When people analyze vernacular architecture there is a tendency either to dismiss them outright for their ‘primitiveness’ or to romanticize the natives for the ‘improvisation’ of local materials. The natives, on the other hand, who appropriated the materials, were more than improvising what they found; they were rational people who developed and chose the technology based on empirical evidence and available local resources. They contested, improved or discarded the techniques and materials. This reiterative investigation evolved and continued through time.
Regions with same terrain didn’t use the same material, they were discarded or perhaps never discovered. Nature was their validator and mentor. When for example, earthquake would shatter the notion of stability, artisans realized that the round structures withstood hazards like high wind and earthquake. Perhaps for the structural stability the ancients believed that round structures were immortal.
Mongolian Yurts like the Kazak or Turic counterparts evolved through generations and had passed through many cultural and regional iteration. The round shape of Yurt made them aerodynamic and earthquake resistant. Round was considered democratic, as there is no hierarchy of space. Lightweight and the modular foldable frame made the structure portable. Felt produced from their own sheep made the structure insulated, a major need when the temperatures goes below -45°C. Latticed frame structure, felt insulation, aerodynamic structure and canvas weatherproofing made thus the structure not only hazard resistant but also elegant and robust.
Whether a nomad had five thousand sheep or just five, they always lived in a yurt- its hard to distinguish rich mans yurt from a poor mans. Colors of the yurts on the outside are always white. Any other color would camouflage the yurt in the desert background and it would have been very difficult to locate it from a distance. Nomads are very discriminant in their possession. They cannot afford to take things they don’t need. Their yurt had to be packed neatly in two camels and rest of the possessions in other two camels. Nowadays, there are tractors available and everything has to fit in one. Necessities could include washing machine, TV, stove and basic furniture. The possessions are predetermined when the yurts are built- in other words when the foundation is laid all the furniture are arranged in place. The walls and roofs are put later on.
For a more permanent structure Mongolians had traditionally been using earth as building material. The tradition probably came from the Russians who had borrowed it from Central Asians who had also learned it from the Persians. The Russian during their occupation made their outposts and other office buildings out of earth. Although earth was technically ideal for thermal comfort, with the influx of concrete, the skills to make earthen bricks or adobe had been lost.
Mongolia in transition:
Since Mongolian opened to the world economy many of their locals resources were being exported to the West. Similarly, felt was also being transported to the West in order to make rugs and jackets thus making them expensive for the locals. Different organizations were, therefore, looking for alternative building materials. Chinese and Americans had their own solutions. Americans had recently built a straw bale house that cost 15,000 USD, which was very expensive for the local standard. For comparison one yurt would cost less than 700 USD. Moreover, there was no straw in the desert and it had to be hauled in from China. Perhaps the house was natural, but it was not very ecological due to high embodied energy to transport the materials.
Basanta Adhikary, a Nepali agronomist, had been working with the nomads in Gobi Desert for the last three years. He was training them the ways to grow vegetables. As the times were changing, nomads were looking to diversify their income. In summer, they wanted to supplement their income by growing fruits and vegetables. Basanta had introduced seabuckthorne to the village, which was hardy fruity and pretty well accepted by the people and the terrain. They were also planting squash, cabbage, beans etc. These were indeed so exotic food that the locals had not even gives names to these vegetables- every thing was called naga or green. But they were happy with the produce and wanted to expand more. They had asked Basanta to make community hall where they would discuss daily issues, organize trainings and sell produce in summer. There was no money to do the project but it was not really a problem. The community had volunteered their labor, land was free and the earth the building material was ubiquitously available.
Myself, a Nepali architect had learned how to make Nubian done in New Mexico. We had deliberated the idea to the Mongolians and they were ready to try them out. The fact that we could make a yurt like structure with local earth and for cheap fascinated many locals. Community decided that they wanted to build a dome that was 5 meters in diameter. So we started our project, to make an adobe yurt which our mentor fondly named- gobidobe.
Mongolians are matriarchal, educated, hardworking and inquisitive people. Every morning women and men workers would come with their notebook and meticulously document everything I would say about catenary curve. They made their own formwork and compass. Everything was made from scratch and materials procured from 2 km radius. Local tradition said that camel dung created a natural polymer which we used to create a thin waterproof membrane. We didn’t intend the building to last for more than 5 years so we didn’t use cement or foreign material for waterproofing. We used a simple compass that pivoted on its axis. The compass would guide bricks into place and when they were laid every thing was under pure compression- this way we didn’t need any timber for construction.
We were happy with the fact that the dome would not last many years. It was built in 35 days with bare hands, bare earth and unconditional love. The total cost of the building was 100 USD, which was used to get few bags of cement for the foundation and wooden door and window.
This dome was built with a collaborative effort. Its success depends on if it can accepted be, acclimated and modified for the desert context. It is however a good example of intense deliberation with farmers to bring in a new technology. Yurt was a technology that had evolved and dissimiated into many places. Now only the time will tell if this gobidobe like its felt counter can survive the test of nature, vis-à-vis cold, wind, earthquake, cultural beliefs and biases.