Saturday, March 24, 2012

Sustainability & Seduction: 5 Good Reasons to Build a Museum out of Mud

Erdhaus (Earth House) by architect Peter Vetsch
In thinking about eventually building a real, physical, tangible museum dedicated to the human experience of joy, I have thought a lot about the importance of the actual structure as a contributor to a sense of joyfulness. Almost everyone I know reacts with a kind of childlike wonder to hobbit homes, treehouses, mud castles, and cliff dwellings - buildings that seem almost organically alive in themselves or else linked strongly to a sense of a natural environment. The living world seems to play a large part in joyfulness in many different cultures, and so it seems right to me to explore natural building techniques in thinking of constructing the Museum.

In addition, the idea of being able to invite friends, family, and anyone who is interested to come and literally build a magical museum from the ground up seems like an extraordinary and wonderful way to begin. After all, one of the major attractions of natural building techniques is the fact that anyone can learn them!

Cliff dwelling, Bandelier, NM
 Kevin got me a really beautiful book the other day, called "Building Green: A Complete How-To Guide to Alternative Building Methods" by Clarke Snell & Tim Callahan. We've been talking a lot about houses, and the itch in both of us to build one, or maybe lots. In many ways all the large-scale work I do is essentially practicing for the big one, that is, the day when I'll be able to build not just magical adaptations but actually design and plan and build a whole magical house, interior and exterior in harmony with all the fierce values I believe in and which we regularly overlook: namely, that the spaces we live in should be not boxes but secretions of the spirit in the same way that the mother-of-pearl in an abalone's shell is a secretion of its strange soft body, tough but also shining. Modern houses mostly fight the world-as-it-is -- seeing the outside environment as a set of hostile factors to be controlled and curtailed into nothing more than scenery. We walk around inside these blank, aggressive boxes and have no relationship to them, no impulse to touch walls or lie down on the floors, no feeling at all that through the house the living textures of the outer, natural world and the inner, personal world can have a conversation -- about comfort, or warmth, or the deep reassurance of stone, how a curved wall mimics the caves in the cliffs long ago when we took shelter in the earth herself, the profound ways in which we are still here in the world even indoors. We think being inside a house means we no longer have our feet in the dirt, as if on the threshold of a house we stopped standing in the hands of the earthquakes. What I want is a house that reminds me that I am always outdoors, just wrapped snugly in a smooth layer of shell, the way we understand an acorn to be, or a snail...

"Dawn/Dusk Duplex" at the Cob Cottage Company
The reason I already love this book is because the authors feel the same way that I do about the meaning of the word house. What I love the most is their five requirements for a building to be considered "sustainable":

1) Low impact: "Minimal impact on the building site and the environment at large through careful, conscious design and utilizing replenishable materials that create a minimum of ecological destruction through their use."

2) Resource Efficient Through the Life of the Building: "Human use [of a building] requires environmental resources for such things as heating, cooling water and electricity. A 'green' building provides these human needs efficiently, conserving resources."

a traditional adobe building
3) Long Lasting: "The longer a building lasts, the longer the time before the environment is asked to give up those resources [used in the building process, such as building materials, tools, and fuels] again to replace the building. Therefore, the longer a building lasts, the 'greener' it is."

4) Nontoxic: "To sustain healthy lives, we need to sustain a healthy indoor and outdoor environment. A 'green' building, then, needs to provide a healthy indoor environment while doing nothing to harm the outdoor environment."

and my personal favorite...

Simon Dale's £3,000 low-impact 'hobbit house' in Wales, UK
5) Beautiful: "One of the biggest sources of our environmental woes is the constant and polluting movement of humans about the planet, To create a sustainable lifestyle, we need to stay put more of the time and derive more of our social, physical and spiritual sustenance from our own backyards. For example, it takes  along time to build healthy soil to grow good food; to build a network of friends and compatriots that will be the basis for community; to nurture the trees and other plants that will be part of the house's cooling strategy. These things simply won't happen if you aren't sufficiently seduced by your home  to stay there for the many years it will take to turn it into a real place that nurtures both its inhabitants and the environment., A 'green' house, then, needs to be beautiful, a place that is as hard to leave as a lover and as unthinkable to neglect as your own child." [my italics]

a traditional Icelandic building
Yowza! What an idea! It's not sustainable if it's not seductive: well, why do you think I spend so much time building peculiar and beautiful interior modifications? So that I will want to be in my house, and so that others will want to be there too -- the first steps towards bringing together a community. Sure, I rent this place, and I won't be here forever, but that doesn't mean that what these guys are saying doesn't apply. Living thoughtlessly in a place even if you know it's temporary gives no gifts to anyone, not yourself, not the people around you, certainly not the place in which you live. The problem is that most of our dwellings -- especially! the temporary ones -- are built so thoughtlessly that it's almost impossible to really profoundly and meaningfully inhabit them. I suppose part of why I create such huge and complex installations in my own house is because I hate the idea that the space in which I live does nothing to sustain me beyond provision of the purely mechanical functions of a shelter, and that doing otherwise is impossible for anyone who doesn't have the means to build their own home from scratch. I am trying, mostly, to remember that inside the house I am still inside the world, that I have not walked out of it just because I closed a tidy door behind me, that it is always here with us in all its shape and fire and meaning.

And wouldn't that make for a marvelous museum?

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