taschen publishes DIG IT!, a STUDY of earth-bound architecture

taschen explores architecture’s relationship with the earth with ‘dig it! building bound to the ground’, a new publication developed by dutch architect and founder of seARCH, bjarne mastenbroek, with images by architectural photographer iwan baan. in dig it!, mastenbroek and baan restore an understanding of the ground as a natural and sustainable resource through their study of earth-bound architecture from the past millennia. the book dissects over 500 case studies, from african churches chiselled in rock, to underground chinese housing, and vibrantly, overgrown parisian housing. its aim is to highlight the eco-conscious practices and green infrastructures that building with the ground nurtures – a necessary practice needed for the future of architecture, the environment and humankind. divided into six chapters —bury, embed, absorb, spiral, carve, mimic—this 1,400-page survey reveals humanity’s connection to the earth through building culture.

we spoke with bjarne mastenbroek to find out more about how ‘dig it!’ started, what strategies architects can implement to reconnect the crust of the earth with architecture, and what readers should take away from the book. read our interview in full below. 

dig it! bjarne mastenbroek on documenting earth-bound architecture in taschen's latest bookfriendship centre, gaibandha, bangladesh, RBANA, 2011
image © iwan baan

header image: stepwells, india © iwan baan

all courtesy of taschen

interview with architect bjarne mastenbroek

designboom (DB): when did you first start working on this research and what drew your interest to it?

bjarne mastenbroek (BM): it has quite a history. the very, very first one is, when I was quite young, I lived in a forest, a quite nice area of holland, spent a lot of time outside and built a lot of underground huts, huts in trees, etc. then I went to high school, and I started to study and during that time, until I left the east of holland, at 18 years old, the area where my parents lived, which was the forest area, became a neighborhood. and we were, my parents and I, we were all astonished at how people not only cleared the forest, they wanted to cut as many trees as possible – my family’s from norway, and they don’t do that, you just try to mitigate between nature and a house – the dutch, what they did, they cleared ir and then they started complaining about the deer and the rabbits, etc. eating their beautiful flowers in the garden, so they fenced it off. and that surprised us all. this sort of, setting yourself apart from that beautiful forest was for us, strange. then I studied, and during my studies, you were, let’s say, led into modernist architecture as a student at that time. especially after the brutalist period, it went back to, let’s say, hardcore modernism. at the end of my studies, I started to think, is this the way to do it? so I went to work for enric miralles, who was much more of an artist-architect, and an amazing man who taught me a lot about spatial qualities and about a different way of designing. then I started in a fairly big firm, I became partner in a big firm with a good friend of mine, dick van gameren, now the dean of the faculty of architecture in delft. we worked very hard, but I wanted to go away from the big firm to started my own, and that’s when I started working on villa vals. and that linked me back to this idea of underground building, this fascination that I had. I was like, I would like to build a house and then we had this steep slope, and I decided I was going to do it there. I’m gonna do this underground idea there.

dig it! bjarne mastenbroek on documenting earth-bound architecture in taschen's latest book
kailasa temple, ellora, india, 756–773 ce. © iwan baan

(BM continues): then this idea came back to me, that we, as architects, or you can say, we as society are, quite often, sort of a party pooper when it comes to nature, natural qualities, even urban qualities, it seems we quite often kill the qualities that are already there. we just sort of trade them for building. and I thought it would be nicer if that could be more of a play-together. I didn’t want to romanticize it, or to make it in some kind of weird architecture that you cannot multiply or use in the city, or in general, to make a better world or to make a better connection with nature, make a greener city, a more relaxed city, better outdoor places. that all deals with this idea of building and landscape. and reading about it, I found out that there’s very little about landscape when it comes to building. there are books about landscape architecture, there are books about how landscape and building connect, but that is quite often talked about in a very different way. so I couldn’t find what I wanted to, a sort of search or research. in the first years while doing that and reading a lot, and trying to find a format for the book, it was very difficult. we found the format for the book with the six chapters and the introductory essay, only after five years. the book was finished two years ago, but then COVID came and it was a long way to really make it. so two years ago we finished, but only five years ago, we had the format. so three years before we finished, two and a half years. and that had to do with the idea of, if you read through history, if you sift through all these projects that came to us, beginning a lot with underground architecture, but later on more also synthetic, modernist, contemporary examples, I found out that we know in general, very little about architecture. so why do we do it this way? and why is architecture in fact, so clumsy? we drive cars now that are so amazingly high tech, whereas 200 years ago, we had horse and carriage. 200 years ago, we had a candlelight or a wood fire. or the way we did surgeries in hospitals, half the people died. newspapers were printed by typesetting letters in a box. nowadays, it’s all so incredibly high tech. if you look at architecture, it almost always links back to what we already did 200, 300, 400 years ago. so the progress in architecture is extremely slow. you could say it’s clumsy. I found out that my idea was, hey, architecture is outpaced by everything else. I have a house from 1620 and it surprises me, but also frustrates me, that that building is built better than what I can build now. so why is the building from 1600 better than what I do now? it’s not like with electricity, or cars or heating.. with building, it goes down, while all the rest goes up. so there is something wrong with building or the understanding of building.  that to me was so surprising.

dig it! bjarne mastenbroek on documenting earth-bound architecture in taschen's latest book
axonometry of kailasa temple, ellora, india, 756–773 CE.© SeARCH

(BM continues): then I found out that when it comes to how we treat nature, religion was extremely toxic. it put us as people above nature, and we subjugated nature, it is tradable, it’s exploitable, at god’s will. that’s how religion talked about nature. it has brought the world to the brink of collapse. and then science came in the last 500 years, and we had a lot of scientific developments. but with science, it was the same, it compromised as well. and science was always used for the benefit of us and not for nature, or whatever. so we acted the same way as what religion did, telling us that we were above nature. so with science, we killed it, with DDT, we killed it with nuclear power, antibiotics, chemicals..so it’s a domination. then finance came, you can say, in the post war era. it was finance that brought a lot of problems even way faster. religion took a few millennia. science took a few 100 years, but with finance it was in the last three generations after WWII, that it wiped out most of the qualities we have in natural life. and that’s through consumption. consumption has killed a lot of natural qualities, and I hate the idea that buildings have become a financial commodity. it’s also about trade. the essence of building is not the human need for protection, for living for eating, gathering, enjoying, relaxing, sleeping. buildings have become part of the greed, the deal, the opportunity..most people see money in a building, they don’t see space. and if you link that all, I thought the essence of architecture has been lost completely. and with the almost apocalyptic ideas of global warming, it seems we live in a very pessimistic time, at the brink of collapse, or sort of, we have to be very careful otherwise everything is going down. you could say that after religion, science, and finance, the idea of the protection of the environment has been treated as a killjoy for the last 30 to 40 years. even greta thunberg nowadays is ridiculed. so something goes wrong there. and the environmental revolution could be our only way out now. I think that’s completely clear. and therefore we need to understand better what we can do with buildings. I think buildings could have a healing quality, they have to have a healing quality in the future. we have to heal the wounds. so how can we realize those two things? how can we do it way better now? and why don’t we understand at all, what the crust of the earth, landscape, and architecture can do together?

dig it! bjarne mastenbroek on documenting earth-bound architecture in taschen's latest book
the minaret al-malwiya, part of the great mosque of samarra, iraq © iwan baan

DB: so what strategies can architects implement to reconnect the crust of the earth, or the landscape, with architecture?

BM: we came up with this timeline after a couple of years of research, this format where we thought, hey, it could be nice to make a format where we sort of detach ourselves from the earth more and more. so we start underground, buried, and then went on with the other strategies, from being completely underground, to being embedded in a hillside, then being on top of nature, then spiralling up and down, then carving out, like a grotto almost of big volumes where we can implement nature inside our buildings. so we invite nature inside instead of bury ourselves underneath. and then the very last moment is, let’s say, mimicking. in densely populated cities it is a quite interesting thing, and that’s what you see nowadays, that buildings become more and more influenced by natural phenomena. so that a building is like a tree, or a building is like a mountain, or it’s floating. so where you mimic nature within your building. and that is, let’s say, from going completely underground to almost floating in the air. and history also tells that either people dug holes, or they protected themselves in grottoes until they started climbing on trees and building little huts. so either going up or down. it was really beautiful to find out that those strategies – bury, embed ,absorb, spiral, carve and mimic – illustrate this timeline in a certain way. we liked it very, very much.