Earth Architecture

The early history of humanity can be reconstructed as an almost limitless quest for earth architecture. The persons who found caves, and later converted them into living spaces, were of enormous significance in the development of human civilization. Would we not still live in the wilderness today if some of our ancestors had not found the cave, restructured it by selectively replacing stones, or had not appreciated the comfortable sheltering aspect of it?

In more recent times, we may look to the irregular holes at the oasis of Siwa in Egypt. Here, underground burial chambers hundreds (if not thousands) of years old that once symbolized ritual respect for the bodies of the dead have now been converted into living spaces. Like the Egyptians, the North American Indians may have evolved the kiva from burial chamber, to ritual space, to living habitat. Deeply rooted in existing ritual is the belief that entry into the kiva is a return to birth. Needless to say, the psychological effects of earth space in ancient times had a great impact on religious life while still providing a sense of security, and positive aesthetics.

Another example is the troglotecture town of Pantalica, which is impressive both in its scale of found space and in the durability and versatility of its form. The construction of Pantalica is traditionally attributed to the Siculi of the Anapo Valley, who inhabited Sicily about 3000 years ago. Though originally used as burial chambers in prehistoric times, by the Middle Ages the Siculis were converted into apartment complexes. These multi-storied apartments or chambers were connected by several different passageways, and the interior was hollowed out for vertical circulation. This site is not unique, either. There are evidences of prehistoric found spaces spread throughout Sicily: near Siculiano, Caltabelotta, Raffadale, at Bronte and Maletto (west of Mount Etna), between Siracusa and the Cape of San Croce, and most prominently in the valley of Ispica near Modica.

Even the structure of a mountain can serve as the impetus to earth architecture. In Gironde, the ninth century monolithic church of Saint-Emilion was literally carved out of rock. At about the same time, the church at Goreme in Anatolia was created by hollowing out and sculpting huge existing boulders. The method of subtraction was quite apparent in these historic sites, and their concept of solid and void was formidable.

In the northern part of Africa, an entire village named Matmata is located underground. A population of several thousand villagers lives in the tunnel-like chambers forty feet beneath the earth. Not far from Matmata, in Southern Tunisia, are the Berbers who are cliff dwellers. They carved out their spaces from the cliff and used the excavated rock to construct walled forecourts and sheds that create a Cliffside row house design. The Berbers’ Cliffside community is built well above the occasional flood plain, taking full advantage of the high altitude of the cliff for protection.

In northern and western China in the Honan, Shansi, and Kansu provinces, there are similar developments of underground spaces. Still other troglodyte earth cities can be found throughout the world. The ritual of reclaiming once lost spaces was obvious to our ancestors. With an awareness of subtraction, modification, solid, and void, our ancestors truly represented the earth architects.

Many times, an object or space will suggest the form, theme, or ritual for which it will be used. By doing a small amount of carving or re-carving the ultimate result can be achieved. In strictly technical terms, sophisticated tools are rarely required and extensive labor is often unnecessary. The method of subtraction is especially effective regarding the nature of earth architecture. “It is estimated that a 3,000 cubic foot room could be carved out of the Cappadocian turf by one man in one month, all without the benefit of an architectural or engineering degree,” according to Jason C. Shih, in his article Underground Architecture. Earth as a building material stabilizes the extreme temperature swings, both daily and seasonally. It provides a strong barrier against the wild animals, rain and destructive weather.

Our ancestors respected nature and the old because they believed nothing man-made could come close to nature’s perfection. The first attempts by prehistoric artists to create figurative sculpture were almost certainly the result of finding animal bones, stones, and wood in which the form of the finished product was already suggested in the found object. A work of art could be created without excessive embellishment. Touching natural objects was also a primary part of life for the prehistoric artist. This special primal sensory instinct is still very much a part of modern human biology and spirit. The tactile sense is key to the finding of found space because we cannot perceive the world through our eyes alone.

Today, earth architecture still provides a multitude of ideas and challenges for architects and designers. Human history provides us with numerous resources to study. Only a relatively small portion of examples of the historical use of earth buildings are noted here, but buildings using rammed earth, mud brick, compressed earth, adobe, cob, straw and other techniques are becoming increasingly important with our changing environment. Earth Architecture represents innovative uses of this ancient building material. Buildings made with earth (if use appropriately) are energy-efficient, environmentally-friendly, sustainable and economical. Throughout human evolution, there has been a recurring tendency to rediscover and rejuvenate the earth spaces. Humans find things that previous generations have lost, and lose things their forebears found. This continuous cycle of finding and losing is significant in both the biological and physiological evolution of our species.

Mi Tsung Chang is currently teaching at the City College of New York School of Architecture, Urban Design and Landscape Architecture, where he teaches courses in architecture technology, theory and CAD. Professor Chang received his bachelor of architecture degree, master of architecture degree from Pratt Institute, and a doctor of philosophy degree in architecture from the Union Institute. He is the principal of Hypnos Design. Chang currently lives in New York City.

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