On Building

Turning Point

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

This past summer, I slid into a crisis of meaning. At the empty core of it all was architecture. An editor at a flashy European magazine kept asking me to write about the world’s most attention-getting buildings, and I obliged, partly because I like to oblige and partly because he paid pretty well. But I felt increasingly sickened by the slickness of the facades and of the architects I interviewed. In writing about those buildings, I felt as if I were doing the devil’s work.

It seemed clear that I’d strayed far from the purpose I had once established for myself—shining a spotlight on people who strive to make the world a better place. I had aimed to be a conduit for their passions, spreading their fire to readers. In Builder/Architect, I profiled several architects working with integrity and determination. Although that felt meaningful for quite some time, in July I fell into a dark psychic hole and didn’t know how to get out. A gray dreariness settled over me, a fog that wouldn’t lift. I couldn’t find the fun in anything or the point of it all.

Then, writing three Builder/Architect columns about the late Iranian architect Nader Khalili gave me the positive jolt I needed. How lucky that, in the midst of despair, I could “spend time” with a man who made it seem essential that we each define quests for ourselves. As I watched him speak about quests in a videotaped lecture, tears streamed down my cheeks. He made me ache for the sense of purposefulness I’d once had but had somehow lost. Where had it gone? How could I find it again?

The answer, Khalili said, was most likely right in front of me, in a place so obvious that I’d been overlooking it. I considered that. Perhaps a sense of quest had been with me all along but had gotten buried under daily deadline concerns. If I stopped working so hard, could I still recognize it? It dawned on me that it wasn’t enough to define a quest and then stow it in a closet; I needed to keep reexamining my quest and to nourish it, as one nourishes a plant, or else it would wither. In truth, I’d stopped feeling that it was even important for me to have a quest. But Khalili conveyed a sense of urgency about the matter, and that lifted my spirits immensely.

In September I vacationed in Los Angeles, and although I enjoyed myself, the sterility of the climate-controlled architecture oppressed me. Visiting friends, I spent hours in air-conditioned houses. As I left those hermetically sealed, look-alike structures, I longed for something real.

What a relief to tour Khalili’s desert compound, two hours northeast of Los Angeles. With earth-filled bags, he and his students built structure after structure, proving his idea about sheltering the poor by using the earth under one’s feet. When I gazed at the collection of buildings, I had ample visual evidence of what it means to pursue a quest for decades. I felt I had finally made contact with something that mattered. The dusty desert and the hand-built, irregular structures were as real as it gets.

I took dozens of pictures and disseminated them to several people in my life, many of whom don’t care much about architecture. Such enthusiastic responses came my way! Khalili’s architecture—and all the possibilities it represented—clearly touched something deep in them, as well.

If slick, soulless architecture had taken me to a low place, rugged architecture had brought me back to where I wanted to be. Writing about architecture has exposed me to two extremes. On the one hand, this profession has an astounding capacity for artifice, doublespeak and selfishness. On the other hand, consider the architects I profiled in the outsiders series. Malcolm Wells explored ways in which earth-sheltered buildings heal the environment. Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett showed that people in cohousing communities can create vital social networks while sharing resources, thereby living more lightly on the planet. Kelly Lerner took it upon herself to provide well-insulated straw-bale buildings for poor and homeless populations in Mongolia and China. And then there’s Khalili.

These architects carved out space and time to think about what people really need and what the planet requires. These visionaries also held true to an inner fire that never flamed out, as mine did last summer. Sure, they faced plenty of frustrations and discouragement, and occasionally they questioned the sanity of their quests. But they always returned to their core purpose, relying on the following engines:

• outrage at all that’s wrong with the way we build
• a sense of responsibility for people and the environment
• confidence that their creative solutions could work
• commitment so strong that they threw themselves into the effort, sacrificing quite a bit and holding nothing back

These architects have shown me what it’s like to live one’s beliefs and to pursue goals doggedly, without regard for convention. As truly original thinkers, they’ve also demonstrated that being true to oneself means tapping into personal potential—one of the world’s most powerful forces. These people have served as my touchstone, helping me to shape the life I want to live.

This is my last Builder/Architect column. It’s been a terrific two years, and I’m grateful to everyone at the magazine, as well as my readers. Here’s hoping you find a bounty of creative freedom.