Architecture’s Dirty Secret: Mud’s Marketing Problem

Architecture’s Dirty Secret: Mud’s Marketing Problem

“Three billion people live in a house made of mud. For good reason!”

This fact leaped from the wall of text of the Mud WORKS! display as I perused the (obviously) impressively-designed Architecture Biennale in Venezia. Coming from Canada, the thought of mud-housing brings up images of poverty and hardship. However, for all the green building innovation, it may be the most cost-effective, hyper-local, cradle-to-grave-friendly building style.  Many people I know would love to live in a net-zero home. Yet, few would be excited about living in a home made of mud. All these benefits are obvious, yet the idea is somehow too basic.

It seems mud is too humble for its own good. Or, perhaps for our own good. Is this architecture’s dirty secret?

Gabinete de Arquitectura’s “Breaking the Siege” also highlights simple, locally produced materials.
Gabinete de Arquitectura’s “Breaking the Siege” also highlights simple, locally produced materials.

A Viennese en route to Venice

We were lucky enough to share our train couchette to from Vienna to Venice with a mud-loving architect named David. We first chatted about Central European weather, Austrian politics, bicycle design, and then the biennale where he was invited to participate in a student workshop. He spoke enthusiastically about his thesis project in South Sudan.

Our train arriving in Venice
Morning rail arrival to Venice

He worked with an Austrian non-profit and the local community to design a health center constructed with locally-sourced materials: mainly mud and wood. Mud was essential in providing the main building material, as well as a strategic tool in protecting the wooden structure from termite infiltration. As is often the case, it would have been easier to protect the structure using purchased materials, but costs rise exponentially. As a pair of enthusiastic thesis students, they pushed to use local, inexpensive and easily repairable materials. With ingenuity and a little maintenance, they built a locally-sourced, environmentally-friendly building. The structure can now be locally maintained with little cost, expanded with little cost, and ultimately, demolished with little impact.

Talking Dirty at the Biennale

This idea of elevating mud was further enforced at the Biennale. The theme was ‘Reporting from the Front’, focusing on architecture that is building to connect with civil society, building for the millions of new urban dwellers and building in ways that creatively manoeuvre around the complex obstacles of modern life.

Biennale entrance

The pavilions were filled with architecture tackling these problems in ways that are as beautiful as they are innovative. Displays stretched across two grounds, providing more rich creativity and context than I could reasonably process. In this expansive event dedicated to the leading edge of architecture and design, humble mud was put on a pedestal. On display for all to see and bask in its simple, sustainable merits.

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