Earth Architecture, by Ronald Rael
Princeton Architectural Press, 2008

Architectural publishers seem to produce an infinite stream of books collecting contemporary buildings, typically grouped by building types, such as the ever-popular single-family houses but also office buildings, hotels, retail spaces, housing, and cultural facilities, among others. That these categorizations of architecture take precedence over the means of construction employed by architects in their design points to the ongoing importance of typology in architectural design, but also to a gap in architectural theory, stemming from a lack of creativity in building construction. This doesn't apply to the overly expensive buildings of Frank Gehry or others whose engineered designs preclude anything but the most innovative approaches to building. This applies to the other 99.9%, where considerations of construction technique are more limited, or only apprently so. Ronald Rael's book on some common techniques of construction, ones not typically seen as contemporary, brings to the fore earth architecture and its positive impact on architectural design.

On Rael's popular blog Earth Architecture -- a repository of projects and information on buildings made from the ground we walk on and grow crops in -- the author states that "one half of the world's population, approximately 3 billion people on six continents, lives or works in buildings constructed of earth." One can infer from this statement that new first-world buildings must consitute part of this quantity, even though our prejudices may point to the vernacular buildings of the poor in third-world countries. Rael's book puts to rest any notion that buildings constructed of dirt -- in the form of rammed earth, mud brick, compressed earth block, and molded earth (a la this week's dose) -- are backward or only appropriate for housing in poor rural areas. More importantly Rael frames the presentation of the almost fifty projects in terms of the ecological advantages that earth architecture entails, but also the beareaucratic hurdles that architects and contractors face in building with earth.

Of the four categories mentioned above, the majority in Rael's book use rammed earth construction, where soil is compacted in forms to typically create walls with a distinctive striated texture, akin to sedimentary rock. Projects made with the techniques of mud brick, compressed earth block, and molded earth comprise roughly the second half of the book, though less separates these four divisions than the distinction between projects featured here and those in other contemporary collections. The projects show how earth architecture is utilized alongside more conventional, modern materials, such as glass, steel (in some cases for structural reasons, in jurisdictions unwilling to accept the stability of earthen materials), and timber. This means that rammed earth, or another such technique, does not necessarily drive the aesthetic; in numerous instances one must look closely to determine what aspect of the design warranted inclusion in the book.

This collection is an important addition to any architect's library for its important subject matter and the quality of projects included. While the book lacks the technical information to make it a reliable reference on earth architecture, it doesn't try to be one. Nevertheless the addition of technical drawings and construction photographs would have helped elucidate these aspects that Rael capably discusses in his introductions to the book and the four chapters. Let's hope publishers of other contemporary collections take note of the quality architecture being produced in a manner least expected.

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2009.01.05