Sunday, April 15, 2012

N is for Natural Building

A cob house featured on the Mud Girls blog.
There is a very simple reason that natural building is an inspiration for the Museum of Joy: I am a poor artist. I will almost certainly never hit it big. The probability that I will be able to afford to buy or construct a conventional big shiny museum building is smaller than the seven dwarfs on the eye of a needle. But natural building - methods like straw bale construction, cob, etc - ? Ah, well, that's a different story. I was introduced to the idea of natural building by someone (probably my mother) who sent me a photo of Simon Dale's hobbit house in Wales. He built a wonderfully magical house for himself and his family for three thousand pounds - depending on the exchange rate, something in the vicinity of five thousand American dollars.

Five thousand dollars.

For a house.

And not just any house, but a beautifully designed construction built with low impact to the land on which it's situated, a house that looks like a childhood fantasy or a daydream cottage. Sure, it's small. Who cares? I could - hold it - I could build a bunch of them! And connect them! And fill them with windows, ledges, shelves, spirals, skylights, nooks, crannies, crevices, altars, dance floors, fire pits, whatever I damn well want.

I could have a maze of museum.
Pretty sure I've shared this before (there's a picture at the very least in my glowing essay about the awesomeness of Clarke Snell & Tim Callahan's book Building Green), but here's a video tour of a cob house of note, known as Meka's Cob Cottage, built by Michael 'Meka' Bunch.

If you don't think this is absolutely lovely and delightful, in all honesty, you're not going to think much of my Museum.

If you do think this is lovely and beautiful, but you're thinking dubious thoughts about how a cute lil' house like this could take on museum status - it's so small! and won't you want there to be thousands of people tromping around? - well, here's what I think about that. We've been conditioned to see bigness of stuff as a symbol of status and success. The Escalade, the yacht, the shiny glassy skyscraper,  the enormous columned hall - that's prestige. A dinky little one-room museum or a bicycle ain't got much clout in comparison. And when it comes to museums, we like a sense of clout. We like to feel the hugeness of things, the weight of history, the enormity of the collection, the massiveness of humankind's achievements.

A cob house living room. Physically small? Maybe.
Spiritually spacious? Absolutely. Via Busyboo.
But this is first of all kind of stupid because most of humankind's achievements are individually pretty small things - I mean physically small. Oh sure, there are the great architectural glories, but they stand on their own, they are their own museums. And yes, every now and again there's a really phenomenal piece of art that's just very large. But most of the celebrations of the human spirit are pretty diminutive things. A song takes up no more space than the bodies of the musicians. You can dance anywhere there's a smooth place to put your feet, and while sure, you might want fancy lights and fixtures, you don't need them. The things that give us joy - toys, communication, festivity, ritual, growing things, fresh air, good food - take up very little space, really. And if that space isn't just a holding tank but rather is itself an expression of joy, of creativity, of playfulness and wonder - well, I think it might seem very expansive indeed. And secondly it's kind of stupid because that kind of big hulking thing is very destructive to all the things that make being alive and human worthwhile - like, you know, breathing fresh air.

I've been lucky enough to have an ongoing conversation with Clarke Snell, coauthor of the aforementioned book and a passionate advocate of low-impact building. One of the things he said to me that really, really stuck with me:

Every building must be configured at the very least to be resource neutral. That's the equivalent of treading water. If we want to swim to shore, our buildings need to start to balance that which we have set out of balance. This is all we should be talking about in terms of buildings. All day. All night. What a great time to be alive as creative forces when the design problem is to save humanity from itself. It's lofty, deep, meaningful, rewarding, and fun.

Another image of the cob house shared by Mud Girls. They say,
"Here are a few photos of Jen's shrine-like cob cottage. This
marvel in the woods is a true work of functional live-in art.
While sunlight illuminates the interior through the recycled
windshields, bottles and recycled skylight in the daytime, the
night provides an opportunity to illuminate the space with candle
light, creating an almost holy atmosphere. A visit to this cottage
is a true inspiration." I haven't even been & I agree.
I love this quote because it takes having to face the drastic and catastrophic shifts in our environment out of the realm of helpless panic and into the realm of creativity and delight. Listen, he's saying, yeah, we've really screwed up a lot. But now we get to rise to the challenge, and use our nice big human brains to think of artful, elegant ways to build our way out of the mess those nice big entrepreneurial curiosity-filled brains put us in in the first place. Not only is that the right and responsible thing to do, it's also beautiful and meaningful. So okay, there's a silver lining to the trashing of the planet: it can serve as inspiration for a new art form that connects creativity & self-expression to a sense of landscape, sensitivity, and reverence towards the natural world. (Am I wearing my rosy fairy unicorn-sparkle glasses when I look at this? Hell yeah. I see real good with them things.) What I'm trying to say is that building the museum out of a bunch of  low-impact, environmentally-friendly, carbon-neutral, handmade buildings that connect to each other to form a network of interlinked magical spaces is not only super cost-effective and appropriate for a museum dedicated to joy, the building method itself part of the exhibition. That is, the people involved in the natural building movement love it, feel inspired and excited by it, and have formed important communities and connections by participating. Making the museum that way would mean that the entire thing, from the ground up, was in keeping with its own mission. That, and I could gosh darn well afford it.

Although there are many different types and styles and methods of natural building, cob is the one I've fallen in love with - you may notice I've showcased exclusively cob houses. That's not because it's the "best" (what the fuck do I know about that?) - it's just the one that speaks to me. Actually, it yells. The first time I saw a cob house my brain almost melted with longing. And in some way, that's the most important thing of all when it comes to inspiration -  the desire to see something made. Cob buildings are so wonderfully beautiful, their entire concept (from collaborative construction to the wild hand-shaped look of them) rings so right and true with me, they inspire such strong sensations of childhood delight and fantastical dreaminess and magical possibility in me, I would do almost anything to be able to make a life of building a spectacular cluster of them a reality. Douglas Eby has an awesome post he wrote in response to my post about Imagination talking about Inspiration as Desire here; I realized, in reading it, just how true it is. In the same way that Clarke and Tim talk about Beauty as a necessary factor in green building - so you'll want to stay in a place, a very important aspect of sustainability - the sense of desire, of yearning or longing, the hunger to see something made, well, that's an enormous part of what makes us actually go out and do things instead of just dreaming. And so: my crazy delight over cob might be the single thing that really and truly gets the Museum made. It's a funny thing, really, but castles in the air sometimes just need a little mud to make them fly.

What are the things you want so badly to make real that you can't help but get your hands dirty?


  1. Storming blog you have here :)

    New follower.


  2. aw, thanks, Amanda! You know I'm always thrilled to meet a girl who has her own dice :)

  3. Speaking of green building, that may be the thing I like most about the new Academy, the green roof. I think it's awesome. I would love to have an underground house. I think I've wanted a hobbit hole since I was about 12. The only thing at odds with it, is I really want to have a huge library. A real library full of old books. With a big winding staircase between the floors. I don't think that would fit underground very well.
    Also, we need, as a society, to start building up. Expand up instead of out. Start returning some of the land to itself. We -could- do this; we just don't.

    1. You could always have an above-ground library with a glass skylight, and it could be the only part of the building the staircase spirals up into the light! Hmmm, now I want one...

      I mean, you're right about the building UP. But then again we could just have less kids.

  4. Ohmygosh, that house is beautiful. Only FIVE thousand? Seriously? That's incredible. Awesome post and happy A-Z blogging!
    P.S. I really am loving some of your other posts. Definitely a new follower.

    1. I know, right? And thanks for the compliment!I just came from YOUR blog, where you have won mega-points in my book for mentioning Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, which is one of my all-time favorite short stories.

  5. Isn't it fun to build places like that in the mind? I'm trying to visit all the A-Z Challenge Blogs this month. My alphabet is at

    1. It is! Thanks for stopping by! I look forward to visiting your blog :)

  6. the house is beautiful! would love to have one of those:)
    Happy A-Zing!

    1. Incredible, isn't it? Thanks for stopping by!


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