Anna Heringer has to wash her hands before she takes a phone call in Venice because she is in the midst of constructing an installation there with 25 tons of mud. To come up with the form for her project, which she is crafting for the main exhibition of the Venice Architecture Biennale (and of which she cannot reveal details), Heringer has been doing what she likes to call “claystorming”—shaping a hunk of clay until it “feels right.”

Heringer, a German architect whose practice is based in Laufen, talks a great deal about following her impulses, something she says that she lost as a student, when she felt pressured to make even the simplest sketch perfect. “I was coming from an emotional place, and it was not appreciated. And now what I’m using is common sense and intuition.”

Heringer won an Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2007 for her earth and bamboo school in Rudrapur, Bangladesh, built with the help of local craftspeople, students, and teachers. The project was not an outlier for the architect: her focus is on sustainable design, often in places where resources and basic services are limited. She takes cues from the climate, the skills of local laborers, and readily available materials to help guide a concept. “I create my architectural dialogue within these parameters,” says Heringer. She laments the fact that so much of what is built today ignores its context. “You can build with concrete anywhere.”

The architect begins each project by thoroughly investigating the potential of a site. “Then I just let go of the ego and the strife,” she says, and the design solution comes naturally. She honed this intuition while building a training center and residence for electrical engineers, also in Rudrapur, orchestrating laborers without drawings or plans. “I had a feeling in my belly, and it was absolutely fascinating,” she says. (She rarely uses a computer as a design tool.) Her approach combats what she observes as an excess of rigid, unemotional architecture in the world—something she suggests might be a bit “male.”

Heringer not only uses “claystorming” in her own work, but also in her role as a visiting professor at the ETH in Zurich, where she teaches alongside Austrian architect Martin Rauch, an expert in rammed-earth construction. “Working with clay is so immediate,” she notes, “and at some point the hand—rather than the brain—is taking over the design.”

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