Working the earth – Martin Rauch

Martin Rauch is the continent's Godfather of Rammed Earth building, inspiring a new generation of architects, including Anna Heringer, Francis Kere and Berlin's Christof Ziegert and Eike Roswag along the path of earth. Here, the Vorarlberg master earth builder talks about this forty year journey and the wave of new buildings, which his Lehm-Ton-Erde company is in the midst of completing.

Rauch's LehmTonErde workshop, from outside    Photo: Markus Buhler Rasom
I realised as he talked I was waiting for Martin Rauch to break into smiles. What had begun as a conversation had morphed into an impromptu interview, and he was returning to a running theme; matters of trust. He began with the word, and it reappeared repeatedly during the course of the evening, as the light faded and summer darkness brought on the kind of still quiet that draws in at night. The development of rammed earth as a popular mainstream material was dependent on trust, this was at the heart of what he was saying. Trust that the building would not collapse, or wash away in a river of soil. Later, during the day after our conversation, I thought of how symbolic the word was for most of the substantial challenges facing the future. The challenges are not essentially technical, but rather related to trust. The discussion continued as his small roster of staff said good night, and headed-off, under the softened light of an electric lamp at night. Each time Rauch came to the end of a chunk of his spoken trail of thought, or maybe in response to a quip of mine, his lips widened, the furrow in his brow, and slightly vexed, questioning look disappeared and Rauch's face was smiling before me, transformed, open, and light.

Inside and the studio building as was    Photo: Bruno Klomfar
Photo: Bruno Klomfar
Photo: Laurent Burst

Photo: Laurent Burst
We were talking in the ground-floor of the office part of his studio, the organisational and logistics nerve centre for Rauch’s Lehm-Ton-Erde operation. The studio is one of his early earth buildings, live research that precipitated his breakthrough project – the long inner wall in Feldkirch hospital, the nearest town of size in this, the southern end of the Vorarlberg Rheintal valley. I had arrived a couple of hours earlier, picked up at the station by one of the small number of his dedicated team, Clemens Quiron, who offered to show me round while Rauch finished office work that needed attending to. A while later Rauch emerged, descended the stair and we began talking, informally at first, before long falling into a familiar interview-type question and answer. A large, big boned man, heart-warmingly, I sensed a certain vagueness to him, as the minutes ticked past, with his shirt hanging loose, and one of his shoe-laces untied. The studio felt lived in too, weathered, the earth still present, and its age revealed by the use of steel. More ceramics studio than architect’s office, there was a tangleweed, slightly ramshackle quality to it. Outside, vines and other plants were falling from the roof, a hanging garden of the wild and overgrown. Inside, vats of chemicals, gas canisters, waxes and other liquid materials were stored on shelves along the walls. The studio was much like the photos in Rauch’s early 2001 monograph, though from those images you wouldn’t garner the sense of it as a hive of activity, even if the same painting, a black square inscribed with dark circles was still hanging on the same wall. The large earthen kilns, which Rauch also produces, were there, and the various tiles that his wife, Martha, began making a few years back lined the studio. One of Rauch’s sisters, Marta, wandered in, smiled and asked in a friendly way about my visit and where I was from. She had done a lot of the rammed earth work herself, she said, running jobs and when doing the earth work, she found herself getting into a meditative state. It was clear she was part of the whole operation. The sense that this was a family affair, solidified.

Schlins Farm   Photo: Laurent Burst
Photo: LehmTonErde
(Bruno Klomfar)

The studio workshop   Photo: Laurent Burst

Rauch Haus    Photo: Albrecht Schnabel
Rauch lives and works on the land he grew up on, on the edge of the village of Schlins. Less than a five-minute walk away up a sloping hill, is Rauch House (cut into the hill and made entirely of earth), which received rave reviews across the continent. It was designed with Roger Boltshauser, the Zurich architect who has taken the most interest in earth and its formal aesthetic properties and has seen a series of projects over the years since the two began working together. Surrounded by apple orchards, and the beginnings of a hillside forest beyond, Haus Rauch is only one of several buildings, including, halfway between the workshop and Haus Rauch, the family home where Martin Rauch and his many siblings grew up. He is the seventh son in the family, from a family of farmers, although his father was the village post-man and his mother, a teacher.

Next to the family home, presently lived in by one of the sisters, is one of the earliest of Rauch’s earth-walled buildings made with and for his brother, Johannes. It is Johannes who continues the family’s farming business, mainly strawberries apparently. There are other houses, including ones where several other of his siblings live, and some relatively new buildings completed over the decades since Rauch returned from Vienna, to set up his earthworks business, and go looking for projects. “It is not just Haus Schlins, it is a whole community,” the friend in whose Bregenz apartment I was staying said, when I told him that my proposed visit had been met with a positive green light. And so it was.


The Chapel of Reconciliation, Berlin
Today Rauch is a major presence on the growing, if still relatively small, pan-European rammed earth network. He is one of the networks pioneers, not only in regard to the crossover of ceramics and earth materials science into contemporary sustainable architecture, but doing so in a very hands-on form, which includes developing techniques, tools, soil chemistry and composition. In the aftermath of the early experimental buildings on his family land, a series of influential and, to coin a phrase, ground-breaking projects have unfolded, mainly across the Alpine regions, though also in other parts of Europe, (principally Germany), such as the Chapel of Reconciliation in Berlin, a small sacral building standing on the ground of the Berlin wall. The projects’ size has grown considerably.  A current series of buildings across Switzerland, including what is billed as the largest rammed earth building yet to be completed, with Swiss Starchitects, Herzog & de Meuron, is aimed at moving the rammed earth conversation into the centre-ground of discussion. The fact that Rauch’s  studio is in Vorarlberg, source of the home-grown eco-building culture cannot be underestimated as an influence and a context. He has spent his working life amidst like-minded sustainable practitioners and his experiments happened at the right time and right place, fertile ground for a fertile period.

Yet there are differences between the architects and this ceramicist. Rauch is just a few years younger than the Vorarlberger Baukunstler or Construction Artists generation; he is 57 to Dietmar Eberle and Walter Unterrainer’s 64 years, Roland Gnaiger, 65 and also Hermann Kaufmann’s 60. And although there are projects where he’s collaborated with well known Vorarlberger architects, the principal collaborators have been with architects from outside the region; first Robert Felber, a Viennese ex-student friend, who designed the early Schlins buildings through the nineties, and more recently Boltshauser with whom he’s co-operated since soon after the beginning of the millennium and is still doing so today.

African earth architecture - Francis Kéré's Gando school 
Photo: Iwan Baan
Francis Kéré

This has been one part of Rauch’s Lehm-Ton-Erde trajectory. There are other strands, including work with artists, such as Olafur Eliasson and Simon Starling. But particularly close to his heart has been the work he has done in the developing world, beginning with volunteer work in Zambia soon after finishing his course that tangibly underlined his belief that earth materials are the future of construction culture for Africa and much of the developing world lying between the two tropical latitudes of Cancer and Capricorn. This may have taken a back seat for a while, but a visit to Rauch’s studio set-up, makes it amply clear why the young student Anna Heringer was so taken with her visit, and became one of his most high profile prodigies. At the time Heringer was a twenty year old student at Linz, trying to figure out how to fuse her passion for development work with an architecture course which seemed remote from her concerns. The student visit to Rauch’s studio was akin to a revelation not only providing the answer, but triggered a love affair with rammed earth as a material that she applied to the Rudraphur Handmade school, one of the best known humanitarian projects and at the heart of all Heringer’s subsequent work (for further on Heringer see the Ground Up Architecture themed edition of Fourth Door Review 9).

Photo: Kurt Hoerbst

Anna Heringer   Photo: Kurt Hoerbst
Rauch and Heringer also hit it off, and each talks of the other as close friends. Rauch travelled to Bangladesh to participate in the METI school ‘hand-made project, and after BASEHabitat diploma unit was set up within Linz’s University of Art and Design’s Architecture Department, on several of the subsequent projects. This is only part of a younger generation network Rauch and Lehm-Ton-Erde slot into; Francis Kéré was a volunteer on the Berlin chapel, likewise the Berlin architecture-engineering practice ZRS. He seems well loved by many of this generation, the elder uncle figure who was there early on and saw the future, one which they have enthusiastically signed up to.

Ceramics, he says early into our conversation, was attractive because it was practical. He wasn’t interested in art, but the craft aspect was attractive. In time he crossed over, in a fuzzy sort of way, into building materials and designs. “My education was very important,” he says. ”It was possible for me to go and study at college,” a period, overall of eight years. Rauch was born in 1958 and began with ceramics at the age of 16, studying on the other side of Austria at the Technical College of Ceramics and Oven Construction, in Stoob, a small border town in the Burgenland canton, close to the Hungarian border. In 1978 he moved to Vienna to begin a further three-year course within the University of Applied Arts, followed by master classes run by Matteo Thun and Maria Bilger-Perz. During the Vienna years, he made a particular study of stone bridge, which fascinated him. “They were very beautiful”, he says now. He also completed his diploma, which was titled “Loam Clay Earth,” (translating into Rauch’s Lehm-Ton-Erde company name) a trinity of words, which already encapsulated his emerging philosophy with natural building materials. A short time later he attended the Symposium for Kunstbau (artist builders), one of Europe’s major sculptors and ceramicists symposia, held every two years. It was there that he participated in building a bridge that drew him across the threshold dividing ceramics from construction. “It was a very important experience for me. We worked as a group, together, with an ongoing dialogue. It was a physical experience, throwing in the wood on the burning fire, as well as the ceramics and building construction, Before I didn’t know about that,” his face breaking into that lovely smile. He returns every two years, and continues to be a member “still after thirty years.”

One of the studio kiln's   Photo:Laurent Burst
 Firing Marta's tiles.  Photo: Hanno Mackowitz
The other key experience was more radical, a less travelled path at the time.  Over the 1984 winter he flew to West Africa, following in the footsteps of various siblings already there, and worked as a volunteer  “I was there because my brother was in Zambia.” He travelled around Zambia and neighbouring Cameroon. As he studied earth construction, he was exposed to the prevailing perception found across the continent that earth as the material of the poor, low in value, low in status. He could see that the projects being built excluded local people, with next to no knowledge transfer. It sounds as if, in some ways, it was a dispiriting experience. In other ways, however, it was completely inspiring. A first step, once returned from West Africa illustrates this vividly. While traveling he had begun thinking about how villages could use the earth they rested on to create new villages. Rauch began to sketch and then develop designs for low cost village housing. In Austria again he saw a competition, organised by the pan-African development competition and run by the United Nations. He entered and to his surprise, perhaps, he won. The award was $3000 – “a lot of money” thirty years ago, which he used to fund a research and road trip across America. “It was a great journey.”

How much did Africa change him? It surely made clear an insight which seems more and more obvious as the years go by, but in the nineteen eighties was not much discussed within Western architectural and building circles: that earth, despite being the material of the poor and the dispossessed, was for the many, the material of the future. Anyone who has checked out the EarthArchitecture website will recognise its strap-line slogan “One half of the world’s population, approximately 3 billion people on six continents, lives or works in buildings constructed from earth.” Yet in Europe and the West, this stunning statistic was almost completely ignored, except by eco-centric hippies and overlapping sustainable building fringes. Design, Rauch realised, was a key to making earth more acceptable. “It was very alternative, a back to old buildings with rounded corners. If you wanted to promote earth you didn’t need to change the material, but you had to use modern techniques. And design with modern buildings.” 

Laying floor    Photo: Timur Ersen
Photo: Elias Binggeli
Photo: Elias Binggeli

Rammed earth or pisé (de terre) building techniques have been known and used for millennia. The earth consists of mixtures of clay, sand and gravels, as well as earth soils themselves. Mixed clay and sand is called loam, and is found immediately below the top ground layer of earth. There are many, many variations of loam, which also come in a spectrum of earth colours. Rammed earth, as the name suggests, is compacted earth, pressed tightly together, by human hand or machine. This is achieved through formwork, temporary panels, that make up the form of the wall, and into which the earth is poured horizontally. The wall is gradually built up, with layers of 15 cm’s added step-by-step until the desired height is reached. The formwork panels are removed to help the rammed earth wall dry and harden. Before this has happened – a few hours – the rammed earth wall can be worked until it has been baked dry.

Photo: Markus Buhler Rasom
Photo: Markus Buhler Rasom

Many point to the ancient wonders of the world made from earth; the great wall of China, or the walls of Jericho, but twentieth century engineers and builders have been sceptical of earth’s potential for building and he majority still are, hence Rauch’s emphasis on trust. The – perceived – weakness is the mixture of adverse weather, moisture, and potential erosion. If there are enemies to rammed earth, they come primarily in liquid form. To prevent these adversaries, various strategies are employed, including adding broken bricks, strengthening or diluting the earth with cement, and in Rauch’s walls, integrating mortar battens every few layers, while earth is also rammed in. You can see the characteristic horizontal lines of the battens in many of the buildings. Current buildings are built on cement slabs to protect against moisture creep, although unlike cement, the earth is left open, so that moisture can also escape, a form of what is termed Bau-Biologie or breathing buildings. Earth, unsurprisingly, is extremely heavy, which brings both up and downsides; it is good as an effective thermal mass for heating and cooling and for sound absorption. It doesn’t rate so well in for ease of transportation. The point, made so clearly in vernacular buildings, is that as a material for the poor, you can find and use earth pretty much anywhere, a main reason why it has such appeal to those envisaging its future return in the developing world. This also applies in terms of labour, it is very labour intensive, which for some activist architects, step forward, Anna Heringer, is a huge attraction. Even if the buildings are anything but light, they can be big employers – many hands making light work. Conversely it’s labour costs which are exactly the reason why it is unlikely to become a mainstream building approach in the rich and labour expensive West.

Photo: Markus Buhler Rasom

Photo: Markus Buhler Rasom

It was issues like these that Rauch had been wrestling with through his student days. Africa appears to have crystallised aspects, and even if Rauch’s Lehm-Ton-Erde philosophy wasn’t as fully formed as it would become, he was clearly looking to the future. In the early eighties, around the same time as his African visit, the competition award and the American research visit, he returned to Vorarlberg. “I had a young son in Vienna, and a wife who was a ceramicist. I had never worked in a company. We needed space, as there were a lot of tools and equipment. There was a very small space, a small workshop. It was very different.”

The commune-lite situation had already begun to emerge around the Rauch farm; by the early 80’s there was the first experimental building. In 1982 Rauch and his farmer brother, Johannes, began working on a new home for his young family, using plans drawn up by Rauch’s Viennese architect friend, Robert Felber.  The building continued on and off for the next four years, but when completed Haus for Rauch’s family, was the first modern rammed earth building which was integrated with a timber frame, a significant step for Vorarlberg’s avant-eco building scene, focused as it was on simple timber frame buildings.

Various experimental test walls began springing up amidst the strawberry fields. One was related to a competition Rauch had won to develop an experimental motorway sound barrier wall near Graz, others with the buildings he was planning on the grounds. They all sought to deal with some of the weaknesses of earth, specifically how firings of clay still resulted in problematic, often soft corners, liable to crack and crumble. All this time they were making the kiln ovens, while both clientele and friends were from the art and design world. “There were so few examples, and earth was very new. There were no published laws about how it was to be used, and it was always connected to art, in which you can do a lot, but…”

Lehmo Fires    

Photo: Christian Vogt
Rauch kept busy with the ovens, rammed earth stoves and other related products, which had been at the heart of his early training in Stoob. The rammed earth stoves continue to this day, the studio has an ongoing production line, with the stoves produced as part of a collaborative company, Lehmo, where two partner brothers, the Mullers, carry out the installation. There is also Erden, another local company, spun-off from Rauch’s research, focused on both exterior walls, and interior wall alcoves as part of interior design. For the outside walls Rauch collaborated with the well-known landscape architect Gunther Vogt, to build a garden wall in Zurich and a Botanical Garden in Maur. The interior walls often, though not always integrate the stoves and ovens. An interesting example is House L built in 1997, where the wall acts as a screen, partitioning the room into separate sections. It was also the first time that prefabrication sections were used, with the four tonne pieces prepared at Schlins before their 300 kilometre journey to the other side of Switzerland.

Rauch, though, was primarily immersed on the future of walls. His experience in Africa convinced him that rammed earth could develop into a contemporary natural material. It would take time but it would happen, he seemed sure.

Feldkirch Hospital   Photo: Bruno Klomfar

As the earth ovens continued to be produced the wall testing continued. And then in 1989 he won a competition to provide an experimental exterior wall for the hospital in Feldkirch. It was a breakthrough for Rauch, as nothing like it had been done elsewhere. The wall also needed substantial research: “I had  to make a prototype” he recalls. Rauch and Felber started designing the studio workshop, and then they, family members and others began building in 1990. The workshop was thus a test run for the larger experiment, and an experiment in its own right. Walking round the tangleweed bedecked studio a quarter century later, with the ceramic kiln ovens still in production at one end, the studio contains a lived in quality. “I wanted a better environment – from outside you see that it is an earth house.” This is evident and not only on the inside. Plants and weeds have long been growing from the earthen roof, spilling over the walls and down the side of the building. It is aging gracefully. Technologies and materials which were current in the early eighties, most noticeably a trombe wall face off the studio’s front, while various smaller experiments in natural design were incorporated. The interior white walls are from a mixture of farm produce; cheese, milk and for the plastering, flour.

Three of the workshops walls are earth, the fourth wall is timber and glass. Rauch made sure a sprinkling of other earth materials featured in the walls; clay panels and adobe bricks feature alongside the rammed earth mixed with brick chippings built up in15 cm layers, with tile battens between each layer as protection against rain and erosion. Lehm-Ton-Erde generally use tile battens which give the buildings and structures their lined, horizontal feel.

During the first year, 1991, the Feldkirch hospital project began, helping to propel Rauch onto new ground. “There was nothing of the same scale. That it was done was good. It helped me, although the project was very difficult to realise, because it was ten times the size of anything I’d done before… It was like an example of a problem, in a situation, where I had to ask myself ‘Can I find a solution?’” The continuous curving wall originated as an art competition for the public foyer entrance of the then new hospital wing. 130 metres in length, and up to 6.5 metres high, the 250 ton wall stands behind a slanting glass parasol, and supports the foyer’s thermal conservatory function, part of a series of walls before the hospital proper begins. The colours of the earth vary throughout the long wall, and its popularity, both in the hospital and in its reception in the architectural world changed Rauch’s working world. He describes it as before and after Feldkirch. “Everything was new, it had to be mixed. Feldkirch was published all over Europe.” As the work spread through the continental architectural media, the rammed earth guy down in Vorarlberg, Martin Rauch, began to be noticed. Prior to the hospital he had worked by himself, plus family and friends. By the time the hospital wall was completed Rauch was heading up an eight-person team.

The Chapel of Reconciliation by night    Christian Jungeblodt
If the ripples from Feldkirch were not necessarily felt immediately, a gradual shift through the nineties is clear. The first consequences were in contrasting projects, the sacral project in the newly re-united Berlin, and the first commission for a dwelling made out of earth. The Chapel of Reconciliation was to replace a church that stood in the no mans land between East and West. It had been destroyed before the fall of the wall in 1985. Originated in 1990, the chapel was again challenging for Rauch. It was a gradual slow build carried out primarily by volunteers, including a young student called Francis Kere, that would continue all through the decade, before finally being completed in 1999. “It only happened because of the hospital,” Rauch says now. “They wouldn’t have put their trust in me if I hadn’t done Feldkirch.” Two Berlin architects, Reitermann and Sassenroth had designed the oval chapel, consisting of a slatted outside skin and inner earth wall standing seven metres tall, another first for Rauch. Various specialists were called upon for their expertise including professor Klaus Dierks, from Berlin’s Technical University.

The first house to be commissioned from outside Rauch’s immediate family. was the second of the two new projects, and demonstrated the potential future for rammed at a more basic if universal level. The building would have greater immediate and long-term consequences than the chapel. In his 2001 Birkhauser monograph, Rauch thanks the clients for the ‘trust and dedication’ they put in him and architect Felber. The family Haus M built for Eduard and Kathrin Mathies in the Vorarlberg village of Rankweil demonstrated how appealing contemporary earth houses could be built without insurmountable challenges. The earth was dug directly out of the ground where the concrete basement and  a concrete slab foundation would go, and was then used for the exposed first floor walls. Onto this a second timber frame –– floor with glass and additional steel was added, slotting onto the earth wall below. Completed in 1996, the house provided the built example that Rauch needed to help in convincing the building world that earth could work for a modern dwelling.  An ongoing series of houses and domestic dwellings would follow but it was also be the last of the Rauch and Felber collaborations.

Haus M   Photo: Bruno Klomfar 
Haus M   Photo: Bruno Klomfar 
Rauch on site during its construction

One of those paying close attention to Haus M was Vorarlberg’s leading timber architect, Hermann Kaufmann. The next year, in 1997, the two built another residential dwelling, Haus R, centred around interior earth walls, which included Rauch’s earth stove. Kaufmann then designed the timber frame structure around this central element. It was a rationalisation of the attempts, ever since the early eighties timber-earth house that he and his brother, Johannes, had constructed as an experiment. From this template developed a stream of further earth-timber hybrids over the next decades. Was it only co-incidence that it was in this year, 1997, that Lehm-Ton-Erde was finally registered as a company? Rauch had proved his point, contemporary earth homes were not only possible, they were happening.



The METI Handmade school being built, and, below, inside once complete  Photo: Kurt Hoerbst
How did Rauch celebrate at the end of 1999? By the turn of the century things were very different from the turn of the previous decade. He was being invited to participate in all sorts of interesting projects, while the number of completed buildings were stacking up, and he knew rammed earth was growing in popularity. Yet, would he have foreseen how things would unfold within the next three years? More precisely, would he have thought two young, if very different, architects, would influence the direction of his work, so fully as it turns out, looking back, they did.


“It was a funny story,” he recalls, thinking back on how a young student who turned up in the summer of 2003 would remake his world, and set the studio on a not entirely new path, but one which had lain dormant for nearly twenty years. This new chapter was set in motion when Roland Gnaiger, one of the original Vorarlberg Baukunstler generation and a principal senior professor at the Linz Architecture department invited Rauch to teach there. As part of the arrangement students would travel to Schlins to work as intern volunteers. That first summer a small group made the journey over and started helping out in the studio and workshop. “One of the first evenings there was no-one to do the firings,” he said. But there were two students, two girls in the studio, and one of the girls asked if she could help. And then she said, “Oh but I don’t know how.” He threw her in at the deep end, and the student began to work, with Rauch’s help, first haltingly, and before long with increasing skill and confidence. At first Rauch thought it wasn’t going to work out. “So she took up the job and worked really hard all summer, and became really skilled.” Which is how Anna Heringer began her earthwork mission. “Anna” he remembers “was this very small girl, very young, when she came to work here.”

Heringer, Rauch and the METI school with the Dipshika teachers
Photo: Kurt Hoerbst
 Photo: Kurt Hoerbst

It changed her project. She was planning the METI school in Bangladesh. She wasn’t sure whether to use rammed earth, thinking it might not be the right situation. And then she decided to. And she really planned it. It’s only because every year Anna visited the village, that she is trusted there by these people. It was very important for the METI school, this development with earth. I have a big respect for her.”

For Heringer’s part the summer course opened earth up as a material for her. “It was the missing link between development and architecture. And I loved working with the clayey earth making structures. I was so touched by this material, and the meditative way of handling it. I don’t want to touch façades which are quite cold. I love touching facades the walls of which are very dense and very sensual and rounded.” Rauch and Heringer have formed an alliance of mutual respect, both speaking of the other as a close friend. 

Earthworks summer school - poster
Photo: BASE Habitat
and workshop   
Photo: BASE Habitat

Heringer’s arrival in Schlins precipitated Rauch’s involvement with the building of the Meti HandMADE school, setting in motion a return of sorts full circle to his mid-eighties volunteer work and research in Zambia and Cameroon. It was a move which continued, first when Heringer sett up BASE Habitat, the diploma unit within the architecture school in Linz, which focused on humanitarian projects, and in ongoing joint work that has included the EarthWorks summer school in 2010; MudWorks, the project she initiated during her year as a Loeb Scholar at Harvard School of Design; and the currently stalled Marakkesh school, which also introduced Vorarlberg architects, Naegele-Waibel to humanitarian projects.

“The last time Anna was here”, he continues, “She said she felt she’d lost the free spirit which young people have, and which she had so much of when she was first here.”  Perhaps, but Heringer has made a big impact on the moral heart of continental architecture, pushing many who make up the current young to stop and think twice about what it is they are doing with architecture.

Rendering of the Marakkesh School collaboration - Anna Heringer  Photo: BASE Habitat

The projects, which flowed from the METI HandMade school, underline building as a craft. You can find photographs on the web of Rauch, Heringer and friends getting down and dirty with the mud, looking as if they’re having a great time, all smiles and laughter. Rauch emphasised early into our conversation that despite the fact that the earth material contains sculptural qualities, he is not an artist. There again neither is he a traditional craftsperson. Evidence of this lies in his regular participation in exhibitions, from his first 1988, exhibition in Feldkirch, Lehm-Ton-Erde, to the recent 2010 Vienna show in the Haus Der Architektur, Erosion.

This proximity to the artworld has also led artists to him, primarily the Scot Simon Starling, and the Berlin based Dane, Olafur Eliasson. He blows cool about Starling, who apparently went off with aspects of the earth structure that was built, without acknowledging the amount it owed to Rauch’s work. Eliasson contacted him prior to an exhibition he was preparing for the Bregenz Kunsthaus, after coming across the Chapel of Reconciliation’s earth walls. There was a first project in Berlin’s old converted ‘Hamburg railway station’, a straight 80 metre wall the length of much of the gallery space in 2000. For the Bregenz installation Rauch filled Peter Zumthor’s second floor Kunsthaus art museum with

Erosion exhibition    Photo: Martin Rauch
Erosion exhibition    Photo: Martin Rauch
Olafur Eliason exhibit - Marcus Kwitter   Drawing: Olafur Eliasson Studio
an earth filled sloping floor surface.The Mediated Motion opened in spring 2001, Rauch’s floor part of several installations, the others comprised of fog, plants and an algae filled pond, connected in part by a series of rope ladders. In 2003 Eliasson again called on Rauch to produce a set of soil quasi-bricks for that years’ Danish pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The rich earthy five sided bricks are an early iteration of the geometric forms, which have so absorbed Eliasson, reaching their most spectacular expression in the Reykjavik Harpa concert hall facades.

It is not that difficult to imagine Rauch might make considerably more of the art dimension of his work, if he had wanted to. That he hasn’t done so speaks quiet volumes for his priorities.


Ozeanium    Photo: Roger Boltshauser Studio
Silholzi sports ground   Photo: Viernullvier
You walk past the line of trees and over the sports track in Zurich’s downtown district Silholzi. There, beside the circular running track are two non-descript equipment sheds, and on the near side a speed tower. They do not seem anything special, and in a way they are not, for earth after all is the most protean of democratic, anonymous materials. At the same time they stand within the schools’ athletics’ field as testament to Rauch’s introduction to and collaboration with architect Roger Boltshauser. It is a partnership which has continued up until the present day, and has produced one of the best examples of what an earthen residential building can be, a crafted jewel on the Rauch farm hillside that demonstrates the potential of rammed earth as a contemporary sustainable building material. It is also one of the most atmospheric and tactile buildings I’ve been in, in recent years, because of the careful integration of Martha Rauch’s beautiful tiles, both on floors and walls, and the parts of the building which have been left open to hillside soil.

Not far from the Silholzi racetrack is Boltshauser’s studio, which is another, if more formal experiment of the architect. While there are many other architects Rauch works with, it is Boltshauser with whom he has struck up his most creative and long lasting partnership, following the early years with Robert Felber. The sports track projects began in 2001, and are due to continue with their most ambitious joint project to date, the Ozeanium, Basel’s new Aquarium, which at present is planned to open in 2018/19. The definitive fruit of their relationship so far, is however, Martin and family’s, Haus Rauch.

Rauch Haus  Photos: Beat Buhler

It isn’t surprising that Haus Rauch, which was completed in 2008, was a very personal project for Rauch and his wife.  Boltshauser wasn’t immediately drawn in but Rauch was hitting the proverbial brick wall. “I couldn’t get the solution and I was thinking, ‘Is it possible to make it work?’” Boltshauser became the architect. He says their relationship has been very productive. “We worked well together – it goes very well, there was a good connection. He plans also like a sculptor. We got the form very quickly. It was going on and I quickly realised – I would not plan alone, but we would be involved in the planning together.”

At the heart of the narrow-ish house is a stairwell, joining ground and first floor. The oval stairwell is embedded in an earthen wall, with marble-smooth stone steps, circling up from the tile-laid flooring of simple yet elegant geometric patterning that owes a debt to Islamic tiling design. Above, pocked openings in the roof let light pour into the stairwell, another element to enhance the building. Boltshauser apparently was initially very against both the round stairwell and the tiles, neither appearing in the first plan. “At last he did. There’s a very good feeling looking out of the house.” The tiles were part of experiments Martha Rauch had been working on.

It is an atmospheric diamond on a par with Zumthor’s jewels, and completed with a not dissimilar passion. The two have met, and Zumthor apparently has said he could have used rammed earth in his Kolumba Museum project, if he’d thought of it. He didn’t however, and Thomas Honnermann, another of Rauch’s well-educated team, attributes this to a generational difference. A small break-out of earth structures, after all, began only recently in Graubunden, with two inspirational buildings; GujanPally’s loving interior re-design of an old strickbau barn in the tiny village of Almens, and the equally,and arguably more atmospheric Sil De Plazza cinema in Ilanz by CapaulBlumenthal, a cult application of rammed earth if ever there was one.

Ricola Building    Photo: Iwan Baan
MLZD   Photo: Alexander Jacquemet
The Swiss are more open” Rauch says, and if you look through the list of projects completed, the lion’s share are, indeed, Swiss. Today this includes the Ricola herb manufacturer warehouse, which is the largest rammed earth-walled building to be constructed yet. Designed by Switzerland’s starchitects Herzog & de Meuron, the building is in Laufen in the North East of the country, and is the biggest project for Lehm-Ton-Erde so far by far. For the project Lehm-Ton-Erde opened a second factory, producing the long prefabricated earth blocks in the near by village of Schwingen. The Ricola warehouse opened to a relatively quiet continental reception in early summer 2014. A year later the Swiss Ornithological Society’s new visitor centre designed by Biel practice MLZD also opened its rammed earth encrusted doors, while the Boltshauser Aquarium collaboration continues its journey towards being ready. These significantly larger scale projects come on the back of others, the Allenmoos school pavilion in Zurich opened in 2012, or the Earth Building for Environmental Education in Basel the previous year.  The Herzog & de Meuron connection goes back to 2001, although the fact that Pierre De Meuron’s asked him to re-encase his wine cellar, is suggestive of how the Basel superstars rate Rauch. There are others outside Switzerland as well; Snohetta’s Saudi Arabian Aramco oil giant’s King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, including rammed earth foundations, with neighbouring Lichenstein Cavegn architects, the winning entry in a competition for a contemporary residential bauenhaus, Nachaltigkeit and a joint semi-art project with Heringer in local electronics company Omicron’s offices. Of these only the Omicron office is actually complete. Rauch seems sure the wave of rammed earth building is building.  “It is growing, going step by step, and Ricola is an important step.

A wave has been building for Rauch, an earthwave, principally in Switzerland, though also in the other German speaking countries. He is, he says, as we drive later the few miles to Feldkirch station, “interested in the future.” He has been talking about problems with aspects of the direction that rammed earth is currently going through, - the use of pre-fabrication - and its vulnerability to erosion. Another challenge is the ratio of cement to rammed earth in projects,
which continues, arguably unsurprisingly, to be an issue throughout the earth building community. In the car, Rauch emphasises how he works without cement in his projects. That said, there are concrete walls in the Ricola building, behind the giant earth block façades. He seems certain that the herb sweet warehouse will push earth buildings further into the mainstream, and he seems to want to be ready. Is it too much to say he is the Peter Zumthor of rammed earth; though where Zumthor is absorbed in many materials, Rauch has been absorbed a single material. The station was in front of us. As we swung into its forecourt hee finished talking, looking serious and worried, before a smile opened across his face, to say good-bye, shoe-lace still undone.