I have raised this subject many times as modern architecture works to wipe out indigenous cultures around the world. In his 1976 book The Failure of Modern Architecture, Brent Brolin provides a vivid account of the arrogance of modern architecture’s assault on Yemen. I quote it at length because it is a relatively early record of what modernism inflicted on Third World countries that threw off or were freed from colonial rule only to turn around and invite the First World’s vandals back to destroy their new nations.
Events in today’s Yemen are tragic but entirely predictable. It would not surprise me at all to learn that the angst produced by modern architecture contributes to radical Islam and terrorism. One is not sympathizing with the devil to note that Mohammed Atta hated modern architecture as a symbol of the evils of the Western democracies.
During centuries [Yemen’s] seclusion from the West, the whole country, and particular its capital, Sanaa, evolved a uniquely practical and sophisticated urban architecture. In the decade following [its 1962] revolution, these traditions were nearly obliterated. …
After a passage detailing the difficulties faced by foreign modern architects working in Yemen, who refused to acknowledge the country’s architectural wealth, and the high cost of importing both modern materials and modern experts to carry out rebuilding plans, and the dangers of using reinforced concrete in a climate whose daily temperature swings caused expansion cracks in mere months, Brolin writes:
All of these problems might have been tolerable if the final product had been better than what was already there, but it was not. …
The traditional materials, on the other hand, have few problems with regard to the temperature change. As an example of the general durability of Yemeni construction: When the Yemeni Jews moved out of the Jewish Quarter of Sanaa in 1948, the other Yemenies expected them to return, and for nearly ten years the houses in that quarter were unoccupied. When it was clear that they would not come back, the Yemenis began moving in. After ten years of neglect most of the houses needed only a new coat of mud plaster on the roof. The job requires no exceptional skill. You can do it yourself, or if you do not have the time, skilled people are readily available. Materials are not a problem either: the earth comes from the backyard, the water from the well.
The modern buildings suffered from another problem too: as the temperature changed outside, it also changed inside. The buildings became ovens in the day and refrigerators at night. In a short time the wealthy Yemenis, who had wanted the status of a modern house, moved back into their traditionally built houses and rented the modern ones to visiting foreigners.
The temperature problems could have been solved by heating and air conditioning, but the high cost of the units and fuel and maintenance are obvious. Furthermore, our concept of climate control was foreign to the Yemeni, who had been using a much more sophisticated method since the time of the Queen of Sheba. The method is still used, but the foreign experts never considered it.
The walls of a traditional Yemeni house are thick, usually eighteen inches. One- or two-story houses are usually made of mud bricks, whereas taller ones (up to eight floors in Sanaa) have their foundations and first stories made of stone and the upper ones of fired brick. There are three types of windows in the Yemeni house. The first, which is ornamental, consists of one or two carved plaster screens inset with stained glass and is placed above the second type, a normal casement window. The third type is a small hole – as small as 4″ x 12″ – with a door. Several of these may be put in each room at high and low points on the walls, and opening and closing them controls the air circulation. The combination of structure and ventilation is efficient. In a test made in a one-story mud-brick home, the inside termperature varied by only two degrees Fahrenheit over a twenty-four-hour period while the exterior temperature changed by thirty degrees. The interior remained around 69 degrees Fahrenheit.
Most important, Sanaa is not an architectural museum. Its extraordinary architecture is being added to daily. The skills that built it are not gone, though they were nearly lost due to the insistence on being modern that dominated the country for nearly a decade. Fortunately for Yemen, its architectural traditions are now in less danger of being destroyed because of the work of a United Nations planner named Alain Bertaud. During the three years – 1970 to 1973 – that Bertaud worked in Yemen he reacquainted the Yemenis with the technical and aesthetic values of their own architecture.
The most successful tactic he used was to build his own home using mud brick in the traditional Yemeni style. The fact that Bertaud and his family would live in a local house, and that other foreigners came and approved of it, was a revelation to the Yemenis. For the first time a foreigner who had come to tell them how to live had told them that they were doing fine by themselves. The psychological impact of this unusual occurrence cannot be overestimated. Soon members of government and other influential Yemenis were admitting that they had never really liked the foreign houses. They had been made to feel ashamed of their own and had been afraid to risk the foreigners’ ridicule be choosing their old ways over new ones.
… When the experts came to Yemen, the country offered them a remarkable gift of practical and inexpensive local materials and the skilled craftsmen who could use them artfully. Yet the sensitive, knowledgeable professionals failed to take advantage of this rare natural resource.
I have quoted this passage at length not just because it highlights the crime committed by modern architecture against an indigenous culture – although Yemen’s leaders were more to blame than the besotted foreign modernist practitioners. I also want to remind readers that what foreign modernists did to Yemen is what our own modernists have done – and continue to do – to our own “advanced” Western cultures. The past offers a sustainable way to evolve the built environment into the future. Modernists sponsor seminar after seminar on sustainable architecture while ignoring – and suppressing others’ recognition of – the lessons of sustainability that the past has to offer to the future. Modern architecture may not be killing people but it is killing cultures to this day. Why is this not a crime of a magnitude worthy of Geneva?
I was a PCV living/working in Yemen in ’73-75. I’m an architect and was working in their Ministry of Public Works. Knew Alain Bertaud as he was working there during my early time there. Do you know of Fernando Varanda, Portuguese architect – UNV, who was Bertaud’s replacement there. He (Fernando) later wrote a wonderful book – “Art of Building in Yemen” – really excellent.