On Building

Burning with a Visionary Fire:
Part 9 in the Outsiders Series

This article appeared in the October 2008 issue of the Greater Bay Area edition of
Builder/Architect magazine.
By Eve Kushner

Visions came with astounding forcefulness to Nader Khalili (1936–2008), the Iranian architect I introduced last month. After leaving a successful conventional practice at 38, he devoted his life to a core vision—building clay houses for the world’s poor and firing those houses for stability, as one fires pottery.

A passage from his second memoir conveys the power and passion of his imaginings: “In my daydreams … I can sculpt the interior of a room in a house, or even the entire house, paint the surfaces with decorative figures and calligraphy of Persian poetry, then fire the spaces…. It will be an integration of the arts of landscaping, sculpting, graphics, and six thousand years of ceramics and earth-architecture into one single house.”

Khalili had no shortage of ideas. He planned to stabilize eroding Los Angeles cliffs by firing them until they turned into rock. He developed superadobe—structures made from earth-filled bags. He spoke to NASA about lunar architecture and tried to convince Los Alamos scientists to provide technology that would start fires on that airless surface. In Los Alamos, he fretted about the city planning and made a speech there to rectify the situation. He planned to broadcast information into disaster zones so people could immediately learn how to create emergency shelter.

Other visionaries we’ve met seem to have blazed a straighter path than Khalili, who followed his passions wherever they led. A prolific public speaker, he lectured without notes, frequently quoting the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi and jumping from one Rumi story to another. Khalili’s memoirs were similarly nonlinear. He once wrote that the idea of documenting his long quest for earthen architecture seemed “horrendous … since I have always run away from detailed and chronological work, avoiding anything that takes away the luxury of leaping from thought to thought and dream to dream.”

The applications of his idea kept changing, but his core vision of low-cost, earthen houses for the poor remained steadfast. According to his widow, Iliona Outram, he was forever committed to their needs. Because of that, she says, “He really could never lose his way.”

A heart attack at 48 brought home just how much he valued his central idea. Living under new health restrictions, he contemplated postponing his work and wrote, “God, to abandon all that is to abandon life itself. I feel I am letting down the whole poor population of the world, as well…. If I can get the scientists to cooperate with me to fire and melt the earth into forms and spaces, then I could build and build and thus end the problem of homelessness for millions.”

His quest gave him the tenacity to overcome obstacles. With a quest, one becomes fearless, he said. It helped that he had a fighter’s instinct, born from a childhood in a tough Tehran neighborhood. To prove the validity of his earth architecture concept, he established his compound, Cal-Earth, in the Southern California town of Hesperia so he could build near the San Andreas fault and meet some of the world’s toughest codes. He explained, “If what you want is in the lion’s mouth, then you have to go into the lion’s mouth to get it.” He did feel dejected after frustrations but never lost faith, says Outram.

And he partly realized his vision. In 1998, his houses passed the California codes. After the massive 2003 earthquake in Iran, two student-associates built prototypes of his architecture there. Even posthumously, he’s getting results. Outram, who now runs Cal-Earth, says people continue to express interest in his ideas. She feels that the world is still listening to his message.

Khalili had written, “If I can prove that to build with soil or rock is valid on the moon, it will become valid on the Earth.” Similarly, if he could sell his idea in the West, Third Worlders could gain new respect for their own building traditions. He noted, “This route may seem to be a very long and twisted road, but I feel confident it will get there.”

He wrote, “The search itself has become more important than the answer.” That must be why his life path looked less like a straight road and more like a firecracker, with heat and light shooting out in all directions. Nevertheless, one flame always burned at the core.

To be continued ….

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