In the framework of the future ACE autumn Conference on “Climate Change & Built heritage”, ACE talked with Anna Heringer about quality in the built environment, sustainability, earth architecture and natural building materials.
ACE: You will be one of the keynote speakers at the future ACE Conference on “Climate Change & Built heritage”. Does climate change imply a change of mindset and mark the time to adopt a new attitude towards the built environment?
Anna Heringer: “Many people are hoping that we will find technical solutions to fix the problem, but I don’t trust in technical solutions. When we look at the current state of our planet, we can see that it’s not only about climate change; we have massive problems like injustice, but also unhappiness; the fact of not being happy as a society. Everything is linked, we have to come to a new mindset where we care about each other and stop exploiting; this involves the planet and the people. Crises are in general a catalyst of positive change because we do really start to grow. In this current crisis, one thing is clear - we need to learn fast. “
ACE: You have shown, through your projects and your work with NGOs, that sustainable architecture is the combination of traditional, local materials and the introduction of new approaches for efficiency and structural integrity. Can you tell us more about the “METI Handmade School” project in Rudrapur, Bangladesh that supports local economies and fosters ecological balance?
Anna Heringer : “For me, when I start a project it’s really important to look at 3 aspects; the local materials - and here I really mean local natural materials such as mud, bamboo, timber etc. Second: the local energy resources available, where for me the most important one is human energy. When we think about alternatives energies, we usually refer to solar or wind solutions, but we also need to include the human being, as we are 7 billion people living on this planet, this is a massive resource of energy available. If you don't use it, there will be a social issue.
And finally I search for the know-how. Knowledge and information are not linked to a space alone. I’m looking at the existing craft but also at the global know-how that shouldn’t be limited. It should be accessible everywhere. And then, I am considering techniques and strategies that fit to a local situation, with the local materials and energy resources available. What I have learned when I started to work as an architect in Bangladesh is that the most effective strategy for sustainability is to make use of existing resources and to value them, never becoming dependent on external factors. From a material point of view, we are trying to work as much as possible on a natural site. In the end there will be nothing left of our buildings, but the know-how to re-build buildings in a better way.
I`m not aiming for an eternal architecture, for buildings that are standing forever; this reality does not exist and we should admit it. I try to generate buildings that, one day, can go back into their natural site, if they are no longer needed. A house built of earth can last for a long time, if maintained and it can be turned into a garden. This is my wish, on an ecological level. On the economic level, I want the building budget to become a catalyst for development. The biggest success is that the result is not only a building, but that the building process contributes to a fair and social economic development.”
ACE: Your buildings are a statement that sustainability is about quality of life and the celebration of nature`s vast resources. Is it time to reconnect with nature and re-learn to use organic material?
Anna Heringer: “When we think about sustainability, we often think that we need to limit ourselves, but the DNA of nature is not about limitation; nature is about abundance. If we use the right material and if we decide to excel in craft techniques rather than inventing new materials that are harmful to the planet. But there is a fascination for the “new” rather than the “old”. People often ask me if I want to take people back to the stone age. Of course not! Materials can be old but architecture can be brand new and modern. It’s a perception that I want to change throughout my work as an architect in order to prove that we can build contemporary structures that meet the needs of the current society with materials like mud and bamboo for example.”
ACE: In the light of the climate crisis, materials need to prove their worth more then ever. When did you start to work with earth and bamboo?
Anna Heringer: “I always had a fascination for earth architecture. I just thought it was beautiful. Then in Bangladesh, I got really inspired and felt its full quality. As an architecture student, I never had the opportunity to get the know-how until I signed for a rammed earth workshop with Martin Rauch in Schlins (Austria). When, for the first time, I had mud in my hands, I realised that mud was the missing link between my two passions, development - in terms of justice and ecology - and design, creativity and beauty. With mud I felt I would be able to design beautiful structures that were also healthy for the planet, for the people and society. “
ACE: Earth is good, but not here”, is a sentence you heard very often in Europe?
Anna Heringer: “In the beginning, everybody was super happy of my work in Bangladesh, in a country far away. Then when I started to say that we need to start to work with natural resources in the same way in Europe, I faced some criticism. I truly believe that no human being has a greater right to exploit the resources of the planet just because he/she has more money. We have to take whatever we need from this planet, no more than that. Gandhi famously said that “there is enough on Earth for everybody's need, but not enough for everybody's greed”. So right now, I'm planning a campus in Ghana and in Germany, both in rammed earth. Finally, a commission in my home country!"
ACE: What about Bamboo, the “green gold”?
Anna Heringer: “Bamboo is fascinating, but timber is just as great, it really depends what grows in the project area. For the tension elements, you need partners for the mud; it could be bamboo, it could be timber or fibers - all these are materials that really interest me a lot.”
ACE: “How do you see your building aging? How can this contemporary earth heritage be protected? Especially that which is made of mud? What are the other materials you are considering exploring? “
Anna Heringer : “The school is in really good shape. In the beginning, we had an issue with the bamboo, it was the first time I worked with this material, it was fresh green bamboo and we had a “beetle attack” on the first floor. Therefore, we needed to reinstall the bamboo structure. I was in a tremendous crisis then, but the workers reassured me and told me that they know how to build it. “Decay is part of life!”. The result was that through this rebuilding the know-how of the old workers was passed on to a new team. And we started to plant our own bamboo so that maintenance in future will be easy and cheap. The maintenance of the mud is easy. You take the broken part, make it wet and put it back on the wall. Bangladesh is facing really harsh, even horizontal, monsoon showers. But the walls are standing strong – since 2005."
ACE: In his book The Craftsman, Richard Sennett writes “We can achieve a more human material life, if only we better understand the making of things.” Is this a vision you share?
Anna Heringer: “Yes and the making of things contributes a lot to happiness. We live in a virtual world. We don’t see the effect of our energy and creativity, it’s just in our DNA to make things and also to build. Look at children. One of the favorite games is to build a hut. We, as architects, exclude participation in the process, creating already perfect solutions for the owners, and the owners just go to Ikea to fulfill this need of making things, creating a home. This is wrong. We have to include more people in the building process and in the “making of”. I am really convinced that while we design buildings, we also have the opportunity to build up communities at the same time. We are so trained in designing the outcome of the building, but we can also design the process. The choice of a building material and construction technique ultimately decides who is benefiting from the project. At the end of our career, we have a clear picture on where we invested the millions of our budgets; into the right hands and not only in big industries. That’s our power and responsibility as architects. Through this we are having quite an impact on society and we need to be aware of that."
ACE: We can see that your projects are focused more in rural areas.
Anna Heringer: “Yes, but this is changing a lot as well. In the beginning, I started with the rural areas, but now I am working more and more in urban areas. Especially in dense areas, the choice of material is crucial, because you feel it more as nature is not that strong a counterpart. I think it would feel so good to have some earthen structure in a dense city because you could feel nature coming through again. Humankind grew up with such a close connection with nature, earth and I think we miss that; it would enrich our cities so much more if they had natural building materials.”
ACE: In your opinion, what is the relevance of architectural policies? What are your expectations at EU level in terms of supporting professional practice and guaranteeing the quality of the built environment? What will be your main message to policy makers during the ACE conference?
Anna Heringer: I would really want to see truthful costs of materials. It’s incredible that when I am building with sustainable natural materials in Bangladesh, it’s the cheapest way whereas when I am building the same way in Germany and Europe, it’s much more expensive than building with materials with high embodied energy.
What does it mean? That our economic system right now is supporting materials such as steel, concrete, oil-based materials and this is simply just not the way it should be. Of course, this is a matter of policy and politics. We really need support for natural building materials. Taxing materials that produce a lot of CO2 emission and on the other hand, there are taxes that should be reduced on human energy; on craftsmanship. By doing so, we could afford to work with more craftsmanship again."
ACE: In your opinion, what will architecture be like in the coming years and decades? What are the emerging new trends and tendencies? As a teacher, as well, what do you see is evolving in the new generation of architects?
Anna Heringer: “There is a growing hunger for meaningful architecture. And also for authentic architecture. And for earth architecture. The Architecture Review just dedicated its February issue to the subject. This media coverage would not have been possible 10 years ago from a leading architectural publication. The same goes for the
mainstream media. We can also notice that students are showing a real enthusiasm for the subject, followed by different universities including Harvard. We already had 3 student workshops with Martin Rauch. This increased awareness is coming more from the younger generation rather than the older one. I think students should be more
involved in choosing teachers and refining the curriculum. It’s important to bring earth architecture into education. Students need to have a chance to learn not only about steel or concrete but also about earth, wood and natural fibers.”
ACE: Alejandro Aravena directs those just starting out to be as nerdy, free, and rebellious as possible. What is your advice for young architects?
Anna Heringer: “Be courageous! We have the tendency to go with the flow because it’s easier. We think this is what people want, what the market expects. We are specialised in the mainstream rather than in the non-mainstream. So, follow our hearts. Let’s be courageous! We don’t have much time, so start doing it now! Capitalism is not a natural force, it’s man-made, so we can change the system and I think it’s time for that.”
ACE: As architects look towards the future, they see human beings with starkly different views who still yearn to connect with one another. This, according to curator Hashim Sarkis, is what inspired the 2020 Biennale theme “How Will We Live Together »? According to him, we will need a new spatial contract and call on architects to imagine spaces in which we can generously live together. How do you envision this space?
Anna Heringer: “We have to share resources, we have to share spaces, and then we can create better qualities. Co-living, for instance, shows that we can easily share resources, empty spaces and the rooms that we are not using, if 20 families share some living units and specific facilities, we can tend for a better living quality. There are enough projects showing that if we share things as a total, we possess more as a community.”
“Architecture is a tool for quality of life” is your signature.
Anna Heringer: “Architecture is a tool to improve life but it is also true – unfortunately - that Architecture is a tool to destroy life. I am an idealist and I do think that without an ideal you should just stop working. It’s good to have ideals and to work towards them. With the experience of my practice, I strongly believe that we can have an essential impact on shaping our societies through the way we design our buildings and building processes. While building up a house we can also build up trust, in ourselves, the community and in the fact that there are a lot of resources made available by nature for free. There is enough for everyone - all we need is to see those resources, care for them and use our creativity and technical know-how to “graft” them. And I'm sure our homes, workspaces, cities and villages would not just become more healthy and sustainable, but also more humane, diverse and beautiful."
About Anna Heringer
Anna grew up in Laufen, a small town at the Austrian-Bavarian border close to Salzburg. At the age of 19 she lived in Bangladesh for almost a year, where she had the chance to learn from the NGO Dipshikha about sustainable development work. The main lesson was the experience, that the most successful development strategy is to trust in existing, readily available resources and to make the best out of it instead of getting depended on external systems. Eight years later, in 2005, she tried to transfer this philosophy into the field of architecture.
For Anna Heringer, architecture is a tool to improve lives. As an architect and honorary professor of the UNESCO Chair of Earthen Architecture, Building Cultures, and Sustainable Development she is focusing on the use of natural building materials. She has been actively involved in development cooperation in Bangladesh since 1997. Her diploma work, the METI School in Rudrapur got realized in 2005 in collaboration with Eike Roswag and won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2007. Over the years, Anna has realized further projects in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Together with Martin Rauch she has developed the method of Clay Storming that she teaches at various universities, including ETH Zurich, UP Madrid, TU Munich and GSD/Harvard. She received numerous honors: the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture, the AR Emerging Architecture Awards in 2006 and 2008, the Loeb Fellowship at Harvard's GSD and a RIBA International Fellowship. Her work was widely published and exhibited in the MoMA New York, the V&A Museum in London and at the Venice Biennale among other places. In 2013 with Andres Lepik and Hubert Klumpner she initiated the Laufenmanifesto where practitioners and academics from around the world contributed to define guidelines for a humane design culture.