Now honorary professor of the UNESCO Chair of Earthen Architecture, Building Cultures, and Sustainable Development, Anna Heringer rose to fame with METI School in Rudrapur, Bangladesh, her degree project, built entirely out of materials normally associated with “poverty”, such as mud, bamboo and straw. This was only the first of a series of buildings commissioned by NGOs, religious and privately run institutions in marginal areas, relying solely on local labour, locally sourced materials and, as Anna would say, knowledge acquired, in part, by making mistakes.
Her lecture on 8 October in Parma was part of a festival entitled “Il rumore del lutto” (“The Sound of Mourning”), which has for many years addressed the challenging subject of death in contemporary society, and so the first thing we ask her is what the end of human life and eternity have to do with architecture. Anna replies that much contemporary debate seems to be concerned with precisely this issue. “But what we need to learn is to accept that we are not building things for eternity. We don’t know what future generations will need, and most of the buildings we design are destined to be demolished. We shouldn’t take ourselves so seriously, but improve our knowledge of locally available materials and traditional construction techniques that have been handed down to us, because it is the place and everything deriving from it that will truly remain”.
Anne tells us that her first experience with bamboo was a disaster. She knew nothing about the material, and chose a type of wood that was too young; it had to be completely replaced. They all learned a lot from that mistake, and then put the experience acquired to work.
Fear of making mistakes, fear of being imperfect, of choosing an unconventional path, is a topic of great discussion in Anna Heringer’s studio. “Our society is afraid of death, of imperfection and decay. And because we are afraid, we build using more resources than we should, more steel and concrete and stabilisers than necessary, more sealants, insulation and paint, and this is not sustainable”.
Anna puts us before a mirror and tells us two shocking things: first, that our ageing, like that of the buildings we construct, is not only inevitable, but, above all, natural; and secondly, that what we are and what we have around us is everything we need to be happy, to build something unique and beautiful. “Design is a process of continually making choices: if we make these decisions with faith in the resources we have, in what we can do with other people and in our culture, our designs will be naturally sustainable. Love is the only thing that is stronger than fear.”
In response to such a radical statement, we want to know more about what happens on her construction sites, how they are different from typical building sites in Europe, for instance. And we discover that they produce no waste, because the mud used to build the walls can be returned to the fields, and the surplus bamboo is used to make toys. Many of the materials she uses simply decompose. And as there is no electricity, she simply relies on the strength of human beings, or animals.
“At the moment I am working on two similar projects at the same time, a church in Bavaria and one in Ghana, and in both cases the clients have approved use of traditional sustainable materials and techniques. After centuries of market policies that label locally made materials as poor, and industrial materials as superior and preferable with a view to progress and, as I was saying, durability, I now believe we are seeing a reversal of this perspective. It is truly important for this to take place not only in Africa, but in Europe too, so that this choice will finally apply to both these societies”.
We have seen that Anna Heringer is fighting a stigma that exists in both the more and less fortunate parts of the world. But how can we overcome this stigma? Anna seeks to open people’s minds by demonstrating that these materials work perfectly well and that we can do much more than build straight walls. In Anandaloy, a centre for people with disabilities in Bangladesh, she challenged a lot of convictions. “It was the perfect project for celebrating people’s uniqueness. And so I worked on curved lines suggesting the idea of a joyful dance around the building. The ramps built for people with mobility issues are the first thing you see when you arrive. I could have hidden them away inside, seeing as they are not very common in Bangladesh, but I chose to show them off. The locals wondered “why the ramps? I can walk”. But I wanted to expressly manifest diversity, which tends to be hidden in this country. And now people really love the building, they consider it beautiful, underlining their dignity. Much more than giving them a treatment facility, much more than performing a function, it is a place that has to do with care, attention, and love. And people can sense that”.
01 Educational Training campus Ghana Photo © Alizée Cugney
02-05 METI School © B.K.S. Inan - Aga Khan award for architecture
06 METI School © Benjamin Staehli
07 METI School © Naquib Hossain
08 METI School © Anna Heringer
09-11 Wormser dom's sanctuary interiors - Photo © Norbert Rau
12 Educational Training campus Ghana © Studio Anna Heringer
13-15 Educational Training campus Ghana © Katharina Kohlroser
16 Educational Training campus Ghana © Anna Heringer
17 Educational Training campus Ghana © Studio Anna Heringer
18-19 Anandoloy © Stefano Mori
20-21 Anandoloy © Studio Anna Heringer
22 Anandoloy © Benjamin Stähli
23 Embroidery Anandoloy © Günter König