I’ve got an idea for a tree house. It’s going to take a while to complete it, but I have a while because I’ve decided to grow the tree from seed. That decision came about because I’ve built two tree houses in recent years, both of them in a bit of a deadline rush, feeling stressed to perform and produce. Therefore, I figure that if I set about to build a tree house in a tree that is at the time of this writing (August 9, 2016, early morning) only 15.4 inches high, no one for the next thirty years is going to ask me if I’m done with the tree house yet, and thus I will be free to go about the planning and building of it as leisurely as I please.
I will baptize this tree house the “Leave Me Alone Tree House.” I know already that this is not going to be a very popular name. I feel as though I should be relentlessly big on collaborating, being social, forming alliances and collectives instead of working by myself, removing my name from the authorship of a project, etc. But I do plenty of all of that already, and so in this project I am giving myself two prerogatives that I don’t generally allow in my work: I want to build this tree house all by myself, and I want you to leave me alone in it.
I have memories of needing to be left alone stretching back to the very beginning of my memories, and so we can only assume that this need accompanied me into the world the moment I was born. As a toddler I dabbled in being left alone in my everyday life – for instance, by building mini abodes of boxes and bed sheets inspired by medieval castles, like the one David Macaulay drew in his book Castle, where the outer and inner gates don’t line up and so the enemy is forced to run around inside the castle walls directly in the cross hairs of the royal archers. I always built my castles inside closets, which provided an extra layer of protection because my mother first had to guess which closet to search before getting down to the work of unearthing me from beneath my multilayered construction if she wanted to have a talk. My brother had the much simpler tactic of spontaneously falling asleep whenever he wanted to be alone, but I’ve been a fairly difficult sleeper my whole life so that never worked for me. Small-scale construction projects and hiding generally did.
Later on, in elementary school, I amused myself by drawing detailed architectural plans for my future house, and each new and progressively more outlandish plan had two common denominators with the ones that preceded it: a spiral staircase leading to a tower, and a small atelier detached from the rest of the house in which to practice my various artistic pursuits. Both of these building features say one thing: Leave me alone.
My desire to be left alone on occasion doesn’t mean I’m a misanthrope. Despite what you may be thinking right now as you read this, I am a very social person. My default attitude toward the rest of the human species is a feeling of like or love, depending on the person, with very few exceptions. I love my family and friends in particular. In fact, I might even invite you to the Leave Me Alone Tree House if you ask, although I’m wary that bending the rules this early on could lead very quickly to that private space becoming the headquarters for my friends. Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond, for example, ostensibly built so that he could get away from people, was actually a bit of a social hub. (As a side note, Walden was published 162 years ago today. Happy birthday Walden!) In addition to only being about two miles outside of Concord, Mass., Thoreau also had plenty of friends over on a regular basis, reportedly dozens at a time. I’ve never been able to figure that one out, because this is what the cabin (in its reconstructed version) looks like on the inside:
It seems cozy and the winters in Concord do get cold, but it seems like that would be a bit cramped for two dozen people by anyone’s definition. I may consider building a second tree house to accommodate my social circle. But then again, everyone’s probably still going to want into the LMATH because people are like cats in that respect: they always want to get into spaces that clearly say Do Not Enter, like your cat who scratches at the bathroom door while you pee.
Part of my wish to be alone sometimes is because one of my favorite pastimes is to sit or walk quietly with nothing but my thoughts as company, and this can be difficult to do when you’re with other people. It is also seemingly a pastime that is not universally appreciated: a University of Virginia study published in 2014 in the journal Science reported that many of its subjects preferred to self-administer an electric shock rather than be left alone with their thoughts. During a 15-minute period of alone time with nothing to occupy them but their minds, 12 out of 18 male subjects and 6 out of 24 female subjects opted to give themselves mild shocks with the push of a button that had been made available for that purpose. The boredom had gotten to them, and they looked for stimulation anywhere they could get it. I was surprised when I read this. Did these subjects not realize the value of boredom, the value of sitting down on a riverbank and listening for “the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience” (says Walter Benjamin)?
Thought — to call it by a prouder name than it deserved — had let its line down into the stream. It swayed, minute after minute, hither and thither among the reflections and the weeds, letting the water lift it and sink it until — you know the little tug — the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line: and then the cautious hauling of it in, and the careful laying of it out. Alas, laid on the grass, how small, how insignificant this thought of mine looked; the sort of fish that a good fisherman puts back into the water so that it may grow fatter and be one day worth cooking and eating. … But however small it was, it had, nevertheless, the myterious property of its kind — put back into the mind, it became at once very exciting, and important; and as it darted and sank, and flashed hither and thither, sent up such a wash and tumult of ideas that it was impossible to sit still.
This is how my thinking will go, alone, in my tree house.
I will of course have neighbors in my tree house, and that’s fine. I don’t believe that the peace that comes from voluntary isolation demands an isolation that is physically far-removed from others. It could just be a door with a lock, like Virginia Woolf said. Or not even that: for instance, I am at this moment alone in my apartment, closed off from the world by a door with a weak lock that could easily be picked. On the other side of our apartments’ adjoining wall there is my neighbor. He’s playing FIFA World Cup for Playstation; I can hear the announcer. And yet, I feel quite isolated. Sometimes I think and write at the dining room table while my husband is noodling around with a project or talking to his sister on the phone. Sometimes I’ll even think and write in full view of a television, and I still somehow manage to feel isolated. I’m not someone who needs to have all my ducks in a row in order to think and write, so my plans for the LMATH should not be read as a complaint that I can’t get anything done with all these people around, nor as an excuse for waiting for the perfect moment to get down to thinking and writing. I can think and write just about anywhere, zone out into my private world no matter where I am. My desire to build a tree house and be left alone in it comes from a lifetime of thinking and writing in the midst of it all and occasionally looking up to see what’s going on and being surprised that I am not in fact in my story world, but rather in my real world. I like my real world quite a lot, but passing from one to the other is jarring, and sometimes annoying. In those moments I feel like a toddler asleep in her car seat who wakes up to find that she’s suddenly at grandma’s house 300 miles away; she likes grandma’s house, but is irritated at having been moved without her consent. Since I can’t inhabit my story world, the next best thing I can do is to inhabit a tree.
One of my favorite books is Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees. In it, a twelve-year-old boy named Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo bolts from the family lunch table in the garden and climbs up a tree, declaring with prepubescent anger that he would never again set foot on the ground as long as he lived. He keeps this promise, living out the rest of his days hopping like a squirrel from branch to branch, navigating from one tree to the next all throughout the forests of Italy’s Ligurian Coast. He had plenty of company despite his lifestyle choice. Throughout the book, he runs with a band of child thieves, fights pirates, has love affairs, helps his ground dwelling neighbors with their farming, pens a treatise on political theory (which he never manages to get published, but not for lack of trying), and later on gets involved in local government. Calvino calls a person like this a “solitary who does not avoid people.”
Personally, I don’t care to go to Cosimo’s extreme lengths, though I admire the stubbornness and ingenuity he shows in constructing his alternative existence. For me, though, it would be enough to just have my Leave Me Alone Tree House, secluded in a shady grove of fig trees – fig, because that’s my favorite tree – and have that be my own personal space that I could retreat to as needed.
To date, the LMATH’s blueprints are mere outlines – really more of a wish list than an actual blueprint at this point. I know with certainty, however, that it will feature a rope ladder, trap door, zip line (to where? I haven’t yet decided), a bookshelf in the Cosimo style (“sheltered as best he could from the rain and nibbling mouths”), and a solar powered hot plate so I can heat water for tea and coffee.
1. Fariss Samarrai, “Doing Something is Better Than Doing Nothing for Most People, Study Shows,” UVAToday, 3 July 2014, https://news.virginia.edu/content/doing-something-better-doing-nothing-most-people-study-shows.
2. Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov,” http://ada.evergreen.edu/~arunc/texts/frankfurt/storyteller.pdf.
3. “But he would continuously change them around, according to his studies and tastes of the moment, for he considered his books as rather like birds and it saddened him to see them caged or still.” Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees.
Am I the only one feeling all doom and gloom lately? I think not — several other people I know are feeling the same thing. Must be in the air.
My escape: an afternoon dose of craftiness and inspiration toward the construction of my future tree house.
The Beauty of Function in Creatures’ Constructions (a review of the new book Animal Architecture)
(My translation of an article I came across in La revue des Livres n°013 Sept/Oct 2013, p. 77-79.)
A STRAW HOUSE FOR ALL!
By Charlotte Nordmann
Collectif Straw d’la bale: La Maison de paille de Lausanne. Pourquoi nous l’avons construit. Pourquoi elle fut incendiée (The Straw House of Lausanne: Why we built it, why it was burned). Paris: La Lenteur, 2013, 210 p., 12 Euros.
August 2007, Lausanne, a public park in the middle of the city. In a few days, a straw house surged up from the earth, built illegally by activists. Four months later, after the municipality, directed by a member of the Green Party, had tried in vain to impose its demolition, the house was burned to the ground during the night in what could only have been a criminal act.
The story might appear to be anecdotal, a tall tale testifying at most to the audacity and inventivity of idle youth, but not suggesting any way to confront “real” societal and ecological problems; anyway, not everyone is going to go build a straw house on every street corner in the city. Of course not. But even so, there was something important that happened here.
At the beginning of the straw house project, there was an analysis of some of the major problems that affect our societies, and there was the affirmation that ecological questions are intimately linked to political and social ones. Coming from the squatter’s movement, the builders started off with a triple diagnosis.
The first diagnosis was the intentional organization of housing shortages in the capitalist city that allows for guaranteed profits for investors. Faced with capitalism’s intensive investment in urban space (1), we could try to go elsewhere — to go live in the countryside, in a collective house, for example — or we could also band together and look for ways to invest in the cracks of the city, picking up the tattered pieces. That’s the aim of squats — and it was also the aim of the straw house.
The second aspect of the analysis was the fact that the societal model that rules today is directly contradictory to the needs of ecology — needs that come from the fact that the natural resources upon which we depend are limited, and that their indiscriminate use has catastrophic consequences (with the major problem of course being climate change). In the domain of housing, this is shown in a flagrant way by the intensive use of cement, a main culprit in the disappearance of sand (2), for example, and also by the inefficient use of energy for heating buildings, and by the use of such a fundamental resource as fresh water for toilets.
The third was the fact that we are today in a relationship of heteronomy with the world in which we live, to use Ivan Illich’s words (3); we are “put up,” we don’t inhabit the space where we live; “they” provide us with a space in which to live (if we have the means to pay), which, it goes without saying, we don’t have the right to modify. “Please leave the premises in the same state in which you found them” seems to be the general principle, for the renter as for the passer-by (who of course shall not do anything more than “pass by”) in the street or in the neighborhood park. This rapport of heteronomy to our fundamental needs (to have housing, to feed ourselves, to move freely) results in a radical dependence on an ecologically non-viable system founded on exploitation.
To build oneself a home
One response to these problems is to build oneself a home, without administrative authorization and without having “legitimately acquired” the land on which one builds, and to build in a way so as to have minimal impact on the environment and reduce one’s dependence on infrastructure. That is a conclusion drawn from the diagnoses, to become aligned with one’s principles. From there the choice was progressively made to build with straw: a light material, easy to handle, that permits one to build quickly and with only a few helping hands; whose production demands little energy and whose materials are produced locally; which employs a mode of construction without lasting impact on the land (no need for cement foundations thanks to piles); insulated, conserving heat and permitting one to reduce the need for heating systems. If we add dry toilets and a natural waste water filtering system, the dependence on city infrastructure is minimal — which, in the case of an imbalanced power relationship with the mayor’s office, isn’t a negligible issue.
The approach here is the same as in the squat movement from which the initiators of the straw house came; collectively take that which we need and which capital refuses us, and organize in order to better resist attempts at reappropriation by the powers that be. To this may be added something that is in fact already present in squats, but less visible and above all less developed: the capacity to acquire know-how, to transmit it, and to accumulate it. The book (La maison de paille de Lausanne) participates itself in this diffusion of knowledge by indicating a number of resources (web sites, books, films) about DIY(T) building, and in attempting to explain in detail the construction of the straw house, thanks to which we might learn a whole vocabulary, useful and poetic — from “pisoir” (note: I’ll let you decipher that one) to “l’enduit de corps” (can’t figure this one out… something spackle??) by way of “chaux aérienne” (whitewash?). The construction of the straw house was in this way preceded by the experiences of autonomously run spaces, Lausanne squats, and notably the organization of a squatted garden in the same park where the straw house was built (an experience that itself led to a new relationship with the spaces we inhabit) — but preceded also by several “learning by doing” house building/teaching sites, as well as the experiences of the “temporary villages” of climate camps and anti globalization movements.
Too much collective power?
The efficiency with which the project got going is clearly remarkable — to build a solid and livable house in a space of two days, out of recuperated material and bales of straw, was quite a feat in itself. What this shows is at once the value of know-how acquired by the people who conceived of and carried out the project — know-how that was partly of traditional techniques, today considered to be outmoded — but also their capacity to work together, to coordinate, and most of all the power of the collective intelligence called for by this project. (One might make the connection between this and the Transition Town (4) projects with their techniques of empowerment and mobilization of group intelligence.)
We can therefore say that, in a sense, the straw house was a rousing success — and at the same time, we must add that it was as well a failure, and a failure to be expected. The attempt to create something long-term — several years at least — in which to live, and in particular to live in an alternative way, and to have this space be a long-lasting center for discussion, exchanges, and knowledge sharing: this attempt failed. The allowance taken by “the power of the people” from capitalism’s investments in space, from grid-like compartmentalization, is always precarious and in this case was, without a doubt, too visible — right in the heart of Lausanne! — to be tolerated for long. Such an example of reappropriation of public space clearly must be erased right away; it suggests that there might be an alternative to the privatization of space and the wholesale delegation of its management to a power supposedly catering to the interests of the general public (5) — a power that, on the contrary, makes clear each and every day that its goal is to guarantee the continuance of the capitalist system. Projects of the sort of the straw house also without a doubt show too clearly the lack of grounding there is in the belief that we are incapable of meeting our needs in a more autonomous way.
The straw house sustained three sorts of attacks.
The first — and the most clever, as it seemed at first glace to be friendly support — was when certain media outlets contrasted the straw house to the squat movement; on the one side, a constructive project, inventive and “positive,” and on the other side, the “antiestablishment,” without respect for the well-being of others. In artificially isolating two sorts of action, and in disappearing the critique of the capitalist city, which was the very grounding for the house’s construction, we see sense being turned upside down.
The second attack was carried out by the municipality and consisted in demanding — nearly at the same time as its construction — the demolition of the illegally built straw house. It was enough to call up the all-powerful specter of anarchy — “Imagine if everyone started building his own straw house wherever he wanted!” — and to invoke the importance of the rules of urbanism, “the sole protection against an excess of real estate developers,” to make the situation understood. As we’ve already mentioned, the municipality of Lausanne is led by a member of the Green Party, the head of a pink-green coalition. (Note: “pink” refers to the Socialist Party.) In this case as in many others, their position well illustrates what we can expect from a party upholding the ideology of “sustainable development,” which defends a “balance between ecology and the market economy” (in the words of one elected official). We need not further explain the deception inherent in an “ecology” that has among its goals an allowance for the pursuit of “growth” (pardon us — “green growth”) in a world with finite resources.
This sort of reappropriation of ecological issues goes hand in hand with the growth of individual dispossession, of their heteronomy vis à vis their conditions of existence. Thus it happened — and this is the third attack that the straw house sustained, this time after its destruction — that the city of Lausanne inaugurated in 2011 its own “straw house”: a construction that claimed to be a “model” in the domain, built at a cost of 1.8 million Swiss francs! Built by professionals, with cement foundations, it was meant to show that the city of Lausanne is itself a model for “sustainable development” (no argument there, even if we still doubt the concept), and was but a cover for business as usual.
(The city of Lausanne’s straw house)
To return to the sense and value of the straw house, it’s clear that it is not on its own a “solution.” It will not be thanks to a proliferation of straw houses that we will halt the continuation of the capitalist system and the destruction it perpetuates. The idea that such projects can have ripple effects, that they might grow in number and send out shoots, is not enough to resolve the problem, because the temporality of this extension is not on the same scale as what is necessary to respond proportionately to ecological problems. Never mind that the capitalist system does everything it can to limit the multiplication of these alternatives, helped if necessary by regulations zealously imposed by the State (such as, for example, those who oppose the creation of local currencies, or who obstruct the development of CSAs.
Conversely, the importance of the straw house, and what continues in its own way in the book that came about from the experience, is that it created a margin in a space that tends to be saturated, by creating a space that, in addition to offering a roof to all those who lived there, allowed for knowledge sharing, experiences, discussions, and exchanges. The choice to build in the city, importantly, came from the desire for this sort of place, even if its continuation was of course much more difficult than it would have been had it been built elsewhere.
This place existed, as the book, photos, and sketches testify — and it existed for a lot of different kinds of people, evidenced by the variety of stories scattered throughout the book — as the incarnation of a place in which to live differently. I said further up that this place demonstrated the power that can come from a collective, that it contradicts the belief in our individual and collective impotence. But the demonstration of power here is not only directed toward the outside. This power is important for those individuals — and I count myself among them — who believe in it and yet at the same time don’t, and who therefore need to have the experience in order to believe, and to act. Such a place demonstrates what we are missing by not living collectively in the spaces where we live, and what we have to gain through inventing new ways of being and doing.
(1) Described in detail by David Harvey in Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution.
(2) See the recent documentary by Denis Delestrac, Enquête sur une disparition (2013).
(3) Ivan Illich is a major reference for the collective. At a 2007 protest, a squatter’s movement in Geneva reedited one of his texts, “Tools for Conviviality.”
(4) See also my (Nordmann’s) review of the Manuel for transition by Rob Hopkins (Ecosocieté, 2010), which appeared in La Revue internationale des livres et des idées, “L’après-pétrole; survivre ou vivre autrement?” Article available online (in French).
(5) Contradicting the idea of the “tragedy of the commons” (Garrett Hardin, 1968), according to which a resource used collectively is fated to disappear due to its over exploitation by all the people who use it.
I’ve never built with cob, but building with cob is my latest obsession over things I don’t know how to do but want to learn. I nearly had the chance to take part in a collective project to construct a large communal gathering space for a community garden in my area. It was a wood-framed design with mud-soaked straw walls, and I was way too excited about it, especially after getting to visit the site of a similar project already in progress. But unfortunately I don’t know what happened with the story of the house made of straw. I got an email in mid September from the architect in charge, saying that they would possibly be forgoing the idea of a participatory building site and that she would let me know, and I responded thanks for the email, please do keep me posted, and then she never got back to me. I still feel a bit jilted, and would like to take this moment to make a pledge: In all future projects in which I am implicated and which involve participatory action, I will keep all participants in the loop.