Somers Clarke: a Pioneer of Mud Brick Architecture in Egypt
(By Dr. Nicholas Warner)
Somers Clarke (1841-1926) was an English architect best known for his construction and restoration of churches in Britain and his adherence to the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement. It is less well known, however, that Clarke lived a parallel life in Egypt from 1890 until his death in 1926, working as an archaeologist and constructing a number of buildings of significance there: among them the first major work by an architect using mud brick. Clarke’s historical interests are underscored by the fact that, from 1881, he was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in London and, from 1902, an honorary member of the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l’Art Arabe.
It was his deep knowledge and appreciation of the architectural history of Egypt, extending back to the Pharaonic period, that informed his building activities. This knowledge was manifest in two important publications.
The first, entitled Ancient Egyptian Masonry, the Building Craft, was published posthumously in 1930, and remains one of the standard references for the study of ancient Egyptian architecture. Even its title provides clear evidence of the author’s preference for construction technology rather than art history.
The second publication was Christian Antiquities in the Nile Valley, which appeared in 1912. For the purposes of understanding his approach to building with traditional forms and materials this book may be considered the more significant of the two. In it Clarke established a typology of designs for Coptic churches, including the plan of a type of Coptic church which is only to be found between Aswan and Cairo. The plan is for a multi-aisled, single-storey, building based on a square domed module capable of easy multiplication. Of this variety of church, Clarke observed:
from the first they were built entirely of rough masonry and brick, always roofed with small domes, wood has not played any part in their construction. A hemispherical dome is supported on a square cell, bounded by four walls, or, where a number of these domes are collected together, they are supported on four arches, each cell opening into the other. Where the arches meet they stand on a column or pier. The domes and cells being all of the same size we arrive at a very picturesque interior, low, with many columns, and lighted from above. The building is capable of extension indefinitely in any direction.
The simplicity of the method of construction of these churches, and the use of multiple domes supported by pointed arches and piers to create a ‘picturesque’ interior clearly made a major impact on Clarke, who was subsequently to emulate the design directly in his own architecture. It is visible in the first commission Clarke received in Egypt: the design for St. Mark’s Church at Aswan.
Construction of this building took place between 1899 and 1901 on a site to the northeast of the Cataract Hotel. The church was demolished in the 1980s to make way for the present Coptic Cathedral of Aswan. Surviving photographs of the interior show the design to have been a clear reflection of the multiple-aisled plan described above. The church had four aisles, or naves, each with five shallow pendentive domes made of fired brick plastered with lime and painted white and supported on columns of local sandstone. The relatively simple architecture of St. Mark’s Church was to be further stripped of ornament in Clarke’s next project for his own house which also employed a more humble material: mud brick.
Clarke decided to settle semi-permanently in Egypt in 1902, and four years later started to build a home there. He chose mud brick as his primary construction material because of its long history of use in Egypt, the undeniable environmental benefits it conferred, and its low cost. Clarke enumerated the advantages of mud brick and the disadvantages of timber construction in his seminal article on the subject, “The Use of Mud-Brick in Egypt” which appeared in The Cairo Scientific Journal of 1908:
Nature has provided a blazing sun which quickly dries and hardens the mud, and permits it to be made use of as a very tolerable building material, in a land where rain is not to be feared. Unfortunately, the craze for novelty for novelty’s sake has invaded Egypt. Things are sought for, not because they are sensible, suited to the climate, or reasonable in themselves, but simply because they are novelties. This has been especially the case as regards building. The old type of house, so well suited to the exigencies of the climate, gives way to the most ridiculous, bastard Europeanisms.
Clarke’s article, aside from its passages praising the environmental and moral superiority of earth architecture, contains the first detailed ethnographic description to appear in print of the methods used to create elliptical vaults, domes, and pointed arches with mud brick. All the processes involved are clearly documented, from collecting and transporting the mud, to moulding, drying, and stacking the bricks, to traditional methods of setting out and sequences of construction. The article is accompanied by a number of explanatory line drawings, some of which later re-appeared in Christian Antiquities in a section devoted to mud brick construction. An illustrated record of the making of bricks and building walls, arches, and vaults, with the addition of a photograph showing the bricks being made, also occurs in Ancient Egyptian Masonry.
At the end of his article, Clarke includes a brief explanation, again illustrated, of a standard modular design he had created for a railway station: a simple building made with four pendentive domes of five metres in diameter supported by ten piers, arranged in a single line and capable of extension with additional modules. The design provided an office for the stationmaster, a room for the weighing machine, and a shelter for waiting passengers. At least three such station buildings were constructed on the Upper Egyptian line between Luxor and Aswan: at Edfu, Silsila, and Kom Ombo. Those at Silsila and Kom Ombo survived until the end of the 20th century.
Prior to the construction of his house, Clarke experimented with what to him would have been an unfamiliar building material. In 1895-96, contemporary with his archaeological excavations at Elkab some 15 kilometres north of Edfu on the east bank of the Nile, he built an expedition house near the site: first a room with an elliptical inclined vault and next a room with a dome. The notes and sketches Clarke made during the construction, now archived in the Society of Antiquaries in London, served him well, for they were the basis for all his later published descriptions of mud brick techniques.
For the construction of his own house in 1906, Clarke also chose a site close to the ruins of Elkab, on the grounds that it was only in locations such as this that “things remained primitive and traditional”. It was here that he chose to be buried upon his death in 1926, in a modest mud brick grave next to his house. Since 1937 the Belgian archaeological mission working at Elkab has occupied the house on a seasonal basis and it still stands to this day.
The house was entirely formed of mud brick domes constructed without formwork. In its final manifestation, it had 27 domes, most of which stood six metres high, and occupied a built area of 1,000 square metres including external terraces.
No notes, design sketches or construction drawings have survived. Although evidence of the construction process is scant, it is a certainty that Clarke employed local masons on the project who are seen in the only archival photograph to survive showing the construction of two of the domes over the entrance portico of the house.
The house was built on a rocky promontory on the east bank of the Nile, today set back approximately thirty metres from the river. At the time when it was constructed, the land adjacent to the river was still subject to a partial annual inundation of the Nile, and so the choice of a site sufficiently elevated to avoid flooding was of vital importance. Although the house was set out at right angles to the Nile, it commanded a bend in the river with clear sightlines both up and downstream for a considerable distance.
The house has three distinct yet linked sections:
- At the centre, occupying the highest part of the terrain, are the main residential and living quarters with an entrance portico to the north.
- On the lower ground to the east, connected to the main building by a vaulted corridor, is a service block and courtyard. These two parts of the house were the first to be constructed.
- The third component to be built, between 1909 and 1912, lies to the west of the central block. It consists of a single large space that is built up on a dramatic buttressed podium close to, and overlooking, the river.
This became Clarke’s master bedroom. All three sections of the house share the same construction vocabulary: mud brick masonry, plastered with mud, set on a limestone rubble and mud mortar foundation and plinth. The mud bricks and mud plaster have a minimal amount of chaff temper, and are made of Nile silt rather than the more sandy earth of the surrounding hills. They are of extremely small dimensions (20 x 10 x 4 centimetres for wall bricks and 28 x 15 x 3 centimetres for vault bricks), reflecting the local usage of the time.
The north façade of the main block is symmetrical. The projecting entrance is located on axis, fronted by a portico of five domes supported on piers and pointed arches.
Some elements disturb the symmetry of the composition, if not its overall monumentality: notably a terrace on the west side of the portico, the descending vault of the corridor leading to the service quarters to the east, and the curving ramp and stair that lead up to the entrance portico.
This ramp and stair originate near the river, which would have been the principal point of arrival when the house was built. Placing the entrance portico on the north ensured that this side of the building is kept as cool as possible: the prevailing breeze from the northwest is further cooled by the shade of the portico before entering the main building.
One curiosity of the construction of the portico is the heavy mud brick buttressing of the piers on the northern side. The buttresses must have been part of the original design, as the piers on their own would never have been able to withstand the lateral thrust of the domes and arches that make up this space. The voids behind the spherical pendentives of each dome were filled with large earthenware jars (placed upside down) in order to reduce the overall weight of the roof structure and, at the same time, increase its thermal insulation capacity. It is almost certain that all of the domes under the flat roof of the house were constructed in an analogous manner.
The expressive domes and pointed arches of the portico serve as an introduction to the vaulted architecture of the interior of the house that is elsewhere concealed on the exterior. Entering through a massive panelled wooden door with a pointed arch fanlight above it, the visitor climbs three steps under a barrel-vaulted outer vestibule to arrive in an inner vestibule. This is a square space in plan, topped by a high semi-circular dome resting on a raised octagonal drum with arched windows. The transition of the dome from square to circle is achieved by means of simple arched squinches.
Flanking the central axis are shallow pointed-arched recesses (iwans) with benches beneath them. The next space sequentially is also crowned by a dome similar to that over the vestibule, but taller. The shift from the vestibule and the interior of the house is further expressed through changes in material and lighting conditions: the vestibule has a mud plaster finish that gives way marks the centre of a cross-axis that runs east-west through the house that is essentially an access corridor which would otherwise receive no direct natural light or ventilation.
The remaining domes and arches over this corridor match the others in the house in terms of their scale: consistency of construction takes precedence over spatial hierarchy here and elsewhere in the building. The corridor provides access to not only the main living spaces of the house, which are approached by double doors on the central north-south axis, but also to the main bedrooms and service spaces.
The main living areas of the house lie on the south side of the building, and considerable effort was expended in order to protect them from the full force of the sun by screening them with terraces that are covered with barrel vaults. The continuation of the central axis from the entrance portico is here resolved in a balcony with a fine panorama of the Nile. The main living area of the house occupies four dome modules in plan, with pointed-arched extensions on the exterior side to the east and west. In the main section of the house a total of four bedrooms open off the circulation corridor, three of which occupy double dome modules and the other a module of one and a half. A fifth, single module bedroom is accessed from an intermediate space to the northeast of the corridor.
For one who is reported to have lived like a hermit, Clarke certainly built on a grand scale. His own master bedroom suite, added in the second phase of construction to the west of the main block and directly overlooking the Nile, is the largest space in the house. Supported by a massive stone rubble platform, it has a five-metre diameter central dome with spherical pendentives flanked on four sides by pointed arched recesses (iwans). The dome is top lit by four small circular oculi. A special treatment is reserved for the external facades to the south and west that would have borne the brunt of the force of the sun. Here, Clarke constructed screen walls, with large pointed arched openings within them, some sixty centimetres away from the faces of the main block. The space between the two walls is covered thus simultaneously shade the main structure and provide an updraft of cool air immediately in front of the window openings in these façades: an effective form of natural airconditioning.
The service spaces of the house are all located on its north flank. The bathroom, toilet, and stair to the roof are accessed from a small corridor running east-west as an extension of the main circulation corridor. A ramped, barrel-vaulted, corridor connects the main house to a servant block on the east side, housed within a cluster of four domes. The roof terrace has, at its centre, the superstructure of the two lantern domes over the entry vestibule and corridor, crowned by inverted pottery vessels.
Clarke’s house remains the clearest example of the adaptation of the infinitely extendable modular plan that he saw in Coptic churches to a domestic environment. In his writings about mud brick construction and in his practical application of the techniques he observed in the traditional architecture of Upper Egypt, he was an obvious, if unacknowledged precursor, of Hassan Fathy.
Although Fathy himself seems to have been unaware of Clarke’s pioneering experiments with mud brick, other foreigners working in Luxor were quick to follow his example primarily motivated, one suspects, by the low cost of the materials required. The archaeologist Howard Carter – a friend of Clarke – built an expedition house on the West Bank in 1911 in mud brick, as did William Palmer-Jones, architect of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Expedition House at Deir el-Bahri in 1911/12.
Even the first Chicago House, home of the Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, used mud brick for their centre, built in front of Gurna in 1925.
None of these structures, however, rivalled the sophistication of the architecture seen in Clarke’s house, which can almost be interpreted as the first built manifesto for mud brick architecture in Egypt.
For a fuller account of Clarke’s activities in Egypt see Nicholas Warner, ‘Reviving Traditions in Egyptian Architecture: from Somers Clarke to Hassan Fathy’ in Leïla el-Wakil (ed.), Hassan Fathy dans son temps, Infolio / Gollion (forthcoming 2012).
The Clarke House at Elkab is under restoration at the time of writing: financial support is welcome and enquiries should be addressed to the author at email@example.com.
This article appeared as: ‘Somers Clarke: a pioneer of mud brick architecture in Egypt’ in: Serge Santelli (ed.), Hassan Fathy: une ambition Égyptienne, Cairo: Institut Français d’Egypte 2011, pp.1-11.
Article and images reproduced, courtesy of Dr. N.J. Warner (American University in Cairo) and Dr. Dirk Huyge (Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels)
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