FIRST EARTH | Uncompromising Ecological Architecture

Kiko Denzer

My neighbour was someone I'd known through work, and she was teaching anthropology at the university, and she was having a guest speaker who she told me about. And I think her tagline was, he lived on $3000 a year in a house he built himself for $500. And being as I was heading back to work doing art, I figured, well, it sounded good, being able to build your house for very little money.

So I went to see the slideshow, and it was one of Ianto's slideshows, and Ianto was the person in question. And he was teaching a course that month, which was one of the first 2 or 3 courses I think that they had taught, so I went and took one for a week.

I went on a walkabout for a summer -- driveabout -- and got to the home of my father and his wife in Minnesota, and she's a baker and wanted bread, so I made her an oven, because I just learned how to make ovens in the workshop. So I made her an oven. Then when I got to the East Coast, and was staying with my brother, he wanted an oven, so I made an oven for him. And I started sculpting again, and I stayed in touch with Cob [Cottage] Co., and so the sculpture and the ovens took off in one tangent.

Well, the first oven workshop I did, at the end, this woman said, "This is just like the '70's!" You know, because she hadn't done anything with other people since the '70's! And it's the idea of sharing labour, which is no longer necessary, right? If you have money, you can buy services, or you can buy things ready-made, you no longer need to make them. So making something with other people is sometimes a revelation. And you know, it's always a pleasure, it's always a pleasure to get muddy with other people, it's fun. So there's that aspect of it.

The food is sort of obvious, everybody loves pizza, and the pizza that comes out of a wood-fired oven is different than any other pizza. Because first of all, you put it into a 700 degree oven or an 800 degree oven, as opposed to a 550 degree oven. Second of all, it's a much more intense heat, because it's radiating from all directions, as well as a live fire, as well as bricks that are 600-900 degrees.

So it cooks in 2 minutes. And then, I don't know, maybe that means it's closer to live food or what, but it's a noticeable difference. And you can cook anything else in them. So people get excited about the food. And you know, what's not to get excited about there.

When you build something on this scale, it's as big as you are, and all of a sudden, it's like you're Michaelangelo, wrestling with a huge stone, because you're making something on your own scale. And it's cool to see people who wouldn't call themselves artistic or creative get to the end of an oven-building project and say, "Wow, I made this! It's beautiful!"

So, we were talking about Intaba's [Restaurant, in Corvalis, Oregon]. Well, the challenge there was, we were building, it's all permitted, a professional job for a restaurant. So we had to meet building code, health code, and run the plans by all the officials. So we couldn't exactly call it a mud oven. I was also a little concerned because as a commercial oven, it needed to perform at a higher level. So I had to think about materials some.

But we called it a "Cast-Refractory Clay-Sand Oven," and it's like, Okay! They bought that. You know, you change the name, make it technical, and anybody'll buy it. I substituted crushed-up firebrick for sand, because it had more density, and would hold more heat. And we ended up having to engineer the foundation, it's a cast concrete foundation, with 1/2-inch wire every 6 or 8 inches. So it's a bomb-proof, earthquake-proof little table that we put the oven on.

And then, again, when you start to make an oven that's 4 foot in diameter, the shape of the dome becomes critical, and so I drew out an actual catenary arch and made a template, so I could scrape the sandforms, to make sure it was actually the right shape, so it would support itself, and not fall down.

And it's got a foot of insulation, it's got a foot of thermal mass, and a foot of insulation, because on that scale, you want to make sure it's going to be as efficient as possible, so making a shell, a hollow shell, in which to pour loose insulation was a little bit of a trick, but we effectively made, sort of like wattle-and-daub, we made a basket, and then mudded over the basket, and left it open, and then filled it up full of insulation through the top. And that worked.

So those were the main challenges. But otherwise, it was a mud oven.

I also know that when people work with their hands, they relax, their bodies relax, their minds can focus, all kinds of things can happen, because you get out of your head. We don't live in our heads, we're not mental beings. We're being who have brains, and we think and have mental processes, but those processes are all directly linked to physical processes. So if we aren't engaged with the world in a physical way, then I don't think we can be mentally complete or whole or sane. You know, sanity is about health, and health is physical and mental, and the two are connected.

And I see that a lot in working with kids. Kids don't know how to use shovels, they don't know how to use a hammer. And they're not comfortable with their bodies, they're not comfortable with the dirt.

I got called into one school, and we were walking around, talking about different projects, and schools never want to do ovens, because it involves fire, and they're all scared of fire. And they think if you put an oven out there, a kid's going to have an unsupervised, dangerous fire. But I wasn't that excited about doing free-standing outdoor sculpture, and I didn't see a site that lent itself to that, but there was a brick wall that was really ugly, and I said, Let's do a mural. So we did a mural on the wall, and it was a thematic mural. Which was fun, and it worked.

And what I've been realizing just lately is that: You know, my mom's an artist, my father's a writer, I grew up with my mother, she was making stuff all the time. She got a quote from Aristotle, it goes, "What we learn, we learn by doing." And if you don't make your own house, you miss learning an essential lesson, right, which is, how to create a space that's comfortable, and that works.

And for me, art is much the same thing, right? Art is telling a story. If you don't tell the story, nobody's going to learn how to tell the story. And if the next generation doesn't know how to tell the story, then who are they? You know, they don't know who they are.

The thing that is clear to me, is that we're losing culture, right? We're not teaching kids how to make a culture. How do you make a culture? Well, you have to be able to build a house, you have to be able to feed yourself and other people. And you have to be able to tell stories and entertain yourselves. You know, you have to be able to function as a group.