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Shelter Publications’ World Headquarters


If I Had a Hammer? What Do You Mean If?

New York Times
House & Home Section
Published: October 14, 2004


Jonathan Kanter
Peter DaSilva
Lloyd Kahn, top at left, atop his 1971 dome in Bolinas, Calif., which evolved into a shelter with a hexagonal tower for him and his wife, Lesley Creed, above.

BEFORE McMansions, before the counterculture was granite and marble, there was Lloyd Kahn, champion of the hand-built house, a road-kill-skunk skin warming his chair, a chin-up bar suspended from the rafters.

For 35 years, Mr. Kahn, 69, has been a steadfast chronicler of offbeat owner-built shelter: straw and mud houses, solar-powered houses, geodesic domes beloved by hippies (of whom Mr. Kahn was one) and made from chopped-up cars pounded into submission and bent into triangles.

From his head (covered with a visor to conceal a receding hairline) to his toes (dusty and protruding from Birkenstocklike scandals he made by taking a drywall knife to his running shoes), Mr. Kahn is a believer in, and an appreciator of, homemade architecture, as varied as floating homes in Hong Kong and Mongolian yurts. In the 1970's, he was a hero to "back to the landers," who drew inspiration from his first book, "Shelter," an ebullient homegrown survey of alternative housing around the world that grew out of the "Whole Earth Catalog," where he was the shelter editor.

Now, from his home down a brambly dirt road with no name in Bolinas, the self-consciously reclusive coastal village in Marin County, comes "Home Work: Handbuilt Shelter" (Shelter Publications, 2004), his latest ode to humankind's ability to create, often virtually out of nothing, expressive and in some cases profoundly bizarre dwellings.

"The process makes you different," Mr. Kahn said of building one's own house, which he has done four times. "Anything you make yourself is your own."

In a sense, Mr. Kahn and his wife, Lesley Creed, a gifted gardener and quilter, have stepped out of the pages of his own book. Their woodsy compound, where bantam chickens roam, is presided over by a 30-foot-tall hexagonal tower, its windows plucked from chicken coops. It is the lone remnant of a geodesic dome - "the most beautiful dome ever built," as Mr. Kahn put it, which he constructed in 1971, heady with the ideas of the visionary builder R. Buckminster Fuller. He dismantled the dome four years later in disenchantment and eventually renounced domes altogether in a diatribe titled "Refried Domes," self-published on newsprint and distributed throughout the dome underground.

Life magazine had featured the dome in a 1972 article titled "Room Galore but Hard to Subdivide." Mr. Kahn told the magazine, "In an ordinary square house, vitality sits down and dies in corners."

"I was young and foolish," he now says, citing the leaks that the domes were prone to, and their impractical shape. "You shouldn't make building a house a trip."

Jean Soum
Michael F. Bush
Steve Hornher
Lloyd Kahn documents the creations of amateur builders, including a "zome" workshop in France, top; a stone house built by a naked man, middle; and a concrete house, above, in Mexico..

Nevertheless, "Home Work" is rife with trippy 1960's-style characters, who seem to have spent the interim marinating in formaldehyde. Perhaps only Mr. Kahn, a specialist in obscurity, whose bookshelves are lined with titles like "African Spaces: Designs for Living in Upper Volta," could discover people like Louie Fraser, whose house on the Mendocino coast is approached by swinging on a cable over a river. Or Ian MacLeod, a Scotsman living in South Africa, who was inspired to build his house while entirely in the nude because his hillside adjoined a nudist resort.

Then there is the potter who is also a massage therapist and runs a belly dance troupe on the side. (She lives in a tepee, natch.)

But for every zome - a house in the shape of a rhombic viacontahedron - Mr. Kahn also celebrates unsung vernacular structures like Kickapoo wigwams and Nepalese monasteries. He implicitly makes connections between handmade dwellings, wherever they may be and regardless of maker, and those put up by people who opt out of the mainstream, linking the structures through the warmth and character he sees in them.

Though unheralded by scholars, Mr. Kahn "kicked off the appreciation of the worldwide vernacular," said Peter Nabokov, a professor of world arts and cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. "He combined 60's values, especially an appreciation of appropriate technology, with ethnic cultures - the esthetic pleasures of the found, ignored and jury-rigged."

By bearing witness to the communal values of the 1960's and editing the countercultural classics "Domebook One" and "Domebook 2" in the early 1970's, Mr. Kahn also became, perhaps inadvertently, a social historian. In "Shelter," he invited the Red Rockers, a dome commune, to reflect on their second thoughts. "After years of lying in a heap," they wrote, "most of us have decided that in order to keep becoming new people, to keep growing and changing, we need more privacy."

His latest book showcases numerous homes destined to make Park Avenue decorators weep, among them Timolandia near San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico, an undulating concrete fantasy house with the architectural intensity of a ravenous boa constrictor.

Mr. Kahn's inclusive spirit grew out of the literature of the Whole Earth period, along with books like "What Color Is Your Parachute?" and "How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot," by John Muir.

"There is so much zest and Darwinian knowledge lodged in this stuff," Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth organization, said of vernacular structures championed by Mr. Kahn. "He basically disintermediates the profession by taking away the architects and the builders, who often lead you away from what you really want."

Mr. Kahn spent the 1980's publishing running and fitness books. At 65, he taught himself how to skateboard. He recently kayaked solo from Bolinas to San Francisco, a journey of more than five hours. On the road scouting architecture, he camps in a Toyota Tacoma pickup with a solar heating system. A wild-turkey feather dangles from an air vent, and on the dashboard a note reminds him, "Don't Skate When You're Tired."

"When you learn a physical skill when you're old," he said, "you have to pay attention. It's good for your brain." He remains, at 69, the quintessential do-it-yourselfer, donning a wet suit and paddling out on his surfboard to harvest seaweed for nori omelets. He has taught himself how to play the jug, demonstrating: "woomp boooop booop woom woompadoop."

"I believe in utilizing what's there," he said.

This philosophy applies especially to his house, set in organic gardens, which, as his wife, a self-described Victorian, put it, include "one of everything." Several buildings, including a studio that is the headquarters of Shelter Publishing, are built of wood recycled from Navy barracks. He gathered the shingles in the 70's at high tide, combing the beach for driftwood, levering the logs into the water and paddling them over to his truck.

The Kahns' outdoor sauna and shower are solar-heated. "The heat is provided by the sun, and it's free, so it feels different," he said. "It's similar to the way food tastes better when cooked over wood. Water feels better heated by the sun."

MR. KAHN developed an enthusiasm for building at 12, shoveling sand into a concrete mixer and nailing decking to the roof of the family's weekend house in the Central Valley. "I loved the smell of sawdust and putting things together," he said. He joined the Air Force in 1958. There he edited a military newspaper. Upon returning to the Bay Area, he constructed a sod-roof house, the first house he built. He joined his father in the insurance business in 1960, when San Francisco was starting to percolate. "It was the era of organic gardening and of dolphins' communicating," he said. Realizing that he identified more with younger people than with insurance brokers, "I left my generation."

He moved to Big Sur, where he built houses and became a dome proselytizer, eventually supervising the building of dozens of domes at a "hippie boarding school" near Santa Cruz. "Domes were the ultimate outlaw fantasy," said Bob Easton, a Montecito architect, who edited the Domebooks and "Shelter" with Mr. Kahn. "There was a sense that you could live with freedom, that imagination and expression were mainstream. These were folks who were able to bust out."

In the 1970's, the Kahns, who now have two grown children (he has an older son by a previous marriage), strove for self-sufficiency here in Bolinas, raising goats, bees and chickens. "Nobody's totally self-sufficient," he said. "Self-sufficiency is just a direction you're moving in. It's about finding the right balance."

They added to the house and garden as needed, putting up an adobe greenhouse with handmade bricks (one part cement to two parts sand). "The quality of an owner-built house may not be at the level of a professional," he said, "but you have a different relationship to it. It's like having a baby."

Next month, Mr. Kahn is publishing "Wonderful Houses Around the World," a children's book about family life in unusual dwellings like Tunisian underground houses, with photographs by Yoshio Komatsu.

He clearly believes fervently that the renegade spirit of domes, zomes and other mortgage-free hippie oddities remains relevant. "You save hundreds of thousands of dollars and get the house you want," he said. "What you build for yourself is better quality, just like the tomatoes you grow or the quilts you make."

Kevin Kelly, the founder and editor of Wired magazine, said that the Internet has made Mr. Kahn's vision of handmade and home-built more accessible and powerful than ever. In some ways he is the progenitor of the new do-it-yourself movement, which manifests itself every Labor Day weekend at the Burning Man festival in Nevada. "The fringe often moves center," Mr. Kelly said. "Technology increases the options and customability of a house, and the material world is now hackable. What Lloyd provides is the sense of recasting your space to suit your own specifications. He's saying money alone doesn't get you character."

An abandoned orange and white Volkswagen van sits in weeds on a gravel road leading down to the Pacific near Mr. Kahn's house. It would seem a quaint period piece. except for a lone survivor in the rust: a bumper sticker that reads, "Home Is Heaven on Earth."