Sculpting with Cob

Cob is a natural building technique that has a wide variety of uses. It allows a builder to become an artist with an entire wall or even a house as one’s canvas. Check out more thoughts on this in this interesting blog.

When I first began to work with cob as a medium, I approached it primarily from a vocational angle of building with it. It is certainly a great material to build walls with. But much has changed since I discovered the joy of sculpting with it. Cob, in essence, is mud, and sculpting with mud is vastly different from building with it. When one sculpts with the material, the nature of their engagement with it changes drastically. Sculptors are bound to an intimacy with their medium, to be wedded to it in a way. A familiarity that results from hours of dialogue through direct physical contact is forged between the two. The facet of building with mud is what schooled me on its technical qualities, the more mercurial side of things. Indispensable learnings that elevate the rational understanding of the medium. What are the constituents of mud? What kind of sand aggregate is suitable for building? What causes cob surfaces to crack? These questions and the subsequent scavenging for their answers fortify a necessary base understanding of the medium. Now, a builder or an architect can go on along this trail of knowledge without ever getting their hands dirty, such as is customary in conventional construction. A cob sculptor, as an artist, wouldn’t be satisfied in the slightest were they not badly in need of a shower by the end of the day. The technical knowledge is essential for both the builder and the sculptor to acquire, generally even more so for the builder. But it is the sculptor who explores a tenor of the work that only reveals itself when bare hands run over bare mud. While I value both major aspects of the work immensely, the reader can surely tell by now that it is this tenor of sculpture that I am enchanted by.

Cob oven with a carved plaster mural on its base

What is Cob?

Let me begin with the basics. What is cob? As I mentioned before, it is primarily mud. When soil generally containing anywhere between 15% to 35% clay is mixed with straw or other natural fibres, and water, it produces a workable, sculptable material that is known as cob. Cob mixes are made by first putting together the soil and the fibres in their dry form, and then kneading it with the appropriate amount of water to attain a dough-like consistency. This material can then be laid out in any structurally sound form, be it as a wall, a floor, or even as an oven. Generally cob mixes are prepared by stomping on the ingredients with ones feet but even mechanical means such as a cement mixer or a tractor can be employed for the same. While the foot method can be incredibly fun and even therapeutic, for larger projects it can turn out to be quite labour intensive and time consuming. One of the biggest advantages of using cob is the diversity of shapes and forms that can be achieved with it. I find that when the fresh, wet cob mix is laid by hand, nature inspired forms begin to take shape. Curves and contours that do not tend to the clinical symmetry, straightness and uniformity of the modern world bring about a unique, simple and elegant aesthetic of their own. But if you were to build straight walls or other surfaces, cob can accommodate that too in a variety of ways. You can lay it straight on by hand with the aid of a few instruments to ensure straightness, as has been done in the case of this house in Vadakara, Kerala (see image below). You can also stuff cob into a brick shaped mould, sundry the resultant blocks to get bricks that are known as Adobe bricks. Adobe, which is a faster and more convenient method of laying walls, has been widely used in traditional construction practices all over the world. Cob is a diverse material indeed.

Cob house construction in progress at Vadakara, Kerala
A handful of wet cob ready for application

But natural building or natural sculpture, involves working with more materials than just mud. In fact, I would go so far as to say that there are an infinite array of materials provided by nature, which if the builder/sculptor finds to be viable, can be put to use. I find there are two main approaches to effectively uncover these materials. The first would be to look toward traditional practices. There is a wealth of knowledge that our ancestors have garnered, of tried and perfected techniques of using and building with natural materials. In, India, these traditional practices have been extant in all corners of the country, be it as the lime masonry of Rajasthan, the stone masonry of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, or the Bamboo masonry of Sikkim. Cob, in various forms has pervaded the entire subcontinent since time immemorial, only facing a startling decline in recent decades. Today, finding a skilled cob mason to work with is no easy task.

The second approach I find to studying and employing natural materials in building is through hands-on experimentation. It is the way of the adventurer, seeking the unknown, peering with limited visibility, sometimes blindly into a world of many possibilities. Very romantic in theory, often chaotic in reality. There is now an ever-growing body of resources online, invaluable to the hands-on experimentalist, that pools together knowledge from around the globe. There are prevalent, popular materials that are present everywhere on the planet, some of which are used today as they were in ancient times. Limestone, for example, was used in casing the pyramids of Egypt which are commonly dated to be 6000 years old. You can also find megaliths of limestone serving as building blocks in some of the ruins in the Americas, structures that are believed to be at least a 1000 years old. And a sibling of the same limestone was used to build the Havelis of Rajasthan, where until recent years when the modern miracle of Portland cement was popularised, slaked lime and limestone were the building materials of choice. Limestone is just one example from a universe of such materials that can be found all over the Earth. Clay is another. While varying in its properties from one region to another, clay that is suitable for building and sculpting is found nearly everywhere save for in desert regions. The modern day experimentalist, through a whole host of tests, blunders and eureka moments, can reinvent traditional practices and even develop their own technique and craftsmanship. The key to this approach is to be open to mistakes even as catastrophic as those mistakes may seem to be. I do not know a single hands on natural builder who has not at some point or the other, suffered devastating, disheartening disappointments in their line of experimentation. But each mistake points the way, nudges, even forces the frustrated individual to take note and make improvements. It is a tedious but rewarding process, and a lifelong one.

A union of these two approaches, one of established practice and the other of guided exploration, each borrowing from and supported by the other, is the preference of most natural builders including myself.

Why Do I Sculpt?

My goal with cob always has been to experiment as much as the land permits. Every day brings a different experiment that is challenging in its own way. It isn’t always fun, in all honesty, often it’s incredibly frustrating when a test or a series of tests yields no significant result to speak of. The tedium is something that every natural builder gets used to, and even revels in. When soil features and quality can greatly differ within the span of a few metres, each new project, each new land brings about with it contingent resources and a whole host of tests and experiments. It really is a taxing process. But the sight of a polished and completed work of cob replete with custom made finishes and artworks is soothing to the soul. When a sculpture is done and I step back and let its flavours sink in, there is a period of tranquil excitement. I think I can say that it’s for those moments of reward, and the fulfilment of creating, that I do this work.

Photo of the kitchen on completion with focus on carved plaster mural artwork
 A roof in progress with myself in the centre

This article is written by Amarnath Duleep

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