'I can rebuild city with mud and barbed wire,' says architect

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The Independent Online

Most experts are suggesting that if Bam is to be rebuilt, the mud-brick construction that made the Iranian city unique should be replaced by more modern methods. But Nader Khalili disagrees.

The Iranian-born architect, now based in California, believes his "super-adobe" building technique is the answer. "Give me 1,000 soldiers and 100 students of architecture and we will rebuild Bam," he told The Independent on Sunday.

Mr Khalili's method, developed from his early studies of traditional architecture in his home country, involves filling sandbags with a mixture of cement and adobe (another word for mud), and connecting them with barbed wire for reinforcement.

Not only is it far cheaper than other techniques, with adobe plastering a reconstructed Bam would look indistinguishable from the original. In comparison with Bam's purely mud-brick buildings, 90 per cent of which quickly collapsed in last week's quake, Mr Khalili's designs have been judged by independent laboratories in America to be strong enough to withstand a pull of 27,000lb - equivalent to a concrete-filled truck dangling off a cliff. They have been approved by building authorities in California as safe for the state's earthquake zone.

Mr Khalili used to have an architectural practice in Tehran and Los Angeles, but sold it before the Iranian revolution to concentrate on building with earth. From his Cal-Earth Institute in the Mojave Desert, 50 miles east of Los Angeles, he promotes a technique which he believes could also be used by Nasa for constructing bases on Mars or the Moon.

The architect knows Bam well, calling it one of the most important historic examples of earth architecture in the world. "Super-adobe", he says, combines the region's traditional use of earth with techniques that enhance resistance to earthquakes.

As plans to reconstruct Bam get under way, his distinctive designs have attracted much interest but no commitments. Mr Khalili is not surprised. He believes his buildings, with their vaults and domes, would be more sensitive to the local environment and are "cheaper than American steel constructions" (a permanent "super-adobe" house can be erected for little more than the price of a tent), but few aid agencies are willing to take them up.

They tend, he says, to take the "quick fix" attitude all too often adopted by authorities in the wake of mass devastation. Having worked for many years in areas frequently stricken by natural disasters, including 11 years in Iran, he is fiercely critical of this "short-sighted" approach.

"It is extremely disheartening to see millions of people suffering while bureaucrats refuse to find better long-term solutions. Will this earthquake be the last big disaster? Of course not. We need to find a new direction instead of quickly putting up buildings in the old haphazard way."

Mr Khalili wants a research centre set up to deal not only with Bam, but also with all the other mud-brick villages in Iran.

"This centre should be separate from the government; an international, open forum that is based on integrating traditional and modern technology, he said. But he admits this is unlikely: "The bureaucracy in Iran is unbreakable. It would be a miracle for any new ideas to get through."