“If the nature of architecture is the grounded, the fixed, the permanent, then textiles are its very antithesis. If, however, we think of the process of building and the process of weaving and compare the work involved, we will find similarities despite the vast difference in scale.” Anni Albers, On Designing
Textiles and architecture have more in common than we may perceive at first – from their intricate and calculated methods of construction to their function of providing shelter, there are many historical, social, and physical elements that cross paths. Since ancient times, humans have used weaving techniques and woven materials to build architectural structures. The use of such woven techniques for building can be found in the Ma’dan’s Qasab Reed Floating Islands, located in the Southern Wetlands of Iraq. The use of ancient technologies, from 4000 BCE, is still used by the Ma’dan people today in this unique location, also “known as Iraq’s Garden of Eden and the Mesopotamian Venice” (1).
Today protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the wetlands are “believed to be the site of the biblical Garden of Eden, referenced in the Bible and the Koran, the site of the Great Flood, and the birthplace of Abraham” (2). Needless to say, this is a sacred land, which is now endangered because of Saddam Hussein’s decision to drain the marshes during his presidency, forcing the Marsh Arabs to flee their homes and migrate. Climate change is also a threat to the Ma’dan people and their floating islands, as they rely on the rivers’ natural flows and construct strictly from natural materials found in the marshes. As such, their floating islands are not only sustainable and in symbiosis with nature, but also extremely beautiful constructions.
All the structures are built without any nails, wood, or glass and are built of dried Qasab reeds in only three days. The reeds are found locally, are inexpensive, and if well maintained, a house can last up to 25 years. The construction process follows the seasons and begins in autumn when the rivers are at the lowest water levels, which is when most of the construction occurs. The reeds are used firstly to attach to the bottom of the river and form a base of woven dried reeds and mud that is the floating island. From there, distinctive structures are built on top of them as the “dried qasab reeds are both strong enough to serve as columns or beams and flexible enough to be woven into mats for walls, roofs, and floors, or fashioned into rope-like elements that structurally bind the buildings” (3). The Mudhifs are the arched-shaped buildings, used as gathering and event spaces, justice centers, and guesthouses for occasional travelers – its form is defined by a series of arches pointed toward Mecca. There are also the higher-status dwellings called Araba and Pise, which are inhabited by sheiks and used as housing for guests too.
Most of the houses have a division in the middle with a screen and there’s an outdoor courtyard where women cook, and girls make embroidered blankets. The house’s entire structure is composed of woven reeds, “the front and back walls are made from woven mats attached to two large vertical reed bundles”, while “the completed framework is then covered with intricately woven split-reed mats, with perforations for light and ventilation” (4). By using different woven patterns and densities they can use the same material for different purposes – a denser weave for the floor and a less dense one for walls and interior divisions. These specific techniques allow the architectural details to be modified to form aesthetically pleasing forms, but most importantly they make the structures sustainable by having natural lighting and ventilation.
These reeds are not just used for construction but are the “cultural keystone species” of the Ma’dan people, meaning it is integral to their lives as a part of their diets, medicines, language, and history. The material as well as the ancient technology is embedded into their culture and is much more sustainable than most of the technology used for modern buildings. The Ma’dan people use two ancient crafts – textiles and architecture – that, “in early stages, they had in common the purpose of providing shelter, one for a settled life, the other for a life of wandering, a nomadic life (5), and they combine them in a unique way, so they live a semi-nomadic life. We may not see as many woven structures being used in constructions today, specially woven with natural materials, but we could definitively use the Ma’dan floating islands as a prime example of building sustainably and combining the textile technologies with architectural ones.
Julia Watson is a designer, activist, academic, and author of the book "Lo-TEK Design by Radical Indigenism", from which we drew inspiration and information to write this post. Check out her work on her website and Instagram page.
Footnotes and Links
"On Designing," Anni Albers
Giovanna Pedrinola is an artist born in São Paulo, Brazil and currently living in New York City. Her most recent mixed media works explore connections between the physical body and the subconscious mind in an attempt to comprehend our existence. This combined with her fascination with ancient traditions, architecture, dance, music, textiles, rituals, and cosmology, generates continuous research currently archived as text and images.