Anna Heringer: ethics before aesthetics

The use of local know-how, participatory building processes, and working on a small scale are key elements in work by this German architect

This article was originally published on Domus supplement EcoWorld, September 2019.  

“I think clients and architects should be a bigger part of the building process. Caring for the construction, taking responsibilities and risks, knowing how to repair things – it’s an emancipatory approach, and we need to relearn it,” says Anna Heringer. Working as an architect and a teacher, over the years Heringer has developed a holistic vision of architecture that respects people and the environment. Seeing the practice as a tool “to build knowledge instead of waste”, her projects act as a sort of acupuncture at the socio-economic level.

How can community-based architecture help us reach the UN 17 SDG?
“I believe change must come firstly from individuals and grass-roots movements. When I design, I always try to frame my impact by multiplying it by 7.7 billion, because every action we take can make a difference, improve society and our future. As an architect, working on a small scale enables me to find trigger points and better empower the community. Before building in contexts like Bangladesh, I was used to making aesthetic choices, but now I understand how much impact the choice of a material has.”

Group meeting during the construction of the Anandaloy project - photo © Benjamin Stähli

Can the production of architectural knowledge in rural areas counteract the exodus to cities and create the basis for a more sustainable future?
“Making changes in big cities is hard. As opposed to the countryside, you can’t rely on strong social networks. That’s why architects and decision makers need to invest in rural areas, and consider human labour as a positive source of energy. In the end, everyone wants to feel needed and, in that sense, mud architecture is a good option as it offers many job opportunities and is environmentally and socially equitable. Mud is free. I hire people to pick up the mud, bring it to the site by foot, then build the walls with their hands. No emission of carbon dioxide is involved. And at the end, everything can return to the ground and be recycled a million times without the quality being altered. By moving from concrete to mud, we can save society, because I am not enriching one company (like in the cement industry), but instead I am supporting craftsmanship. This doesn’t mean that everyone should be using mud, but we should definitely value local resources. I always ask myself: Does my approach hurt the planet? Who profits? Will it cause inequity? Will know-how be increased or decreased?.”

Preparatory drawing, Anandaloy - © Studio Anna Heringer

What about the possibility of adopting compostable architecture in emergency contexts?
“To me, the durability of the know-how is more important than the material durability, the latest being the cause of much trouble right now on the planet. That is why I believe that, instead, we need to encourage the expertise to remain and have to embrace materials that are compostable. In Bangladesh, for example, we worked with local inhabitants who had already built their own houses with mud but had never used a level before. Training them, we managed to establish a virtuous system that enabled us not to go back to the site for long times, because the community knew exactly how to proceed and they even came up with ideas on how to improve the structures in the spirit of wanting to learn more. As an architect, it really feels good to know that you are not needed anymore and that the knowledge is embedded. So yes, I believe such an approach could also be beneficial when responding to emergency situations. Just think about a recent episode: Haiti. After the earthquake, the cement and steel came all from the US. There must have been such an enormous business behind that, a huge money stream that uses humanitarian funds and exploits people. Whereas, instead, we could adopt a more emancipatory approach, implementing the know-how locally.”

Building site of the Anandaloy project - photo © Stefano Mori

Can you tell us more about your role as UNESCO Chair for Earthen Architecture, Constructive Building Cultures and Sustainable Design?
“Our goal is to distribute the expertise on how to build with earth in all sorts of climate zones and contexts. We do this through lectures and pilot projects. Typically, in architecture, the lobbyists are the driving forces in giving visibility to a certain technique/technology, and the problem with mud is that there is no lobby behind it. In some countries, mud architecture is being simply forbidden by laws. Even in regions where mud architecture was traditionally used - see Colombia and many African countries, for instance -, it is now replaced by concrete. But while forbidding concrete constructions would alert the cement lobbyists, in the case of earth architecture, nobody says anything. All this has an impact on local societies and the UN and the UNESCO understand that it is essential to preserve traditional know-how and techniques and transform them into useful tools for current and future generations. That is precisely what we are trying to do.”

Work in progress at the Anandaloy building site - photo © Stefano Mori

Can/should architecture awards be used to direct political decision-making towards more inclusive and long-lasting practices?
“In the case of the METI School project, awards were very helpful in raising awareness. Suddenly, people saw that something was happening and possible. In Bangladesh, we did receive support from the Bangladeshi Institute of Architects who requested training to be organised through a workshop and the government was definitely interested in supporting us. It is essential that politicians take over and stand for local communities and local craftsmen, that they take responsibility for the next generations. On a larger scale, I believe that if we want to reach more sustainable construction processes, what is urgently needed is to raise the CO2 tax and decrease the tax on human labour. It is absurd not to be able to hire and work with craftsmen because it is too expensive. When you think about it, building with mud is one of the easiest ways to construct, and yet it is so expensive compared to 3D printed concrete structures. This demonstrates that there is something wrong in the system, and things need to change. But for this, we need reactions from the top, as grassroots movements won’t be enough.”

From an academic perspective, do you sense a renovated interest of young practitioners towards sustainable and socially-engaged architectural practices? If so, how can educational programmes accompany this curiosity?
“You understand the power of a process only if you experience it yourself. It is not something you can learn theoretically; you need to go through it physically and empathically. It is crucial to find ways to meet the clients’ desire for esteem and dignity through the process and prove that you can achieve positive results, also using traditional materials. Universities should provide students with the opportunity to experience building processes in this direction and include more practical courses in their curricula.”


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