Anna Heringer loves mud, and has won some big prizes for her rammed earth designs. For her, architecture is not just a building but a route to human development
Anna Heringer has a mass of online content, but as I sift through it – be it the latest TED Talk, or a Harvard GSD Loeb Scholar lecture or a filmed Venice Biennale panel discussion – I’m more distracted by her clothing than by what she’s saying. I mean, the Loeb lecture was in 2012, the AR Emerging Architecture piece in 2016 and Alejandro Aravena’s Biennale in 2018, so four years divide the three events; but in all of them the German architect seems to be wearing the same, simply fashioned top. Talking to her recently on her winning the 2020 Obel Award, the question of whether it is or not precedes my congratulations.
That €100,000 prize could buy a lot of clothes nowadays. ‘It probably was the same top – or at least one of three versions,’ Heringer replies enthusiastically, quite unabashed at being asked. It turns out she has a temperate one, ‘and a summer version and a winter one. Thinking about how we consume spurred me to create a clothing label in Bangladesh – clothing is a kind of body architecture; because when you start to understand globalism through what you wear, you begin to alter your relationship to it.’ Her Dipdii Textiles co-op is a small ethical step in a country where over 80% of its cheap labour force turns out clothes for markets in the West, generating over US$30 billion in exports. So for her the enterprise is as spatial a reading of Bangladesh’s economic reality as any of her buildings: ‘Settlement patterns there have never been governed by architects or city planners, but by the hegemony of the garment industry’.
Heringer, affable and relaxed, talks to me on Zoom from the pretty Bavarian village of Laufen near Salzburg, where she was born in 1977. Her 15th century home and office, once a beer hall, with white-painted groin vaults sat atop great hand-carved stone columns, is lofty and of monastic sobriety. That mood is mitigated by large, colourful wall hangings handmade by a Bangladeshi community 6000km away, whose fortunes have been inextricably bound with Heringer’s ever since she first ventured out there, aged 17, to do voluntary work via a German NGO.
The Obel Award, launched in 2019 by Danish businessman Henrik Frode Obel, and first awarded to Junya Ishigami, was presented last month to Heringer for her disability education and community workspace Anandaloy in the village of Rudrapur, Bangladesh. Given the base-line, subsistence-level nature of this project, there would at first glance seem little to connect it to Ishigami’s Art Biotop Water Garden – a surreal, Zen-like, conceptual landscape beside Japan’s Nasu Mountains. But both share a core commonality – mud and its considered placement. Anandaloy, a two-storey structure of bamboo and rammed earth with an access ramp running round it built by and for the village Heringer knows as a second home, isn’t only an expression of architectural intent but a whole way of living.
It’s an outlook she developed from an early age. An only child, Heringer’s father was an ecologist and a scout and holidays of her youth were spent with her scout group foraging in the woods for both food and shelter and had an enduring effect: ‘Making a tent, kitchen, toilet, furniture; the idea of creating a small village in a couple of weeks and leaving no trace at the end of it was something that shaped me. It was my first urbanism.’ The NGO year-out work in Bangladesh that was to prove so formative was followed by architecture studies at the University of the Arts in Linz. Heringer laughs now at her dalliances with Deconstruction, especially given that she couldn’t ever imagine herself in a normal office. But as she tried to reconcile her passions for social justice and the environment, it was a rammed earth workshop with ceramic artist and designer Martin Rauch that proved her Road to Damascus conversion.
‘I just put my hands in the mud and that was it,’ she recalls. ‘It’s a material that’s free, ecological, low-energy and its working is the biggest part of its budget so the money stays with the people who craft it.’ The realisation defined everything that she has done since, adding: ‘You can use it, repair it and recycle it without loss of quality, return it to the earth and plant your garden over it at the end. No other modern construction material has its scope or possibility.’ Heringer is nothing less than evangelical; for her ‘it’s the missing link that leads to social justice’.
And armed with that, she set to work. Her 2006 METI building, the first project in Rudrapur with ongoing collaborator Martin Rauch, was her Linz diploma study made flesh after she returned to Bangladesh to convince local social enterprise Dipshikha that, despite a stated desire for a brick school, they in fact wanted a rammed earth and bamboo one. Materials and skills were procured locally, and rammed earth techniques developed by the villagers, who went on to build the school themselves. They all learned from the process. Buffalo, it turns out, are better at treading mud than cows as the latter are more intelligent and step in their own hoof prints. But once it was finished, it was so much more than the sum of its parts. At 29, Heringer appeared on the same stage as Norman Foster at the 2007 Aga Khan Award to collect her US$55,000 prize that she shared equitably with the village community. And 12 years later, she says proudly, those same villagers would be passing on their skills to a new generation in the construction of the Anandaloy building.
But this isn’t just a vanity project and Anandaloy is more than a carbon neutral building. Disabilities school aside, Dipdii Textiles, housed below it, is skilling up women in hand sewing, creating quality garments sold in the West that allow the village to invest its profits into a five year plan with Dipshikha. That means access to doctors, women’s health services and other community needs, even livestock. But there are less tangible benefits too. ‘Women are freed from the trap of home, with a clean, bright workplace that empowers them,’ says Heringer. It’s even about shifting perceptions of ‘untouchable’ widows; where at the last Durga Puja Hindu festival, Heringer dragged them up on the stage to dance. Being from outside the community has helped her break boundaries within it.
I ask Heringer if she hasn’t since created a cosy place for herself as not only a Great White Hope but plumping enviable teaching roles at the likes of Harvard GSD and ETH Zurich that play off a trendily niche expertise, but she rejects the assertion. It’s about the survival of her dream too and the Obel cash was a surprising and welcome boon for a small office of four doing very few projects, relying on teaching work and where every penny counts. ‘It’s a question I get a lot from my students about how I manage to do ‘ethical architecture’ and make a living when there’s no guarantee about your future. Do you just compromise because that’s where the money is?’ she asks, before answering with a challenging trinity: ‘Spend a third of your time on your passion, a third ethically paying the bills and the last third simplifying your life.’
So in Covid times they muddle through, but there’s finally real hope on the domestic horizon. While the firm has done small projects in Germany responding to the community-based nature of making, such as its altar at St Peter’s Cathedral in Worms and Taddelakt birthing space in Vorarlberg, Austria, it’s at the historic Saint Michael’s boarding school in nearby Traunstein where the architect will finally be able to build on (and obviously with) home ground. Here at the alma mater of erstwhile Pope Benedict XVI, Heringer has, with the help of executive architects, been charged with the construction of a load-bearing timber student dormitory and rammed earth forum building. The result of a 2015 speculative workshop with the school, the campus buildings will break ground next year. Heringer sees it as something of a coup as she insisted on the same ethical stance – ‘no difference whether it’s Bangladesh or Bavaria’ – meaning the rammed earth came in significantly more pricey than concrete. Both seminarians and students will, at some point, help construct its walls, becoming earth disciples in the process.
While she rues that her visionary, kasbah-like Morocco Sustainability Centre in Marrakech bit the dust, the Tatale Education Campus on Ghana’s border with Togo for the Salesians of Don Bosco is still on track for construction, while the La Donaira ‘El Cortijo’ eco-retreat and equestrian centre set in the hills near Ronda in Andalucía is at planning stage. For the last three in hotter climes, the technology is a shoo-in: ’Concrete is a shitty material for hot countries,’ she tells me. ‘It can’t cure properly and cannot balance interior humidity, which rammed earth walls can.’
But performance aside, Heringer’s ultimate objective is the egalitarian world that can be dragged from the mud, and the establishment of Bangladesh as a nation proves the point. The construction of a post independence legislature for the region, the National Parliament House in Dhaka, involved high grade, high priced concrete sourced from Pakistan. Rammed earth would have been a cheaper option that could have used and developed local skills. Heringer likes to think of it like Anandaloy – in an alternative reality where the nascent state used nothing but its own resources and skills.
‘Louis Kahn’s masterpiece, even now, is an icon for the nation,’ she mulls, ‘but how much greater it would have been built from rammed earth – out of the very ground they would later fight for?’ It’s far more than a challenge to history but an open question that binds the notion of social justice to the physical land itself, born of her own experience: ‘Rammed earth is perfect because what you need is time and dirt and water, and Bangladesh has plenty of all three.’ •