The United States dumps over half a billion tons of construction waste into landfills each year. Imagine if we made every new building from these discarded materials. Or, what if people didn’t have to buy new materials to remodel? They could just use materials from their existing homes. Using the ancient architecture technique of dry stone and cyclopean masonry, innovative architects are taking wisdom from the past to create new structures out of old waste.
The Cannibal’s Cookbook and “Cyclopean Masonry”
The Cannibals Cookbook, an architectural handbook produced by architects at Matter Design, luckily has nothing to do with cannibalism. Well, not in the way you’re probably thinking. The “cookbook” asserts that cities should “cannibalize themselves.” Meaning, as buildings and cities degrade, their materials should be able to be “digested” and reused. The book looks to the ancient technique of cyclopean masonry, “a practice that intelligently consumes the rubble of building stock to provide new structures.”
But what exactly is cyclopean masonry? And where did it get its primordial sounding name? Cyclopean masonry is an age old technique found in ancient civilizations all around the world. Basically, people would take enormous pieces of stone and fit them together without cutting them first or even using any binding material. The technique made walls and fortifications that “reduced the number of joints and thus reduced the walls’ potential weakness.”
Why is it Called “Cyclopean Masonry?
Cyclopean masonry got its name from fables from the ancient Mycenaean Greeks, whose boulder walls “were supposedly constructed by cyclopes, the only creatures strong enough to move such large rocks.” The citadel of Tiryns in Greece has these enormous walls. They range in thickness from approximately 24 feet to as large as 57 feet.
This technique is found all over the world and can be made with smaller rocks as well. You might recognize some such walls in the pastures of the British countryside. Walls made with smaller stones are typically called “dry stone walls.”
Dry Stone Walls
Like cyclopean masonry, the stone masonry technique of dry stone walls has existed for centuries. Dry stone walls first began popping up in the Neolithic age, some 9,000 years ago in 7000 BCE. This invention corresponded with farming communities that began forming in ancient Greece. Some theorize that these farmers developed the dry stone wall technique to keep their animals in pasture as well as differentiate land ownership.
As the centuries passed and new technologies in building developed, dry stone walls remained remarkably the same. This is probably because dry stone walls, even those without mortar or any binding material, are extremely durable. In fact, the oldest surviving dry stone walls in Britain are 3,500 years old and still stand to this day in Scotland. Even older dry stone walls still exist. You can find intact 15th century Incan stone walls in Peru as well as dry stone walls in Malta at the Hagar Qim Temple, which was built between 3,600 and 3,200 BCE.
How Are Dry Stone Walls Built?
Although techniques for building dry stone walls vary by location, they are all built in the same general way. Similar to cyclopean methods, builders carefully collect stones from surrounding hillsides that have the right shape and texture to be able to interlock. They then stack these stones in such a way where they create a self-supporting structure. The result is an incredibly strong wall, built with nothing other than local stones.
If Dry Stone Walls Could Talk
These old stone walls not only stand as architectural building blocks, they also reflect the history of the place they stand. For example, in the English countryside, farmers erected dry stone walls to protect their sheep from wolves.
The history that interested the architects at Matter Design had to do with what laid within Incan cyclopean walls. In the 15th century, the Incas, unlike the Greeks, regularly assembled and disassembled their walls to meet the city’s needs. The Incas thus created a roadmap for a circular form of construction where we might build and repurpose structures using the same materials.
Ancient Techniques, Modern Architecture
Rather than collecting stones from neighboring mountains, Matter Design wants to repurpose construction waste from mountainous landfills. Matter Design’s book, The Cannibals Cookbook was originally meant to be a tongue and cheek instruction guide on how to repurpose concrete using cyclopean masonry. It includes a good mix of amusing drawings and theoretical architecture. However, in 2017, the company decided to take a page out of their own recipe book when they made Cyclopean Cannibalism, a full-scale mock-up of one of the recipes.
Cyclopean Cannibalism, is an incredible curvilinear wall made out of discarded stone and other rubble. The company used a mix of ancient Inca methods and modern techniques like computer software systems to design the impressive wall, which stands without mortar just like its ancestors. Check out the video on how they made their wall here.
The main goal of the Cannibal’s Cookbook and Cyclopean Cannibalism is to challenge “the inappropriate practices surrounding concrete by learning from the myths and legends of architectural cannibalism.” Essentially, to repurpose discarded concrete.
The Problem with Modern Concrete
Concrete, sometimes called “the most destructive material on Earth,” is also one of the most widely used. After water, it is the most used substance on earth and accounts for 8% of all of the world’s carbon emissions. In fact, “concrete outweighs the combined carbon mass of every tree, bush and shrub on the planet.” Yet, we keep producing it on a massive scale- the world produces a shocking 4.4 billion tons of concrete every year.
On the one hand, concrete is an important material. It is incredibly durable, which you can see in the Colosseum in Rome. The ancient Romans built the Colosseum from concrete made from a “composite of sand, aggregate (usually gravel or stones) and water mixed with a lime-based, kiln-baked binder.” Modern concrete, made out of cement, sand, and water with steel rods for support, can be trusted on the tallest buildings in the world. This includes the Empire State Building and the Burj Khalifa.
On the other hand though, concrete is an environmental nightmare. It uses 10% of the world’s industrial water. It warms the Earth by absorbing heat from the sun. And, it covers the world in a thick mass of gray, choking fertile lands and ecosystems and never allowing them to regrow.
Plus, modern concrete won’t last quite as long as their ancient cousins- most types of concrete will degrade in as little as 50 years. This means that much of the enormous amounts of concrete we produce are destined for landfills. In fact, “600 million tons of C&D debris were generated in the United States in 2018, which is more than twice the amount of generated municipal solid waste.” And we’re only producing more and more.
*fun fact: Some theorize that ancient Roman concrete lasts so much longer than modern concrete because of a special ingredient that makes it stronger over time. That material is likely volcanic ash mixed with sea water. The seawater dissolves components of the volcanic ash and creates a “ very rare hydrothermal mineral called aluminum tobermorite” within the concrete. Currently, scientists are trying to add this mineral into modern concrete, but it is very difficult to mix and takes thousands of years to develop naturally.
Giving Concrete a Second Life
There are already other projects in the works inspired by cyclopean masonry and dry stone walls. In Italy, architect Nicolás Delgado Álcega is working on restoring agricultural terraces in the rural community of Vallecorsa. The project, which was actually inspired by the Cannibal’s cookbook, aims to help rural farmers restore crumbling terraces that have been neglected due to economic hardship. But, the project and Matter Design’s work suggests that cyclopean masonry could one day be a viable solution to concrete waste.
With more development, we could apply this technique to projects like retaining walls and other infrastructure. However, we probably won’t be seeing cyclopean masonry techniques used for “skyscrapers on fault lines” for awhile. Still, if terraces, walls, and other projects could rely on demolished landfill-bound concrete, we could make a dent in the concrete waste problem. And, the Cannibal’s Cookbook suggests that one day “builders may eventually be able to take the rubble of demolished buildings and use it to construct entirely new buildings.”
Maybe in your lifetime a cyclopean building will pop up in your city… Or better yet, maybe all of our major cities will cannibalize themselves.
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