Squatting Lightly On the Earth

posted in: Art & Design, Journal | 9
Maine Tree
Oak tree standing beside the Maine coast, U.S.A., 1987.

This is the twelfth installment of the bi-weekly topics at Ecotone: Writing About Place. This week’s topic is Protecting Place. Please have a look at other contributions to the topic, or join in the discussion yourself.


With Russia’s official declaration earlier today that it would not ratify the Kyoto Treaty, because the treaty would limit its economic growth, a confirmation of the blindness and madness of the human world seems to have taken root and the shoots of the consequences will hereby officially make its first, introductory cough. The leaders (and, by association, the populace) are not taking the health of the planet seriously. You really have to question the sanity of people who fail to make the connection between the air they breathe and their own survival. This is the only place we have and yet we go on drunk, oblivious to all warnings. Nothing short of a super-hurricaned, multiple tornadoed, giant tsunamied, mass flooded, collapsing mountains, global food deprived catastrophe will seem to carry the clout needed to ring the bell in people’s heads that we are not going to survive this assault on our world.

The knowledge to care for our home is there. We know what to do, if we would only wake up. People like Bush focus on utterly petty concerns like the conquering of Iraq, but completely ignore the evidence of one of the most climactically disastrous years in history. Mass flooding in the States. Unending rain in Japan. Record-breaking heat waves throughout Europe (more than 10,000 people died in France alone). Uncontrolled wild fires in Australia. A new, unprecedented and fearsome drought in northeastern Africa. Huge super typhoons and cyclones in Asia. Unexplained mass dying off of mackerel and sardines due to new oceanic fluctuations. The entire, enormous island of Madagascar on the verge of an environmental collapse. The first melting of the permafrost in Siberia since before the last Ice Age. The breakup of the Antarctic Ross Ice Shelf…

What are people waiting for? Why do we deny that a problem exists? It’s like we have gotten caught up in a drunken party and are ignoring a great blaze burning right in our home, ready to bring the whole house down.

I was working for an architecture firm in Boston back in 1989 and one day was sent to measure and evaluate a site for a new holiday resort. I drove alone to the area, passing through wooded hills and New England style farmland. The hill where the resort was proposed stood overlooking a small lake and the surrounding countryside, with barely a break in the trees. I sat and ate lunch, sitting on a log and gazing at the clouds rolling by overhead. Birds twittered and sang in the tranquility, quiet enough to hear bees buzzing and grasshoppers zithering in the grass. As I sat there, the feeling that this place was perfect just the way it was crept up on me. More and more the prospect of walking around the site with a measuring tape and taking notes about the attributes and problems of the site in terms of architectural needs seemed like a foolish and unnecessary exercise. I did the work as expected, but as I drove back to Boston I resolved then and there that I would not be one of those contributing to the further degradation of the world’s already beleaguered natural places.

It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with architecture. Done the right way, architecture can help create extraordinary and integral human artifacts upon the land that exist almost as an extension of the land itself. Most traditional farming communities around the world have developed vernacular designs that work closely with the habitat they exist in, often enhancing the human presence within the landscape. One of the most ecologically balanced, human-altered landscapes in the world is Tuscany, in Italy, where a medium was reached, by which the natural world and the human world could co-exist without destroying one another. Traditional Japanese settlements worked much the same way, often with a buffer zone, a “commons” (zoki-bayashi or sato-yama), where wild animals dwelled and human interference was minimal. Such communities often continued for centuries with little or no deleterious effect on the land. Tokyo itself, when it was still named Edo, was once the largest city in the world, with over a million residents, hardly producing any waste, its water clean, its coastal fish the pride of the country, and nearly everything was reused.

These examples show that humans can create settlements and use local resources wisely, without destroying the delicate balance.

Ecologically efficient rural communities continued mainly because the amounts of resources they consumed and needed for upkeep were small compared to the ability of the landscape to provide, and also because they had time to become familiar with unique local issues of climate, terrain, feeding capacity, and so forth. With time many of these communities came up with unique solutions to problems that only experience could help recognize. The northern New England landscape was once plowed under to plant crops, but the poor soil and rocky conditions eventually caused many homesteaders to give up and move back to the cities, later to be replaced by livestock oriented farming.

Once human settlements began to grow, however, and the demand outstripped the resources, all the problems associated with modern development took over. The problems are so huge today that just attempting to figure out where to start to tackle the issues can leave one reeling.

Architecture itself has fallen into the trap of glamour and riches, often leading the drive into bigger and bigger projects, with less and and less thought given to the consequences. And yet there are architects who have thought deeply about how we might address the issues of huge populations, destruction of natural habitat, overrunning of space, and over-consumption of resources. During the 60’s Christopher Alexander and a group of back-to-the-land thinkers at U.C. Berkeley developed the idea of “The Pattern Language”, a kind of encyclopedia or almanac of typological precedents used throughout human history for dealing with local conditions or architectural needs. The book of the same name, “The Pattern Language” lists and diagrams hundreds of patterns and ideas that a modern day architect or settlement builder can browse and use within a design context. The genius of this idea is that it takes into account local differences and allows an individual to tailor a project according to individual needs. It is almost the opposite of the standard modular cookie-cutter designs that dominate most large scale development.

Another project that has been developing steadily since the sixties is the Arcosanti project, an ecological town in the middle of the Arizona desert. The brainchild of Italian architect Paolo Soleri, the town is being built by volunteers who develop solutions to onsite problems as they move along. Almost 40 years in the making, the project aims to house an entire town of 5,000 people, while using a minimum of resources and attempting to become an extension of the landscape itself. The idea of using a ecological town stems out of the premise that, if contained in a limited space, the population will cause minimum damage to the surrounding land, while providing all the needs for its inhabitants. Whether or not this idea will succeed remains to be seen.

Malcolm Wells, an architect living in Massachusetts, and with whom I was in contact for a number of years while I was still an architect, is one of the most influential architects promoting “green architecture” (See his book “Gentle Architecture”). He believed that it was important to build human settlements and buildings that put the environment first, so much so that he advocated building designs that actually incorporated the landscape as part of their construction. He proposed cities with forested roofs and subterranean streets to get cars out of the way. He is most famous for his underground houses which, when approached, look like gardens dripping with flowers, grass, and trees.

Fufu Garden Walk
View of walkway to the dining room of the Hotel Fufu, designed by the Japanese architecture firm, Team Zoo. The area to the left, covered in grass and trees, actually covers an entire underground hall, complete with skylights and clerestories, vents and rafters. Above the Enzan Valley, Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan, 2002.

Shortly before I returned to Japan I had a conversation with Malcom Wells on the telephone. He had just finished apologizing for not being able to take me on as an apprentice, when I asked him what advice he could give me for getting started as an architect, especially in green design. He first replied that I should make sure to get a thorough background in all the essential fields of architecture, such as construction, drafting, structure, materials, typology, history, project management, drawing, and design. Then he said one last thing which has remained with me to this day, and which defines how I want to approach all the work that defines my commitment to the natural world:

He said (at least to this effect), “Forget the new sites and new developments. Forget trying to break new ground on pristine land. Instead, find the ugliest, most polluted, most badly damaged strip of earth you can and dedicate yourself to bringing it back to life. Find the beauty in it and revive it. Coax wild animals back to inhabit it. And when you’re done, be able to say that you helped the place to grow more healthy and beautiful than it was before it was destroyed.”

This is what the preservation of the world ought to be, I believe. We need to learn to be healers. If nothing else, we can start small, right here where we stand.

9 Responses

  1. This is a truly inspiring piece, written from the heart yet informed and informing. I love the way it ends on such a positive, constructive note. It is a real struggle to work out ways of going forward in world which is run by uncaring, destructive forces. I have a need to find encouragement and guidance from others more and more these days. So thanks for yours and Malcolm’s.

  2. I’m moved. You’ve packed so much into this post it’s hard to know where to begin in responding. Two things that spoke to me in particular, coming from my own background and interest in such ideas, are your question of how people can ignore huge global alterations and your thoughts on finding a home _in_ the environment instead of outside it.

    A point I have been arguing for some time now is that many of the problems we face in terms of environmental degradation rest, ultimately, on a human conceit that they somehow take place in a world separate from that of human beings. I see the answer to this (well, a limited answer, anyway — the problem is centuries in the making!) is first, challenging the mental and cultural patterns that allow people to think this way easily and without much care, and second, doing things like you advocate here, namely getting people to understandin a gut-level, lived-daily way, the connections between the place they are and the larger world beyond them.

    So hard to do, and so necessary. I take small — but real — hope in the fact that more people seem to be speaking of these things these days, even if their voices are not always easy to hear above the drone of the indifferent.

  3. This is a beautifully written and most compelling piece. Malcolm Wells’ statement puts it exactly right. One of the saddest aspects of so much contemporary development is that it almost never re-uses prior structures or locations; thus we get sprawl and blight — much like the growth of a perennial that sends out shoots to the sides but dies in the center. My husband and I once considered buyin a beautiful piece fo land and buildin gon it, like so many of the people here do. But we opted to stay in our house in the village and try to improve it, and I’m glad. I dont’ want to contribute to that overtaking of nature either, any more than I already do by being a consumer.

    By the way, I loved “A Pattern Language” and have it on my shelf.

  4. In college, I picked up a book titled The Prodigious Builders, about the structures people made when they didn’t bother with plumb lines or squares. I got it mainly for the pictures, because the shapes were so interesting. There was some sections on cave dwellings, and on grass houses, and that sort of thing. Mostly focused on organic building, where people started with whatever was to hand and worked with that until they had a shelter (or whatever it was they wanted).

  5. A few weeks ago I wrote about my visit to Bamberger Ranch in the Texas Hill Country, whose owner David Bamberger claims he started out with the “absolute worse piece of land he could find.” Actually I noticed a bit of a flair for dramatic effect so maybe it was not really the “absolute” worst.

    Whether he knows of Malcolm Wells or not, and he probably does, he has followed his advice to the letter. Streams that were once dry have started to flow once again. He has opened his property to educational tours to show what can be done.

  6. A great piece, Miguel.

    This is a bit tangential, but about sticking with dwellings — yesterday I drove through a housing development that I loathed when it was first built twenty-five years ago. The place was transformed. The houses weren’t all the same now: people had altered them & painted them odd colors, trees and shrubs had grown up, sheds had sprouted, fences had mutated and differentiated — all the horrible symmetry and dead, pretentious, abstract design had been overgrown with twenty-five years of human life, and the suburb, tho it may not have been inspiring, looked like quite a decent place to live. There was something very comforting about that.

  7. Coup de Vent- In spite of all the awful things going on in the world today, one of the things I do believe about human beings is their incredible ability to imagine. If we would all trust in our imaginations more and think of ways to overcome the problems (not necessarily technologically), we could really create a wonderful world. Who would have imagined something like blogging twenty years ago?

    Rana- Europeans often speak of the great shift in human consciousness as the realization that the Earth was not the center of the universe (the Chinese and Indians and Arabs already knew this). I think the next great shift in human consciousness is the final acceptance of the truth that we are animals. We know this intellectually, but have yet to really take it to heart. Until we do we will never really understand ourselves and our limitations.

    Beth- Ask any architect what buildings they enjoy the most and almost always the answer is an old structure with history and character. There is something compelling and alive about old houses and old places. Perhaps it is a recognition on our part of our own participation in the circle of life.

    Pericat- Underground buildings are definitely not anything new. In China people have been living underground for thousands of years. In Cappadocia, Turkey, people have been living in limestone caves and underground for hundreds of years, in some of the most interesting and unusual dwellings ever devised by humans.

    Bill- I fell in love with earth shelters the first time I saw them. Besides being very practical and efficient, there is also something inspiring and magical about a home where the garden is part of the structure. Another building philosophy is Baubiologie or Building Biology, an idea first developed in Germany by architect Helmut Ziehe. The philosophy works on the idea of buildings being seen as living organisms, and in its extreme form, being built from actual living things like trees and bamboo and such.

    Dale- No matter how much we try to impose our limited systems upon the world, nature will always, in the end, have its way. Humans themselves are intimately natural in their very nature; and with time that will show. Even were we to destroy the entire human veneer, the planet itself would regrow. It is our own survival and our relationship to the natural world that worries me. If we don’t step lightly we will destroy ourselves. Ultimately the “husbandry of nature” is a selfish act… we are only hurting ourselves right now, I think.

  8. Underground buildings are definitely not anything new.

    I didn’t mean to suggest they were, or that this book was focusing on modern buildings; the first third (I’ve actually re-located it) is mostly pre-history, and is the part I remembered, since it was why I bought the book in the first place. :)

    The author is Bernard Rudofsky, if that helps.

  9. Pericat… sorry if I sounded as if I were trying to correct you or second-guess you. I actually read Rudofsky’s book while in college (I also own “Architecture Without Architects”. Rudofsky was one of the people who got me interested in vernacular architecture, and in architecture without some special, cliquish status). I was trying to fit you into a general discussion with the others who made comments and to use your comment as a springboard reflecting my comments about a “new” type of architecture. Your comment contrasted well with what I was saying and I wanted to put my own post in perspective. Sorry for not wording it better (•j•)v

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