Earthen materials bond an Austrian family of artists: The applied-artist father builds with rammed earth and the ceramicist mother and graphic-designer son create tiles using an ancient Japanese pottery firing process. All their work is deeply rooted in ancient techniques, yet their designs are expressively modern.
Trotting behind his father around countless construction sites, a teenage Sebastian Rauch convinced himself he would never follow in his artist parents’ footsteps.
Born this way
Now thirty and his hormone levels long balanced, Sebastian has succumbed to the truth: The love for elemental design, form, and earthen materials is in his DNA. His parents are ceramic artist Marta Rauch-Debevec and artist-builder Martin Rauch. She runs the tile label Karak; he heads Lehm Ton Erde (Loam Clay Earth). Together, they share a studio space in Schlins in western Austria’s Vorarlberg region, tucked between the German and Swiss borders and known for supreme skiing.
“Both my parents have art degrees and chose art as their livelihood,” Sebastian tells. “Somehow, it rubbed off on the children.” Today, he works as a graphic designer in Vienna. His sister, Anna Pia, is currently taking a maternity break from earning her degree in art pedagogy.
The son of two artisans admits that neither the material loam nor his father’s building sites interested him as a child. “I was all thumbs in construction, which led to a lot of tension between my father and me during puberty.” To his parents’ chagrin, young Sebastian preferred to spend his days in front of the computer. “I was engrossed in anything to do with science fiction and Japan, whereas my parents are much more down to earth, literally.”
Sharing a studio compels the elder Rauchs to amalgamate their crafts. “Marta and I have been working in the same space together for more than thirty years,” Martin says. “In terms of materials and processing techniques, there are many synergies between ceramics and building with loam, which help us both realize our work.”
To the family, loam, clay, and earth symbolize the holistic philosophy inherent in their art: Loam represents craftsmanship and technology, clay stands for art and design, and earth embodies the sustainability of building with loam.
Martin, who sees himself as an applied artist rather than an architect or designer, is known beyond the Vorarlberg region for practicing the ancient technique of compressing loam into a distinctive building material as sturdy as concrete. His desire to architecturally design with earth grew from his early work as a ceramicist, oven builder, and sculptor. Today, he focuses on the aboriginal rammed-earth technique, which he approaches with innovation. He builds entire buildings from loam as well as indoor components, such as wood-burning stoves, flooring, and interior walls.
The process of compressing soil is time tested. Parts of the Great Wall of China were constructed from rammed earth. “Being able to create solid, bearing walls from such elemental materials fascinates me,” Martin says. “It requires careful study of the material but also courage. For example, one has to be able to allow the erosion.” External rammed-earth walls facing the elements will lose some surface, exposing stones and leaving a pebbled pattern. “Once we can accept the erosion, we can recognize its many benefits,” Martin explains. “We must recognize that its water solubility is really the most valuable virtue of loam as a building material.” His structures are 100 percent recyclable, often using ground dug up during a building’s own construction phase.
“Being able to create solid, bearing walls from such elemental materials fascinates me.”
His building materials and techniques are deeply rooted in tradition, yet Martin’s designs are expressively modern. “This very juxtaposition inspires me,” he says. “With the emergence of modern building methods in the last two centuries, building with loam was rarely considered, downright superseded, and degraded to the poor man’s building material.”
The Austrian artisan, who is currently cladding Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in rammed loam, is confident that quality modern rammed-earth architecture with progressive, adapted techniques can once again valorize the image of building with loam.
Breaking new ground in sustainable building spurs Martin’s creativity as artist and craftsman. “I love developing new ways of contributing to an anthroposphere that is more conscious of the environment and mankind,” he says. “Loam as building material is pure inspiration.”
Loam is available as local material almost anywhere in the world, meaning short, to no, hauling. “About 80 percent of our own home’s building material, for instance, came from its excavation pit,” Martin says. High efficiency and low primary energy are further benefits inherent in rammed-earth buildings. Locals identify with his work for these sensibilities. “It’s not unusual for our projects that the principal or the villagers join in building.”
Bringing the rammed-earth technique into the twenty-first century is a challenge the builder approaches from a business standpoint. “In Europe, it is important to react to the rationalized and industrialized building sector,” he explains. “For us, the prefabrication of rammed-earth components plays an integral role. It allows us to build much more efficiently and according to today’s construction timelines.”
Rammed-earth interior walls promote a well-tempered indoor climate. The enormous mass abates temperature extremes and superbly regulates humidity. If you have eaten a Ricola herbal cough drop, you have a connection to Martin’s work. He collaborated with Pritzker prizewinners Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, founders of the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron Basel, on the Ricola Herb Center near Basel. Martin’s loam walls promote ideal humidity levels for storing and processing the herbs.
Though Martin has been working with rammed earth for more than three decades, the home he built for his own family was a test bed for further adapting and refining his technique.
The 200-square-meter (2,150-square-foot) home built into a steep southern hillside above Martin’s native town of Schlins was completed in 2008. The design was a collaboration with Zürich architect Roger Boltshauser.
In its orientation and form, the house directly speaks to the topographic flow of the site and the context of the landscape: A monolithic structure like a sculptural block is literally pushed out of the earth. The use of solid rammed-earth walls combines this architectural intention with the desire to construct an ecological building exclusively made of natural materials.
The mother of creativity
Marta, who was born in Ljubljana, Slovenien, and studied ceramics and product design at the University of Applied Arts Vienna, never urged her son or her daughter to work with her. “Simply following in your parents’ footsteps doesn’t bring you happiness. I wanted them to cultivate their own dreams and visions, so I never thought that one of my children would one day work with me.”
Having been an independent artist working on theme-based projects for exhibitions and sculptural ceramic objects, Marta herself hadn’t planned on specializing in tiles. But she knew she wanted to incorporate ceramic art in the new house.
After working with a low-fired technique known as raku, a traditional Japanese pottery process, for twenty years, Marta wanted to explore tiles as medium. “I was looking for a tile design for the house when I discovered the beautiful patterns Sebastian was creating on his computer,” she remembers. He says he created the designs “just for fun.” Marta wondered how she could transfer her son’s digital doodling to her tiles and began experimenting with screen printing. “When I created the first samples, we were all surprised how stunning the combination of the raku tiles and Sebastian’s patterns truly was.”
“I was looking for a tile design for the house when I discovered the beautiful patterns Sebastian was creating on his computer.”
The Karak brand was born. Marta and Sebastian’s Karak tiles—each a unicum—embody the elementary relationship between the Eastern and the Western world. Captivating geometric ornaments, the result of repeating, digitally created design patterns, are married with the century-old Japanese raku technique that gives the tiles an inimitable air of chance.
The tile material is a combination of different kinds of clay and loam mixed with quartz sand and fireclay. Pressed into shape, each tile is retouched by hand, the designs applied by silk-screening.
As the tile is red at about 1,000 degrees Celsius (ca. 1,830 degrees Fahrenheit), the material’s transforma- tion becomes palpable—the low-fired technique makes it porous and gives the final product a deep, organic sound at the touch and a warm haptic.
Still glowing, the tiles are removed from the kiln one at a time and immediately hermetically buried in sawdust. The void of oxygen and the smoke have an intense effect on the surface that varies for every piece. The color changes with the glaze; hair-thin cracks are blackened.
Finally, dunking each tile in water reveals its finished character. Transformed by the temperature shock, the glazed surface is brushed off, evincing a craquelure—like a fine net tying everything together.
Starting Karak wasn’t a conscious decision but rather a mother-son collaboration that grew organically. At first, the two intended to create the tiles only for the family’s villa. Then a book was published about the unique house. “On occasion, people began talking not about the Rauch house but about that house with the beautiful tiles,” Sebastian remembers. “People were asking us where we got those tiles…that’s when orders began coming in.”
“When we created the tiles for the house, I suddenly knew the charm of these tiles,” Marta says. “After all these years, I am still excited every time I walk in the door.”
Futuristic fantasy meets ancient technique
Sebastian’s passion for science fiction inspires the patterns he designs for the tiles. “I love to connect antipodes, things that seemingly don’t go together, the interplay between contrasts…that tipping effect.” His KuQua design, for instance, combines spheres (Kugeln in German) and squares (Quadrate). “When you deconstruct these two shapes and recombine them, they become almost unrecognizable in an entirely new shape. However, there is an underlying geometrical clarity and calmness that makes me feel like I didn’t design this shape; rather, I found it. At the same time, there is constant movement as the eye meets the pattern, like a deep mantra lancing the universe, like yin and yang.”
His mother is no less fascinated by the repetitive geometric patterns’ tipping effect. “Depending on how the eye focuses in, the design can suddenly appear three-dimensional,” she says. “In fact, we created a three-dimensional tile, the TaOk tile, a tantalizing combination of modern geometrical design and something Oriental. Then, the ancient technique adds something very primordial…a beautiful enrichment.”
The raku process gives a brand-new tile the patina of a long life. “I am intrigued by something that looks so archaic, yet you can’t really assign the object to an epoch,” Sebastian says. “I like to envision an archeological excavation site where they dig out a temple and find patterns and artifacts that don’t have a place in our past, in the human past…so you may have discovered an alien temple.” The precise patterns, the exact geometry combined with the serendipitous process make Sebastian optimistic for the future. “In science fiction the future is often depicted as extremely slick and clinical, as measured and constructed. I rather like the thought of a future that is still sensual and vivid.”
The geometric patterns are calculated and carefully designed, with precise lines. But the firing process, the smoke passing through the tile, and finally the quenching in water is so incalculable that what was once smooth becomes structured, what was once superficial gains depths. “It is a movement between order and happenstance, between repetition and uniqueness,” Marta adds.
“It is a movement between order and happenstance, between repetition and uniqueness.”
Both Marta and Sebastian appreciate the synergies and new opportunities that come with sharing the workshop and resources with Lehm Ton Erde, particularly Martin’s tinkerer skills and powerful imagination.
“Growing up, I was pretty sure I wanted nothing to do with loam,” Sebastian admits. “Funny how I found my way back to the material.” In the end, he’s grateful his parents laid the groundwork. “I couldn’t imagine working like this if it weren’t for being a family.” △
“I couldn’t imagine working like this if it weren’t for being a family.”