FIRST EARTH | Uncompromising Ecological Architecture

Salma Samar Damluji

My name is Salma Samar Damluji, and I'm an architect by training and profession. How I came across this is, I was very fortunate. On my first year at the Architecture Association, it was during the summer break, when I had just finished my first year at the AA, and I went to visit my parents, and had wanted to break the news to them that I was quitting architecture, I was not interested in continuing my studies.

And it was by pure, sheer, whatever you want to call it, fate, that a friend of mine gave me a book written by Hassan Fathy. And it was his first book, The Tale of Two Villages. So as I started reading this book, I suddenly discovered that I didn't really want to quit studying architecture, but that I had been studying the wrong type of architecture.

And 3 weeks later, lo and behold, I met the man, just by, again, pure coincidence, in the same place. And from then on, I started, I established a relationship with him, and I went and visited him in Egypt. And on my year out, in 1976 at the AA, I went and worked with him for a whole year. So that shaped what I was looking for, and created a passion that I've since developed, and had for the longest time.

And when I finished my studies, and went back to Beirut in 1978, shortly after in 1980, I was offered a post in the Human Settlement Department at the United Nations, ECWA, which is called ESCWA now, which is the Economic Commission for Western Asia. It's now called the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia. And the first posting I had was to be sent to Yemen, to Hadramut. And that's how it all started. It hasn't ended, unfortunately.

And I grew very attached. I mean, being an Arab, I thought going to Yemen, as an Arab country, was easy. But it was like going to a completely foreign country. I couldn't understand the language, I couldn't understand the dialect, it took me a very long time to acquire an understanding and be able to speak it. I was a woman, I was young, I was good looking, so it was very difficult to manage my way around there, being on my own. It was extremely difficult terrain.

The thing is, I must also admit that there is a lot of self-fulfilment, in the sense that, when I went there, I was not only the only woman there, doing this work, but in many cases, I was the first "foreign architect", or "architect" per se, to set eyes on these sites. So I felt I had a role, I felt I had a very important role, to convey this, study this, institutionalize this, create centres of learning that can impart this information, and teach students there about this architecture. And not about imported curricula that come from second-hand universities, whether in the West, or in other Arab countries. So, I was teaching, as well, and lecturing, here, in the U.K., as well as in Arab countries. So I was extremely passionate about it all.

Earth buildings in Yemen, I wouldn't call them earth buildings. I would be more specific, because there are various types of buildings that use materials that are from the very soil, whether earth, or ground, or mountains, or wadis, or whatever you want to call them. And these are 3 main types: the stone buildings, the mud brick buildings, and the shale buildings, buildings made out of shale, as basic materials for constructing walls.

Now how they're built is extremely complex, because Yemen is one of the most sophisticated civilizations. It has maintained, it continues to construct its buildings and its architecture with these materials, so that would need several hours of discussions, to be specific, or even to be general. And generality isn't one of my good points [smiles].

I mean, what I can tell you is that, regarding mud brick architecture, which has been my speciality, or point of interest, for the last at least 25, if not more, years, I've worked in some great detail at establishing how these buildings are made, if you like, which is a general question. Just to work on 2 cities took me 6 years and maybe 2 years of editing all that material, which was published in my book, The Valley of Mud Brick Architecture, which is on Shibam and Tarim and Wadi Hadramut.

As I originally told you, I'm not a historian, so I don't like to attach dates to buildings. The buildings I've worked on definitely go back to 200, 300, and some, more, years. But we know for a fact that these buildings have been there since pre-Islamic times. So, we're talking of civilizations as old as Sava and the Queen of Sheba. But then again, in Wadi Hadramut I discuss this, and I think if you go back to Genesis, you'll find mention of both Shibam and Tarim and Hadramut. In the Torah.

When you've got 7 and 8 and 9 floors constructed in sun-dried mud brick, it's already a huge feat, both engineering-ly and construction-wise. And when it comes to design, it's superior. So, whether you construct palaces, in sun-dried mud brick, and can build up to 40 rooms and 40 bathrooms in one building, as in Khaylah, for example, on just has to look and see. Why, and what has made this so incredible and amazing? It's just that the current commercial professional sector isn't interested, because you don't make money out of mud bricks anymore.

Do you know something? Apart from trying to be philosophical, or sounding scientific about the ecology of these buildings, essentially, the fact that this architecture has worked so well for hundreds of years for its inhabitants, and its an architecture that can identify as a culture, as a deep, profound culture, which is very closely related to the socio-economics of communities that have lived there and that have mastered, and been the masters of this civilization for so long, I think in itself ought to acknowledge the importance of it ecologically and otherwise.

I think the best way to compare it ecologically, or to discuss it or identify it as ecologically viable or sound or sustainable, whatever these important words are in a specific modern jargon, contemporary jargon that is used, is just compare it with the ugly mediocre imported Western forms of buildings that are being used there, which are commercially viable because they fit into a more speculation market kind of economy. Culturally devoid, completely.

That's the problem, you see. It's not just that they are great, because they are ecologically important. It's not that they are great because they are cheaper to build and because people know how to construct them. But it's because there's a very strong cultural, economic, social discipline related to the entire matrix that is built around them, which makes these places very important, that makes these places exceptional. It makes these place, or, could have made these places comparable to any other beautiful city that you find in Florence or in Italy in the countryside.

But all of this is being eroded gently.

We can learn a hell of a lot, but it's not so much about learning, because learning is an individual process, and is also a communal process. But what matters is not so much the learning. It's the awareness and what to do with that awareness, how to execute that awareness. And sadly, unless this awareness finally hits the upper echelons of people who are in political places, to make and take decisions, it will always remain as an individual exercise, which will not serve the communities, as far as I'm concerned.

See, the reason why I told you thing, or the situation, is bleak is because, unfortunately, the level of architecture that exists in those countries and let's just concentrate, for example, on the cities in Yemen. Because you can still see entire cities and villages built out of local materials, whether it's mud brick, stone, shale, blah blah. The problem is, that there's now a huge, vast chasm, I believe, between the quality of these cities and towns, architecturally, and the minds and the intellect of people who are in government. And I say this to them! I have no problem criticizing anybody in government.

So you think to yourself, "Okay, so these are the great men." People like Hassan Fathy, Louis Khan, the master builders, the unknown master builders that I've discussed in m book, and or that I've brought to highlight in my book and mention. But I think the bleakness of the situation is, when you're young, or 20 years ago, let's put it this way, because I always like to think I'm young, but 20 and 30 years ago, one wanted to create institutions to change how people thought. And I remember thinking that I can convince the Yemeni officials to come and continue building and adopt this traditional building as part of their housing policies. And use both the traditional materials, blah blah blah.

This was all fine when they didn't have money. But now as money is gushing in, because they have a bit of oil, because they get a lot of subsidies from the Gulf, etc. And suddenly, there's so much money, that it has to change hands. And even when there are transparent institutions, as they like to call them, you see how money's being allocated. And it just gets more and more depressing. And then you see all these buildings being constructed in cement and concrete that are absolute rubbish, next to the original stuff they have.

So this disparity that exists now between officials, that are supposed to be responsible, but they are terribly irresponsible, and intellectually whether they're capable of understanding how to institutionalize and use these resources that they've got at hand to administer and construct and plan new cities.

And they don't want people like myself coming, telling them what to do. So things have changed. 20 years ago... See, again, politics is a huge quagmire, if you like. Because men, I believe, who are involved in politics, are not really interested in their countries, or in building their countries. They're interested in building their positions, or shoring up their positions, or their job, whatever they think they have, power. So it's a very difficult situation.

It's all a question of time, also. We're running out of time. I often come back from Yemen and I say to myself, "That's it, I can't go back anymore." I've done that on a couple of occasions. I've stayed away at 5 or 6 years at a go, and then I tend to go back. But, the clock is ticking. And I think it's time, I've done my bit, but it's time.