‘Mud Manifesto’ Offers Example of Sustainable Building

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Photo by Ellen Sanchez '13 and Jeewon Kim '13

On October 4th, Massey Burke ’00 presented her Mud Manifesto to an audience seated mere steps from Swat’s newest experiment in sustainability, an earthen wall built from all natural materials. Her message? “Natural building, among other tools, has the power to turn the boat around in our culture.”

Designed by students enrolled in Professor Syd Carpenter’s “The Container in Architecture” class, the wall is an exploration into the uses of clay, sustainable design, and collaboration. Taking the properties of clay from a smaller object, like a mug or a vase, and trying to replicate those same properties in designing a larger structure  was one of the core objectives for the six students studying under Carpenter. They spent the first half of the semester designing the wall and making sketches. Construction with Burke began a few weeks ago.

The project, slated for completion on October 7th, is especially relevant in today’s context, according to Carpenter. Its existence is preceded by a push to increase interest in architecture across the disciplines here at Swarthmore, as well as conversations on strategic planning on campus and the global issue of sustainability.

Beyond its model of sustainability, Carpenter noted the project’s exploration of natural building as an artistic medium. “[The wall] takes on the space around it… it’s having a conversation with the Science Center, with Beardsley,” Carpenter said.

Burke, a Classics major who also dabbled in the art program while at Swarthmore, began exploring natural architecture eight years ago, after studying at the Solar Living Institute in California. For her, sustainable building began as a personal exploration into answering the question of how to live well comfortably. Noting the tendency to define good living by don’ts instead of do’s, she was drawn to the positivity surrounding a new sustainable building project, and also appreciated the integration of creativity into a green lifestyle. “I need beauty that’s not coming at the cost of someone else,” said Burke.

Burke’s pursuit of natural building has led her across the globe, introducing her to the traditions of various cultures for whom the technique is anything but new. From Greece to India to the Himalayas, she has engaged in what she sees as a positive cultural exchange, one of the few left between industrialized and non- industrialized nations. “People are losing confidence in their own techniques,” said Burke. “When they watch wealthy Americans take interest in what they do, it reverses that cultural erosion… it re-legitimizes it for them.”

On a smaller scale here at Swarthmore, the wall aids in transcending divisions between disciplines. From artists to engineers to biologists, students from across the academic spectrum have displayed interest in the project and stopped to lend a hand in its construction. It’s not daunting to jump in, in Burke’s opinion: “You can put a very small amount of mud on the wall or a large amount of mud on the wall.”

Burke, in addition to teaching at the University of San Francisco and Santa Clara University, conducts workshops across the country and has been in collaboration with Builders without Borders. She also established Vertical Clay, a natural building company and school based in East Bay, California.


  1. “a positive cultural exchange, one of the few left between industrialized and non- industrialized nations

    Don’t know whether this is the artist or the author’s thought but either way—are you serious? Are we serious? Am I serious? This art raises a lot of serious questions. I think it’s problematic.

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