environment. Thousands of years of accumulated expertise has led to the development of economic building methods using locally available materials, climatisation using energy derived from the natural environment, and an arrangement of living and working spaces in consonance with social requirements. This has been accomplished within the context of an architecture that has reached a high degree of artistic expression.”
While attending the 10th International Conference on the Study and Conservation of Earthen Architectural Heritage, Terra 2008, held in Bamako, Mali, in February 2008, I saw people wearing traditional clothes and creating their own traditional homes and workplaces.
To me, this connoted pride and the giving of value to those aspects of ourselves through which we sustain our sense of identity.
The past few decades have witnessed the evolution and enormous advancement of earthen architecture through international conferences, training initiatives and the creation of national and international committees on all the aspects of natural and earth building technology. The literature is vast. Architects, archaeologists and conservation practitioners, academics and scientists around the world, meet regularly to discuss chemistry, soil science, seismology, hydrology, structural engineering, archaeology, sociology and sustainability, biodeterioration, wind and water erosion, mineralogy, clay and soil science and chemistry and their effect on earthen structures.
Current examples are VerSus 2014, an International Conference on Lessons from Vernacular Heritage for Sustainable Architecture, whose conference themes are the study of vernacular architecture and its mechanisms for sustainability, the conservation and restoration of vernacular architecture and, most importantly, the application of sustainable lessons of vernacular heritage to contemporary architecture. Mediterra 2014, the second conference of Earthen Architecture in the Mediterranean Region, and ResTAPIA 2014, the second conference of earthen architecture conservation in general and rammed earth conservation in particular, are both being held at the VerSus 2014 Conference, from the 11th to the 13th of September 2014 at the Universitat Politècnica De València in Spain.
The use of earthen architecture upholds traditions and recognises the human ingenuity, used for 11000 years, to adapt the environment for human needs. These ancient ways of building form part of our culture, give depth and quality to our lives, and need to be acknowledged, revived, resuscitated, given status and a place in our history and architectural books. The best way of reviving and valuing them is to involve women, youth and men in South Africa, who possess all the qualities needed to build their own sustainable natural and earth centres and housing.
Conti, A.P. 2007. Villa Ficana in Macerata, the restoring work of a raw earth quarter. In: Fourth International Adobe Conference of the Adobe Association of the Southwest. AdobeUSA.
Doat, P., Hays, A., Houben, H., Matuk, S. & Vitoux, F. 1991. Building with Earth. The Mud Village Society: New Delhi.
Fathi, H. 1986. Natural Energy and Vernacular Architecture. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago.
Houben, H. & Guillard, H. 1994. Earth Construction: A Comprehensive Guide. Intermediate Technology Publications: London.
Norton, J. 1997. Building with Earth. A Handbook. Intermediate Technology Publications: London.
Rakotomamonjy, B. 2010. Conservation of Immovable Cultural Heritage in Sub-Saharan Africa.. CRAterre-ENSAG: Pont du Claix.
Rodriquez, A. & Pettus, K. 1990. The Importance of Vernacular Traditions. APT Bulletin. Vol. XXII: np.
All photographs are by the author.
Read this for more on the Djenne Mosque, Mali.
Lesley Freedman graduated as an architect from the University of Cape Town. She restored an historical area of Cape earthen architecture, recording the process in the book Bokaap: Faces and Façades, travelled and then worked as Manager: Architectural Heritage Landscape for the South African Heritage Resources Agency. Through Heritage Management Planning for the sites of Mandela in the Eastern Cape; studying at CRAterre (International Centre for Earth Construction), France, visiting Mali; and attending earth building courses, Lesley discovered that sustainable settlement is still practised by rural South Africans, and by a third of the world population. She established the Whole Earth Building Foundation, registered as a Non-Profit Organisation in 2012. Its Mission is to provide vocational training and livelihood skills in sustainable building and food security technologies within the Permaculture paradigm. The foundation is lobbying for National Codes of Practice for Earthen Structures to be incorporated into South Africa’s Building Codes.