Arid Lands Newsletter No. 47, May 2000
Desert Architecture for a New Millenium

Some thoughts on compatibility of structure and site

by Katherine Waser


"Water governs the position of architecture above, on, or in its site. Depending on how much water is present, a building may hover, sit, or burrow. . . . Toward the arid extreme, structure and site are so compatible they begin to blend." (Bourgeois 1983)

In its original context, this comment refers primarily to building materials - and even more specifically to the earthen materials that have been a feature of desert vernacular architectures for centuries. Yet the concept of "compatibility of structure and site" has much broader implications as well, and it is some of these implications that the articles in this issue of ALN begin to explore.

In terms of traditional desert architectural patterns, structure has often defied site, by the clustering of houses into tightly physically knit settlements. In this case the ability of humans to live compatibly with the desert depends on their architectural ability to modify the harsh desert sun and wind, by such means as massive enclosing walls and narrow shaded streets. Throughout the 20th century, with the advent of cars and air conditioning, this pattern has often been reversed to an open, widespread, expansive community architecture. Now, in the 21st century, the true environmental costs of such expansive modern design are increasingly apparent. In his article, Architect David Pearlmutter first examines traditional desert urban settlement patterns in light of modern research on urban heat islands; he then presents several case studies that begin to posit how modern desert cities could become relative "cool islands."

Certainly, the place and geography of most arid regions of the world has dictated a predominant vernacular use of earth as a building material. For desert dwellers, earth has always been readily obtainable, inexpensive or even free, and appropriate for such a hot climate. Ironically, today's modern construction techniques can make earthen architecture too expensive for many people, despite its many advantages. In the US, for example, current rammed earth construction techniques tend to be relatively expensive, requiring special forms and highly trained building crews. However, such need not be the case. In her article, Architect Mary Hardin explains how students and faculty of a University of Arizona Design/Build Studio developed a low-cost form for rammed earth construction. Tested and refined during construction of a classroom building, the form can easily be used by two or three people without special training. The technique was then used to construct a new home for a Gila River Pima family in southern Arizona.

Rammed earth is a type of adobe or earthen construction and, as the essay by Paul G. McHenry emphatically states, adobe is always an appropriate building material in the desert. Yet a major drawback of adobe is its vulnerability to earthquake damage. Many arid regions are also regions of high seismic activity, so this drawback is of particular relevance to desert dwellers. Particularly acute is the problem of how to reinforce already existing structures, thus enhancing their physical safety. Engineer Luis Zegarra and colleagues describe a technique for this purpose developed at the Catholic University of Peru.

Returning full circle to the notion of promoting compatibility of site and physical materials used for construction, the final article in this issue is a special report from the Pima County Alternative Building Materials exhibit, held in Tucson, Arizona on 21 April 2000. The report is a synopsis of information gleaned by the ALN editor about building materials old and new, during the course of attending this outstanding exhibit.


Bourgeois, Jean-Louis. 1983. Spectacular vernacular: A new appreciation of traditional desert architecture. Salt Lake City, Utah: Peregrine Smith Books.

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