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Slow architecture: houses that understand people and place

Idleness and boredom are a type of lucidity experienced by those brave enough to confront themselves instead of filling their lives with meaningless activity to keep themselves “busy,” or this is at least what postwar thinkers such as stateless, pessimist Emil Cioran mused about.

Centuries before Cioran, Petrarch used an extended stay in the village of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, near Avignon, to write a treatise in Latin about the solitary, sometimes weary life of somebody dealing with the essentials of life.

John Maynard revived an derelict cabin that had belonged to a settler from Kentucky who had fought for the Union and post-war had been forced to flee his home state; he rebuilt it log by log at his Minnesota homestead

People who want to learn, concluded Petrarch writing in Latin (De vita solitaria, 1356), need the tedium and slowness of solitude to gather the fruits of contemplation. The activity of those born to enjoy what others considered boredom contrasted with the existence of those keeping themselves busy, so they didn’t need to meditate about time or impermanence.

He claimed his meditative retirement in the countryside could get anyone with the right attitude closer to higher levels of understanding. In the countryside, houses were also devoid of superfluous comfort, and things seemed to stress different clairvoyance than in the confusion of city affairs.

Looking at the world from home

Traditional builders and residential architects share the primordial task of building and keeping in shape the dwellings that define us. But what we call “home” goes beyond what four walls and a roof can contain. As the word “ecology” states, we look at the world and make sense of it from our house: from our “oikos” (home in Greek), we go forth to explore the “logos,” the fabric of what’s out there. Economics, alas, shares the same domestic roots, “nomos” being the management of a household. Behavioral economics is not as contemporary as some may think.

Oikos and logos are the roots of any possible ecology. There would be no conceptual logos if we couldn’t think from our framing and perspective. “Home” is also a theory of knowledge with deep roots in our origins as a species. Ideal and real homes don’t belong in the same world, but sometimes we feel as if we were able to merge them both if only one instant when material aspirations and superficial preoccupations can’t take from us some moments of tranquility and fulfillment.

We can “feel at home” somewhere else and feel like a stranger in our own home, and what we find in places that make us feel at home may hold some interesting patterns, physical and conceptual, that we may recognize and cherish. When John Maynard, a retired professor who bought and rebuilt log-by-log a settler cabin on his Minnesota homestead, talked to us about the essentials of “home,” he hinted at the contemporary obsession for convenience when we asked about the pain of going to the outhouse, a walk from the home, on a cold night: “You have to put your coat on and get cold or swat a few mosquitos, but it’s good for the soul. Perhaps we’ve convenienced our real-life away someplace.”

But “oikos” is not a simple house building, but a household made of things tangible—and intangible such as our culture and values. The ecology of dwelling has accompanied us from our beginnings and, to some extent, condensates what we’ve been and what we aspire to become. When a house feels like home, we can decide the shape time adopts within. For example, the “now” within “home” could expand and take a different rhythm than what we observe outside.

A slow country home

This is at least the Quixotic enterprise some architects, builders, and enthusiasts have undertaken. Laura Álvarez left Cantabria as a young architect looking for experience and opportunities. In between projects for a studio in the Netherlands, he kept thinking about the meaning of home. To her, it was the evergreen, steep hills of her region that made rural valleys such as the Valles Pasiegos a place worth returning to build an ideal, personal dwelling.

Despite its short distance from Santander and Basque cities, the area’s valleys had remained mostly agrarian thanks to a capillarity of small towns with shepherds seasonally feeding their cows on different altitudes and hence unconsciously complying with secular short-distance transhumance around the Cantabrian mountains and their pasture fields separated by low walls of pilled stone.

Locals endured the rainy and cold weather with wool garments and a type of housebarn that adapted to the place since time immemorial, so Laura Álvarez set to find a derelict dwelling that a forgotten family would have shared with a few animals sleeping at night on the bottom floor and providing a type of radiant heat once expanded all across Europe. Her connection to the area since childhood allowed her to retrofit a one-story stone housebarn to modern needs, while preserving the essentials of the original building.

At first, Laura thought of staying in the house when visiting the area and renting it when back in Amsterdam. The house’s dreamy location, midway on a hilly slope of a few big trees and pastures divided by a mountain creek, made it ideal as a place of introspection. Then, the coronavirus pandemic made Laura and her partner Lewis realize that the house could well become a permanent place called “home.”

The rhythms of rurality

Laura had naturally come up with a name for the housebarn’s modern restoration: Villa Slow. She thought the name was a good fit for a project in which she had decided to use the best local wood for the furniture, while the leftovers from forest cleaning to heating both the house and the bathtub. The name also manifested itself as the slower rhythms of life returned to their hyperconnected life of city professionals: chopping wood, cooking outdoors, hiking, and collecting local wood for a furniture workshed Lewis eventually built, made the house’s name fulfill its potential meaning.

Living there permanently may be temporary, but Laura and Lewis are building relationships in the area and plan to expand. We revisited them recently; it was a rainy day, and mud covered the entryway. The couple’s dog greeted us, and two woolly, innocent-looking donkeys, much like kids in Spain imagine the donkey protagonist in Juan Ramón Jiménez tale Platero and I: “Platero is small, fluffy, soft; so soft on the outside that one would say he is all cotton, that he carries no bones.”

Like the slow food movement, as much a vindication of the beauty of local produce and cooking traditions as a celebration of an unrushed way of being in the world, slow architecture aims at considering the context, materials, affordability, sustainability, and long-term commitment of buildings, those who inhabit them either temporarily or permanently, and a capillary network of interrelations with the surrounding houses—if any—and nature.

Like the origin of the word “ecology” as a combination of the nouns “house” and “reasoning,” slow architecture aims at understanding the surroundings, so a house belongs to the place to the point it makes sense to those who inhabit it, but also to the landscape and surrounding ecosystem. To Frank Lloyd Wright, “No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.”

Emerson and “home”

Despite its modern use by a couple of professionals, Villa Slow keeps talking to the hill it sits and to the evergreen valley with changing weather it looks into. The cadence of life loses the needed hurry of a society that, according to Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, leads to burnout and other contemporary disorders, from depression to attention deficit disorder. Henry David Thoureau had felt similarly challenged by the utilitarian values of the society of his time, and his project at Walden had much to do with reminding himself how important it is to live deliberately.

To Thoreau’s mentor, pantheist thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson, home was a representation of ourselves: “The constant progress of Culture is to a more interior life, to a deeper Home.” With this reflection by Emerson in mind, Diana and Michael Lorence began working in what was a simple, unelectrified home in the California woods they called the Innermost House. As they explain, the search for a house that could represent the essentials they were aspiring to began twenty years ago.

They finally moved to a 12 square-foot small home carrying the essentials for a comfortable life despite the lack of modern comforts we have come to declare an essential need, such as electricity, “a small, concentrated domestic space conceived for the purpose of what Wordsworth called ‘plain living and high thinking,” according to Diana. The simple redwood cabin in the coastal mountains of Northern California includes a small deck and a stone chimney as seasonal indicators of a simple cabin in which Diana and Michael feel expanded despite its dimensions.

Intentional homes

Like in the writings of Emerson and, before him, those of Spinoza, an inner scrutiny undisturbed by stuff surrounding us that screams for attention can allow for a self-examination that finds connections with Nature. If to Eastern philosophers the concept of Tao represents the natural, nameless, shapeless order of the universe, Emerson finds a connection among introspection—the personal soul—and Nature—all things comprising, as Spinoza also stated, God—, and he calls it the oversoul. The Innermost House aims to facilitate its inhabitants’ self-examination and, from their perspectives, their perception of the world. From their “home,” they peek into the universe: oikos and logos.

The Lorences show the relationship between fulfillment and material goods surrounding us or other status markers is arbitrary, as long as lack of things is not considered deprivation but a deliberate choice. Conversely, a lack of things considered essential by others doesn’t necessarily show destitution: to them, no electricity of any type, no refrigerator, and no oven, hints at the simplicity of a diet including lots of vegetables, fruits, grains, and nuts. They cook with a cast iron pot over the fire, which is also their source of hot water, heat, and indirect light. They don’t consider themselves a couple living in material deprivation to show a point to the world, and, before appearing in a video by Kirsten, they had preferred not to publicize their endeavors.

Their “experiment in philosophical simplicity” has allowed them to focus on their inner lives as a philosophy of live that suits them and has attuned their activity to the activity around the house’s natural surroundings and, when inside, next to the fireplace, a hearth of the home, the “fireside” of the activity of any household and, also, a daily symbolic display of impermanence, according to French philosopher Gaston Bachelard. Connecting introspection with our perception of the world like his mentor Emerson, Thoreau concluded that “to be admitted to Nature’s hearth costs nothing. None is excluded, but excludes himself. You have only to push aside the curtain.”

Building, dwelling, thinking

Do we need a physical, permanent (or semi-permanent) home to be at home? Does a hearth we can call home need a fireplace? Can any habitation eventually feel like home? Can a home fulfill all our needs by providing a minimum comfort and protection, or “to dwell” is something beyond utility and convenience? More important: can homes make us feel better, becoming an unpretentious respite in a context dominated by a culture of convenience that invites us to keep engaged, competitive, and multitasking?

No matter how humble, a home builder is no less than “a gardener of the world,” in the words of German philosopher Martin Heidegger (Building, Dwelling, Thinking, 1951). He who contributes to building a house is an accidental protagonist of the accomplishment of human existence since dwellings are an interpretation of place, self-perception, culture, and also a byproduct of a moment in history.

During his first trip to America as a young assistant to Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung had a dream that convinced him that building a house was a physical symbol of building a self, as he portrayed later in life when he detailed the evolution of his home overseeing Lake Zurich. The young Jung later related his dream to his discovery of the “collective unconscious” since we all seem to share instincts and values around our homes: the home had different floors, each one belonging to a different style and epoch: nineteenth-century upper floor, medieval first floor, Roman vaulted cellar, and a bare low cave cut into the rock, with primitive remainings of pottery and human activity on it.

“My dream thus constituted a kind of structural diagram of the human psyche,” wrote Jung about the house he had dreamt about while having the feeling of not knowing. It was, he concluded, an archetypical habitation he unconsciously shared with other people. In some ways, Jung’s conception of the “collective unconscious,” or the inner memories and thought processes we all share, is related to Emerson’s “oversoul,” to the Eastern tao. In a letter to Sigmund Freud, French writer Romain Rolland expressed a sensation that sometimes would come to him as an “oceanic feeling,” a “sensation of eternity” that allowed him to feel connected “with the external world as a whole.” A home in which we feel the agency to pause and give things and tasks the time they need can be an opportunity to feel an essential connection with what surrounds us that we have forgotten amid the everyday battle.

Sitting by the hearth

When describing the roots of the nuclear home in Navarre, Spanish anthropologist and historian specializing in Basque culture Julio Caro Baroja mentioned both the utility and the symbolic importance of the hearth, which is necessary to keep the space of shared activity warm in cold climates, but also an image of purification present among ancestral populations. In the Italian Alps, for example, fireplaces and, later on, traditional cast iron or porcelain stoves provided a gathering after work.

Enrico Gri was looking for an abandoned housebarn to restore in Orco Valley, where inhabitants still use the local Piemontese to refer to farming or construction tasks and techniques. Then, he found online a bramble-filled structure and began transforming it into something livable; he set to do all tasks that were not structural or wouldn’t need permitting, teaming with a local architecture studio to encase a livable wooden area in the two-story stone home’s upper floor, creating a “house within a house.”

Enrico and his wife Paola cleaned and secured the stone walls with the help of a local mason, then designed and built the interior furniture in the perimeter of the first-floor’s dugout cellar, leaving the higher central area under the vaulted ceiling free of obstructions. All things designed and used within the home have a use but also a meaning for the couple. The building’s past has also been integrated, from animal mangers and hayloft tools to an old chestnut-wood door with original wooden hinges.

Four hours east of the Orco area, in the Alpine valley of Sondrio, Alfredo Vanotti has brought two worthless rural buildings back to life, and done so by dramatically improving their potential. We met Alfredo years ago on a trip from the Swiss mountains into the lakes north of Milan through the usually-closed-in-winter Passo dello Spluga. Despite being in the fall, we climbed the Splügen Pass on a freezing day and, near the top, we experienced the first heavy snow of the season. It was close night when we arrived at our destination for the night.

The morning after, Alfredo showed us his bold restoration of a ruined stable in the Orobic Alps. The home reflected a strangely fresh blend of craftsmanship and a very personal, (s)low-tech modern design. A skylight and four large windows facing the Valtellina Valley let the outside in. In the interior, Vanotti had used cement to express a somehow timeless, rough finishing that “shouldn’t be smooth, beautiful, precise,” Vanotti explained.

It’s up to our perception of things

While Vanotti expressed to us how hard was to make it work as a local young architect with no contacts, his father was helping our children collect chestnuts from the area. Vanotti only talked Italian, but he understood my Spanish when I stated that it’s hard to get a start as a prophet on one’s own land: it’s when we show our work outside our inner circle that our proximity begins to take us into consideration. At twilight, when we descended at the bottom of the valley and stopped to say farewell, Alfredo’s dad came with a bag of apples for the kids. Two years passed before our next visit to Alfredo, this time to see how he had transformed his grandfather’s old barn into what had become the young architect’s new budget, elegant home studio. His professional situation had also changed for the better, though he wanted to preserve a “slow,” laid-back hyper locality. Alpine intuitions had crystalized in the ethos of his style.

Not all homes re-learning to embrace slowness both in material and non-tangible ways are partial restorations or adaptations of derelict or abandoned rural buildings, such as Villa Slow or Enrico Gri’s Alpine housebarn, nor homes built from scratch from a well-defined, coherent ethos, as in Diana and Michael Lorence’s Innermost House: Carlo “Dino” Marchetti bought a property with gorgeous views to the Alps near Morbegno. There was a strange phenomenon at the property, though: the house’s seventies-style detached garage had the best views of the Alps in the whole proximity, “almost as if it were a joke.” So Marchetti transformed it into a modern-rustic annex cabin with the help of Gianmatteo Romegialli and Erika Gaggia.

The transformation was affordable, original, and memorable: with a light steel frame around the unfortunate original building, they enabled local plants to wrap the home in a second skin of vegetation, while inside they added raw, industrial materials to create a rustic-modern kitchen, a sturdy design to ease its continuous, comfortable use. Facing the Alps, a big window frame allowed for a sunroom for relaxing and potting the garden. A former, misplaced garage taking over the garden and views gained a new sense in a property that had plenty of room to park several cars by the driveway legally.

Marchetti ended up confessing that the “ugly garage” was now “home.” It hadn’t been planned, but the small cabin now connected better with him and the surroundings than the big home he had bought the property for years prior. As the day advanced and twilight was beginning to take shape, Dino, a slender and naturally elegant middle-aged man who works as a dentist in town, looked at us and smiled: “oh well!” We couldn’t leave his house without a present: a magnum bottle of wine from the area.