The pristine proteas and fynbos countryside surrounded Allan and me as we waited for the bulldozer. We were sitting on one of the rolling foothills just below the cliffs of the Langerberg mountains, about 100km inland from the bottom of Africa. The plants and insect life, the plethora of colours and textures were a tapestry of untouchable living beauty. A splendid blanket of nature’s creative brilliance exposed and unharmed for aeons.
The bulldozer was late to arrive. A brief sense of reprieve broke over us as we quietly hoped our arrangements had been mixed up? What if it never came? Is this what all developers go through before yet another milestone to civilisation is made? My architectural practice is called Natural Architecture. I was beginning to feel these were contradictory expressions. I was prepared to rip a hole into a fragile ecosystem to make space for a building, which could never emulate the design intelligence implicit in any single aspect of the natural world. The unbelievable beauty and wisdom of design in only one of the wings, of one of the little insects buzzing past, was more than I could hope to achieve in a lifetime. Yes of course, I could hear myself trying to justify our actions.’ We can’t be utopian idealists, living on the earth yet not having an impact. But how far can we penetrate nature before our arrogance supersedes our sense of reverence?’
Allan stood up to get a clearer view down the hillside, then turning around, looked me in the eye, an apprehensive look, Is this tenable in the long term, not only for us but also for our earth? Like the passing eagle, circling high above the hill tops, my gaze swept across the untouched majesty of the landscape. ‘This is not going to be painless. Reasoning alone is not enough to determine our actions.’
I felt like we were two criminals poised and alone on the hillside, filled with contradictions and duplicity, trying to justify our need to pillage, yet desperately hoping our next illicit deed against nature had been cancelled by our bungled arrangements. Our issue was not how much we would gain from our actions but what price were we paying to plunder this place?
Our discussion resumed with a measure of urgency. Is ‘sustainable architecture’, not simply a euphemism for being a little less destructive than conventional practice? We still destroy our planet’s life sustaining organism, only a little slower than before. Is this not handy rhetoric to appease our conscience, as we gradually, instead of quickly, mutilate the remnants of God’s ongoing creation? These terms sound trendy and significant, but honestly, is it not us after all who inherit the consequences of our conduct in our next incarnation? Ready rhetoric today, no matter how important it’s made to sound, will echo hollow tomorrow. Do I want to return to a maimed wasteland? Our planet’s life supporting systems are undergoing a multiple thrombosis, and like many people are prematurely atrophying through misuse and self -indulgence. To prepare this place we are dislocating the co-dependent systems of nature. The very higher ordering and concordance we seek within ourselves is the very thing we are expelling from our environment, our first consciously elected victim. This incongruity was unsettling both of us.
Maybe we should discontinue our project and return to the city, relieved at having ‘saved’ a part of our future. However, our intention is to create a place removed from the work-a-day demands of urban life. To exchange the alarm clock for the rising sun. To periodically move from the sirens and dazzling incandescence of the city lights, to the wild nocturnal world of nature. The hollow hooting of a distant owl, under the twinkling stars slowly orbiting overhead. To be inspired by nature’s beauty and rhythms, to see anew the world around us, also our past journeys and individual landscapes, to deepen the pathways into our personal wilderness. Our planned workshop exercises and activities will assist ourselves and many others in uncovering those comatosed shadows in our personal lives which sabotage our potential. To balance and dance with the seemingly irreconcilable polarity of being earth bound yet spiritually founded. We are attempting to create an atmosphere where we could begin sensing the elusive yet ubiquitous working of the Spirit, each on our own and together as one. Yes, we are idealists.
Bulldozers are big and loud and bullish. Enlarged spades and picks operated with hydraulic levers. Get in their way and you’ll get hurt. So will tiny insects, delicate petals, and ailing planets. They are the precursors to development on the ground, to the home of civil society. Apart from the occasional buzzing insect and the whisperings of a passing zephyr, the world around us was silent and at peace. In the far distance we heard it trundling along the road. It groaned loudly as it gradually climbed the hillside. The wheels of change seemed slow, yet simultaneously unbelievably fast. Within the time frame of what had been created by nature over thousands of years, its act of transformation would be shockingly instantaneous. Our discussions were inconclusive and our justifications only partially convincing. Nature’s unblemished vulnerability encircled us. Nevertheless, we risked matching our boldness with nature’s serene order and wisdom. Allan and I were both sweating and exhausted, yet not a grain of sand had been compacted, nor a leaf crushed. At this point it was only us bearing the weight of the future.
INDIGENOUS ROOF GARDEN
It was many months ago that the bulldozer had unashamedly rattled down the hillside, followed by a cloud of dust, like an impassioned yet well organized dog, drooling oil while sniffing out another place to dig. The gentle vaulting roof of the Towerland Mountain Retreat, shaped like an inverted basket woven from arching poles, now rests on the curved rock walls half dug into the hillside. Standing inside the belly of the rolling foothills gives you a sense of being held in the warmth and safety of Mother Earth’s womb. The sweeping winds are silenced as they billow the clouds across the towering mountainpeaks.
A fireproof building is essential in this region of perennial bush fires, hence the idea of an earth roof. The climate here is too harsh and dry to sustain grasses and other perennials such as found on the earth roofs in Europe. However, many colourful succulent varieties grow naturally in the shallow soils of the surrounding sandstone outcrops where there is little competition from woody and other herbaceous perennials and grasses which require deeper soils. When ever it rains these indigenous plants invest water in their leaves or stems. So when the moisture in the soil drops below growing conditions, the plants survive by remaining dormant until the next rainy season. Plants with a mat-forming ability and rooting from their nodes got preference, inhibiting erosion during stormy times. Also the sour fig and related species were avoided to reduce the possible damage done by baboons that eat them. We got advice and assistance from a succulent expert from Kirstenbosch Gardens. Allen’s wife, Sue, propagated the succulents in seedling trays, and then planted them out. As the ground cover species spread across the roof, the insects and butterflies made their acquaintance. It soon became a living bouquet of changing colours. Succulent species from other parts in South Africa were also planted, which turned out to be highly successful and effective.
THE INNER ARTIST
As you enter the main volume of the building, a deep sense of inner peace and silence envelops you; yet at the same time, the forms, textures and the quality of light inspire a feeling of aliveness, of inner freedom, and a renewed capacity to be creative. Completing the construction of the building was the end product of one creative process and the beginning of another. The first process completed the outer fabric, the physical structure, which then became the medium for the second, more inward and personal process. This is the ongoing awakening and transforming of our awareness as evolving human beings. The first process transformed physical substance into something fixed and particular, the building, and the second nurtures the evolving development of something living and non-substantial, our inner life. Through the influence of the building, experiences in the depths of our being are brought to life; our growing consciousness is stimulated and supported.
What is experienced through the very fabric and forms of a building is whatever has inspired, consciously and unconsciously, the owners, architects contractors and craftsmen during the design and construction process. The quality and health of their inner life, their psyche, is mediated through the actual substance and shapes of a building to its occupants. We are unavoidably affected by this influence, embodied in every aspect of a building, which either impoverishes or enlivens us. What shapes our buildings then shapes us through the medium of the buildings themselves. Anticipating the impact the built environment has on our inner life during the process of conceiving and building requires a fundamental shift of awareness, from treating the structure as an end product to perceiving it as a medium for transforming consciousness. Healthy self reflection is essential when designing and working in this way. In the future, this insight will unearth an entirely new method of practicing architecture. The building will then not be seen as the end product of the design and construction process; rather our evolving consciousness will be recognised as the final, yet ongoing work of art.