The Cult of Buildings 11/30/2013

posted Nov 30, 2013, 4:08 PM by Kyle Chamberlain   [ updated Jan 27, 2017, 11:14 AM ]
I've been doing a little construction work to pay my land bill. I have a kind and generous boss, and it's really the best possible kind of odd job. Still, the experience has crystallized my distaste for conventional building methods, and buildings in general. I've inhaled 'formaldehyde free' insulation fibers, stapled myself into a double layer of plastic, and zapped my hands while connecting a shroud of electric wire. I wonder, is all of this really necessary to realize modern citizenship? What if I don't want anything to do with two-by-fours and and oriented strand board'? I wrote this poem:

"In my plastic ghetto tipi, pitched in the tangled chaos of a pillaged forest, I now realize- I am like you. 
Beneath the textured paint of your conventionally constructed modern home, you too are sheathed in suffocating plastic, mired in the confusion of the mangled woods. 
I am the response to you. A vulnerable sponge. 
Doomed to regurgitate the complete picture, years later, of your blind and violent trajectory..."

I've realized that modern home-owners are wannabe manor lords. People joke about men wanting to be "the king of the castle", yet it's a very real psychology. The amenities that form a modern house (flush toilets, water heaters, electric toasters, 'entertainment systems', ext.) are all cheaper versions of luxuries pioneered in the mansions of the rich. And these amenities perform the same services once performed by servants. 

Having lived without these amenities for the better part of six years, I understand them as psychological accommodations. I believe that the American middle class wants mansion-comparable property to compensate for their wage-slave reality. Consider the true function of a modern house. Sheltering an isolated nuclear family, and sitting empty for the work day, it delivers efficient food warming, body sanitization, timed sleep, and politically benign amusement gadgets. It has no productive value or self-sufficiency. It is a net consumer of energy, and produces only human work-readiness. It lacks the gardens, pastures, and woodlots of a traditional 'household'. Clearly, the modern home is slaves quarters. But if we dress them up like aristocratic manors, with lawns and Christmas lights, we tend to feel better about this.

(Modern Americans are consumptive slaves, distinct from productive slaves of the past. The stuff we buy represents far more energy than the work we do. And while prodigious amounts of material and energy may pass through our lives, our socio-political influence is insignificant, and we have limited freedom to control this wealth in responsible ways. We can only consume.)

It's power psychology. When people are lorded over, they respond vindictively with lordly ambitions. Our low-budget do-it-yourself mansions were inspired by European manors. Historically, a manor is a de-fortified castle, the dwelling of a feudal lord.

The de-fortifying trend, replacing castles with manors, accompanied another trend- the insulation of the aristocracy from their servants. Originally, everyone in the castle lived in apartments off of a great hall. Eventually, in the manor, servants were relegated to the lower floors and attics. Another trend involved replacing practical farm facilities with ornamental lawns and gardens. It was a symbol of power, to isolate oneself from the means of livelihood. In the American home, we see the ultimate separation of life and livelihood. Today, you can live suburbia and never see where your food, fuel, or economic privilege comes from.

But what if you can see through it? What if you can see these blatant status symbols as symptoms of profound powerlessness? Perhaps you could start by acknowledging your peasant status, and stepping off the hamster wheel. Dig yourself a latrine. Cook on stick fuel. Make your roof from something you can gather or salvage. 

But don't settle for peasant status. To be free from the power complex is to be an egalitarian, like the hunter/gatherers of the past. An egalitarian camps, hunts, and gathers wherever he likes. He keeps a weapon and knows how to use it. He shows no respect to hierarchy or private property. He values relationship over ownership, reputation over accumulation, freedom over fear. 

In a previous post, I shared the first colonial laws imposed on the Nimiipuu (Nez Perce Indians). One of the laws made deliberate destruction of a house is punishable by death. I want to emphasize how bizarre this must have seemed to indigenous Plateau cultures, who never entertained police, much less a corporal death penalty. What is private property to a person accustomed to taking what he needs freely from the land? For some native groups, raiding for horses was a proud pastime. For white settlers, the theft of horses was a grave matter and a hangable offense. Though it need not be the case, our culture still takes property very seriously. 

If there are archaeologists in the future, they might conclude that our culture was a cult of buildings. What ceremonial use did they have for so much insulated space?

It would be preposterous to be against structures or shelter. But I do feel the landscape has been terribly cluttered with all of these wannabe manors and psychological compensations. There are 'carbon neutral' philosophies. Why shouldn't there be 'structure neutral' philosophies? If I build something new, maybe I should tear one or two other things down. A contemporary town is a strange place for an egalitarian mind, because there is so much space cut off from the public view and access. Atrocities committed in this condoned secrecy range from child abuse to government greed. You could live next door to a serial murderer and never know it. The barriers of buildings also allow us to live at a density we would not otherwise tolerate. What lemming instincts would be triggered, if the sights, sounds, and smells of our neighbors could penetrate the walls?

The only models we have for appropriate structures are indigenous houses, which were socially transparent, and often multi-family. They were human scale.They were only one part of the cultural landscape.