“Modernity is not a question of how old a material is or how new but it’s a question of the design language and how to meet the needs and aspirations of the people in the coming generations.”
For the 2016 Venice Biennale, Anna Heringer and Andres Lepik (both LF ’12) along with Austrian artist Martin Rauch, brought 25 tons of mud into the central exhibition space to give viewers an immediate experience with rammed earth construction.
The installation in Venice is a sibling of the Loeb project we did together with Martin Rauch during our Loeb year in front of the GSD. It even has the same name: MudWorks! The project at the GSD showed how much can be achieved with a sort of acupuncture architecture: a temporary installation at a certain trigger point can have a great impact on the public awareness. Because mud has no lobby we need to be the lobby.
There is a lot of fear and distrust when it comes to mud as a building material. In this installation we wanted to show the strength as well as the beauty of mud. We also wanted to emphasize that earth is not a material for the poor. It is available almost everywhere at low cost. Because it is non-standardized, it requires lots of human labour and this means work opportunities for many, even unskilled people, which is a need all around the world. Building with more natural materials like mud and with more people, with more human labour and craftsmanship involved, would make our planet healthier in terms of ecological systems and more just in terms of economic systems.
Using several different methods, the Biennale team created a rammed earth floor, bench, load-bearing walls, and 2 sculptures, one for sitting on. The walls were tinted with mud-casein colors. Other work by Martin Rauch, shown at the exhibition, offered further proof that living in earth doesn’t mean regression to the Stone Age, but can be part of a very comfortable, healthy, and contemporary lifestyle.
The team’s description provides a sense of the stability and visual and tactile richness of the component structures:
The Zabur technique used for shaping the Pepita sculpture is the most simple and direct way of building: shaping architecture by hand. Without formwork, the wet material, in this case comprised of a mix of clay and stones and traditional coggiopesto (recycled bricks) from Venice, is applied in layers of about 15 cm in height. The walls, although 10 to 15 cm thin, are loadbearing.
The surface finish of the sculpture is unsealed and thus contributes to a comfortable indoor climate, in particular by balancing the humidity. The shiny surface is achieved with a fine mud plaster, polished by hand at the right moment, the right speed, and pressure.
The rammed earth wall panels were prefabricated in two parts. Formwork 10 cm thick was filled with a saturated earthen mixture, layer by layer, and compacted with ramming. The working process is evident, as the physical energy required for compression is visible, similar to the lithogenous process. Through this stark compaction, and eventually through the drying process, the rammed earth wall becomes stiff and nonyielding without requiring any additional substances. The working process remains visible, the individuality of the project tangible.
The bench and the floor were produced with the same mix as the Pepita, only in a more dry form and with more stones. As such, the graininess of the rammed earth mixture is formulated with a 12 cm thickness and compressed with a vibrating plate compactor, smoothened out, and after it has dried, the surface is treated with Carnauba wax.
The floor is waxed with the natural Carnauba wax. All elements of the construction are fully recyclable without loss of quality.
The construction of this installation was partly linked to a workshop on earthen structures. Hermann Kaufmann of the Technical University of Munich is going to build hospital facilities in Cameroon during the summer semester of 2016. The installation in Venice was a great chance to learn mud building techniques – we anticipate the knowhow gained will travel far beyond this Biennale.
We hope that this installation acts as a kind of punctual trigger point, with the ramification of raising the trust in this wonderful material.
The exhibit earned mention in the Guardian, the LA Times, Neue Züricher Zeitung, along with other press. The team heard from many colleagues that this was the structure their body remembered most. As Wang Shu put it, "Ah, that is peaceful in here."