The Quintessential Outsider Architect:
Part 8 in the Outsiders Series
In recent columns, I’ve explored what it’s like to ditch a mainstream architectural practice for an idiosyncratic, heartfelt vision. Turns out, the late architect Nader Khalili scooped me 18 years ago!
|Nader Khalili, Hesperia, California.|
In his bestselling memoir, Racing Alone (1990), he asked, “Is it really sane to follow one’s ideals and dreams and race alone in today’s world? Is it really reasonable to insist on holding to one’s visions against all odds and after many trying years?” He answered with an emphatic yes.
Khalili (1936–2008), who died of congestive heart failure in Los Angeles at 72, was the quintessential outsider architect. He abandoned a lucrative, unfulfilling career. Then, for more than three decades, he dedicated himself to a quest: creating earthquake-resistant housing for the poor. His solution lay in making domed, vaulted buildings out of the earth under people’s feet. At the Cal-Earth Institute, which he established in 1991 in the Southern California desert town of Hesperia, he built buildings to prove his point and shared his vision in workshops with thousands of visitors.
Reared in Tehran, Iran, as one of nine children in an impoverished family, Khalili studied Persian literature and poetry in Iran, then engineering and architecture in Turkey. He studied further in the United States. Khalili built booming practices in Los Angeles and Tehran. Specializing in skyscrapers, he earned millions of dollars by designing high-rise apartment buildings and parking garages. He traveled the world to lecture about skyscrapers. He also entered competitions to build bigger and bigger buildings.
|“This is timeless architecture: using earth, air, fire, and gravity,” Khalili said of his buildings.|
Pushing 40, he abruptly abandoned his practice, heading into the Iranian desert on a motorcycle to find answers. People around him thought he’d lost his mind. They said, “Look, you’ve got to pull yourself together.” But he was resolute about his quest.
He was equally determined to reject the status quo. His second memoir, Sidewalks on the Moon (1994), referred to his “pervasive skepticism of accepted values.” Noting that he had broken away from many required behaviors and from superstitions imprinted upon him in childhood, he added, “I am burning inside to break away from everything, even myself, the way I have known myself.”
|Khalili framed the challenge of architecture in this way: “How can we transform spirituality into tangible reality?”|
He rejected mechanical, industrialized ways of building, including the concrete and steel his Western teachers embraced. He also disliked the lack of human scale in many modern structures; the one-story houses he advocated put people directly in touch with the earth.
“We have to listen to nature,” he said in lectures. “We don’t have to be interesting or different. Architects often feel they have to do something different. That’s just coming from the ego.”
He counseled a return to the basics that humans knew for years before losing that knowledge in the modern hustle bustle and in a rush to acquire more than the Joneses.
To Khalili, many answers lay in working with the four elements: earth, fire, air and water. He spent years figuring out ways to build clay structures and light them on fire, as one would fire pottery in a kiln. He reasoned that this would produce a fireproof building.
“Clay holds so much untouched magic,” said Khalili, noting that Persians used to build beautiful structures out of clay. Nowadays, he wrote, “We can think of clay only in the scale of our hands.” That is, we associate clay with vases that we can hold, not with creations the size of a house.
|The bags will go inside the walls. The pipes create holes that will allow daylight to enter the space.|
“We ought to break the ties and free our minds of our conception of clay. We ought to start all over again,” wrote Khalili. He knew that the place to start making change was by breaking through mental limitations.
He emphasized the environmental benefits of dome-shaped earthen houses. Requiring no wood framing, the structures can be tree free. They need no cement, a product that uses tremendous energy during manufacturing. To build houses like the ones at his Hesperia compound, one simply fills bags with earth, arranges them like blocks of ice in an igloo and reinforces them with barbed wire. One needn’t waste energy by trucking in heavy construction materials.
“A lot of times, the treasure is right in front of us,” Khalili would say. He was referring partly to the earth that’s readily available as a building material and partly to the passionate quest on which any one of us can embark, if we’re brave enough to try.
To be continued …
Go to Part 1 of this series.
Go to Part 2 of this series.
Go to Part 3 of this series.
Go to Part 4 of this series.
Go to Part 5 of this series.
Go to Part 6 of this series.
Go to Part 7 of this series.
Go to Part 9 of this series.
Go to Part 10 of this series.