FIRST EARTH | Uncompromising Ecological Architecture

Bob Theis

There's a whole language of building that we're busy learning right now. Because our traditions of building came largely from Northern Europe, which was a forested area, where, for most of our history, the material wood was like a waste product. Quite frankly, you had to clear forest to have enough land and sunlight to farm by. So there was all this stuff to be gotten out of the way that was cool for building with.

Now we're in the process of finding ourselves in the cultural equivalent of the Mediterranean, where they deforested their entire region 3000 years ago, and so, as you've probably heard Ianto [Evans] say, we're moving from wood being the main course to wood being a condiment in our construction. And you're seeing this in the culture at large. You know, it's not remarked upon very much, that we're making this shift over, from wood just being sort of everywhere, to wood being featured.

If the kind of hunger for materials that speak of a place and the human hand, and so on, are powering natural building right now, there is absolute starvation in the culture, as it exists now, for community interaction. And so it's a tremendous need waiting to be met. You know, we have all kinds of synthetic substitutes, if you will, for community now. Tailgate parties, the Raiders game, and these things where people try and get together to do things. But the ability to walk out your door and get your required daily dose of human interaction with people who aren't part of your nuclear family is absolutely going unmet.

A porch is an invitation to be social that a living room is never going to be, because you don't have to cross as many thresholds to get to it, if it relates to the street. It used to be that sitting out on the porch was the wonderful statement of, We're here in our private space, but, we're available to talk to, if you're walking by. And finding those intermediate realms where we're not just strangers on the street, but we can still have this social life, and so on, is the kind of thing that we have to start rediscovering in the culture.

Because it's really the untapped natural energy source now that's waiting for us there. Community was our original energy source. It used to be that what you looked for, for community, was survival, fundamentally. You did via community what you couldn't do as an individual, in order to survive. You know, to modify your environment, such that you could actually improve your chances of living. And so, we have that inherent sense in us that that aspect of our lives is missing.

You know, we've been human culture's biggest, grandest experiment in individualism. Nobody has ever taken individual freedom to the extent that we have. And we're now finding that individual freedom still leaves us hungry. And so, Ben Solomon likens us at this point to stroke victims; we're slowly, painfully relearning what it means to be community animals. And we're sort of coming back to that language, knowing that it's there somewhere, we just have to learn how to speak it again.

And so that's why I think that the work that's happening up in Portland, with the Village Building Convergence, and City Repair, and so on, excites people so much. Because it is the ends toward which natural building was ultimately meant to be the means.

What you're looking for in an urban fabric is the excitement of being with all these strangers, but you're simultaneously got to be comfortable with al these strangers. And in design terms, that's an incredibly subtle balance, that you've got to know the variables of, to strike.

You've got to be really sensitive to the fact that we wear different hats, dependent upon whether we are the person on the street relating to another person on the street, or if we start to get into conversation with a person, we want to be comfortable at finding just that relationship with the person that's appropriate for that context. And it's an incredibly subtle dance. And unless you provide for place within that range of comfort, people aren't going to make the venture, they're not going to go forward with it, because they're not going to be comfortable crossing what's possibly a threshold for them, to say that we're not longer at a comfortable stranger-kind-of-relationship, I'm making a pass at you, in one form or another.

And so I say that what we like to do in situations like that is have a threshold that's as big and meaty in design terms as we can make it, so I can find my comfort level within that threshold, in terms of social distance, and our relation, and vertical distance, and so on. Because the more able I am to find a comfort place within that interaction, the more readily I'm going to enter into the interaction to begin with.

And I give the example of, there were some students at Case Western University, I think it was, who were designing little pavilions for a sanitorium in Ohio. It's mentioned in A Pattern Language. And they built these little pavilions out on the grounds of the sanitorium, to encourage the people to get out of the building, and walk the grounds, and so on. And they were very, very intelligent about this. They created not just a roofed pavilion, but they created within it short pieces of bench, because they realized that a big wrap-around bench entombs people in the middle. You know, you have to excuse yourself to get up and walk through the group to go out, whereas a short section of bench, everybody has an exit out.

And in addition, they would create walls, leaning walls. You know, like the classic guys-standing-around-the-back-of-a-pickup-truck? You know, where they're all leaning against the back of a pickup truck? It's a perfect example of a situation where you're having a conversation in the parking lot, so you're not going to make the commitment to sitting down in a situation like that, so leaning on the back of the pickup truck is perfect, because you can commit yourself to this much [leans on his forearm], to the conversation, but it's like, Oh! Gotta go. And you're gone -- kind of thing.

And so, I say, if you really want to entice people to make conversation, you want to give them columns to lean against, because that's the first commitment to linger, you know, I'm just going to lean against the column, and then you can give them a wall that high enough to either lean their elbows on, or, jump up onto, and kind of perch there, so that you can be sitting, but be at eye-level parity with someone who's standing, which is really important.

And then you can commit to a full-fledged, sitting down conversation by degrees. And when you take that kind of subtlety into consideration when you design for urbanity, then you're really going to have people going out and getting comfortable on the street.