Friendship Centre, Gaibandha, Bangladesh, 2011
© Iwan Baan. courtesy TASCHEN Friendship Centre, Gaibandha, Bangladesh, 2011

A decade ago, Bjarne Mastenbroek, founder and director of the Amsterdam-based firm SeARCH, and Dutch architectural photographer Iwan Baan began work on a study of architecture built in relationship with the Earth's crust. Drawing on Baan's extensive body of work and Mastenbroek's fascination with the connection between architecture and site, the pair has completed Dig it! Building Bound to the Ground (Taschen, 2021), a survey of landscape-bound buildings ranging from ancient places of worship to Gensler's Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice in New York.

courtesy TASCHEN

At nearly 1,390 pages and 6 pounds, Dig it! is organized into six chapters—Bury, Embed, Absorb, Spiral, Carve, and Mimic—and packed with essays, photo essays by Baan, and more than 500 intricate drawings by SeARCH. But, despite its name, the book "is definitely not about underground building," Mastenbroek tells ARCHITECT. "It's about the whole range of possibilities as long as it is well connected to the rest of the ecosystem we have at the moment."

Below, Mastenbroek shares with ARCHITECT how Dig it! came to life.

ARCHITECT: You and Iwan Baan began work on Dig it! a decade ago. What did you set out to create and how did you begin?

Bjarne Mastenbroek: We took off from a few different perspectives. It was, first of all, a history. Second of all, it was to our surprise that there is so little written about architecture and its connection to the Earth, the way it is unmovable and stuck to its place. I'm literally talking about the connection between the building and the land it sits on. There are many books about landscaping, but they're not about this intertwining of building and the crust of the Earth.

I wanted to investigate where architecture can help us in the most basic primal form, what it can do to us, because the clumsiness and the primal simplicity of architecture could be a solution for many problems in the world. Now,with architecture, with building, we could maybe solve some environmental problems. For example, we can store CO2 with buildings, but and we cannot store CO2 with transportation or fashion. But we can in wood structures, etc.. But the other thing is when building, we could reconstruct nature. It's like that we can build nature and we should incorporate culture in that. So we could reverse the way we build. If we continue to build the way we do, it will turn sour. If we imagine an architecture that incorporates nature completely within the urban realm, that would help. If we do not do that, it will destroy a lot of what we have now.

Axonometry of Friendship Centre, Gaibandha, Bangladesh, 2011
© SeARCH. courtesy TASCHEN Axonometry of Friendship Centre, Gaibandha, Bangladesh, 2011
courtesy TASCHEN
courtesy TASCHEN
Villa Vals, Vals, Switzerland, SeARCH & CMA, 2005–2009
© Kate Gowan. courtesy TASCHEN Villa Vals, Vals, Switzerland, SeARCH & CMA, 2005–2009
Plan of Villa Vals, Vals, Switzerland, SeARCH and CMA, 2005–2009
© SeARCH. courtesy TASCHEN Plan of Villa Vals, Vals, Switzerland, SeARCH and CMA, 2005–2009

Tell us about your research process and how you selected the case study projects.

First of all, the ones that I could see in my professional life as an architect, I visited, so I could understood what was going on. They made a strong impression on me. It was in part the fascination of Iwan Baan. Although he's seen as a famous architectural photographer, he is not so much interested in architecture. He has a completely different approach toward what building is. All his photos focus on the interaction between people and buildings. You always see street life or how that building is a backdrop for ordinary life. And he takes photos of places on Earth where people have taken it into their own.

The book highlights a number of ancient projects, including the yaodong cave dwellings in the Loess Plateau in China dating to 300 B.C. and a series of stepwells from India, some constructed as early as 1400. What was the importance of including these in the case studies?

We wanted to document them because we were stunned by the lack of drawings of those buildings in contemporary books. We found some drawings from the '70s or '80s, but they're extremely old fashioned and they have limited insight. We also wanted to document [the older projects], whereas with, newer projects in the later chapters like Mimic, we very much wrote the story behind the making of it.

Biete Ghiorgis, Lalibela, Ethiopia, 1100–1200
© Iwan Baan. courtesy TASCHEN Biete Ghiorgis, Lalibela, Ethiopia, 1100–1200
Axonometry of Biete Ghiorgis, Lalibela, Ethiopia, 1100–1200
© SeARCH. courtesy TASCHEN Axonometry of Biete Ghiorgis, Lalibela, Ethiopia, 1100–1200
courtesy TASCHEN

Why do you think it's been so long since these historic projects have been revisited?
In the end, people are more focused on the future and are extremely bad at looking back. It even starts with kids in classes that don't like history. They're fascinated by the new, but not so much by the old. But you need to understand history. Otherwise, you will never be able to be successful in making something new, especially not in the long run. And so for us, like in the Mimic chapter, it was interesting to see that lots of those structures were already built many times, but it was either in warfare or an industry, like in the oil industry, the oil platform, the elevated floor, the floating element. So you could say the examples from industry and warfare were way more interesting.

So some more nature-based building styles have been relegated to industrial and very utilitarian purposes?

Yes. You could say for sea-fort abilities in the water or oil platforms, it's much more nature-based because nature is about extreme necessity. When there is not this necessity, it will die. The strongest will win, etc. If in an intelligent way, we would analyze those and we would look at them and say, "Hey, that is interesting to use." For example, the necessity of densification could bring us back to those projects and then look at it and say, "OK, then we can use that [technique]." If it is a purely artistic form of expression, the main public, or the developer, or the urban planner, or the mayor of the city will never be interested. But if it you turn it around and say, "No, it's not about being paid for that. It could be a solution for your problem," then it will root, and it will become something. That's what you have now with the elevated garden and the elevated street. And then in densification, it is a part of a solution.

courtesy TASCHEN
courtesy TASCHEN

As you conducted your research, did you find any potential benefits natural building techniques that emphasize reconnecting with the Earth's crust?

We need to be careful not to misunderstand reconnecting as being as if it only needs to be natural elements and mimicking or digging. First of all, the solutions are almost unlimited. We can do many things. It's not one solution.

Buildings can even be high-tech. I'm not personally in favor of high-tech buildings, but say a building can be made of concrete. Maybe it's not the best solution, but in part it can be, especially when it is underground or when it is tucked into a hillside because you don't need installations for heating and cooling because it balances temperature very well. OK, fine. We need to understand that incorporating natural phenomena or incorporating the natural world into our buildings, inviting the natural world into the buildings and on top of the buildings, and multiplying levels with green can help us tremendously within more densely populated areas.

The city is completely dependent on the countryside and nature, from areas as remote areas as the Arctic, the Pacific Ocean, or the tundra in Russia or the Amazon in Brazil. All those elements help us live in a city, but the city doesn't help us. Let's say the city doesn't help nature. We need to rebalance. If we are unable to make a city that helps nature, we're gone.

Has researching and writing this book influenced the way you see the role of an architect?

Less and less, I am allowed to design something that I think is good, but more and more, what I need to do is to follow all the rules, the regulations, all the things that are already negotiated between the developer and the city and between the supervisor and the financial institution.

We need to be more stubborn and less a part of the problem. In general, it's the way things go now and being less obedient could be quite a good thing to do. Otherwise, what's next?

courtesy TASCHEN
courtesy TASCHEN
Axonometry of Musée Gallo-Romain, yon, France, Bernard Zehrfuss, 1966–1975
© SeARCH. courtesy TASCHEN Axonometry of Musée Gallo-Romain, yon, France, Bernard Zehrfuss, 1966–1975
courtesy TASCHEN

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Dig it! Building Bound to the Ground ($125) is available from Taschen.