In Yemen, there's a city full of 500 year old skyscrapers made of mud

Shibam, Yemen's "mudbrick Manhattan". Image: Jialiang Gao/peace-on-earth.org/Wikimedia Commons.

Deep in Yemen’s most remote valley lies the city of Shibam. Surrounded by palm groves, and flanked by the steep cliffs leading up to the Yemeni highland on both sides, the city of 2,000 inhabitants hardly seems impressive. Just a handful of high-rise residential buildings, not so different from the Soviet-style blocks found across the Arab world.

Yet  these buildings don’t date from the 20th century, or even the late 19th century. They were built almost five centuries ago, and have remained largely unchanged since.


On a dustless day, the white finish of its walls can be seen from miles away. The city, one of the few to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in its entirety, appears to rise from the plains. Its 500 houses reach an astounding 100 feet in height, almost as high as Chicago’s  first skyscrapers. Perhaps most remarkable of all is the fact that the city was built using nothing but mud.

From a historical point of view, this is an incredible piece of engineering. But does the city also hold the key to a more sustainable architecture? Salma Damluji, the world’s foremost expert on Arabia’s traditional architecture, thinks the city’s use of mudbrick – bricks that have been dried in the sun rather than fired – is a key technique developed to cope with challenges posed by the harsh climate.

A close up of the "skyscrapers". Image: Aiman Titi/Wikimedia Commons.

Mudbrick has a higher heat capacity and lower conductivity than concrete, which means it slows the rate at which the temperature within the building changes. It’s also cheap to produce - labour costs are the only real costs involved - and it’s eco-friendly. Not only does the production of sun-dried bricks involve no polluting emissions, the bricks are also reusable.

And, unlike fired bricks, the physical structure of dried bricks does not change during the drying process. Without its white protective layer, a wet brick simply becomes mud.

In Shibam, climatic considerations manifest themselves in more than just the building material. Wooden windows provide privacy, refract glare and promote air circulation with their low placement, and small ventilation holes near the ceiling. Narrow streets and open plazas further enhance this air circulation on a city level. Thus, the architecture of Shibam reveals a complete approach to urban planning, fine-tuned to the city’s climate and social structure.


Although Shibam’s skyline probably forms its pinnacle, mudbrick architecture is widespread in the Middle East. One of its greatest champions was the Egyptian architect and intellectual Hassan Fathy (1900 – 1989), whose architectural philosophy took great inspiration from the socialist politics of Egypt’s anti-colonial hero: Gamal Abdel Nasser.

James Steele, in his biography of the architect, writes that, “On the one hand, Fathy respected and admired European traditions, while on the other hand he resented them as part of a colonial legacy that had threatened Egypt’s identity.”

Spurred on by discomfort with European models of architecture and urban planning, Fathy researched a wide range of architectural traditions native to Egypt. Though he was greatly impressed by both Pharaonic and Islamic monumental architecture, he was more directly influenced by the vernacular architecture of rural Nubia, an area covering the south of Egypt and the north of Sudan.

It was in Nubia where he first encountered mudbrick. “Once convinced of the long history, durability and cultural applicability of mudbrick, as well as its low cost and environmental advantages,” Steele writes, “Fathy saw no reason why it should not be used on a wider scale.”

Towards the end of his life, he was widely recognised for his development of an architectural philosophy that integrated modern technology with the demands of local culture and nature, winning the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1980.

And yet it appears that his work failed to make a lasting impact on architecture in the Middle East. No large scale projects involving traditional building methods exist, and even Shibam is under threat.

While decades of political instability and the current war between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed government forces have largely passed by the remote valley, Shibam’s architecture has been in decline since the nationalisation of many of its buildings. Although the buildings are rented out to their original owners, a lack of ownership has made their inhabitants reluctant to invest in the considerable maintenance costs. Without regular maintenance, crucial experience with traditional building methods risks being lost forever.

In close up. Image: Jialiang Gao/peace-on-earth.org/Wikimedia Commons.

And local tradition is crucial. When Oxfordshire organic farmers Lutfi and Ruby Radwan, inspired by the mud brick architecture of Saudi Arabia and Senegal, built Willowbrook Farm, they decided to use similarly eco-friendly methods. However, Britain’s climate is, unsurprisingly, not quite dry enough for sundried bricks.

“Instead, we built using the traditional British method of mixing the cob and building up directly in a continuous lump,” Lutfi says. “We admire Hassan Fathy’s work, but it didn’t influence us greatly. More importantly I had visited a number of mud buildings in Britain to see how local issues were dealt with.”

“Mudbrick architecture is more sustainable and cheaper if one factors in the environmental costs,” he continues. “Materials and labour can usually be sourced locally, so it benefits a local economy rather than relying on inputs from outside, which also affects energy costs involved in transportation.

"Plus, its environmental impact is minimal. These traditional methods are certainly a viable alternative to less environmentally sustainable modern methods.”

Sustainable, local architecture. With a shortage of 3.5m affordable homes reported in the Middle East and North Africa, perhaps an affordable, durable and eco-friendly solution lies in the traditions of a forgotten Yemeni valley.

 
 
 
 

Canada’s gay neighbourhoods are struggling. Can queer pop-ups plug the gap?

Vancouver. Image: Getty.

Queer life was highly visible in Western Canada last year. In May, Vancouver declared 2018 the “Year of the Queer,” celebrating decades of service that the city’s cultural organisations have provided for lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, queer and two-spirit (LGBTQ/2S) people across the region.

Yet 2018 also saw the loss of multiple queer venues and gay bars. While economic forces, such as rapacious gentrification are part of the story and struggle, our research shows that something creative and generative is happening in the city as well.

In the face of changing urban landscapes, economic hardships, and more straights moving into historically gay neighbourhoods, queer pop-ups — ephemeral gathering spaces whose impact lingers among revellers long after the night is over — now play a large role in the fight for LGBTQ/2S equality.

Scattered gay places became neighbourhoods

Queer life germinated in “scattered gay places” across cities in North America from the late 1800s to the Second World War. Inside cabarets, bars, theatres or outside in public parks, washrooms and city streets, queers found spaces which could hold and celebrate transgressive sexual connections while also providing respite from daily experiences of discrimination and social exclusion.

After the Second World War, scattered gay places congealed into permanent gay bars and residential “gaybourhoods” in a period anthropologist Kath Weston calls “the great gay migration.” Queer people flocked to urban centres and sexual subcultures flourished in cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Toronto.

The formation of queer community spaces has always been controversial. Cultural and legal backlashes marred early developments. A host of laws and regulations tried to suppress and contain homosexuality in North America by limiting its presence in the public sphere.

These measures resulted in frequent hostilities, police raids and violence. Queers congregated together not just to find love or community, but to protect themselves, to protect one another and to find refuge. Pride parades, now celebrated worldwide, commemorate these early turf wars.

Pop-ups revitalise queer spaces

Researchers have written a great deal on the cultural and political importance of gay districts in urban centres, and they have grappled with concerns that these areas, along with the establishments they house, are fading.

But innovative urban forms challenge arguments about the death and demise of queer spaces in the city. Our research suggests that queer pop-ups, or temporary cultural gathering spaces, cater to diverse and often marginalised queers.

Some gaybourhoods are dwindling in their residential concentration and gay bars are dropping like flies. But new queer place-making efforts are emerging.

Two of the authors at the queer pop-up in 2018 at East Side Studios in Vancouver. Ryan is on the far left, back row, Adriana is on the far right of the back row. Image: author provided.

Unlike gaybourhoods and gay bars, pop-ups are intentional in how they address persistent, intersectional forms of inequality. Queer pop-ups offer patrons a space to explore non-binary forms of gender and sexual identities, and especially a place to experience collective effervescence among queer people of colour, and femme lesbians.

Some pop-ups create environments that are explicitly trans-inclusive, consent-focused, and sex-positive. Pop-ups are not panaceas for queer life. Pop-ups can also be places where issues around socioeconomic status, gender identity and expression, and racial inequality are called out.

Yet these spaces directly and indirectly encourage dialogue on inequalities within the queer community, conversations that help produce safer spaces for marginalised queers to find each other and forge enduring queer consciousnesses.

Turf wars

Queer pop-ups show similar trajectories of infighting and compromise that the LGBT social movement encountered from the late 1970s through the early 2000s when trying to forge a collective consciousness, gain social visibility and win legal rights.

These turf wars, expressed as contests over space and inclusion, are generally sparked over three perennial concerns: privilege, race and gender. One interviewee, a 20-year-old self-identified queer, trans person of colour (QTPoC), who spoke about Vancouver’s gay district told us:

“I tend to avoid the gay bars on Davie [because] a lot of the gay bars there have now been taken over by cis-gender, heterosexual people. I’ve [also] heard from a lot of QTPoC friends that they are often uncomfortable going to gay bars on Davie, because it’s usually very dominated by cis-gender, white gay men.”

A 28-year-old white, cisgender, queer male found pop-ups more politically and culturally radical than gay bars. He put it this way:

“It’s very rare that we’ll ever have a conversation about politics [in gay bars]. It’s just about partying and things that we kind of see as very stereotypical portrayals of gay culture: like going out, dancing, drinking, fucking.”

Historically, gaybourhoods have served an important role in the fight for LGBT rights, but they have also developed to cater to a specific cis-gender, white, middle-class, male sensibility. One 30-year-old, white, trans DJ put it bluntly, “the mainstream scene is just not welcoming to trans people, in my experience,” adding that verbal transphobic harassment is common in the streets of Vancouver’s gaybourhood.

At Vancouver Pride this year we were reminded of this schism at a local pop-up event. “Gay men won’t come here, it’s too trashy,” shouted a white Australian lesbian playfully to friends over loud music. We were at Eastside Studios, a large warehouse turned into the newest collaborative queer venue in Vancouver.


The comment was striking because it highlights the visible bifurcation occurring in queer life and queer consumption in Vancouver. Many gay men tend to patronise businesses and events in the West End, Vancouver’s official gaybourhood; whereas, other members of the LGBTQ community are scattered across the city at events and venues that are far less permanent. Eastside Studios attempts to break through the homonormative bent some gay bars perpetuate. It is a space that generously houses some of the struggling pop up events who lost space to gentrification in Vancouver’s out of control rental market.

Historically, pop-ups arose as the first signs of urban sexual transgression. They continue to emerge as spatial innovations which nurture transgressive queer diversities that do not have space or representation in the gaybourhood. Weekly social media blasts via Facebook or Instagram and word-of-mouth dissemination play an important role in linking queers around the city to these events. Pop-ups take different tones and establish different vibes among patrons. Collectively, pop-ups highlight the many important projects local queers are undertaking to increase the plurality of what queer life looks like and how it is expressed.

Struggles for equality

Marriage is the leading story in many headlines these days, but queer struggles for equality were never only about relationship recognition or acceptance into the mainstream.

Queer struggles are also fights to resist oppressive normativity, to end racial inequality and white supremacy, to end sexualised violence, to reconcile generational traumas associated with colonialism.

Continuing these fights is perhaps what makes queer pop-ups unique. Organisers of these events are intentional and responsive to such concerns. They seek to create new worlds that soften the impact of inequalities, both in gaybourhoods and in other parts of Canadian cities as well.

Pop-ups nourish queer lives; they emerge as temporary meeting grounds where diverse, oftentimes marginalised, queers flock for community and collective, momentary release. Here an image from a Man Up pop-up event in Vancouver. Image: Shot by Steph/Facebook/The Conversation.

Many of these spaces are an opportunity for patrons to travel in a re-imagined world, even if only for the night. While not all pop-ups that appear survive, the ones that do matter, fundamentally, because they create spaces that resist heteronormative culture and homonormativity, address intersecting inequalities, assert and anchor queer cultural and political identities, and promote well-being for a wider portion of the community in ways that gaybourhoods used to and have always had the potential to.

Pop-ups nourish queer lives in ways that gaybourhoods and gay bars historically had. They emerge as temporary meeting grounds where diverse, oftentimes marginalised, queers flock for community and collective, momentary release. They allow patrons to dance and comfortably explore the implications of their gender and sexual identities around like-minded individuals. At times they are more than friendly social gatherings, becoming sites where the moral arch of the community is shaped through demonstrations on urgent issues impacting queer lives and the surrounding community.

Queer pop-ups are vibrant locations that work to push forward the unfinished projects of social justice first envisioned during gay liberation.

The Conversation

Ryan Stillwagon, Ph.D. Student, Sociology, University of British Columbia; Adriana Brodyn, Ph.D. Candidate, University of British Columbia; Amin Ghaziani, Associate Professor of Sociology and Canada Research Chair in Sexuality and Urban Studies, University of British Columbia, and D. Kyle Sutherland, PhD Student, Department of Sociology, University of British Columbia.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.