I always enjoy talking to my friend and colleague Ron Rael. Ron is the author of Earth Architecture, an excellent book that outlines the history and explores in-depth contemporary uses of earth in architecture.
Ron’s book is a book about design, but it’s also a powerful corrective to those commentators that view buildings made of earth, or the matter that constitutes earth buildings (mud, sand, gravel, soils), as primitive, poor, or crude. One of Ron’s points is that earth buildings have a far more complex history; describing earth matter as inherently “poor” is often just a way to tie specific practices to specific (often global southern) geographies and histories. As Ron notes, earth is free; but this does not suggest that it is a defacto representation of poverty. In more recent discussions, Ron describes earth as a type of infrastructure. In his narrative and case studies earth emerges as a material with far reaching technologies and representational implications.
Ron’s book is engaged with aesthetics, technology, and history; it’s less explicitly concerned with political problems. But in releasing earth’s denigrating associations with poverty, we are left with more than just “rich” earth; we arrive at a less denigrating poverty of earth that is tied more to the “common” than the geographically poor. When I consider free earth molded into something more than a representation of the poverty of those building with it, I begin to imagine it also being part of a terrapolitical structure — a “red earth.” This earth that may be at some base level “poor” but also open to a new image, much more than “not poor”.
In arguing for a red earth, I’m not arguing that earth holds an innate leftist proletarian politics in its chemical composition (!), nor am I completely arguing for the social construction of earth. I am arguing that our engagement with earth offers the possibilities for new liberatory ways of understanding space, that remain tied to earth’s commonness.
A powerful concept of red earth, tied to its ubiquity and free nature, might be found in the roots of much red thought — Marx himself. In his Critique of German Ideology, Marx understood earth (as concept and thing) as the base of political economic philosophy. In one of his most famous passages, he wrote “In total contrast to German [idealist] philosophy, which descends from heaven to earth, we here ascend from earth to heaven.” Marx saw earth (both soil and “the earth”) as the base of his philosophy because it was the defacto element that contained the material and ideological possibilities of society (its nourishment, production, and metaphysics). For Marx, earth contains the conditions of society by society. Earth not only delivers the grains grown by a farmer, but when a person digs his shovel into earth to grow something he or she becomes “a farmer.” When a person binds the earth into bricks he or she becomes “a builder.” The earth is social matter and structure, how we engage with it repeats existing structures and opens up new concepts.
Red earth also becomes red through its potential to release the history of the common, the poor, the defeated. Earth is an endless historical archive of tragedy that does not have to be nurtured, funded, or maintained (like most archives) to hold records of such tragedy. As an archive of social misfortune, our engagement with earth is a barometer of how we come to grips with our crimes. Murder, corruption, and lurking forms of power are hidden through manipulations of earth (from mass graves to buried toxic pits). But these things often reappear through manipulations of the earth.
What is the fascism and corruption that appears in contemporary film but a big earth-burying operation? The justice that often appears in film is a big excavation. Consider some of John Sayles recent films in which the bad guys bury their crimes and the good guys, quite literally, go into the earth to excavate those crimes. Or just about any film that explores genocide involves mass burials and excavations.
This more red earth, that is the condition of society and the history of society, appears in a few contemporary works of architecture. One of my favorite “earth” projects, The Irish National Pavilion is discussed by Ron in his book; it’s a project about history, denigration, and earth. Another more explicitly red project (not in Ron’s book) is the Open Air Cafe proposal by Manuel Herz, which I wrote about in my article “Debris” in the current issue of AA files (and that also appears in Subnature (along with the Irish Pavilion)).
In this latter project (above), Herz proposes excavating the ground of Cologne — site of one of the most notorious bombings during World War II — and heaping the mixture of earth and war debris (held within the earth of Cologne) over a series of concrete armatures for a park cafe. The war debris becomes a type of historical material that forces residents of Cologne to consider the history within earth and the conditions of a future nature in this particular city. It’s a proposal that enables us to see earth, the crimes it holds, and its potential representational structure in historical terms.
This brief discussion of a red earth builds on Ron’s observations. I think it also positions some ideas about earth differently from those concepts of earth and ground in either contemporary green or parametric design. Both of these latter movements see earth as an uncorrupted source of vitalism for a future architecture; an instrument of literal or digital vectors springing out of its surfaces. The earth of Herz (or the Irish Pavilion) is an earth examined (versus generalized); it’s an earth that is historical without being historicist; and it offers us images of earth as both life and violence against life, versus a more flippant vision of life and beauty.