Back to Earth: Adobe Building in Saudi Arabia.

Back to Earth: Adobe Building in Saudi Arabia. – book reviews

Archie Walls

By William Facey. London: I. B. Tauris in association with The London Centre for Arab Studies, 1998. [pounds]50

This lavishly illustrated and well-written book records in great detail an inspirational project that is a major departure from those normally undertaken in Saudi Arabia, or for that matter the Arab world. There were two closely integrated parts to the project; one architectural, the rebuilding of an old farmhouse, the other the restoration of the farm after years of abuse as a quarry and rubbish dump.

The most important element in the project’s success is the client, Prince Sultan bin Salman. He is an astronaut with all the scientific, intellectual and physical skills that that occupation requires, and he has a deep appreciation of his culture’s traditions along with the awareness that it is essential that they are not lost to future generations. When Prince Sultan decided to rebuild his farmhouse he turned for assistance to that ancient building material, mud brick, many others would rather have knocked down the existing house and created a concrete and glass air-conditioned palace.

No doubt it was because of his technical understanding and appreciation of architectural traditions that he employed knowledgeable craftsmen and professionals and allowed them time for research. They experimented with clays to find suitable mixes for bricks, mud mortars and renders. They studied how the old farmhouse responded to its surroundings and the climate and they considered what improvements might be made to traditional construction details. The estate’s agricultural problems were dealt with in the same rational scientific manner. It is the documentation of these experiments and the conclusions that give the book its importance.

Facey’s section analyzing the historical background of mud brick techniques and architecture is extremely good as are the rare photographs illustrating mud structures that long ago returned to earth. However, after 30 years of identifying and studying the archaeological and architectural evidence pertaining to the technical evolution of mud brick in the Arabian peninsula, this reviewer considers there is one serious omission in the historical analysis, the importance of the ‘layered technique’ has been ignored. It consists of several courses of brick combined into one layer by an enveloping coat of mud render, the method has many advantages over simply rendering a vertical wall face. In its most developed form it is three thousand years old and we have traced it across the desert from the Euphrates to Yemen, and along centuries old Arab trade routes as far as Zanzibar. It is unfortunate that it has not been given its proper place in the historical narrative.

ARCHIE WALLS

COPYRIGHT 1998 EMAP Architecture

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