Her favorite material? Plain earth! The Austrian architect Anna Heringer builds pleasant and sustainable buildings in earth all around the world.
The best thing about building in earth is that it can be endlessly recycled.
While everyone else is building in concrete, you advocate a return to a forgotten material, earth. Why?
Building with materials that are to hand has always seemed logical to me. Wherever you may be, earth is the most available material in the world! It's everywhere, and in the history of humanity is one of the very few common universal goods... for this reason it’s been used in buildings since the dawn of time. And although it’s a constant - regardless of the continent, country or region – people in different areas have developed their own techniques... and made it a special art. It’s a material that’s dependent as much on the context – of which there as many as there are places - generating a unique piece of architecture each time. In terms of construction, it’s an amazing material to work with, beautiful, pleasant to live in – so it's even more of a pity that it’s been neglected in favor of concrete and steel!
How did you get to know about this forgotten material?
Just before I began my architectural studies, I went to Bangladesh with an NGO. For the first time in my life I discovered a village made of earth, and immediately felt the fascination. Once at university, I decided to learn about this type of architecture. I attended a workshop, which was when I realized how building in earth was the connection between all the things that are important to me. To start with there’s the beauty of the earth itself, but it can also interact with living beings: people can be really involved in a project, it’s a material that accentuates the potential of the people working it. In the end that’s what made me decide to tackle my first project, the Handmade School in Bangladesh.
It is possible to construct an earth building together with the architect?
Yes, it allows the community to really take ownership of the building! Of course, initially there need to be specialists on site, but then the work can be truly participatory... It’s all the more amazing because nowadays architecture has become a matter for experts, with building sites closed to the public! Here, from young to old, everyone can be included in the construction process for a building, which when the work is over, concerns the entire population, including the children.
In Western countries, earth-built constructions are still rare: would it be possible to build them in our cities?
Yes, of course it would be perfectly possible! There have always been earth-built constructions in Europe. For example, two hundred years ago there were two earth buildings in Paris on the Champs-Elysées, so why not now? Although there aren’t very many of them, recent earth buildings have brought the method up to date – for example, the Kräuterzentrum built by the company Ricola with Herzog & de Meuron, which is now the largest adobe construction in Europe. As human beings we are highly sensitive to earth as a material: my colleague Martin Rauch and I conducted an experiment with Harvard University in the US - we covered a facade with an earth installation. The colors echo those of concrete, but although it would never have occurred to people to touch a wall, they just couldn’t stop themselves running their hands over it! This relationship with the earth has been lost in cities, but it would help make our cities more human - and not least in terms of color and texture.
What about recycling earth buildings?
I think it’s the best thing about building in earth - it can be endlessly recycled. Endless recycling, without any loss of quality - on the contrary, it becomes even better, which is extremely unusual, since even wood, another amazing natural material, can only be made into panels or compost! And, as an architect, knowing that if the building were demolished it would return to nature without damaging the environment is an extremely comforting idea...
In 2011, you were the youngest architect ever to win an international award - the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture. What direction would you now like to give your career?
Now I’m keen to work in towns, in dense urban areas, to demonstrate that earth constructions are not only restricted to remote villages in Bangladesh. People everywhere think earth buildings are not stable, and they don’t dare rely on this type of material. So I think it’s extremely important for policy makers to support building projects that have an elegant architectural language. With some good examples of public buildings, attitudes to earth as a building material would change rapidly, because users would go in these buildings, experience them and understand what earth has to offer! If you want to change a popular belief, there’s nothing better than practical experience - and seeing the true power and beauty of an earth-built facade is in my opinion the best way of changing attitudes. It’s all the more important because at some point we won’t be able to use concrete anymore, and we’ll have to learn how to build with natural materials again.
You teach in Switzerland, the US and Bangladesh, and your buildings are popping up everywhere: does your approach differ depending on the context?
Whether it’s a kindergarten in England or a museum in China, my philosophy is the same: build with local materials, engage in a comprehensive creative process and respect the cultural context. The people can then really identify with the building and make it sustainable – and not just because it is built into the ground.
Main picture: Anna Heringer - Copyrights: © Stefano Mori