Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Built of Mud


Built of Mud
By A. Hyatt Verrill
Scientific American, August 1930; researched by Alan Schenker; digitized by Doug Frizzle, March 2012.

WHEN we think of a mud house we usually visualize a mere hut or shanty, but in many portions of the world, mud, or adobe, is the principal building material. In the Orient, in sections of Europe, and particularly in Spanish America, buildings of adobe construction are the rule rather than the exception. Quite pretentious houses and other edifices are built of mud and, when stuccoed, whitewashed, or gaily painted, give no hint of the material of which they are composed.
In no other part of the world, however, has adobe construction reached such a state of development and attained to such heights as in Peru. Long ages before the Spaniards first set foot on Peruvian soil, the Incans and the pre-Incan tribes had learned the use of mud as a building material. Enormous walls, great mounds, countless dwellings, vast temples, and massive forts were built of the sun-dried mud bricks and blocks, and many of these still remain, little altered by time and the elements.
THE Dons followed their example and used the cheap and easily obtainable adobe in erecting their buildings. Their palaces, forts, homes, and churches were made entirely of adobe mud, and through the centuries these have endured and remain today as imposing and as beautiful as in the days of Pizarro.
It was left to the modern inhabitants of Peru, however, to carry mud adobe construction to the nth degree and literally to glorify mud. In and about the capital, Lima, is this particularly true. Of course, today, many of the business buildings, as well as residences, are of concrete or brick, but adobe still holds its own, and by far the greater number of Lima's homes, as well as a large proportion of its larger edifices, are entirely of mud.
In the days of the Conquistadors, the adobe bricks were merely piled one upon another to form the building walls, but today the usual method is to erect a light wooden framework and build the adobe upon this. In some cases metal frameworks have been used in connection with adobe. This method was employed in erecting the beautiful Rimac Building, perhaps the most elaborate mud building in the world. On the other hand, the world's largest mud building, the old Lima Cathedral, is built of adobe blocks without reinforcement of any kind.
Apparently there are no limits to what may be accomplished with mud in Peru. There are charming, one-storied bungalows with wide verandas, Moorish palaces, imposing colonial mansions, Elizabethan cottages, Spanish mission homes, and even turreted castles, all built of the same sun-dried mud dug from the land on which the edifice is built. So great is the demand for adobe that everywhere, round and about Lima, one sees endless piles and high walls of the mud bricks. At first one thinks these merely boundary walls between properties, but it will be noticed that in nearly every case these walls are marked: "Este pared no es medianera"—"This wall is not a boundary."
Also, wherever there is available mud, one will see the natives industriously engaged in making adobe bricks.
The mud, dug from any convenient spot, is mixed with sand and usually with some chopped straw or dried manure. The resultant pasty mass is then pressed into wooden forms or frames. The shaped blocks are then removed and placed in the sun to dry and in a day or two are ready to use.
Brick making is a most economical and inexpensive business for a man of limited means, or of no means at all. Provided he can secure permission to make use of the land, or a portion of its surface, for brick making—usually an easy matter, for the rental is taken out in completed bricks —the penniless brick-maker needs little more than his bare hands. With his wife and children, and all his worldly goods—which usually amount to nothing more than a few battered tins, and some hand-made stools— he camps upon the selected site. An ancient kerosene tin of water and a dilapidated shovel are produced. The dry earth is trod, dug, stirred, and worked into a thick paste; then some dry manure, gathered anywhere along the road, is added, and with all members of the little family helping, the bricks begin to take form. As soon as they dry they are piled in tiers.
In a few days the brick-maker and his family are surrounded by brick walls and are living quite comfortably and snugly in a little cavity left purposely for their accommodation. Here they remain as long as bricks can be made and sold on the land. And when an adobe building is in process of erection, the laborers invariably dwell within recesses in the piles of accumulated bricks—thus saving house rent—and tramp back and forth to their work.
WHEREVER a Cholo can find a mud-brick wall and employment, is "Home Sweet Home" to him, and often one may find a dozen or more families all dwelling in perfect contentment in their burrows in the piles of bricks where building is in progress.
In a damp or rainy climate, these dried mud-bricks would, of course, be worse than useless; and, should Lima be subjected to a few days of really heavy rains, most of the city and its suburbs would be reduced to the original, elemental mud. Several times within the past few years, various portions of Peru have been visited by unprecedented rains during the winter months, and great has been the havoc wrought. Around and about Trujillo, houses and churches melted like snow exposed to sunshine, and even the prehistoric ruins of the Chimu city of Chan Chan, which has stood unaltered for countless centuries, slumped and dissolved.
To protect buildings from the drip from the eaves, practically all modern adobe buildings have several feet of the wall covered with concrete, while others have the lower portions of the walls built of stone, or stone and concrete. Even the old cathedral, which is not only the largest but one of the finest adobe buildings in the world, has been safeguarded with a concrete coating about the base of its walls.
Originally, too, the adobe buildings were all very much alike. They were massive, thick-walled, square, and usually of moderate height, were typically Spanish with iron-grilled windows, out-jutting carved cedar miradors, immense iron-studded and elaborately carved doors, and open patios. But with the modern improvements in adobe constructive methods, architecture appears to have run wild, and there is scarcely a type or style of buildings known to any part of the world the counterpart of which cannot be seen in or about the Peruvian capital.
Apparently the average Peruvian never has a definite plan in view when he starts building a house. He may start with a Spanish colonial form and by the time the first story is complete, he decides that the English style is better. He then adds a second story with exposed timbers, leaded glass windows, and stucco walls. Then to the steeply-pitched roof, he adds Spanish tiles, and among the chimney-pots erects a cupola where he can loll away many a hot evening.
HIS front door may be a graceful Moorish arch, but to put a finishing touch to the whole he adds the lofty pillars and severe portico of some Virginia mansion, and builds a porte cochere in Japanese style. But with all his architectural failings, he loves color, and so paints his home in brilliant ultramarine, rose-pink, canary-yellow, or a combination of all. And, strange as it may seem, these architectural monstrosities do not strike a discordant note in the scheme of things. Surrounded by glorious flower gardens and magnificent pines and luxuriant palms, their bright hues are delightful, and one forgets their faults in admiration of the masses of roses and geraniums which clamber over walls and droop from the eaves.
And there are countless dwellings which are as charming and as perfect in their architectural features as one could wish.
Truly, the Peruvians have glorified mud, and by the same token, they have attained the utmost in building economy, for what could be more economical than to build one's home from the crude material dug from the land when excavating foundations or grading one's garden?

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.