Will Design Save the World?

On Thursday, I caught a segment on Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now about Michael Reynolds, a renegade architect living near Taos, New Mexico. Although I try to follow developments in sustainable architecture, I had yet to come across Reynolds’ name, and what I heard on the radio intrigued me: houses made out of tires and beer cans that are self-sustaining, wholly enclosed ecosystems.

“So the house is a jungle?” asks Amy Goodman, the program’s host and executive producer, about the use of plants to recycle sewage, insulate the dwelling and grow food. And Reynolds concurs:

Yeah, it’s pretty much, mostly, 50 percent, a jungle. We usually have bananas. We just harvested bananas here. This is tilapia. You can fish here. My eight-year-old grandson just did it on camera; he caught a fish here in like 30 seconds.

On the same morning, Michael Kimmelman wrote an article in The New York Times about two public housing projects: a mixed-income development in East Oakland, California, called Tassafaronga Village, that was finished two years ago, and a San Francisco residence for formerly homeless people that opened last year on a site where a now-demolished freeway once stood.

The San Francisco project cost $27 million and, at least from the published photographs, looks like a remarkably beautiful building composed of striking verticals, contrasting colors and a roofline flaring upward at the edges. The East Oakland complex is graced with colorful setbacks and basketlike balconies that thrust boldly from the street façade. It was finished on time and $1.45 million under budget. The same architectural firm, David Baker + Partners, was responsible for both.

For decades the need for low-income housing in American cities was met with open-access prisons: concrete-and-brick superblocks that vertically stacked social problems and punished poor people for being poor. Most of these projects have been demolished since the urban renewal misadventures of the 1960s and ‘70s, while low-rise solutions that incorporate trees and garden patches have survived.

Somehow, decent housing as a basic human right continues to be news, justifiable by its effect on crime and emergency services. Kimmelman writes:

As with any subsidized housing project that spends a little extra for quality architecture, some advocates for the homeless questioned whether the money might have been better spent on more units. But health and safety go hand in hand with pride of place and a sense of dignity. San Francisco’s public health department said the city saves up to $29,000 a year on former homeless residents in supportive housing, and in general nearly $10,000 per resident a year […] As for Tassafaronga, the Oakland Police Department last year recorded a 25 percent drop in crime compared with 2007 in the old housing complex.

One of Michael Reynolds's earthships
One of Michael Reynolds’s earthships (image via amyfry2000’s Flickrstream) (click to enlarge)

Reynolds’ sustainable houses, which he calls earthships, are also cost-effective, wildly so, their utility bills rarely going above $100 per year, or so he claimed. To his credit, he mentions this in passing. What matters most to him is creating zero-impact housing units:

The electricity comes from the sun. The water comes from the sky. The sewage is treated on site. Everything is—by encountering the natural phenomena of the earth, you have everything you need, and you don’t need utilities. The utilities are bad, because they mine the earth for fuels and make nuclear power plants. But just as bad as that is the infrastructure that they use to deliver the utilities. And then they’re all run by corporations and so on. So, the people are vulnerable. This building, the people that live here are not vulnerable. They are a free people to exist no matter what happens to the economy or anything.

Freedom through engineering: no one can argue with that. But what does an earthship look like? (If the sewage is treated on site, one may also want to know, as Goodman bluntly put it, “So why doesn’t it stink?” To which Reynolds replied, “Well, it’s biology. Sewage doesn’t have to stink if you understand biology. Like, there’s a lot of things in nature that are really rancid, but nature takes care of it.”)

I checked out the corresponding video on the program’s website, which revealed funky adobe structures that looked like hybrids of Islam and J.R.R. Tolkien. But the pitfalls of back-to-the-land architecture are largely avoided, except for a couple of pedestrian-looking facades here and there or too-cute flourishes at the tops of arches and roof peaks.

Reynolds’ use of bottles embedded in plaster walls and canopies as a light source could seem precious but they come off as ingenious and endearing in a Watts Towers sort of way. Largely the buildings are reminiscent of the structures documented in the classic exhibition catalogue from the Museum of Modern Art, Architecture Without Architects by Bernard Rudofsky (1964), in particular the dome-like “sail vaults” in Qum, near Tehran (so called because they seem to swell “like a sail in the wind.”)

An earthship bottle wall
An earthship bottle wall (image via jessicareeder’s Flickrstream)

Architecture Without Architects, which examines non-Western buildings that are “vernacular, anonymous, spontaneous, indigenous, rural, as the case may be,” is subtitled An Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture, which is what Reynolds practices by default, having lost his architecture license.

It’s at this point that Reynolds’ story gets a little sketchy. His conversation with Amy Goodman leaves the impression that he continues to be unlicensed, though his Wikipedia entry asserts that his license was reinstated in 2007. It also mentions disgruntled clients and lawsuits over early earthship models.

To live outside the thrall of power companies and to build beautiful, humane homes for the dispossessed are both simple, axiomatic concepts on their face, but are painted by those who hold the reins — after four decades of Earth Days and inner city decay — as too much change too soon.

It is important not to be too quixotic. Systems as complex as urban sewage treatment and the regulations governing public health and safety are with us for the long run. But we have reached the point where what is radical should be the norm, and what is the norm is already circling the drain.

To my mind, whether or not Reynolds is a flawed prophet is secondary to his reimagining of the relationship of the domicile to the environment. And obviously he’s not the only one out there.

As Rudofsky wrote in the preface to Architecture Without Architects nearly a half century ago, the ancient anonymous builders understood “the limits of architecture itself” and rarely subordinated “the general welfare to the pursuit of profit and progress”:

The wisdom to be derived [from them] goes beyond economic and esthetic considerations, for it touches the far tougher and increasingly troublesome problem of how to live and let live, how to keep peace with one’s neighbors, both in the parochial and universal sense.

Reynolds expresses a similar sentiment:

If all of the soldiers in all of the armies in all of the world were to put down their weapons and pick up tools and start making sustainable housing for all the people in the world, life would just begin on this planet.


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