Monday, February 16, 2009

Earth Architecture

In his book “Earth Architecture: From Ancient to Modern,” William Morgan (2008) talks about architecture buildings and landscapes shaped by earth as the primary material. As a result of his extensive research on architecture and environmental adaptation, Morgan believes that architecture should be an integral part of its surrounding. Understanding earth architecture in practice can establish a sustainable relationship between communities and their environments. Without using many technical terms, this compilation of more than fifty examples with nearly two hundred images volume is an interesting book of architecture. The cases discussed can guide architects and other professionals in the field to create designs as a holistic part of the environment.

Morgan broke down his book into nine chapters, each containing five to six helpful examples. He organized the books’ chapters based on his classification of how the shape of the earth architecture system was created. The examples ranged from the simple earthwork with basic functions like defense, ceremony and memorial to more complex architecture which includes relatively dense population, urban planning, and some significant institutional structures. Although there are some similar characteristics among two or more structure systems, the author classified the shape systems as Mounds, Shaped Hills, Earth Retained, Terraces, Platforms, Excavations, Modified Earth, Water Retained, and The Cities. Each chapter starts with a short introduction followed by the case studies that pertain to topics covered. The numerous examples Morgan gave range from a 4200 BC settlement in Negev to a contemporary arts pavilion in California and from simple artificial hillto large scale engineering projects. From these examples we can understand what technique and technologies people used at each time and how they managed human energy to build them.

Since thousand years ago humans had tried to use earth as their primary material and thought how to reshape it in to new configurations. They built the architecture or earthworks with various motivation like identify territories, defense and protection, or because of transport efficiency in the making of the projects. In the further use, they found out that earth material can be utilized to get its potential effects such as insulation and thermal mass to respond to severe weather. Humans started to develop it and explore its possibility to use in dwellings. In such system like Excavation structure where removal material from the earth is needed, the underground settlers can have protection from the heat of the day, the chill at night, and even from the harsh of desert storm.

From the chapter of Modified Earth, we know how people in Djenne, Mali built their Great Mosque using mud-brick as its primary material or the successful story of sod block for early settlement in Great Plains of North America and the Altiplano of South America where they used this material in daily life. This material is well known for its benefit to provide heat during the winter and coolness in the summer, well protected against storm, relatively fireproof, resistant to insect, and very economical to build. I am very interested in conducting further research on Modified Earth sections, particularly in understanding and making comparisons amongst any modification of earth as material that the author has mentioned in his books. I feel this Modified Earth section is very important for us as architects to learn because it provides ideas in creating and transforming more new environmental friendly material. I believe that every project has its own problem but at the same time have the local creative solutions to answer that challenges. By using local materials that are easy to build and maintain, it will need less special skills for construction and in the long run it will reduce the projects’ budget significantly.

Despite of all the potential benefit that we can get from the earth as building material, this book also criticize examples of construction that which is not environmental friendly and destroying ecological stability. In Earth Retained chapter, Morgan criticizes the Expressway Project, one of major roadway constructions in United States that usually disregard the needs of communities and their surroundings. In this case, he suggests the authorities to give more consideration to alternate light rail or waterway system for mass transportation which he believes would give less negative impacts to environment.

According to Morgan, Earth Architecture is more relevant for recent situation when sustainability design and environmental friendly awareness become huge consideration principles regarding global warming phenomena as a major threat for the future of our planet. He mentions two examples in his last chapter where those principles are applied in urban level. Urban Nucleus project in California and Dam Town Proposal for Kentucky are two stories how architects in collaboration with urban planners propose a holistic approach to establish communities that rely on sustainable balance between human beings and their environment by creating a compact residential compounds complete with public services and facilities that are in walking distance for the residents. This simple idea is very effective to minimize roads and utilities, control air pollution, and conserve energy while still preserving the sites’ natural beauty as well.

I believe that Sustainability Design is our future. Conservation of natural resources, renewable energy alternatives, passive solar potential, or any related topics that similar to those will be a mandatory requirement in architecture. The answer for those situations may lay in our past local wisdom, technologies, and culture of Earth Architecture. By reading this book, our perspective on architecture and its relation to environment surrounding should gradually change from detachable piece of architecture to more blended creations to their surroundings. I would recommend this inspiring book to anyone interested in architecture and ecology and I also suggest this sustainable design principles should become the starting point for architect, planners, or other designers before they put their ideas on the paper.

Cahyo Wilis Candrawan