I believe we each have one true thing in our life that we need to accomplish. Not simply an attainable goal that builds our confidence and our credibility, but something driven more by our soul’s desire to create, to leave behind something that reflects who we are at the core. Whether that one thing, our personal thing, is understood and appreciated or otherwise questioned doesn’t matter–it is the process that satisfies our passion. For my husband, Richard, that one true thing was an Earth House, built of rammed earth and earth bricks, coming to life on a parcel of land in the brush of Senegal, Africa.
His decision, the why and the where, was not sudden. It started with his adolescent hand in refurbishing his mother’s ruined farmhouse in Brittany, France and was fueled by his adult desire to lead a more sustainable life, to skim the extraneous from our lives. Land was purchased; books about earth architecture appeared; long discussions about the efficacy and merits of building in Senegal ensued; plans were drawn up. His inspiration came from an Egyptian architect of the 1940’s and 50’s named Hassan Fathy, who was mocked and dismissed by his peers for building with earth techniques, but was ultimately honored for having instituted “architecture for the poor” on the continent of Africa.
One of the biggest problems plaguing the people of Senegal centers around housing. Land is passed from generation to generation, sometimes as part of a marriage dowry, more often as legacy. But because cement and iron are costly materials, they cannot afford to build homes on their land and as a consequence, many Senegalese find themselves selling the land for monetary gain, forfeiting their inheritance as well as their independence. This is one reason why households are overcrowded with more generations than their modest walls can accommodate.
At one point, as is still true in more rural areas, building with earth was the norm. Those people who moved closer to a large metropolis found themselves caught up in the web of status, wanting to be accepted and revered by their neighbors. French influences brought more sophisticated, but not necessarily better, building materials which were comparatively expensive and the “old ways” of building gradually became a chapter in history.
They didn’t forget, they chose as an urban society to move forward, as we all have, in every nation, following an integrated path that we were told was superior to the simple one we were on. And like the Senegalese, we are all beginning to understand that what worked so well before, what we abandoned in favor of “progress” wasn’t so disposable after all. Cement holds in heat; earth walls keep the interior temperate. Modern toxic paints are expensive and require substantial maintenance; active Lime costs nothing and repels insects and dust. Most importantly, the dirt that we excavate gets molded into the walls that surround us . . . using all, wasting nothing, costing little, lasting lifetimes.
Richard hopes that our house will serve as an example to the native Senegalese that they can afford to build a house and it doesn’t have to be round or utilize thatched straw roofing. It can make sense in it’s usage and purpose and still be beautiful, breathtaking in fact. This is where his one true thing bridges the gap between the needs of this society and his personal need to build something beautiful and lasting. This is the crossroad where building becomes architecture, where construction becomes creation and where a house becomes a home.
This is where calculations are made, not just to keep the vaulted ceilings from collapsing, but to make sure the afternoon light comes through the half-moon windows to reflect their oval shape on the floors. It’s where the direction of dominant winds is taken into consideration, so that breezes move the light linen curtains. Where doors open to view their adjacent arches vined with Bougainvillea. Where exterior corridors provide a walkway that takes us from one room to another, but on the way, makes us stop and listen for ancient voices in their monastic slopes.
This house will endure, for us, for our children if they so choose. The walls are textured and sturdy, thick as trees, cool to the touch, smelling of the ground. I love to sit under these arches that we helped build. Their earth bricks, cured by the sun, climb up and lean on each other for support, in the way that we do in uncertain times. I wish these graceful arches could stay as they are forever, their reaching silhouettes more like ruins than beginnings.
When I look at them lately, I can see that they were always meant to be here, that we were always meant to come.