Martin Rauch: Refined Earth, Construction &
Design with Rammed Earth

Ed Otto Kapfinger and Marko Sauer
De Gruyter/Detail December 2015

The latest of Martin Rauch’s books on his and LehmTonErde’s work arrives at a timely moment for the man and his small dedicated team. As this Unstructured Extra explores, Rauch’s work has been growing in scale, numbers and ambition, and the monograph provides an overview of some of these projects, as well as updating the story to the near present.

This said Martin Rauch refined earth construction & design with rammed earth is a distinct contrast to his two earlier books, 2001’s rammed earth and The Rauch House (2010.) Compared to each of these the degree of information found within the covers of refined earth is less intensive and thorough, which isn’t to say the overview acts isn't a thought provoking introduction for those new to Rauch and his rammed earth work and working methods. The new book is edited, and includes a short introductory essay, by Otto Kapfinger, the transplanted Viennese architectural writer, who has become the foremost native Austrian authority on the Vorarlberg scene, since he began visiting the Western county in the 1990’s, at the time of his first book on its lively scene.

Kapfinger’s introduction sits immediately before the first of the two photo-essays which (literally) bookend refined earth. The first of these highlights recent work, including the Ricola Herb Centre and the Sempach Ornithological Visitor Centre, alongside others which have not received quite so much attention – including in this Unstructured Extra – such as Haus B in Flims, by Graubunden architect Norbert Mathis, and the Mezzina Agricultural College in Southern Switzerland. The images play to the atmospheric haptic quality and tactility of earth as building material, which is reprised at the close of the book in the second, equally vivid photography of the earth building process itself.

FeBruAr Haus B, in Flims,
Graubunden by Norbert Mathis

These two rich photographic sections are not surprising given the care taken with the design and high production values that turns the book, like its predecessors, into a tactile object and experience in its own right. Between the two photo sections are four chapters introducing the reader to Rauch’s approach to rammed earth, divided up into floor, walls, windows or openings, and roof. Each of these sub-sections, written by one of Rauch’s younger colleagues, Marko Sauer will be useful in understanding how Rauch works, although for those already familiar, the knowledge imparted may be a mite rudimentary. A final textual section – described as an excursus – returns the reader to the ideas driving Rauch, integrating elements of his manifesto with further semi-technical section on earth as material, and sub-categories including knowledge transfer and building regs. This closing chapter, like the window and openings section hones in on the Ricola Herb Centre, and the complexities of developing the more mechanically augmented pre-fabrication production of earth element blocks.

Where these final sections focus on the radical and idealistic dimension of what Rauch et al, are bringing to sustainable building culture, the chapter overlaps with some aspects of Kapfinger’s explorative opening essay. The point that rammed earth is potentially a free material is underlined in both chapters, and, implicitly, therefore a challenge to the main industrialised – and technologised – forms of sustainable building and architectural culture. There are neither a commercial industrial base, and therefore none of the political lobby promoting this non-existent industry’s products in European or wider business contexts, nor an educational infrastructure to speak of, although Rauch is presently an ETHZ visiting professor and UNESCO chair for Earthen architecture. Kapfinger includes a long quote from Rauch comparing earth building to the sustainable mainstream which strikingly illuminates the differences; “The really political aspect of pure earth building is that it can be implemented anywhere fully independent of lobbies, share prices, and industrial price controls, with simple craftsmanship being used to construct high quality, ecologically appropriate buildings… If we were to keep building all around the world in the same way we have in industrialized nations, it would be an ecological catastrophe. Rethinking practice here is just as difficult here as it is there, because there is no proper transparency in our construction industry. We only see a brief,,. and therefore distorted, moment in time: the associated impact and the real secondary costs are not taken into consideration in our calculations.”


While this reading of earth building, as critique of industrialised sustainability – whether in construction or more broadly of society - is only touched on, and could be far more thoroughly developed, the luxury dimension of some of Rauch’s Western clients cannot help but undermine Rauch's argument. Yet what emerges is of a man pursuing an agenda partially at odds with Modernity, or using the modern against itself, not least in his conviction that only pure, rather than concrete mixed and diluted, rammed earth, is the path onward. This allows Rauch’s walls to be open and permeable, rather than an ‘over-technologised hermetic’ and sealed, surface; explicitly holistic with the ‘living’ water inside an earth wall a reflection of the water human’s carry in our bodies.

Some of those drawn to refined earth will be drawn to such interpretations of buildings as a human beings second skin. Others will arrive at it with more technical questions in mind. While this new book covers both, it seems likely that there will soon be need to further disseminate each strand, particularly once a next chapter in Rauch's journey has been uncovered.