Morocco earthquake: why traditional earthen architecture is not to blame for the destruction communities have endured

Louise Cooke was part of a CHCI delegation to the 21st General Assembly of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) from 4-8 September 2023. This delegation was organized by the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC) at the University of Sydney and supported by the CHCI Membership Activity Fund (MAF). The next deadline for MAF support is March 4, 2024.

Cooke's article following her introduction was first published on The Conversation on September 13, 2023.


In September this year, along with two Australian colleagues, I was privileged to be part of a CHCI-SSSHARC Delegation to the 2023 Sydney ICOMOS General Assembly and Scientific Symposium, which focused on the theme of ‘heritage changes.’ Across a week of sustained conversation, the themes of indigenous heritage, decolonising and diversifying, the importance of communities, relationships, and culture: nature interactions were developed and explored within the context of climate crisis. Surprisingly, the standout message from the Sydney conference interactions and presentations was one of positivity rather than the overwhelming doom-laden messages that were generated six years earlier at the 2017 Delhi ICOMOS General Assembly.

What has changed in the interim between Delhi and Sydney? For one thing, the heritage sector in Australia is providing inspiration in its creative responses to the lived-experience of the climate crisis. From the perspective of the UK, where I am based and where it feels like the heritage sector is still ‘braced’ for crisis, the creative response to heritage changes in Australia, which draws deeply from Indigenous knowledges, foregrounds inspirational cultural leadership and exemplary partnerships from which we can all learn.

The crowded days of papers, networking and ideas exchange were inspirational but, in the closing hours of the ICOMOS conference, the sad news of the Morocco earthquake arrived. My own research is on traditional earth buildings and it was through that lens that I encountered the misleading news coverage of the unravelling disaster. After seismic events the international media often points to the destruction of traditional buildings as the cause for damage and the high loss of life. This is simplistic and incorrect. The causes and impacts of disasters are complex wherever they occur. They require us to understand how modernity disrupts long-established local knowledge and skill transmission and results in changing patterns in the repair, maintenance and renewal of traditional buildings. When this knowledge disruption is compounded by the introduction of ‘superior’ building materials, such as concrete, cement, steel and breeze block, it often results in less resilient building stock.

The popular press has a long way to go to understand and value tradition-based experience within the context of heritage changes, but the conversations in Sydney suggest that the global heritage sector and its associated disciplines understand that they need to build their future mandate on the rock of Indigenous knowledges.

- Louise Cooke

Morocco earthquake: why traditional earthen architecture is not to blame for the destruction communities have endured

The 6.9 magnitude earthquake that hit Morocco on Friday, September 8 has claimed almost 3,000 lives. A further 5,530 people are injured, and the death toll is expected to rise.

The epicentre was high in the Atlas Mountains. Entire villages have been flattened. Neighbourhoods in Marrakech, the Old City in particular, suffered significant damage.

Much of the media coverage has focused on the region’s traditional architecture. Antonio Nogales, head of Spain’s United Firefighters Without Borders NGO told Reuters that the chances of survival are greatly reduced due to the traditional building materials turning to rubble and not creating pockets of air in the way that steel-and-concrete buildings can when they collapse.

Interviewed by the Washington Post, US earthquake geologist Wendy Bohon said these were not buildings “built to withstand the strong shaking from their base. So they are very likely to collapse and damage like we’ve seen.” These views assume these traditional structures are weak and liable to damage, ill-suited to an earthquake-prone region.

In the immediate aftermath of an earthquake, it is common for local building cultures to be blamed for their own destruction. My research into earth buildings shows, however, how this type of structure is in fact designed to be resilient. Vulnerabilities arise when patterns of knowledge transfer – and the traditional systems of repair and maintenance – are disrupted. Further, when new materials, such as concrete and cement, are introduced, they can be incompatible and so can reduce the buildings’ seismic resilience.

The Unesco World Heritage site of Ait Ben Haddou in the Atlas mountains. Mauritius Images, GmbH | Alamy

The resilience of earth buildings

Earth has been used as a building material for at least the last 12,000 years. Ethnographic research into earth being used as an element of Aboriginal architecture in Australia suggests its use probably goes back much further.

The huge variety in earthen architecture – which encompasses everything from defensive, religious and elite structures to everyday housing – reflects local geographies, geologies and climates.

There are adobe structures in the American south west and the mudbrick of Mali’s grand mosque in Djenne. Rammed earth or “pise” was used in both Yemen’s 11th-century tower houses in Sanaa and Shibam and 17th-century farm buildings in Switzerland.

The use of cob, meanwhile, stretches from the Great Wall of China to 16th-century houses in south-west England. And turf is characteristic of traditional Scottish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Irish, Greenlandish and Faroese buildings. Used elsewhere as mortar, render, plaster and wall infilling, earth is a resilient material.

These building cultures are uniquely adapted to their locality. In seismic regions in South America and north Africa, in particular, horizontal timbers, fibres or netting are often incorporated to resist the displacement and lateral movement and reduce damage.

In Morocco, both single story and multi-storey houses are constructed from mudbrick, rammed earth (where walls are built up with layers of compressed earth between wooden shutters), stone and timber. More recently breezeblock has been added into this architectural mix. The thermal properties of earth ensure these traditional buildings stay cool in the height of the summer.

The Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali. Foad Karos | Alamy

A history of mis-characterisation

Too often, building materials wrongly characterised as “primitive” are equated with inevitable destruction. There is a long history of earthen buildings, and traditional construction methods, being labelled as “primitive”.

In colonial accounts of discovery, this characterisation was used as a tool to discredit indigenous cultures and justify what was thought to be the “civilising” influence of colonisation. The British proponents of the Tropical Modernism architectural movement, among others, claimed to have “invented” architecture in West Africa.

This resulted in a shift away from vernacular architecture to colonial architecture and its “new” materials. Earth buildings, today, are still often classified “unsafe” with limited building codes or standards to enable the use of the material. This can be used to justify the shift from traditional building cultures to commercial building materials. You can make money from a bag of cement, but not from a bag of “free” earth.

Across the world – from Mali to the UK – traditional patterns of what ethnographers term “knowledge transmission” have been disrupted. This is made particularly visible within cultural heritage conservation.

When the knowledge and skills required to look after historic buildings, or build new ones using traditional methods is lost, the structures in question become more vulnerable. They can either suffer from inadequate maintenance or alterations – such as replacing earth plaster with concrete render – which makes them weaker.

Elsewhere, repairs from earlier seismic events have not always been made because the loss of traditional skills means no one knows how to do it properly. This can set in motion a negative cycle where structures are then much more vulnerable in subsequent seismic events.

As with the earlier colonial narratives of earth as a primitive material, the news coverage of seismic events needs to be sensitive to the local building cultures. This can lead to local communities being pressured into abandoning traditional methods in favour of modern cement block buildings. If these new buildings are poorly constructed, with little regard to seismic threats, they in turn become vulnerable to further damage.

Arg-e Bam, known as the Citadel of Bam, Iran, which was almost completely destroyed in the 2003 earthquake. Aliyeh41 | Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Following the 2023 Turkey-Syria earthquake, experts ascribed the extensive damage to recent construction in concrete, steel and brick, that had been undertaken without regard to building codes, not to mention the region’s traditional building culture.

After the 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran, in which 90% of the urban fabric was damaged and 34,000 people died, there was, similarly, intense scrutiny of the traditional building culture. Yet subsequent studies revealed that the traditional earth buildings, had in fact fared much better than recent restoration work and more modern buildings of breezeblock and cement.

Seismic events are traumatic for local communities at their heart. Failing to understand the resilience of traditional building cultures makes the same communities even more vulnerable.

Dr Louise Cooke, senior lecturer in Conservation from the University of York, is a conservation expert interested in sustainability, historic buildings, archaeological sites and landscapes. An expert member of the ICOMOS Scientific Committee on Earthen Architectural Heritage, Dr Cooke has conducted desk-based reviews for World Heritage sites and volunteered as a mentor through their Emerging Professionals scheme. Dr Cooke is the Chair of Trustees for Earth Building UK and Ireland, and a trustee of the Paul Oliver Vernacular Architecture Library, as well as an advisor to the British Council, Cultural Protection Fund.