Benito Steen's video, "Building with Mud: A Continuum" Looks Good Enough To Eat

Posted by Leslie Jackson on June 28, 2018
Benito Steen's video,
Benito Steens video, cover Image, Building with Earth: A Continuum.


There are lots of videos about Natural Building. Sublime dialogue-free ones with just music; a favorite of mine shows step-by-step construction of a timber frame build in Finland with no dialogue, just great music, the photography is expertly done and clear. It begins with horses skidding freshly felled trees in a snow-carpeted forest to the building site. Hand-tools only, this film shows beautiful hatchets and axes, and the textures of slices of wood dancing off a well-handled axe blade. It is hard to film mud, though. Let's just say it isn't that photogenic, until the finished product shows a beautiful plaster and sculptural shapes. What you often get in live earth building is the backs of people as they face the wall, sculpting it, and the shadowy, featureless forms of dark wet mud, though the people look like they are having fun.


Benito Steen nails it with this one, Building with Mud: A Continuum. Lacking dialogue, with great music, and nice titles, it takes you through several recipes for building with earth, each recipe building on the last one.



Earthen building, vernacular building, ("edible building," as Whole Earth editor, the late Jay Baldwin called it), is practiced by half of the world's people. When I was learning it 20 years ago, I quickly realized it's a lot like Mexican food. You have a tortilla, you have rice, beans, fresh vegetables, cheese, and salsa. And your dish is defined more by what combination of these things are in it: The burrito, the taco, the chimichanga, flautas, tostada ... Earthen building also uses different combinations of the same ingredients: earth, sand, a fiber, and water. That's what this video illustrates, (while handing over, for free, some valuable recipes).


The video is directed by Benito Steen, whose parents run a center in the southwest, called the Canelo Project. He grew up steeped in a celebration of vernacular building and a riot of natural pigments, wall surfaces with texture, and high-art experimentation everywhere, all out of natural materials. You can go there and learn.


In Benito's video, as materials are added—clay, sand, and water—a simplicity slowly and beautifully unfolds. Start with a recipe, change a proportion, and you go from rammed earth to sculptural free-form cob, to adobe brick, to base coat plaster, to straw-clay block and straw-clay infill. The point is easily made, but to skirt oversimplification, Benito clarifies in the SHOW MORE section of YouTube, that


"There are many ways to do all these building methods and people who specialize in them. This is just to show the difference between some of the methods and how little difference there is in the mix."

It's delightful to see this illustration of the pattern language of clay from someone whose feet and hands are daily in the material, with outstanding results.


One of the things to love about building with earthen materials is that no ingredients have warning labels. No ingredients are off the shelf at a big box building supply, nor came over in a shipping container from somewhere far away. A few ingredients should not be inhaled in small particles (straw, silica, mica, and other fine sands). Have a respirator. No ingredients should be eaten (this is not to say they haven't been. I won't mention any names, young Benito on the workshop site!), but after watching this video, you'll wish you could.


More Info. 

See the recipes on the video's You Tube page under Show More.



Director, actor: Benito Steen
Videographer and graphic designer: Kalin Steen
Graphic design text layout editing: Athena Steen.

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