The Palm Leaf Architecture exhibit showcases a disappearing craft in the UAE, a sustainable way to build longer-term structures while using up an abundant material.
One architect demonstrates the power of the palm tree in London
It's an incongruous sight: between the brown and red brick of the rear apartment and institutional buildings in London's South Kensington, in the middle of the Royal Geographical Society's very English garden, sits a square hut made of date-palm leaves. This arish - or "barasti hut", as it's known among the UAE's expatriates - is a reconstruction of the traditional building techniques of the Bedouin peoples of the Emirates, and it is one part of an exhibition that, for its curator, the architect Sandra Piesik, has been several years in the making.
The hut itself, together with a large fish-shaped sculpture, took only two days to make, thanks to some enthusiastic Imperial College students and engineers from Buro Happold.
Indeed, it is as an educational and experimental tool that this display is of most interest. Piesik, the author of a book on the same subject, has been busy building interest in this disappearing craft in the UAE - a skill that, until a few decades ago, was passed down generation to generation - and she believes that the only way to avoid losing the 7,000-year-old technology is to find a new use for it. Pointing out that 420 million palm leaves are sent to landfills in the UAE each year, she hopes that re-examining the craft could also prove a sustainable way to build longer-term structures while using up an abundant material - arish huts can last up to 25 years, she says.
"One of the applications is disaster relief," she says. "People have to build housing very quickly, and the communities know how to do it, so you don't have to bring people in, or UN tents. Not just in the Middle East, but Africa, South America ... Everywhere with indigenous building techniques."
It is more than a sentimental attachment to the old that drives Piesik - although she acknowledges that "the Emirati people feel it in their hearts, from the date palm owner to His Highness Sheikh Mohammed". Instead, it is a fundamental belief that the lessons of indigenous building can be adapted for modern purposes.
The portability of these buildings - some varieties of which would, she says, have been rolled up and carried from site to site - is one thing, but the technology they use has been keeping people cool in scorching hot deserts for millennia. In tests on the buildings, Piesik found a difference in temperature between the hot exterior and cool interior as great as 23° Fahrenheit.
The designs of the arish are manifold, tailored to the terrain on which they are built. Archive photographs in the show, taken by the explorer and travel writer Sir Wilfred Thesiger (his biographer Alexander Maitland provided his expertise in pulling the show together) and Dr Anne Coles, reveal a great deal about the techniques used from city to village, coast to desert and season to season.
"If it's worked for 7,000 years, for goodness sake, it has to work now," she argues.
To this end, Piesik is collaborating with the international structural engineers of Buro Happold, led by her former tutor Wolf Mangelsdorf, in an ongoing project to examine the traits and uses of these four-metre-long leaves. "Palm leaves are very light, they're very strong, they're not uniform in their shape, they have a fibrous characteristic so they are stronger in one direction than they are in another, they have a set length," he explains. "All these geometrical and material characteristics' constraints play a role."
Ideas on display at this small exhibition range from chairs made using the rib-like leaf stems to a modern domed building, but Piesik says it's only the start of exploring the arish's application. "We can do contemporary buildings; that's the biggest message we want to give," she says. "We can build shell structures and cover them and introduce them into urban landscapes."
Well, it would certainly be a change from glass, steel and concrete.
• Palm Leaf Architecture in the United Arab Emirates continues at the Royal Geographical Society in London until May 25
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