ARISH: PALM-LEAF ARCHITECTURE. WHY IT IS RELEVANT TODAY.

© Sandra Piesik
Author of Arish: Palm-Leaf Architecture
Published by Thames & Hudson (2012).

At a time of rising energy, commodity and food prices, together with frustration with outcomes from the Rio + 20 Summit, some people may look at new technologies as ‘a saving grace’ to current challenges facing all of us.  These challenges will not go away, they are here to stay because the world’s resources are finite. The world population is growing and questions are asked about how we will feed 9 billion people by 2050 with already dilapidated Earth’s resources and how and where we will house them?

The relevance of Palm Leaf Architecture in this context is such that it provides a resource that is annually available and which can be recycled. Moreover – indigenous people used palm leaves for building construction over thousands of years on various continents and climate zones from the hottest places on Earth such as the Rub Al Khali desert (Arabian Peninsula) to tropical rain forests of Brazil or Papua New Guinea.

It is debatable exactly when date palms arrived in the Arabian Peninsula, but a date stone excavated on Delma Island off the coast of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been carbon dated as 7,000 years old. Excavations in Ras Al Khamiah, another of the UAE’s seven emirates, discovered date stones that were 4,000 years old. Today, there are 42 million date palm trees in the United Arab Emirates with over 60 different varieties.

Annually, each tree produces 10 dry palm leaves (4 to 6 m long), which need to be removed after harvest in autumn to clean the tree and prepare it for next year’s harvest. Each year there are 420 million dry palm leaves that can be recycled into a new use.

My research carried out in the UAE on palm leaf architecture demonstrated sophistication of architectural solutions and their   adaptability to specific micro-climates and landscapes of the desert, mountains and coastal areas. With brilliant thermal properties and prefabrication methods there are solid foundations for technological adaptation of techniques that have been developed already and tested in the field over thousands of years. These solutions were unique for every culture and different tribal areas, hence a “copy” and “paste” approach may not always work for each micro-climate and cultural zone.

Desert climate in particular offers challenges for importing Western technology developed for a temperate climate. Glass and concrete can get heated in summer to above 80°C in the desert, whereas tests carried out in April 2011 on sun absorption of walls built from dry palm leaves resulted in temperatures of around 45°C. Traditional palm leaf houses not only provided shading from the sun, temperatures measured inside a reconstructed palm leaf house in the Liwa Oasis (Rub Al Khali Desert, UAE) in July 2010 showed a maximum temperature of 54°C versus an external temperature of the sand of up to 77°C.  This demonstrated a cooling effect of up to 23°C in summer months without mechanical air conditioning.

More investment in research and development projects related to palm-leaf use in modern construction and design is required. Our recent project carried out in collaboration with Buro Happold – palm leaf sculpture designed and constructed for the exhibition Arish: Palm-Leaf Architecture at The Royal Geographical Society with IBG (the Institute of British Geographers) in London proved that contemporary structural engineers and architects can engage with indigenous materials such a palm leaf with great enthusiasm and professionalism.

We also need community-based initiatives run by cultural and heritage organisations in countries where palm tree grow, in order to engage local populations in cultural regeneration projects. Without adaptation of traditional palm leaf architecture into modern use, there is a strong chance that this 7,000-year-old craft will die out.

This adaptation can be extended as well in humanitarian crisis projects and construction of much needed enclosures for food shelters, community centres and refugee camps.

One of the most important aspects of palm leaf architecture is its cultural context, particularly in the Middle East, where it is deeply embedded into Islamic civilization. All efforts aimed at funding and revival of palm leaf ancient crafts will also always bring much needed authentic cultural continuity.

© Sandra Piesik
Author of Arish: Palm-Leaf Architecture
Published by Thames & Hudson (2012).

Printed with support of Khalifa International Date Palm Award.
Chartered Architect RIBA FRSG

www.3ideasme.com
info@3ideasme.com

arish-palm-leaf-architecture1
Book Cover

VIEW SLIDESHOW


01_Rub-Al-Khali-Desert-Liwa-Oasis_2007-300x199
The Rub Al Khali Desert – © Sandra Piesik, 2007


04_Arish-House-Process-1_2010-300x159

Reconstruction of an Arish House.
Liwa Oasis, UAE, The Rub Al Khali Desert.
The Architectural Review Emerging Architecture Award 2010.
© Sandra Piesik, 2010


08_Arish-House-Process-4_2010-300x235

Reconstruction of an Arish House, Liwa Oasis
© Sandra Piesik, 2010


10_Arish-House-Process-5_2010-300x199

Reconstructed Arish House.
Liwa Oasis, UAE, The Rub Al Khali Desert.
The Architectural Review Emerging Architecture Award 2010.
© Sandra Piesik, 2010


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