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Builders of the Pacific Coast


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Builders of the Pacific Coast

And Then They Clearly Flew
blog - April 1, 09

This is a beautiful book full of pictures (there is some writing!) of the incredible organic buildings that you find along the North American west coast. Many of the homes are on the tiny islands just off the coast of Canada. Made from driftwood, cedar and imagination these are homes to dream about. The neat thing is these are mostly not the huge fancy homes (though some a few of these are featured) but are are small homes built by people who love to build and are not interested in big bucks but (and this seems to be true of many of them!) in surfing. This is a book to dip into and out of and dream about - everyone I have shown it to took it into a corner and pored over it for at least half an hour before reluctantly handing it back.

Book Review by George Young
George Young Books

I have developed two problems in going through BUILDERS OF THE PACIFIC COAST time after time…I find something new each time I look and I have an impossibly long list of my favorite things (which changes each time I go through the book). The Leaf House always makes the list but there are so many treasures that it never makes it to the top.

I guess that is the secret of the book…like your journey the reader just has to keep moving on to find the next surprise and enjoyment. It is hard to call it your best book because that suggests that a comparison can be made of similar work. Not so, old friend, this is a beautiful and grand step in your further exploration that began with Shelter. It is fun, inspiring, enriching, and a joy. I would call it your masterpiece but I know the road is still out there, the camera still works, the truck still runs…and your curiosity will push you out there again.

Beautiful, inspired work.

Book Review by Mike Litchfield
West Marin Citizen

Whether you start with the Book of Genesis or the Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, we humans have long loved tales about creating a new world—or building one from scratch.  Lloyd Kahn’s new book, Builders of the Pacific Coast, is primarily an account of builders and hand-crafted structures dating from the 60s to the 80s. Yet the rugged coastal setting of his odyssey—a blue and green world from Point Reyes Peninsula to Vancouver Island—invokes a simpler, more pristine time, an Eden of sorts. When forests grew down to the sea, building codes were few, lumber was plentiful (often free) and anyone with skill, a strong back and the courage to try could create something beautiful and enduring.

That second attribute, “enduring,” is worth noting. The Pacific Northwest, which gets up to 200 inches of rain a year, is one of most challenging places on earth for things made of wood. Ignore the details and in a decade your house will be humus. So as free-flowing and exotic as many of BPC’s buildings are, they are decidedly not hippie shacks. Almost all of the structures were built by professional builders at the top of their game and the level of craft, ingenuity and attention to detail is mind-bending.

It takes great skill, for example, to join factory-milled 2x10s at a roof peak, but inspired madness to converge 21 hand-peeled Douglas fir rafter poles—trees, really—atop an 800-year-old salvaged old-growth redwood log serving as a home’s center post. But for every ponderous tour de force with big timber, there’s something delicate and whimsical, such as the elegant spherical tree houses built “much like a cedar-strip kayak” and hung among three trees with fittings originally intended to secure sailboat masts. The sphere’s builder notes, “When it’s stormy things can be tense, but nothing like a storm at sea…”

My favorite structure in Builders of the Pacific Coast is a sauna on the shores of Lake Henderson, built entirely out of driftwood and later covered with earth and stones. Its driftwood rafters, preassembled on the beach are “curved like ribs and polished by water and shore.” Upon entering the sauna, one of the builder’s buddies remarks, “Hey, it looks like a whale’s rib cage.” Indeed, Jonah would feel right at home.

To document this riot of creativity, Kahn took 10,000 photos and selected 1200 for the book. On every page is something shocking and delightful. A boat with legs. A roof like a leaf. A caravan with eyes. A split-cedar woodshed shaped like a bird. Stair rails so sinuous and snakey they might come to life and grab you. Sculpted earth walls. Round windows and arched doors. Roofs curved like seagull wings. Grottos choked with ferns and flowers. All that’s lacking is a hobbit with a long clay pipe.

Not that there’s any shortage of creatures and fantastical characters. Just off-camera lurk orcas, eagles and bears. (Well, not entirely off-camera. One page features a tiny photo of bear scat: some days they eat nothing but blackberries and the by-product is a deep purple pile of poop.) And then there are the builders themselves. There hasn’t been a cast of characters this colorful since Ken Kesey packed up his Underwood.

There are about forty builders in Builders of the Pacific Coast, but three in particular are such huge talents that Kahn devotes the first third of the book to their creations. The first to appear, ironically named Lloyd House, is a philosopher-builder whose “love for people, love for beauty, love for wood, love for life” infuses all his work. He is clearly Lloyd Kahn’s favorite, as much for his mindful way of working as for any results.

Lloyd House prefers to put the roof up first, with as little framing as possible, then figure out where the windows and walls will go. As he puts it, “You observe a thing till it reveals its nature.” Frequently, he steps outside the usual constraints of time and builder-client roles. His most beautiful creation, Stefan’s House, began with the understanding that the client would not visit the building site till the house was complete. Few clients could tolerate such suspense, yet the result was perfection. As Kahn notes, “Everything was working in harmony: design, siting, materials, craftsmanship, details. I hadn’t met Lloyd [House] yet, but I felt I knew him. His spirit was present in this building.”

Next comes SunRay Kelley, a wildly imaginative and prolific builder whose buildings “embodied the spirit of nature, of the earth—hand-split shakes, cob, straw bale and glass assembled in soaring sculptural buildings that complemented the surrounding natural world.” SunRay also practices “barefootism” and so doesn’t wear shoes on construction sites or anywhere else. Ever. It’s his way of staying connected to the earth.

SunRay is followed by Bruno Atkey, who moves big timber as if it were pick-up sticks and “never lets work interfere with surfing.” Then comes white-bearded Wayne Vliet, who plays jug-band fiddle and cuts perfect dihedral angles; then Godfrey Stephens, a master boatbuilder, fine woodcarver and student of indigenous crafts whose recreation of native forms is “pretty good for a white man.”

In the middle of the book is soulful, black-and-white archive of First Nations Builders that documents the extraordinary craftsmanship of the Haida and Tlingit, Kwakiutl and Salish, who built monumental cedar halls a thousand feet long. And most wonderful, totem poles which fused human forms and fish, grizzlies and ravens, eagles and sea lions into one massive tree of life and death.

And so Builders of the Pacific Coast rolls on, mile after mile, in an odyssey so firsthand and vivid that you feel every rut in the road. And come to know, as Lloyd Kahn did, the soul of the place. The strong hands and big hearts of the people, the staggering abundance of the land and sea, the leaping joy that such a place still exists.

This joyful book is, in many ways, the culmination of more than forty years of hard work. Almost everywhere he went, Lloyd Kahn was welcomed as a friend and mentor. All the builders had copies of the Whole Earth Catalog, of which he had been shelter editor, and many had copies of his1973 classic Shelter, which had inspired and empowered them to build their own houses. So his trips up north must have felt like a homecoming of sorts.

When I visited Lloyd a couple months ago at his office in Bolinas, he had this to say: “The Catalog was a profound tool and the 60s had a huge influence on what’s going on now. Back then, we were talking about treating the earth right, alternative sources of energy, building out of natural sustainable materials—green building—that is now front and center in people’s minds. The movements of the 60s didn’t fail, everybody just dispersed, scattered like seeds. So these builders up north are success stories from the 60s. These guys went out and did stuff and it worked.”

Shelter on the Pacific Coast
Jacoba Charles
Point Reyes Light

The packed pages of Builders of the Pacific Coast provide a refreshing look at what shelter can mean: in his latest book, Bolinas author Lloyd Kahn sifts through the cookie-cutter architectural dross of America to collect some prize samples of creativity, beauty and craftsmanship.

Through text, photographs and diagrams, Kahn documents the counterculture carpentry of the Northwest coast, from San Francisco to Vancouver Island.

The structures in the book—which range from spherical “free spirit” tree houses suspended in the woods, to whimsical cedar-shingled gazebos and campers that look like modified garbage trucks—are one-of-a kind products of vision, revision and persistence.

Each of the 48 chapters focuses on a particular site, genre or craftsman (and the builders are, almost exclusively, men). Some—such as Lloyd House—occupy many pages, though most take up only a few, and are dense with biography and myriad images. Some read like family albums, full of snapshots of kids and neighbors. Nature is featured nearly as prominently as the buildings, almost all of which are embedded in the dense forests, fields and rocky shores that are so intrinsic to the region place and its people.

Initially, Kahn set out to write a book about the builders of North America, but during his first trip up the coast in 2005, he quickly narrowed his focus.

“I was astonished at the quality of design, imagination and craftsmanship in this part of the world,” Kahn wrote in the introduction to Builders. “It was apparent that there could be a book on this area alone.”

The book is Kahn’s third on building design in as many decades. The New York Times called him a “steadfast chronicler of offbeat owner-built shelter” in a 2004 profile.

Kahn’s turn toward architecture began in the 1960s, when he quit his job in insurance to work as a carpenter. Eventually his passion for green and sustainable building led to the books that he is now most well known for.

In addition to being an author and a publisher, Kahn is an athlete, a world traveler and, according to an interview with the Light in 1993, a “frustrated newspaper editor.” He ran a newspaper while in the Air Force in Germany and later worked for the Whole Earth Catalog. “But in the long run I didn’t have the stomach for even bi-monthly, let alone daily, deadlines,” Kahn wrote in a Hearsay News article.

Consequently, he went on to form Shelter Publications, which has put out books by various authors on subjects ranging from cooking to stretching to sewer systems.

At the start of his career as an author, Kahn wrote two books on domes, which he was enamored of at the time. The dome that he built for himself in Bolinas was featured in Life magazine; he later dismantled it.

In 1973 Kahn published Shelter, a rambling inventory of alternative and hand-built houses around from the globe that in many ways was an offshoot of the Whole Earth Catalog. The book was quickly embraced by back-to-the-landers for its ethic and its instructions.

Decades later, when he was working on Builders, Kahn discovered that he was now writing about people whom his first book had inspired.

“An amazing thing unfolded as I traveled,” he wrote. “Time after time, builders would tell me that this or that building was inspired by…Shelter. In fact, just about every builder I ran across was familiar with the book. Wow!”

After Shelter, Kahn’s next major work was released in 2004, when he published Home Work: Handbuilt Shelter. As with his first book, Home Work spanned the globe, representing over 30 years worth of traveling and documenting hand-built houses. The book includes indigenous peoples’ homes on several continents; off-the-grid houses in California; fantastical sculptural buildings; and homes made to be moved, from tents to busses.

“There is a heavy West-coast bias at work,” wrote one reader in a favorable review.

“Every builder profiled seems to have a sauna and a beard, and I could swear there's a pot plant in the foreground of one of the photos.”

Kahn’s three books overlap, play off one another and diverge in a way that mirrors the varied yet coherent nature of the structures they document. Each also represents the spirit of the times; Shelter is more chaotic and homegrown, while both Home Work and Builders are streamlined, modern interpretations of the same energy. Clearly what Kahn loves are these buildings, the people who made them, and the voyages that brought him to their doors.

“I ended up being a compulsive communicator,” Kahn wrote. “It’s the journalism bug: I no sooner discover something wonderful than I want to show everyone what I’ve found.”

Kolin's Book of the Week
Kolin Lymworth

Welcome to our post-Halloween sugar blues daze. With hundred of new books crossing my desk and my eyes each month, I'm jazzed to point you to this new one: Builders of the Pacific Coast by Lloyd Kahn, $31 (CDN), 250 pages, 9x12, with loads of colour photos. I've actually seen some of these builders and buildings along our coast, and the book is an amazing tribute to them, and to our beautifully human shelter-crafting instincts as well.

This gorgeous book by Lloyd Kahn (legendary "shelter" editor of the Whole Earth Catalog) features photos and interviews with brilliant designer-builders from San Francisco to the coastal islands of B.C. (including Cortes, Denman & Hornby islands). Many of the builders shown here got started in the counter-cultural era of the '60s and '70s and their lovely work has never been shown in books or magazine articles before.

From unique homesteads in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, to communities of self-built shelters on small islands in the Strait of Georgia, to charming beachfront houses on the "Wild Coast" of Vancouver Island, these structures and their creators are concepts from the '60s that worked.

As in his previous books Shelter and Home Work, Kahn features three builders: Lloyd House, master craftsman and designer who has created a series of unique homes on a small island; Bruce Atkey, creator of a number of houses and lodges built of hand-split cedar on the Wild Coast, and Sun Ray Kelley, barefoot builder tuned in to nature, who has designed and built wildly imaginative structures in Washington and California. In addition, there are sculptural buildings of driftwood, homes that are beautiful as well as practical, live-aboard boats, and examples of awesome architectural design.

This journey into the creative processes of owner-built homes contains over 1000 photos featuring builders on Vancouver Island, surrounding islands, and the Sunshine Coast north of Vancouver. Over a two-year period, Kahn made four trips to British Columbia shooting photos and interviewing builders. He discovered a wealth of creative design and imaginative architecture: unique buildings on Denman Island, Hornby Island, and Cortes Island; two amphitheaters built out of driftwood logs on the Sunshine Coast; cabins in the woods, homesteads on the beaches, and buildings in tune with their natural surroundings.

Exploring innovative techniques, use of sustainable materials, and essential dedication to the natural elements surrounding their designs, Builders of the Pacific Coast offers stunning colour and black-and-white photographs, as well as detailed black-and-white drawings of the homes. This collection of unique and progressive designs creates a template for a future filled with forward-thinking, organic architecture.

Kolin Lymworth has been at the helm of Banyen Books for 38 years.