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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Graceful Arches

"I'll bridge these hills with graceful arches"~ Frank Lloyd Wright

There are many reasons to build a house, to erect walls, provide shelter, house those people and those things important to us in life. I suppose we each have that one true thing in our life that we need to accomplish. Not simply an attainable goal that builds our confidence and our credibility, but something driven more by our soul's desire to create, to leave behind something worthy, something that reflects who we are at the stripped-down core. Whether that one thing, our personal thing, is understood and appreciated or otherwise questioned doesn't matter--it is the process and the result that brings our passion to it's satisfactory conclusion. For my husband, Richard, that one true thing is an Earth House, built of rammed earth and earth bricks, coming to life on a parcel of land in the brush of Senegal, Africa. His decision, the why and the where, was not sudden. When I look back on the progression of this project, I can see the seed germinating. It started with Richard's adolescent hand in refurbishing his mother's ruined farmhouse in Brittany and was fueled by his adult desire to lead a more sustainable life, to skim the extraneous from our lives. Land was purchased; books about earth architecture appeared; long discussions about the efficacy and merits of building in Senegal ensued; plans were drawn up.  His catalytic inspiration came from an Egyptian architect of the 1940's and 50's named Hassan Fathy, who was mocked and dismissed by his peers for building with earth techniques, but was ultimately honored for having instituted "architecture for the poor" on the continent of Africa.
One of the biggest problems plaguing the people of Senegal centers around housing. Land is passed from generation to generation, sometimes as part of a marriage dowry, more often as legacy. But because cement and iron are costly materials, they cannot afford to build homes on their land and as a consequence, many Senegalese find themselves selling the land for monetary gain, forfeiting their inheritance as well as their independence. This is one reason why households are overcrowded with more generations than their modest walls can accommodate. At one point, as is still true in more rural areas, building with earth was the norm. Those people who moved closer to a large metropolis found themselves caught up in the web of status, wanting to be accepted and revered by their neighbors.  French influences brought more sophisticated, but not necessarily better, building materials which were comparatively expensive and the "old ways" of building gradually became a chapter in history. They didn't forget, they chose as an urban society to move forward, as we all have, in every nation, following an integrated path that we were told was superior to the simple one we were on. And like the Senegalese, we are all beginning to understand that what worked so well before, what we abandoned in favor of "progress" wasn't so disposable after all. Cement holds in heat; earth walls keep the interior temperate. Modern toxic paints are expensive and require substantial maintenance; active Lyme costs nothing and repels insects and dust. Most importantly, the dirt that we excavate gets molded into the walls that surround us . . . using all, wasting nothing, costing little, lasting lifetimes. The prodigal French son has returned, and he's come to make amends, to resurrect the past, in the form of a modern mud structure. Richard hopes that this house will serve as an example to the native Senegalese that they can afford to build a house and it doesn't have to be round or utilize thatched straw roofing. It can make sense in it's usage and purpose and still be beautiful, breathtaking in fact. 
This is where Richard's one true thing bridges the gap between the needs of this society and his personal need to build something beautiful and lasting. This is the crossroad where building becomes architecture, where construction becomes creation and where a house becomes a home. This is where Richard's soul comes into the equation, where the individuality of his mind's eye intersects with the trajectory of the golden rectangle, where his calculations are made, not just to keep the vaulted ceilings from collapsing, but to make sure the afternoon light comes through the half-moon windows to reflect their rounded shape on the corner-edged floors. It is where the direction of typical winds is taken into consideration, so that breezes move the light linen curtains. It is where doors open to view their adjacent arches vined with Bougainvillea, where exterior abbey corridors provide a walkway that takes us from one room to another, but on the way, makes us stop and listen for ancient voices in their monastic slopes, to be humbled by their austerity. This house will endure, for us, for our children if they so choose. For now, at this phase, there are only half walls that hint at what's to come, but they are beautifully textured and sturdy, thick as trees, cool to the touch, smelling of the ground. I love to come on site in the afternoons to congratulate the team of twelve workers for the day's progress and to walk the paths between these arches that Richard himself has built. Their framed earth bricks, cured by the sun, climb up and lean on each other for support, in the way that we do in uncertain times. Sometimes I wish these graceful arches could stay as they are, their reaching silhouettes more like ruins than beginnings. When I look at them lately, I can see that they were always meant to be here, that we were always meant to come.

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