by Gianna Morelli


Does Modern Society Discourage Material Exploration?

The answer can be gleaned through the tale of the Three Little Pigs.  The tale aims to teach children the value of hard work.  Only the most diligent pig, builder of a conventional brick house, escapes the wolf.  The tale teaches children that the building process is not one of exploration or creativity, but rather adherence to established conventions.  Conventional materials and methods are emphasized at the expense of the variances of time, place, and culture.  This message is unfortunate, as the key to creative architecture lies in the ability to recognize and respond to unique sites.  In a society in which technology can supersede local conditions, we must work hard to draw inspiration from our surroundings.

ernacular architecture, unencumbered by the prejudices of modern society, has yielded beautifully bizarre typologies.  In the dry savannas of Africa, nomads have used baobab trees since the fifteenth century as wells.  The baobab is known for its massive trunk which can contain up to 3,000 gallons of water.  The trunks’ ability to expand enables it to survive long periods without rainfall. When the tree depletes its reservoir, the trunk remains hollow, providing space for habitation and storage.  Early nomads used these hollows to create artificial wells.  After spending three to four days shaping the hollow, nomads would carve into the well just above a branch’s axil so that future rainfall would run into the well, thus enabling them to travel long distances over arid desert.  Who was the first to carve into the baobab?  We may never know.  Yet the echoes of this creativity, this material exploration, have played across the desert for hundreds of years, enabling otherwise impossible journeys.  

Yet the use of unusual materials forces one to truly think about how a building performs.  A prefabricated steel assembly can be applied to almost any program or site, regardless of whether it is the best choice for the enhancement of space and the surrounding environment.  However, such a thoughtless application of materials is impossible when working with unique materials such as the baobab tree.  While some early settlers used the baobab tree for dwellings, the inappropriateness of this program became quickly apparent.  Imagine living in a home with live, insect-infested walls!  Instead, the tree is used for more informal, open programs.  The tree provides an ideal bus stop for the citizens of Rhodesia, where one tree can house thirty to forty people during a storm.  The tree is also ideal for bars, as the moist, dark interior provides a naturally cool place for beer storage in the arid desert, saving energy for air conditioning.  


The Big Baobab Bar in South Africa consists of two hollow rooms, remnants of past growth spurts.  The bar, while popular for its novelty, is also proof of the tree’s functionality; it has existed since the 1980’s without failure.  

Could the baobab be discovered as an architectural typology today?  In a world of overwhelming material selection, would anyone take the time to investigate the baobab tree?  In a world where thousands of plastic, metal, and wood assemblies are available online, prefabricated and predetermined, why would anyone spend days carving into a massive trunk?  In modern society, such an action seems not innovative, but rather inefficient.

It is only when one looks past established solutions and examines existing conditions that one is able to truly begin the creative process.  Creativity is not observing things for what they are, but rather what they can become.  Such is the case with the Inuit igloo houses.  To most, snow is an ethereal, iridescent pattern that drapes the landscape.  Yet to the Inuit of northern Canada and Alaska, snow is the sole material for traveling winter camps.  The brilliance of these camps lies in their simplicity: not only do they use only one material, but they can also be constructed with a single large knife.

Using dry and hard-packed snow, the Inuit carve rectangular blocks about three feet long.  The edges of the blocks are smoothed with the dull side of the knife.  Each block is then cut on an angle so that they lean inward as they ascend, creating a structure which transitions seamlessly from wall to ceiling.  Loose snow seals the crevice between blocks.  The structure, instead of fighting the harsh conditions, maximizes its few advantages.  The low temperatures of the region freeze the infill snow into ice, which is a stronger and better insulator.  By creating a spherical shape, the builders create a lower surface area to volume ratio, reducing heat loss. Finally, the transparency of snow maximizes radiant heat gain.    

How can we, as architects, apply the lessons of the igloo and baobao typologies to our own practices?  We cannot simply copy or return to vernacular forms, as it is this thoughtless mimicry that undermines the basic principles of the vernacular.  Instead, we should strive to understand the vernacular approach to building, one that is initiated by the unique materials and advantages of site.  Only then can one create the truly unique.




One need not look further than Clark Sanders to understand how a material driven design can function in modern society.  Sanders is an architect in New York famous for his code-approved straw bale houses which take advantage of the abundance and low cost of hay in the region.  Sanders first slices hay bales into blocks that fit into a wooden frame.  A metal wire lath serves as the joint between the hay and plaster appliqué, providing a wall structure that is both fireproof and an excellent insulator, which helps reduce energy used for heat in the winter.  

Sander’s process is unique not only for his material selection, but also for the way in which he experiments with material as he is building.  Rather than draft definitive plans, Sanders modifies the structure as it is erected based on client input and personal aesthetic.  The fibrous nature of straw allows him to create unique curves relatively easily. Sander’s approach to building demands both creativity and daring.  New typologies inherently require more time and energy the first time they are constructed because the language of efficacy has not yet been achieved.  There is no straw bay wall assembly in Revit.  With new materials, architects must simultaneously design space and assembly, establishing a coherent relationship between the two.  This approach is much more labor intensive then using predetermined assemblies, yet leads to a more comprehensive understanding of the specific demands of program and site.    

New assemblies may even fail outright, but the potential for failure is an inherent component of the creative process.  One cannot create without risking failure.  Herein lies the crux of modern society: there exists zero tolerance for failure.  We repeat the adage “one learns from one’s mistakes” occasionally, but do we believe it?  The fate of the two pigs that built houses of straw and twigs seems to indicate otherwise.  Until we accept that we may fail, we cannot move forward as designers.  Only then are we free to experiment with the conditions and materials of site that surround us. Only then can we transcend the mundane and create.