When we hear that half of Guatemala’s population is homeless because of the recent earthquake, our usual questions about shelter — whether to live in town or in the country, in an apartment or a farmhouse — are thrown into sharp and disquieting perspective. The cruel irony of so many Americans on diets in a starving world is paralleled by our indulgence in revolutionary new architectures (everything from ecologically questionable domes to the towering monstrosities of the World Trade Center in New York) in a world where “home” can be anything from an abandoned car to a refugee tent. We may be indignant about hollow doors in new houses, built by carpenters forbidden by their unions to use a hammer heavier than fourteen ounces (which might speed up construction and make some union men expendable) and paid for by 30-year mortgages whose accumulated interest comes to twice the value of the house. But all this means about as much to a family living on the streets of Calcutta as the price of a Rembrandt to a blind man. Shelter is relative; there is no right dwelling, except what’s right for the individual.
If the bias of the articles in this issue is towards simpler, less expensive, owner-built homes, that is because the mass-produced packages of the housing industry do not satisfy individual needs for individually shaped space. Those who build their own homes have learned something important about the reciprocal relationship between themselves and their environment. Frank Lloyd Wright said he could design a house that would make people get a divorce; similarly, a house built to reflect our personal uniqueness may turn out to be a house of love.
Square rooms make square people, a new generation of dome dwellers warned us. But then problems of weatherproofing, the short life of many modern plastics, and the difficulties of organizing the curved space for living disillusioned many of them; domes leak became the epithet for a generation. Years before anyone had heard of Buckminster Fuller, James Agee, in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, had written, “there can be more beauty and deep wonder in the standings and spacings of mute furnishings on a bare floor between the squaring bourns of walls than in any music ever made.”
Architecture that at first glance seems primitive can turn out to exemplify a greater harmony between man and his environment than many of today’s chaotic cities. Architecture Without Architects by Bernard Rudofsky is a beautiful and thoughtful book about communal or “primitive” architecture, produced not by specialists but by the spontaneous activity of a whole people with a common heritage. So, too, with the homes pictured on these pages.* There is harmony in the seeming anomalies — an oversized refrigerator next to a thatched wall, or two family cars parked near the outdoor privy. What could be more American, more expressly contemporary? If there are extravagances of gesture, they are at least those of people being themselves, at home with themselves. Oddly, many of those who’ve built their own homes warn against it. It’s hard work, they say, and you have to live with your mistakes; this, presumably, is worse than living with someone else’s. The most telling objection is that building your own home is another of those fantasies that promise fulfillment; in fact, you’re never more at home than when you’re at home within yourself. There’s no “escaping” civilization into a dream house; the Earth is our home, and it’s everywhere.
* The photographs mentioned above were taken of, and in, owner-built homes near Chapel Hill by Priscilla Rich Safransky. They are available as a PDF only. Click here to download.