"The Architecture of Mud"

A film by Caterina Borelli
Reviewed by Edward J. Keall, Royal Ontario Museum (Canada)

Yemen Update 42 (2000): 62,67

[This 52 minute film documentary was produced by Anonymous Productions in 1999. The Editor is Sandra Seymour. It has received showings at MESA (1999), Museum of Modern Art, NY (1999), United Nations, NY (2000) and The Environmental Festival, Washington DC (2000). The video may be bought or rented from Documentary Educational Resources (101 Morse St., Watertown, MA 02472): http://der.org/docued.]

In the film's introduction, a narrator explains that the aim is to present the viewer with the entire process involved in constructing spectacular (as well as ecologically sound) high-rise buildings of mud in the southeastern part of the Arabian peninsula. In 1982 UNESCO had already identified these structures for their unique architectural value; nearly twenty years later, from the film, one rightly gets the impression that the whole building tradition is an endangered one, as life-long apprenticeships are no longer considered attractive to the master-builders' sons. Nevertheless, the film is a creditable attempt to maintain international recognition for the tradition, and thereby to encourage ways whereby the infinitely renewable building process will be sustained.

Two settlements in the great rift valley system of the Hadramawt [Hurayda in the Wâdî Daw‘ân, and Shibâm in the Wâdî Masîla] have been taken by the production team as the stage setting for documenting the building of these high-rises from top to bottom. To underline the role that the use of mud plays in the construction of the dwellings, a plasterer's trowel is used cinematographically to swipe the screen with mud, to give us the set-up for each of the building sequences. To emphasize that the buildings are dwellings, we see fluorescent lights, radios, fans, and other bric-a-brac of modern life.

We are given priceless interviews with the builders [ustâ, singular] themselves (like 'Abîd b.'Abdallâh), who describe (in Arabic, with English sub-titles) the different steps taken -- from puddling the mud and straw for the sun-dried bricks, to the final detailing of decorative molding effected in the lime-plaster [malas] technique. We are told that particular attention will be paid to this technique -- and deservedly so, for it is scarcely credible that the impression of intricately molded ceramic tile can be produced by polishing a mud-based plaster in this way.

In the final analysis, the film does not fully achieve its aim -- in terms of explaining the process, rather than simply describing it. Don't expect to build your own mud high-rise by watching the film (though, to be fair, it was never intended to be a handy-man's work manual). But you will certainly not be able to appreciate sufficiently some of the subtleties of the brilliance of this traditional industry, unless you already know something about the principles of the materials involved.

For instance, one of the most important elements over-looked here -- delivered only as a throw-away line, where a builder says "the best mud comes from the fields" -- is the fact that, until recently, the building tradition was intimately linked in a symbiotic relationship with farming the settlements' neighboring fields. The film fails to point out that, in the annual (seasonal monsoon) spate, fertile silt is automatically deposited in the field systems when the irrigation water settles. With each silt deposition, the field level rises -- to the point where water will no longer reach the field, because the gravity flow is lost. Sediments, therefore, must be periodically removed from the fields to allow them to keep their irrigation potential. Stacked to the side of the field, where towering cliffs of mud would develop if it were not removed, the excavated mud provides builders with a constantly renewable source of building material. A settlement is built from material which would otherwise cripple the agriculture and have to be removed at great expense.

The same fault of exclusion of explanatory commentary runs throughout the film. For instance, even when a building principle is explored visually -- albeit with very powerful imagery, such as in the production of the [noura] lime, including puddling the putty for 8 hours -- we must apply our own knowledge to explain why the laborer is wearing huge make-shift boots. As presented in the film, it simply looks quaint, when the brutal reality is that lime taken from the kiln is "quick lime," that will burn skin until slaked with water, to reduce it to a workable powder. Also later given no explanation is why the malas lime-plaster has such a long setting time, which means that it can be reworked for such a long time and pounded into the desired densely polished matrix. The crystallization process in setting lime is simply very slow, unlike gypsum which sets very fast. But lime is eventually waterproof, unlike gypsum which is water soluble. Finally, in the same vein, no explanation is given why the traditional coating of animal fat, that was applied as the final touch, has been replaced by the use of commercial soap, shown here as being slivered for this purpose from a bar of brand-GIV.

Notwithstanding these basic short-comings, and a couple of plain errors, the film has some major contributions to make. To dismiss the mistakes first, it is erroneous to speak of "bedouin" when referring to these settled, urban Arabs, because the term implies traditionally a tent-living pastoralist, even nomad. Nor should one make the mistake of imposing great antiquity on the sites by attributing to these sites, without substantiation, the words of Ptolemy (2nd century BC) and Hamdânî (10th century AD). The quoted comment of the famous 1930s Dutch diplomat and explorer, Vander Meulen, is equally without substantiation when he implies that Shibâm is an important town from before Islam. And, the local master builder repeats this misleading notion when he claims the houses are 600 years old, when many of them (as they stand) are not likely much more than 200-300 years old. There is no question that the mud architecture of the Hadramawt is a centuries old tradition, but equating automatically everything that one sees with antiquity is wrong.

What, then, are the film's strengths? This is a superb commentary, to be appreciated for the thoughts expressed by those interviewed, of how a society must make choices in settings values on tradition. A master-builder states, somewhat sadly, that none of his sons want to continue the family tradition. It takes 30 years to master the art, he says. Another laments that cement has made inroads on the tradition, at 3% of the buildings constructed. Although it is suitable for apartment blocks, he says, it is actually more expensive than mud, and traps the heat. For some, though, it is more important to be fashionable than ecological correct.

As examples of where the traditional practices have been successfully maintained in the modern era, the film gives us stunning images of a new luxury hotel in uraya, comparable in quality to the former al-Kathîrî Sultan's palace in Say'ûn (now a museum). We are shown the airport facilities in Say'ûn built in the traditional mud style. Purists may be inclined to regard the tendency to build balconies -- Saudi style -- as an abomination. Yet, in this vein, the film usefully reveals that the building style of Tarîm was heavily influenced by the architecture of Dutch India. A building industry does stay alive by responding to customers' needs. "The Architecture of Mud" allows us to make our own judgements, whether romantically applauding tradition, or acknowledging an ecological success story.


Filmmaker's Response

by Caterina Borelli (May 2001)

I read with interest the comments that Edward J. Keall wrote in the Yemen Update on my documentary "The Architecture of Mud". Having worked as an independent producer/director for many years I always think that reviews and feedback are very constructive and have helped me in the development of new projects. It is from this perspective that I would like to make a few corrections to Mr. Keall's review, since I found some of his comments to be factually inaccurate.

The second paragraph of the review states that "…Two settlements in the great rift valley system of Hadhramawt (Hurayda in the Wadi Daw'an and Shibam in the Wadi Masila) have been taken by the production team as the stage setting for documenting the building of these high rises from top to bottom…" Only four towns are shown in the film: Khoreibah in Wadi Do'an, and Shibam, Tarim and Seyoun in Wadi Hadhramaut. At the beginning of each section about one of these four villages, its name appears on the screen. Moreover, nowhere in the whole film do we even mention Wadi Masila. Again, at the end of the article, when he mentions the luxury hotel, the first image of it to appear on the film includes the title locating it in Al Hawta - not in Hurayda . It is in fact called The Al Hawta Palace Hotel.

On, to the sixth paragraph where "…we must apply our own knowledge to explain why the laborer is wearing huge make-shift boots. As presented in the film, it simply looks quaint, when the brutal reality is that lime taken from the kiln is "quick lime"…" . The image that is described here is part of a series describing the process of making "nurah", the local lime waterproof finishing. The first image in the series is preceded by this text: "The limestone is burnt for a minimum of 24 hours and then cooled. Water is poured over the stones, causing a chemical reaction." The next, by: "The fumes are toxic and the lime putty is extremely caustic." Then comes the image described in the review, of a laborer wearing huge makeshift boots. The text says: "Rubber from tires is recycled into makeshift protective shoes." I believe that the connection between the toxicity of the material and the boots is clear and established.

Later the same paragraph remarks "…no explanations given why the traditional coating of animal fat that was applied as the final touch…". During the interviews no mason mentioned the use of animal fat and when asked what was used in the past some of them mentioned eggs or sugar. Likewise, the film never refers to the use of animal fat. For the same reason, because the builders called themselves "mu'ellen" we addressed them by that word and not by the standard Arabic "usta". As we know, the Arabic language varies greatly from region to region and so it happens that in the Hadhramaut, the master masons are called "mu'ellen". I do not really understand why it is important to underline that the correct word would be "'usta', singular": I find that a language that varies is the expression of a society that is alive.

In the next paragraph: "To dismiss the mistakes first, it is erroneous to speak of 'Bedouin' when referring to these settled urban Arabs …". The documentary is structured in a combination of spoken information (interviews with the masons translated into English via subtitles), written text in English and four excerpts read from the books of two early twentieth century Western visitors to the region, Freya Stark and Daniel Van der Muelen. Those last are read, respectively, by a woman and by a man. The first time in the documentary we hear them, the name of the writer and the date of the excerpt is stated. I used these passages to establish how the passing of time has or has not affected life in the region. It is Freya Stark's quote that, describing Khoreibah, states: "…We came to the market whose wonders I had heard of from my Bedouin guide: it was but a narrow alleyway, and on its high doorsteps the sellers sat, outlined against black rooms behind them, with baskets in their laps…". This is the only time in the documentary where the word "Bedouin" is mentioned.

Earlier, there is another Stark's quote that states: "…This is the chief town of the upper valley, with markets and mosques. The name means a ruin, and it may be the Do'an mentioned by Ptolemy and by Hamdani…". And it is Van der Muelen that later adds "…There lies Shibam, the New York of the Hadhramaut, one of her three great cities and the center of her commerce for centuries past. It was probably an important town even in pre-Islamic times…" I choose these two quotes to make the audience aware that this region has a past, and to relate Hadhrami traditions to a culture that is quite old. I think it is important in consideration of what the documentary is showing you, to have this perspective of time.

In fact, Mr. Keall remarks in relation to the past raise an interesting issue. During the interviews, when the masons were asked how old were the oldest buildings they knew, we also were not surprised to hear around 300 years. On the other hand, when one of them speaks of mud houses lasting for "…600, 500, 400 years…" it is hard to say if it could be true or, for that matter, untrue. Mud structures need maintenance, continuous maintenance. It is difficult to know if structurally these kind of buildings collapse because of age or because of lack of maintenance. But what is true - and the reason why this quote is included in the film - is that the masons know that mud lasts. In their pragmatic position, mud lasts enough to give their next generations a roof over their heads. And they do not know if the alternative &endash; cement &endash; does. In fact, some of them did ask us about this very point. It is in this frame that I though the quote was important and had depth.

I gave priority to the voices of the masons - I believe anybody engaged in an activity is the most accurate in describing it &endash; and I filled in with text or with additional information only when I thought necessary. The purpose of the film was to portray, not to explain, nor study. I am not an educator. On the other hand, my partner in the project, Pamela Jerome, as a practitioner and an educator, was interested in the more in-depth technical information. We decided from the beginning to articulate the project with two elements: the documentary and a published technical paper. The two complement each other. Now, when you purchase the documentary from an educational institution, or if you request it, along with the cassette you also receive a copy of the paper. This is to say that some of the information the reviewer felt was missing from the film is in fact in the paper. And that information did not end up there by mistake but by choice of omission in the film and inclusion in the paper, or vice-versa. The situation mentioned in the fifth paragraph of Mr. Keall's review is a perfect example. In the film one of the masons does mention that the mud comes from the fields, "I get the mud from near the palm trees; it is superior and saturated with water. The best mud comes from near the cultivated fields, where it is absolutely saturated. This mud is very strong. The flash floods come, and this makes it strong." For the audience I target that, is enough information. More would cause their attention to slip away. And if this snippet does arouse their attention and awaken their curiosity, let them go and look for more information.

When making a documentary, a process of distilling the information collected takes place. This process I believe is highly subjective although it takes place with material that is taken from reality. Without this process, the alternative would be to watch the material raw, in a sort of "Borgesian" paradox. It is by this process that the film takes shape. Often trying to put too much in creates a product that is overstated, confusing, long, patronizing, and so on. The choice I made in editing "The Architecture of Mud" was to make a film that would portray the traditional building craft to a non-expert. I did assume an interest present in the audience, either in the crafts, the architecture, the region, or the culture. This point is very important to me and to my professional stance. I always want to assume that the audience has: an initial interest and a subsequent interest in knowing more and looking for it. Viewers, when stimulated by the information given by the film, will pursue the parts that most interest them. Mr. Keall himself closing his article summarizes it, stating that: "'The Architecture of Mud' allows us to make our own judgments." And I thank him for that as that is exactly what I intended.

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