dag walker /liberian listenerInterviews 

Interview: Alternative housing in the modern world

 

This is Blaz Vovk of Radiosraka, Novo Mesto, Slovenia. I am sitting in the jungle drinking wine and watching colorful tropical birds in Mindo, Ecuador with American writer D.W. Walker. 

Dag, what brings you to the jungle here in Ecuador for close now to two years? Don’t you miss the cities around the world?

Dag: I miss very little of the rush of modern life. Life today is not “fast-paced,” as so many Europeans and Americans say: Life is just busy. Too often people don’t have time to live in this life. Rather than live, they buy and pay, the cost of which is time– lost forever. We have lost the earth from which we came and to which we must return. In the intervening years, we abide in the world. There is an alternative; there is alternative housing. We look to the future; and yet, better for us, we could look to the past, to Slovenia’s past, for example, for a more authentic life.

Blaz: What does Slovenia’s past have to offer to a person that he cannot find in a modern city?

Dag: We humans are builders and makers: builders of houses and cities; makers of love and poetry. Today, too often, we have lost sight of what makes humanity great as we give up our agency or personal control to the world of technology that shunts us aside and makes us nearly nothing but consumers. There are alternatives to this destruction of the human soul. We can find such alternatives to the ruins of Modernity in places such as rural Slovenia. 

We can make our own lives off-grid, as we say in America, outside of cities and towns, and in so doing, we can live our own lives. One place we can regain our rightful place in the world is by returning to the earth to find our real selves. We can build our own houses, to start. We can do this without the aid of high technology. We can, and some do, build what are sometimes called Hobbit houses like those we see in the movies. Handmade houses. 

Blaz: This is a modern movement among American hippies in the 1960s. 

Dag: There is nothing new in people building their own houses, and in doing so, reclaiming their lives from the machine world of technology. Yes, in America we have been building handmade houses since the 1960s. Hippie houses.

The funny thing is, those houses are little different from what people built not so many years before, the simple act of living and making a home for one’s family. It’s not strange at all. It is the modern that is a recent and true horror. American hippies didn’t invent “hippie houses.” They did not create from anything the idea of Hobbit Houses. People building their own homes is as old as humanity itself.

Blaz: Aren’t these Hobbit Houses new, the creation of modern movies?

Dag: No, these exotic mud brick hippie houses one sees in the movies, in The Lord of the Rings, for example, are not an invention of Americans at all.

One can see houses made of mud bricks all over the world. This style of building still stands in the Qattara Depression in Libya. There are “Bee Hive” houses of mud brick in Timbuktu, Mali, that are essentially the same as the hippie houses one sees in California and other states in the southern United States today.

In fact, in some southern states, Arizona and New Mexico, for example, there are sites from Native Americans that are possibly thousands of years old. They are made from sun-dried blocks of earth, adobe.

Blaz: You are in favor of what is called “Earthbag” houses? Each house is made by a small number of people, polyurethane bags filled with sand and clay, then tamped into a brick, layer upon layer till one has walls? 

Dag: Yes, these are handmade houses. One sees this style of house in The Lord of the Rings movies, and one sees a similar style of housing in rural Slovenia. The material and the style, the technique of using earthern material is ancient. It is from around the world. Today, one can find this style of building rising up across the world in places as far apart as southern Thailand to Central Guatemala to the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest. Until recently, houses were handmade, the family who lived there building most of the houses themselves. 

Blaz: What changed to make house building a modern industrial process?

Dag: In 1824, a British bricklayer and builder named Joseph Aspdin invented what he called Portland Cement. This invention changed the face of the world, allowing for houses and other buildings to be made from a mix of cheap and versatile ground-up stone and water: Concrete.

Blaz: Then, instead of each family building their own home, industries could create a component of a house and then mass produce the same thing quickly and cheaply at great profit.

Dag: Commercial concrete is an efficient building material. Today, across most of the world, concrete dominates life. Concrete buildings are cheap to construct, easy to make, and they are durable. They are also hideously ugly and inhuman. The human element of housing has been shoved aside by industry and technology in favor of making money on an industrial scale. Billions of people today are housed in towers of concrete and steel, glass and aluminum. People now all too often live in chicken coops stacked ever higher in the sky.

Blaz: There are some who don’t like modern industrial buildings. They prize individualism.

Dag: There has been a revolt against industrialized life since at least the 1860s. In England, long before the rise of concrete towers, a small group of intellectuals and artists founded the Arts and Crafts Movement as a reaction against what they saw as the destruction of beauty in the world and its replacement with the ugliness of machine-made, mass-produced living spaces.

Blaz: I have heard of this Arts and Crafts Movement. Who were it’s originators?

Dag: One of the main figures in this movement was William Morris. He urged his followers to found workshops that produced handmade items rather than the ever-growing industrial things we all take for granted today. Instead of rushing off to the local hardware store to buy mass-produced items for a house, things made by slave labor in China, such as doorknobs, for example, William Morris argued in favor of small craftsmen making their own. And so it went on with all the things one needs and wants for a home.

Blaz: Were there other famous people involved in this Arts and Crafts Movement? 

Dag: One of Morris’s friends, Edward Burne-Jones, a Pre-Raphelite painter, also made what are now world-famous stained glass windows for public buildings. Burne-Jones inspired many individuals in the Western world when he wrote in the 1860s, “Wage Holy War Against the Age.”

Blaz: And yet, billions of people live in Modern cities today. 

Dag: Yes, it is easy to pay a million dollars to buy a small apartment in a crowded city. The problem is that it takes a lifetime to pay for such a space, and in the end, one is left with a concrete box in the middle of a million other concrete boxes. Wage Holy War Against this Age!

For thousands and thousands of years, people have made their own homes by using material around them. No one for millions of years ever needed to buy their furniture from Ikea. They built with local stone, used the earth to make bricks, melted their own glass, carved their own furniture. We can see this in Slovenia today, beautiful old houses hundreds of years old.

Blaz: So, you say that Soviet-style Brutalist architecture and monotonous Internationalist style concrete apartment towers are dehumanising and, to make it worse, expensive.

Dag: Yes. In nations rich or poor, today one finds a concrete apartment selling for an average of a million dollars, whether in Canada or Cambodia or Cameroon. Concrete towers are known as “Brutalist” in the old Soviet Union; elsewhere in the world as “Internationalist Style.” These

buildings are international because they are all chicken coops for humans.

Blaz: Theaters, museums, and, importantly, employment are in the cities. Conveniences. 

Dag: The Modern world has its advantages, and most willingly give up beauty and personal freedom for the sake of indoor plumbing and electricity. And yet, one can return to the beauty and elegance of traditional-style Slovenian housing styles without foregoing modern conveniences. Solar panels for electricity, propane for a modern kitchen, and gravity pumps for modern plumbing.

Blaz: Family, neighbors, friends. One can “work from home.”

Dag: Like nearly everything else he wrote, Karl Marx was wrong when he raged against “The idiocy of rural living.” Traditional life was perhaps less convenient than today’s city living; but one pays a price, and a high one, for life in a chicken coop.

Marx was right about one thing when he wrote about the dehumanization of industrial production. He wrote:

“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley of ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked

self-interest than callous ‘cash payment’.”

Blaz: So, you are saying that Marx was right about the soulless industrialization of life and turning it into a mere business transaction? 

Dag: Marx was right: Today, in most parts of the world, one buys a small,  machine-made chicken coop-space and calls that home. Slovenia shows the alternative of homemade houses, making one’s own home with one’s own hands: like Hopi Indians in America or Zulus in Africa–with electricity.

Blaz: A modern family can build their own traditional-style home from the earth. Cheaply.

Dag: Traditional Slovenian architecture is nearly universal, not “International.” The traditional Slovenian home, as one can still see today, is of the earth, made by people who live in the house when complete, and who are a living part of a living space. In the Technological World, we have lost our minds, if not our lives, making money to pay mortgages for progress: human chicken coops.

As the American poet T.S. Eliot wrote in “The Rock,” 

All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,

All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,

But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Eliot asks about our life in Jesus. We might ask about our life in the world of computers. What have we lost? What can we gain in seeing the value of Slovenian farmhouses? The earth. Our lives. Perhaps our connection to God. It’s an alternative to the void of plastic and Portland Cement. 

Blaz: The English Arts and Crafts Movement restored. People become human again. 

Dag: The Liberian poet Cherbo Geeplay writes (from my memory,) of traditional African architecture, “The hands that make the house make the man.”

Blaz: Like poems of the land. 

Dag: Poetry is much like building a house. One can create poetry by machine these days; and no doubt some do. Is it what we need and what we love? Do we want our children to be made in test-tubes, designed by computers? No moreso do we wish for our homes to be so made. 

I will conclude here with a line from the poet France Prešeren, who writes about our resting house. Then, until such time we die, let us live in the houses of the human. 

Blaz: And only in the quiet, cold abode,

Which after weary life’s span is decreed,

Will death relieve him of his toilsome load.

France Prešeren, “Poezije” 

 

This is a transcript of an interview with Blaz Vovk, a radio host in Slovenia. Here, Walker talks about alternative housing in the modern world. By promoting the idea of “poor people” living in fabulous mansions build of adobe, created by the owners, and so cheap that only the rich and the poor can afford them. The rich have money to build like these, and the poor have the time and skills to scrounge free material.

 

Main Photo: Dag Walker, writer

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