On a recent visit to Cal-Earth’s open house and interactive tour (at a colleague’s request) I realized three major benefits of such a trip: the personal benefit of often irrational actions or events, like exploring huts 60 miles away in a desert in California; the social benefit of desert living; and the potential architectural benefit of adapting Cal-Earth’s concept into an urban setting, like Los Angeles.
“This looks just like the village I visited with my brother and dad in Guinea, Africa, a few years back” – I said to myself as I started the tour. There were varied residential conceptual-looking habitable structures spread out over the desert land in Hesperia, CA. So, I began to let the inner child out and explore these somewhat familiar buildings (For an African, it felt like architecture had come full circle – pun intended), passageways, and landscapes. (Image 3) First, I crawled into one of the smaller huts (around 100 s.f., way smaller than the “creative room” in Pixar Animation Studios, Emeryville, CA, that also requires crawling to enter) and was quite impressed by both the attention to detail and by the sensitivity to proportions that enabled a relatively big guy like myself to feel comfortable cuddling up to the window within the niches carved out of the central space of the hut. To my right was the quite affordable home (a small roll of Unfilled SuperAdobe tube rolls can build a small shelter – @ $250.00 per 250 yards), and, to my left was a great view out to the rest of the site and the suburban developments beyond (Image 2). I thought to myself the inside spaces of some of these shell structures are what priceless stories are made of. And speaking of structure, each building (of the shell forms) are based on the simplicity and effectiveness of arch shapes in both moderating loads as well as expressing simple forms that seem to fully engage their natural surroundings. The tour guide, Alice, mentioned that the filled tube building is so structurally sound that it passes California codes.
Forms, in this case wooden formwork (Image 6), can be seen at the site and are part of the demonstrations that go on during tours. These forms help transform the simple arch shapes into shells like domes and barrel vaults (Image 4) which define habitable spaces. As I kept exploring, I started feeling personally gratified at having taken the risk to deviate from my usual Saturday routine (organizing bills, running errands, etc.) to truly be captivated within adorably iconic, yet affordable, buildings (for most, in some cases). Also, I enjoyed being able to photo-document some of my experiences. As I reached the middle of the site, the tour groups started converging towards a communal space dotted with chairs, bricks, and sand. It was here that I felt a genuine sense of community among the brethren eager to listen and be impressed by the presentation of those in the Cal-Earth foundation. The speakers, from my perspective, seemed to be relishing in the joy of being at peace with the environment and connected to the idea of S.O.U.L. in architecture, or, “Sense Of Urgent Living.” (An Idea I will expand on in other articles; an idea that provoke us to take architecture as seriously as we take mobile technology, like phones for example) One of those speakers was Dastan Khalili, a son of Cal-Earth’s founder, Nader Khalili (the famous Iranian Architect). Dastan gave an impassioned speech that expressed the mission of his father in developing such a grand project, detailed the personal stories that led to his father’s radical decision in leaving an established architecture firm (on a motorcycle…) in order to explore (for around four years) what nature had to say to him, and, provoked the audience with the very same question that his dad was faced with: What is the most sustainable way to build that is available to everyone?
Finally, in further developing that question, how can Khalili’s Eco-Dome concept be realized within urban context? Did anyone say Spain? Sagrada Familia and Antoni Gaudi’s naturist influence and success in integrating organic developments into urban Barcelona. All in all, I think the question teaches those that appreciate architecture to appreciate complex solutions (like energy savings, social potential or even adaptive reuse potential) that can come out of simple forms. Remember Laugier’s Primitive Hut? Well, this hut can and should form a more ecological and economical path towards bringing architecture back to its base state (in terms of Entropy in Architecture) so that the next generation can show us something equally spectacular in terms of provocative designs (not unlike some of frank Gehry’s works) that benefit us both personally as well as socially.
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Daniel Ebuehi, Android Phone