The Architect Racing to Save Algeria’s Earthen Castles

The Architect Racing to Save Algeria’s Earthen Castles

As part of her work with Capterre, Yasmine Terki is racing to document the country’s existing earthen architectural heritage. Pictured here are traditional buildings in Ghardaïa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in north-central Algeria.

SourcePhotographs by Kays Djilali/Ministère de la Culture

Why you should care

Yasmine Terki has made it her mission to preserve one of the world’s largest concentrations of earthen “Berber castles.”

Yasmine Terki isn’t one to run with the pack. While most of her professional peers are consumed by working in concrete, the 45-year-old architect is trying to reacquaint Algerians with a humbler material, one their ancestors started using 15 centuries ago: plain old earth.

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Yasmine Terki

Through her work with the Ministry of Culture, she is racing to preserve the country’s singular earthen architectural heritage (there are 10,000 homes just in Timimoun, where she is based), including the beautiful “Berber castles” and forts called ksars. And the stakes are higher than one might think. For starters, as temperatures rise and resources dwindle, Terki warns that people could actually perish in their concrete homes — which trap heat, unlike the cooler, more porous earthen structures — especially if oil-rich Algeria stops doling out energy subsidies that make air conditioning affordable.

Waving hands adorned with silver jewels, Terki says she first became interested in earth architecture in the 1990s while studying at the Polytechnic School of Architecture and Town Planning in Algeria. From there she completed a diploma of advanced studies at the French Institute of Urbanism in Paris and a doctorate at the National School of Architecture, Paris-Belleville, specializing in the preservation of Algeria’s rural and urban architectural heritage.

Then, in 2003, the Algerian Ministry of Culture put her in charge of restoring the Kasbah of Algiers, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built between the 16th and 18th centuries. The research introduced her to Algerian architecture’s special “logic,” she says, which depends on available natural resources and possesses thermal properties ideally suited to harsh desert conditions.

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Yasmine Terki pictured deep in the Sahara desert in Kénadsa, Béchar Province, Algeria, in 2009. Although the Ministry of Culture has not — until now — focused on preservation, the resilience of the country’s earth architecture is a testament to its feasibility as a building material.

Source Photographs by Kays Djilali/Ministère de la Culture

“This heritage is a testament to the intelligence of the local people,” Terki says. “You can’t forget that Algeria was a colonized nation, and when it was colonized, the occupiers tried to break this cultural identity.” In the aftermath of World War II, concrete became more ubiquitous, introduced from France and embraced for its modern appeal, and now very few Algerians remember how to build with earth anymore. “People think earth is the material of the past.”

Terki persuaded Algeria’s culture ministry of its responsibility to protect the structural gifts left behind by their forebearers.

So she has made it her life’s mission to create a record of and preserve existing buildings — while also equipping as many people as possible with the skills necessary to reconnect with their heritage. But first, in 2006, she had to convince the ministry to fund her studies at the National Institute of Cultural Heritage in Paris, as well as a two-year postgraduate degree at CRAterre, the International Center of Earthen Architecture in Grenoble, France. There, she developed a reputation for being a bit “pushy,” according to the project’s educational coordinator, Bakonirina Rakotomamonjy. Pushy, but effective.

The program, Rakotomamonjy explains, is the only one of its kind at the professional architectural level, and it invests in one person who will spread know-how in their home country. In 2012, Terki persuaded Algeria’s culture ministry of its responsibility to protect the structural gifts left behind by their forebearers. The ministry was unavailable for comment, but Terki says it agreed to fund Capterre, an organization she founded to coordinate the country’s game plan for rehabilitating earth architecture.

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A detailed interior shot of the magnificent Hôtel l’Oasis Rouge in Timimoun, now the Capterre headquarters, located about 1,200 kilometers south of Algiers. It is named after the deep red earthen material from which it was built.

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Nobody knows how many earthen buildings exist in Algeria, which is one of the reasons Terki’s work is so important. She is trying to establish a record and hopes that eventually settlements like this one in Kerzaz, a town in Béchar Province, will become a source of national pride and tourism revenue.

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While building with earth is not fundamentally difficult, there are techniques that stabilize the material to ensure safe and durable construction.

It’s a strategy she describes, while puffing on a cigarette, as multipronged, beginning with workshops that reacquaint anyone who’s interested in methods for stabilizing and building with earth, including weekly sessions for local youth. Additionally, they provide technical help for both private and public earth construction projects, either to build anew or rehabilitate existing structures, and Terki is working with other ministries to secure legal protection for historically significant architecture.

Yet, considerable challenges remain. Capterre has a team of 50, but only seven are architects and none have vernacular training. Plus, Terki is going up against major cement suppliers like LafargeHolcim Algeria.

Serge Dubois, the company’s public affairs and communications director, says it has a huge market locally — doing business to the tune of nearly 22 million tons of cement every year. While LafargeHolcim is working with Capterre to produce a stabilized earth concrete that respects Timimoun’s energy and aesthetic requirements, Terki bemoans the pervasive industrial building model that strips people of their cultural identity and self-sufficiency.

She believes that circumstances (such as climate change) will eventually force a natural return to earth building. And when that happens, it’s critical that sufficient numbers have the wherewithal to build safe and durable homes. To that end, she’s trying to expand the practical skill sets of architects and engineers, so Capterre and CRAterre collaborated on a three-year training program — currently in its first year — offered to 12 professionals. Between the hundreds who’ve benefited from Capterre’s ongoing workshops and the Archi’terre festival Terki started in 2012 to unite international earth-building enthusiasts, she’s pleased to see an uptick in interest from students and the general public. Especially pleased, perhaps, since she almost didn’t become an architect.

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Children learn how to build with earth at Terki’s Archi’terre festival.

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Moughel is located in western Algeria close to the border with Morocco, 600 km from Timimoun, where Terki is based. Earthen buildings such as these are better suited than concrete to harsh desert environments, keeping homes cool without the need for air-conditioning.

One of four children, Terki was raised by a law professor father and a mother who worked as a gynecologist and teacher. After high school, Terki failed the entrance exams for the architecture program she wanted, so she traveled to France with her father to study law in Lyon. She hated it and returned home — to a mother so disappointed they didn’t speak for five months. Eventually, however, Terki passed her architecture exams, and she’s never looked back.

Looking ahead, she’s working with students to restore a major earth home in the historic center of Timimoun to show the absurdity of squandering government funds to replace aging earth homes with concrete — because some people think that earthen structures will “melt in the rain” and that using concrete is the modern way.

It’s a short-sighted view she’s doing her best to change — by convincing others that “what we now see as traditional was once considered ultra modern.”

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