People across the world have used earth, clay, and other such materials to construct buildings for thousands of years—from ancient times to today. These earthen structures exhibit a huge variety in size, style, and building techniques.
Training opportunities in best practices of earthen architecture conservation, especially those addressing earthen architecture in the Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian regions, are greatly lacking. A monthlong course held in October 2018 in the World Heritage City of Al Ain in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi was a rare opportunity for professionals to spend four weeks immersed in the conservation of earthen architecture. Organized by the Getty Conservation Institute and the Department of Culture and Tourism–Abu Dhabi, the course brought together architects, engineers, archaeologists, and conservators from the regions of the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia responsible for the care of earthen structures to further their knowledge in current best practices and help build a global network of experts.
Early in the course Angela spoke with several participants to hear about the particular challenges they face back home in working with earthen architecture and what they hoped to learn from the course. Each cast light on the diversity of earthen building techniques and types and the specificity of conservation issues they face, as well as on their shared sense of the urgency and importance of this work for preserving their cultural heritage.
Gayathri Hegde – GN Heritage Matters, India
Gayathri Hegde was a commercial architect before discovering a passion for cultural heritage. Since earning master’s degrees in world heritage studies and cultural heritage, she works with GN Heritage Matters in Bangalore.
Why is earthen architecture important to you?
My affinity to earthen architecture has roots in my hometown in the Western Ghats. The rapid urbanization of India has led to disregard for the vernacular architecture, which is predominantly made from earthen materials. Documenting this vast repository of traditional knowledge is imperative.
What does earthen heritage look like in this region of India?
The type of houses can be characterized in terms of materials, layouts, and values. Houses are typically built out of adobe bricks, cobb wall construction, as well as laterite stone, which is locally quarried. The houses are typically two stories with a mezzanine on the top, and due to heavy rainfall in the region we use tiled roofs.
The availability of good timber can be seen in elegant wooden columns and beams. The wood is partially embedded in the earth for structural support and the earthen wall is daubed with earth plaster and lime wash. Since the walls are very thick, the openings are rather small, which is why houses have multiple central courtyards.
What does the organization you work for do?
GN Heritage Matters is headquartered in Bangalore and has four site offices. We work primarily in Karnataka and the peripheral Deccan region in Southern India. It is a private practice and we undertake commissions from private owners and the government for conservation-restoration projects of varying sizes.
What types of conservation challenges do you face in your work?
I’m currently working on a documentation project in the South Canara region that includes all private residences. So, there’s limits to how much we can intervene, and how much access we have to these places.
For the most part these homes have remained with the same families. Originally they were really large households. What we often see now is that the houses have been divided into quarters, so perhaps each sibling has a portion of the house.
People are inclined to make changes to the houses to suit contemporary needs. Everyone wants electricity and modern amenities because these are fairly well-off communities.
Conservation issues include lack of maintenance, termites, errors in the use of materials, and loss of traditional knowledge. Very often structural damages are fixed with concrete. Underlining these problems is that cyclic maintenance that repaired the buildings in the past is no longer in practice.
Are there additional threats to the earthen heritage in your region?
Heavy rainfall in these areas often causes damage, which gets worse over time. Termites are also a problem. These earthen buildings use an amazing hardwood—teak or Indian Kino—which survives for hundreds of years. They have an ingenious system to detect termite infestation early—the buildings’ wooden columns rest on a stone platform rather than directly in the ground.
Still, termites cause a lot of trouble, creating a considerable maintenance issue. Today, a single, massive piece of timber is very, very expensive, or it’s simply not available. Homeowners then make changes to the original building.
Changing tastes also play a role. In India, concrete is much more popular; earth is often perceived as a weak material or a poor man’s material. We need to revive the pride in our vernacular building techniques to ensure their survival.
What skills or knowledge would you like to gain from this course?
What I have found was most interesting about this course is the holistic approach to understanding the earthen building and learning about different styles of construction and validating them for accuracy.
When I go back on site, I’m hoping to be able to intervene with the conservation of earthen buildings. I think the comprehensive understanding of earthen structures that this course provides is the best takeaway. The hands-on approach and valuable insights from the experts in the field has been the most beneficial.
Do you have a favorite earthen building?
I think they would be the houses in my grandfather’s village. They are what I grew up with and saving them for the future has provided the greatest impetus in my professional work.
They are located in the southwestern part of India, in a small town called Nadahalli. It was a cluster of 10 to 15 houses a long time ago. Most of the houses are still in use, while some have been pulled down in recent years. My relatives live in these houses.
I think they’re my favorite houses because of the way the spaces are separated and configured around inner courtyards, the carvings and paintings adorning the doorways, the way the light filters in and highlights the earthen tones of rich wood and earth, and above all their humble character. They’re a repository of generations of traditional knowledge that my generation is responsible for perpetuating.