Mud. Muck. Dirt. Clay. Earth. Call it what you like – it’s the stuff of life and also of sustainable architecture. From the stunning mud mosque of Djenne in Mali to the clay tower homes of Yemen, earth architecture has been used to create some stunning and sustainable buildings. Indeed, Iraqi architect Salma Samar Damluji has just been awarded the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture for helping to renovate the mud built towns of Hadramut in Yemen.
The fact Damluji has won this important architecture award is all the more ironic when you consider that she almost never became an architect at all. A couple of years into her architecture studies in London, she was bored and on the verge of quitting. By complete chance she stumbled across Hassan Fathy’s book about his earth-inspired architecture work at Gourna. “I suddenly discovered that I had been studying the wrong type of architecture,” she explains.
Damluji decided to finish her studies and focused on mud architecture. In 1975 she left to work with Hassan Fathy in Cairo and she began teaching Islamic Art and Architecture in Lebanon. In 1980 she joined the UN and was posted to Yemen where she became fascinated by the mud fortresses of Hadramut.
Once the last reserve of mud brick architecture, conflict and economic decline meant that many in Hadramut abandoned their sculpted homes to the wilderness in the 1990s. “I was the first “architect” per se to set my eyes on these sites,” she explains in an interview. “So I felt I had a very important role, to convey this, study this, institutionalise this and create centres of learning.”
In 2005, Damluji visited Hadramut again and decided to work on renovating and restoring some of the mud-built homes in Wadi Daw’an. To this end Damluji established the Daw’an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation to help renovate these crumbling structures and keep the knowledge around their construction alive. The Foundation surveys villages, palaces and houses to try and save them and to pass on knowledge to architects and students as well as the locals. The simple construction technique involving mud is still used by half the world’s population.
With the help of artisans from the region, the foundation has rebuilt walls, sealed roofs and trained Yemeni students. On its website it states that the landscape of the Wadi is threatened by commercial contractors, and its coherent ecological structure and identity is being eroded. “As a result, the integrity and sustainability of its settlements and landscape is already at risk. Natural resources, skills and agricultural wealth are declining, with a detrimental effect on the economic and historical heritage and future of the region. The Foundation is dedicated to consolidating the urban and cultural wealth of Hadramut and Wadi Daw’an and to sustaining the natural and built environment.”
Whilst the restoration work is always a battle with time, Damluji says it a battle she can’t help fight. She adds that the aim of the project is not to restore the buildings into museums but to enable locals to actually live and work in the semi-abandoned mud villages of Hadramut.
For a detailed breakdown of some of the restoration work see ‘The Restoration of Masjid al-Faqih in ‘Aynat, Wadi Hadramut‘
For more on earth architecture see:
Hassan Fathy Is The Middle East’s Father of Sustainable Architecture
Mud Structures in the Muslim World: Spectacular and Sustainable
Yemen’s Manhattan of the Desert Boast 400 Habitable Clay Towers