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Sustainable Architecture
and Culture

Sustainable architecture was part of all indigenous cultures. The authors look at two such cultures, in Egypt and in Australia, and establish principles of sustainability from them.
By Matthew Fooks
and David Sydes

At his point it is, perhaps, important to note that these processes are carried out by ordinary people with no particular skills.

Environmentally sustainable architecture concerns itself not only with the measurable quantities of a material but also with those intangible qualities such as the importance of culture. Hence, the environmental issues of architecture aren't solely in the realms of scientific reason. Architecture must be assessed as one of the essential parts of our everyday lifestyles and hence architecture exists as part of ones own spirituality. These comments follow the comments of Dara Molloy in AISLING 25 that "without an appropriate spirituality even the idea of sustainability is unsustainable". The philosophical commitment to a new spirituality must include the built environment in which we all, sometimes subconsciously, live in our everyday lives.

Upon studying sustainable architecture one is introduced to masses of statistical data and calculations regarding material performance and best practices. However this should not be seen at the essential origins of a sustainable architecture. Instead the origins of sustainability lie in indigenous cultures. As an example, let us propose two such cultures: the Aborigines of Australia and the Egyptians. Commonly referred to in architectural terms as the vernacular, it differs greatly from the steel and glass Modernist style that now dominates sustainable architecture. Importance must be given to what can be learned from these ancient/semi-ancient cultures, the materials they used and the architecture they created.

The contemporary Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy continues and elaborates upon the ideas of a vernacular. In the desert, stone is rare and wood equally scarce. As a result, traditional desert architecture has turned to the use of sun dried mud in numerous forms of building. By our temperate standards, mud is disconcertingly soft. It has been compared by one author to the stereotypical ephemeral notion of: the child's sandcastle. 1

Associated with this material is a particular process for forming the 'bricks' and a number of methods for construction. To make the brick, sand and clay are dug from the ground and mixed with water and chopped straw. The sand provides the fill, the clay provides cohesion and the straw acts as a binder to aid the even drying of the mass and thus prevent cracking. (Sap, animal milk, blood or dung may be added depending on the region.)

Pise or rammed earth is one method of construction employed in mud architecture. The mixture is pressed into place using a large wooden form or coffer. When dry, the coffer is removed and placed on top of the newly formed brick and the process is repeated.

Coursing or puddling (used primarily in northern Sudan) involves the forming of a thin layer of mud by hand. When it is dry, the process is repeated on the next layer.

Adobe, by far the most widely used process, involves hand molding of bricks and allowing them to dry in the wall, or, most often, allowing bricks to bake in the sun, then setting them in place. The bricks are then joined by mud mortar and covered in a mud plaster.

At this point it is, perhaps, important to note that these processes are carried out by ordinary people with no particular skills. The construction of a sun dried mud building involves the entire family and, sometimes, other members of the community (if the project is large enough). Although this fact may seem trivial, it will become apparent that it has wide ranging implications, allowing the architecture to take on new meaning.

It must be said that a rainy season will soften a mud structure's finer detail. Left unattended, a mud building may begin to 'melt' after several seasons. This type of architecture requires regular, but minimal, maintenance to overcome this problem. The process of maintenance and repair of such a building differs from that of, say, a modernist building in one major way. Where the emphasis in the modernist building is to make the building 'new' again, it is an important aspect of mud architecture to acknowledge rather than defy time.

Maintaining mud architecture is a cyclical process, much like harvesting a crop. In the dry season, new mud is applied to the outside of the building like balm on weathered skin. In doing so, the erosion of annual rains is healed. Following this simple process, mud architecture exists today that was built some 400 years ago.

What of the intangible qualities so inextricably linked with mud architecture? Ornamentation of a Western building involves the borrowing (stealing?) of some form or forms from another period, culture or perhaps from nature itself. The case of mud architecture presents a completely different approach. As explained above, new mud is ritually applied to the outside of the building in the dry season. Applied to this new coating is a form of art realised in engraving and relief taking on abstract, gestural, geometric, symbolic and figurative form.2 Thus with the new dry season a new ornamentation is achieved giving the facade a quality of infinite change. As the ornamentation is linked to the society that produces it, so too is it linked with the walls it adorns.

Various explanations have been offered, but the use of mud in building appears to impart certain sensuality to the work. Some have suggested that it is derived from the fertility of the soil itself or, perhaps, it is due to the perpetual state of flux and rebirth owing to the new layer of mud applied in the dry season. However, the predominant use of the hands over other complex instruments in shaping the building must surely be largely responsible for the voluptuous curves and the erotic dimensions inherent in mud architecture.

Nature is to the Aborigines a system in which natural species and phenomena are related, or associated, in space and time.3

However, the predominant use of the hands over other complex instruments in shaping the building must surely be largely responsible for the voluptous curves and the erotic dimensions inherent in mud architecture.

Before an attempt is made to analise the architecture of the Aborigine in Australia, it is most important to identify their cultural characteristics, sometimes overlooked by the common White Australian. The idea of context and place for the aborigines was and still is paramount. The writings of their mythical beliefs help us to understand their deep attachment with the environment they lived in. For example the naming of groups of people of different areas:

These names imply that the Aborigines recognised the effects of environmental difference on their lives, sufficiently important to warrant the use of distinguished names.4

These different names, (not to be confused with the separate naming of tribes) were derived from the particular characteristics of the environment and the food sources. For example the 'Jabu': people of the rocky range country, 'Bila': people of sand and spinifex and 'Ka-wadji': of the coastal north area.

It is clear that the primary commodity of the Aborigine was land. This land covered a specific area, its boundaries handed down through generations. This difference in values to the white settler can be seen as the driving force behind the continued disputes over land rights and Aboriginal title in contemporary Australia. However for the study of their architectural structures it is important to understand that the Aborigines:

were aware of even small differences in their environment and recognised the effecf these had on their economic life .5

This statement helps to explain their extremely nomadic lifestyle. Seasonal variations in climate and known hot spots such as water wells and river tracts were all important in these movements.

The importance of these environmental differences can be clearly demonstrated in the design of tools and weaponry as well as sheltering (architecture).6 Little is said in the analysis of the huts and shelters of the aborigines. However the approach to design of tools and weaponry can be said to parallel, as the environmental factors of the specific context were the most important factors.

Hence a statement that is potent both for the design of tools/weaponry and for architecture:

The need for a multi-purpose implement was presumably not as great.7

It is the opinion of many writers that the Aborigine had little regard for the design of the hut or shelter,

On the other hand, some Aborigines do learn to build huts more substantial than the native type.8

It is these shelters that can show architects the most about Aborigines and the use of materials and the approach to a design.

Nomadic lifestyles dependent on much seasonal variation leads to architecture that also changes. Climate, social structure and availability of material effected each response and created wide diversity. This idea must be seen in extreme contrast to the ideals of the white settler (however the application of pastoral nomadism can be seen as a minor contemporary equivalent).

The lifestyle of the Aborigine involved a deep spiritual connection to the environment. Many writers comment that they did not mind sleeping in the open air even in the extreme cold. However, even without the use of a shelter or hut, the idea of the fire was important. The fires placement and type meant that it would give warmth as well as adequate smoke to deter mosquitoes and other insect pests. In colder climates the shelter was more permanent. However for this study I would like to consider the more temporary yu (windbreak) and wiltjas (shade) structures as they were predominately found in Western and Central Australia. Interestingly the white settlers disbelieved that these structures were in fact a home:

nor were the yu and witjas a home - a place in which to keep and protect possessions. An Aborigine's 'home' is the outdoors, his tribal land.9

The rapidly constructed yu and similar shelters used the natural qualities of available materials such as spinifex, brush, leaves and bark to protect against hot winds and furious sun. These materials were used in such a way that the,

wall structure of leaves and spinifex allowed draught-free ventilation and egress for smoke from fires.10

The wall thickness/density could be increased to prevent hot wind penetrating and decreased for the cooler night breeze. Furthermore the rather temporal nature of the walls of these structures also meant that egress could be made in a hurry if the shelter caught fire. Changing wind directions could be catered for as,

cross members were omitted from the side walls so that when the wind changed it was a matter of minutes to block up existing doorways and provide a new one.11

The wiltjas structures that resembled artificial trees were built from stout tree branches covered thickly and expertly with brush and spinifex. Their main function was to filter solar radiation, by being strategically placed around the place of occupation. These structures as well as the yu were built solely by the female members of the group and would have provided shade for daytime occupation. Other more time consuming and permanent structures were made of a mud-plaster material into a teepee form,

Fastening a stout ridge pole between adjacent trees or two poles sunk into the ground. Other poles are leaned against the ridge pole from both sides, and these are covered with reeds and grass, and finally wet clay.12

Most structures were simply left behind after the resources of a specific area were not as desirable as the next. Hence, the structure would simply collapse and almost be seen as a biodegradable, possibly being reconstituted for future use. Although seen by many white settlers as primitive and banal, many of the structures created by the nomadic Aborigines were smart in using simple techniques to make materials into protective shelters fit for the use and life-span desired, a modern "loose fit, long life" design. Furthermore, most structures were adapted specifically for the climate on the day of construction with the future and present impact reduced by the use of reusable and recyclable natural materials.

A quote taken from 'Natural Energy and Vernacular Architecture':

Similarly, when an architect designs a town or building, every line is determined by the application of the same complex set of mechanical laws, with the addition of a whole collection of other sciences whose provinces are less well defined: the sciences that concern man in his environment and society. Theses sciences - sociology, economics, climatology, theory of architecture, aesthetics, and the study of culture in general - are no less important to the architect than are the mechanical sciences, for they are directly concemed with man, and it is for man that architecture exists.13

It should be every person's dream to be a sort of architect, not only to provide himself or herself with a meaningful and sustainable built environment, but as an essential side of their spirituality.

This demonstrates Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy's concern for humanist values, as opposed to an empirical functionalism, something the ideas of Modernism in architecture of the 50's, 60's and 70's seemed to crave. How is Fathy able to reach these ideals? It is through the detailed study of the vernacular architecture of Egypt and Fathy's translation of that into new projects that makes him so successful. On the question of materials:

The peasant built his house out of mud, or mud bricks, which he dug out of the ground and dried in the sun. And here, in every hovel in Egypt, was the answer to my problem. Here, for years, for centuries, the peasant had been wisely and quietly exploiting the obvious building materials, while we, with our modem school of learned ideas, never dreamed of using such a ludicrous substance as mud for so sensous a creation as a house.14

Further to this argument, Fathy provides a specific example of the benefits of a vernacular approach. Traditionally, vaults were erected by muallims (master builders) without the need for wooden centring or any other form of scaffolding for that matter. In an attempt to utilise this method, Fathy enlisted the aid of two muallims. On this method, Fathy writes,

Engineers and architects concerned with cheap ways of building for the masses had devised all sorts of complicated methods for constructing vaults and domes. Their problem was to keep the components in place until the structure was completed, and their solutions had ranged from odd shaped bricks . . . through every variety of scaffolding, to the extreme expedient of blowing up a large balloon in the shape of the required dome and spraying concrete onto that. But my builders needed nothing but an adze and a pair of hands. 15

It should be every person's dream to be a sort of architect, not only to provide himself or herself with a meaningful and sustainable built environment, but as an essential side of their spirituality. The sustainable: is a change in lifestyle. Lifestyle: is a change in our sensibility.


ABOUT THE AUTHORS David Sydes and Matthew Fooks met while studying at the University of Melbourne, Australia, while completing the three-year Bachelor of Planning and Design (architecture). They have also travelled extensively together in America and Europe. Both are currently partaking in architectural work experience: David in London and Matthew in New York City. Both have a keen interest in environmental issues surrounding architecture and in the idea of sustainability and spirituality.


John Archer, The Great Australian Dream, Sydney 1987
Jean Bourgeois, Spectacular Vernacular, Japan 1983
Jean Dethier, Down to Earth, Paris 1981
Phillip Drew,Leaves of Iron, Sydney 1985
A.P. Elkin, The Australian Aborigines, Sydney(1943) 1979 Hassan Fathy, Architecture for the Poor, Chicago 1973
Hassan Fathy, Natural Energy and Vernacular Architecture.
G.S. Golany, Design for Arid Regions,New York 1983
Golson, Aboriginal Man and Environment in Canbarra Australia, 1971 ,
J.M. Richards,Hassan Fathy, London 1985
Balwant Saini, Building in Hot Dry Climates, London 1980
James Steele, Hassan Fathy, London 1988
L.E. Sheard,Australian Youth among desertAborigines, Adelaide 1964


1. Bourgeois, SpectacularVernacular, p.5
2. Dethier, Down to Earth, p 91
3. Elkin, The Australian Aborigines, p 32
4. Lawrence, Design for Arid Regions, p 253
5. Ibid. p 253
6. I believe that shelters made by the Aboriginal Australians were actually a demonstration of architectural design. To do this I examined the parallel between the design of tools/weapons and architecture.
7. Lawrence, op cit. p 258
8 Elkin, op cit. p 30
9 Archer, The Great Australian Dream, p 17
10 ibid, p 17
11 ibid, p 17
12 ibid, p 18
13 Fathy, Natural Energy and Vernacular Architecture, p 3
14 ibid. p 8
15 ibid. p 8
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