Domebuilder's Blues


Smart, But Not Wise

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"Home is Where the Hearth Is"
Book Review by Edward Abbey

Shelter, edited by Lloyd Kahn.

How very fine it is to leaf through a 176-page book on architecture- from bailiwicks to zomes - and find no palaces, no pyramids or temples, no cathedrals, skyscrapers, Kremlins, or Pentagons in sight. Nor any Soleri mile-high Arcologiums, Gropius machines for living, Del Webb town-houses, or R. Buckminster Fuller termitoriums. Instead, a book of homes, habitations for human beings in all their infinite variety.

Shelter, in the words of the editors, is a book about "simple homes, natural materials, and human resourcefulness. It is about discovery, hard work, the joys of self-sufficiency, and freedom. It is about shelter, which is more than a roof overhead." Precisely.

The book begins with a casual survey of home building around the world, now and in the past. There are drawings and photographs of Mandan earth lodges from tlie 1830s. the caves at Massafra, ancient troglodyte dwellings in Tunisia. Neolithic caves and house plans, and the homes of Cappadocia in central Turkey, where people even today live in apartments carved out of cones of volcanic tuff. We are given more pictures of straw huts in Togoland, the strange and beautiful mud villages of the Dogon people (who live along the Niger River near Timbuktu), the mud and dung huts of the Masai, a reconstructed Iron Age hut of stone and thatch in England. Nomadic homes: the tents of the North Afri- can Berbers, the Tuaregs, the Bedouin, the Tekna of Morocco, the yurts of Monglia, Sioux tepees. Descriptions of Navajo hogans, Hopi kivas, Pima adobe huts. The peasant cottages of England, Yugoslavia, Japan, Norway, eastern Europe, and Russia. Back to the New World-the sturdy timber frame houses of early New England, log cabins, the sod and baled-hay houses of the plains, the early stud frame buildings that made possible the quick towns and cities that followed the white man's "conquest" of the West. Exactly.

Shelter follows the format of the popular Whole Earth Catalog. Like the latter, it is about two-thirds illustration; its principle of organization anarchic. Every big page holds photographs and sketches from many sources, as well as quotes, excerpts, captions, stories, Indian legends, anecdotes, and reports-signed and unsigned-from a multitude of voluntary and involuntary contributors. If you trying to read this book through from beginning to end you'll likely get bogged down where I did, about page 18, in the middle of the Miwok assembly house or the Wichita grass shack. No matter. Like the Catalog, Shelter is meant for browsing through, not reading, and one can begin as well in the middle or start at the end and work backward, it makes no difference.

Not a history, not a comprehensive survey, not a study. Shelter is a sort of handbook, manual, or guide- book for those who are contemplating the awful prospect of buying title to a piece of the earth's surface and actually building with their own hands and tools some kind of habitable structure thereon. Something I myself, for example, have been planning to do for twenty years; I keep finding good excuses for putting it off till next year. Yet building your own home, however humble, is something that many of us feel we must attempt, sooner or later. Like falling in love, like raising a baby, like a few nights in the county jail, the construction of a shelter is an experience that has to be known if one is to have a complete and adequate life.

Furthermore, as the editors of this compendium point out, the rising cost of materials and labor, the competition for dwindling resources, the pestilential overcrowding of our shrinking planet mean that only the rich or the independent are likely to survive the bleak prospects of the next fifty years. We may be required, ready or not, to scrounge for sticks and stones, find help and friends, make not more with less, but make do with less in order to give ourselves and our children a chance to carry on.

Shelter provides helpful hints, although hardly blueprinted instructions, toward survival with honor. I said that this book's principle of organization is anarchic. True. But "anarchic" meaning, not "no rule," but self rule- rule from within, not without. So, in meandering fashion. Shelter goes on from the round-the- world overview into sections on building techniques, materials, nomadic living, domes, zomes and zarches, designer-builders, the necessary eco-logic of living with one's immediate environment, energy, wind power, solar heating, water saving, and sewage recycling.

The chapter on domes is called "Domebook 3," after previous publications on this subject by Lloyd Kahn and his friends. Here I was pleased to see a healthy reaction against the dome mania taking place within the same group that formerly promoted geodesics as a metaphysical solution to the housing problem. For years I have been conducting a one-man campaign against that old crackpot R. Buckminster Fuller and all his works. He has ignored my attacks, vicious and scurrilous though they are, feigning unawareness of my existence. But now I have company and we're going to nail him.

My objection to geodesic dome homes is quite simple: anything that ugly must be wrong. It offends me to see those fungoid warts, those giant sunken golf balls, those polyurethane pustules breaking out like pimples across the face of the splendid American Southwest. To me they are both symbol and symptom of the Plastic Plague, the Age of Junk; their proliferation is an insult to the eye, the mind, and the heart. Why, I wondered, in a land so rich in rock and adobe and cow dung.

Now we see objections to the geodesic dome home arising Irom sources more technical and authoritative than the esthetic-intuitive. The dome leaks; it is not easily salvageable; it is impossible to add on to; it is difficult to square with furnishings inside or to divide into rooms; it requires many small parts and precise technical skill to assemble; the curving surfaces accumulate dust and dirt; the polyurethane covering does not weather well, burns explosively if overheated, releasing cyanide gas, and requires the use of nonrenewable resources such as coal and petroleum in its manufacture. Most important, the dome home is ugly. Fuller's followers will have to look elsewhere to put the master's visions into 3-D reality; perhaps they can revive his Dymaxion car, which lapsed into oblivion at about the same time as the Hupmobile and the Hudson Terraplane and the Airflow Chrysler.

Let's give poor old Bucky a break now and conclude this review: Shelter is not a book, although made of paper and print. I don't know what it is. But whatever, it's full of interesting information, useful pictures, fascinating trivia, good ideas, and pertinent quotations from important nineteenth-century American Indian speeches. Shelter deserves a place in every home, of whatever conformation, alongside the Bible, the Book of Mormon, Shakespeare, the I-Ching, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Naked Massage, the Old Farmer's Almanac, and of course, The Monkey Wrench Gang: A Novel About the Wooden Shoe Business in America.

Edward Abbey lives on a wildlife refuge in Arizona. He is the author of a forthcoming book. The Monkey Wrench Gang: A Novel About the Wooden Shoe Business in America.

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