Back to Earth: Adobe Building in Saudi Arabia
BOOK REVIEW by Frances Gillespie
This beautifully illustrated and well-written book documents a remarkable project which took place in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s. Prince Sultan bin Salman Al Sa'ud acquired an old farmhouse at Al-Udhaibat outside Riyadh, which had been allowed to fall into ruin, and decided to rebuild it using adobe bricks made of mud, one of the most traditional of all building materials.
Prince Sultan achieved world-wide fame when, as the first Arab in space, he circled the Earth in 1985 in the NASA Space Shuttle Discovery. Viewing our planet from space, he was deeply struck by its fragility and the vulnerability of the biosphere which supports life. On coming back to Earth he reflected upon the damage that modern man has already done to the very system which supports him, and he became convinced that the very near future will bring an urgent need to return to low-energy, sustainable living. Hence his commitment towards employing a method of building that had been in use in Saudi Arabia for centuries, a startling contrast to the concrete and glass palaces erected by many of his relatives.
Al-Udhaibat lies in Wadi Hanifah, the ancient home of a tribe whose skill in building with mud brick was said to have been acknowledged by the Prophet himself. The farm-house, which was quietly subsiding into oblivion as all mud-brick structures will do if left unmaintained, had once been the property of Prince Sultan's uncle King Faisal. The story of Prince Sultan's attempt to revive the dying skills of adobe building and the various stages of restoration are recorded in detail with stunning photographs and good drawings.
A distinguished Egyptian architect, Professor Saleh Lamei, who had already had considerable experience in restoring historic buildings, was commissioned to participate in the project. Before beginning the restoration craftsmen were given time to carry out research and find the best method of making the mix of clay and chopped straw for the bricks and the consistency of the mud needed for mortaring and rendering. The first attempts were considered not good enough and removed, and further experiments were carried out.
The prince involved himself personally in every stage of decision-making. His aim was to study and document the process of evolving a traditional adobe house to suit modern needs, and his family moved into the house for some months each year to experience at first hand living in an adobe house. Adaptations and improvements were recommended, and the entire results of the experiment were made available to Saudi architects with a view to reviving the role of adobe as a building material for our time.
The end result at Al-Udhaibat is a beautiful and elegant building, simply furnished with hand-woven rugs and minimal furnishings and surrounded with palm groves for coolness. Wooden doors with intricate incised and painted designs add a touch of colour to the warm, honey-coloured earth walls.
In the opening chapters of this book, which is aimed both at architects and the general reader, the author documents the origins and history of adobe building world-wide and more particularly in the Najd region of Saudi Arabia. The word 'adobe' originated far back in the mists of time, passing from ancient Egyptian via Coptic into Arabic [al-tub] and thence into English via Spanish. A wall-painting in a 15th century BC tomb at Thebes documents the entire process of making and using mud bricks: bringing water from a pool, trampling the mixture of mud and water, putting the mud into wooden moulds, setting the bricks out in the sun to dry and finally carrying them to a building site.
Some of the most spectacular adobe buildings in the world are the multi-storeys in Yemen, some with windows outlined in white. Other famous adobe buildings include the great mosque at Djenne in Mali and the mosque at Agadez, Niger. There are photographs and descriptions of these and many other adobe buildings, including images of towering city walls photographed in Saudi Arabia almost a century ago.
The story of the restoration of Al-Udhaibat farmhouse is an inspiration for anyone who, like Prince Sultan, is concerned about the future of the environment and who wonders whether there might be an alternative to the concrete jungle now spreading across Arabia. The hundreds of superb colour photographs make this a book to return to with pleasure again and again.
by Fran Gillespie, author of Discovering Qatar