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Why We Should Be Building Like Ancient Greeks

An MIT professor introduces cyclopean masonry, a new method of building that’s actually really old.

The construction industry is one of the most wasteful industries in the U.S. Five hundred and thirty million tons of building debris are shipped each year to American landfills.

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It wasn’t always this way.  Many civilizations throughout human history, from the Incas to the Mycenaeans, used pieces of old buildings to construct new ones–a process that MIT architecture professor and Matter Design Studio founder Brandon Clifford calls “cannibalization.” Clifford thinks the contemporary building industry should steal this idea. In his project Cyclopean Cannibalism, Clifford updates an ancient building technique, in which laborers would build walls using misshapen stones and rubble taken from demolished buildings–without any mortar to hold them together.

[Photo: courtesy Matter Design Studio]
Clifford researches ancient methods of construction and translate them into a modern context–something he’s previously done by floating a 2,000 pound stone on water and replicating the physics used to create the Easter Island stone sculptures. Cyclopean masonry is his latest focus. The technique is named for the cyclops, mythological one-eyed giants that many ancient peoples claimed were responsible for building their massive stone buildings.

[Photo: courtesy Matter Design Studio]
 Many ancient walls, which appear in various forms all over the world from Greece to Peru, look cobbled together haphazardly–not a building technique seemingly fit for the modern world. “If a building fell down, they’d look at the rubble and figure out how to reconstitute it to make a new construction,” Clifford says. “That’s a reason why [the walls] appear so cryptic. They seem random and illogical. But that randomness is a byproduct of a very intelligent way of recycling their previous buildings.”

Clifford has a modern twist to this method: he and his students have built algorithms that can measure the sizes of stones or rubble one might have and then suggest a type of cyclopean wall design that would be able to transform any mound of debris into a wall. Clifford measured the exact geometries of cyclopean walls around the world then modeled how the stones fit together.

Of course, not everything has a perfect pattern: in some cases, Clifford and his students would find anomalies in a design that would frustrate their algorithm. He points to one wall in Peru as an example, where three stones fit together in an illogical pattern–a reminder that humans built these walls, not computers. But there might be a historical reason for the anomaly. Clifford explains that the Inca paid taxes in tribute labor. People would show up and build a wall as their way of contributing to society–and may have added unique markers to the wall so they’d be able to prove they’d paid their taxes.

Clifford’s algorithms provide something akin to recipes, with prescriptive techniques and methods that show builders how to turn a pile of rubble into a wall. And to illustrate exactly how it all works, Clifford has released a single edition book called The Cannibal’s Cookbook with MIT graduate students Daniel Marshall, James Addison, and Mackenzie Muhonen. Designed by Johanna Lobdell, it contains both his argument for why cyclopean masonry deserves a contemporary comeback, his methodology for creating the algorithms, and eight different “recipes” that present techniques for building for any interested parties who want to put Clifford’s theories into action.

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[Photo: courtesy Matter Design Studio]
To demonstrate the concept, Clifford worked with the Madison, Wisconsin-based architectural stone company Quarra Stone to build a prototype for the Seoul Architecture Biennale in fall of 2017. The company selected rocks from its pile of cast-offs and leftovers, as well as some rubble from a local demolition site, and then scanned them all using Clifford’s algorithm. Then, they chose one of the recipes–cheekily called “Divinity in the Details” in the book–and built the wall. Clifford says it was completed in less than a week, a fast turnaround time given the company’s limited time and the difficulty of working with stone.

So far, The Cannibal’s Cookbook has attracted attention from the archaeology community, but Clifford is hoping to get it into the hands of the construction industry–the people who might be able to try out cyclopean masonry in a real-world context. Cyclopean cannibalism also contributes to a larger conversation about sustainability in the way we build. Others have proposed transforming demolition debris into new building material using mushrooms, and Clifford’s idea has a serious limitation: it only works with stone and concrete. But there’s certainly enough concrete debris to go around–and why not look to the builders of the ancient world for answers?

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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