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Duty, Being, and Building with Dirt

I read yesterday a brief review of a recently-published history of earth architecture, and it beckoned my thoughts down a number of less-traveled paths. The term “earth architecture” describes buildings made of dirt, in various forms or mixtures: adobe from Southwestern clay, for instance, or cob from mixed mud and straw in Britain, or even the “soddies” of Laura Ingalls Wilder fame. Earth architecture has an eminent and enduring history: “Of all the 869 cultural, architectural and urban UNESCO World Heritage Sites, more than 160 were built either wholly or partially from earth,” and remain standing centuries later. Belgian architect Jean Dethier sets out, inThe Art of Earth Architecture: Past, Present, Future, not only to recount this history, but to commend it as an artistically and environmentally responsible alternative to the modern building practices with which we’ve replaced it.

The author of the review discerns industrialist critique and decolonial fervor as major themes in this narrative, but it’s this brief ethical comment, and the thought-path it opens, that most intrigues me:

A popular criticism of earth constructions is that they often require regular upkeep, a feature widely considered a weakness in architecture. The materials that define our built landscape have often been chosen not for their aesthetic or ecological value but to reduce the burden of periodic maintenance. Thatched roofs, for example, have been tiled, green spaces have been paved and tarmac has been poured over cobbles. Any gardener or parent knows that frequent small acts of care are preferable to intense bursts of activity that punctuate long periods of neglect, but construction, a largely male industry, conflates care with weakness, venerating the toughest of materials, often at the expense of higher carbon emissions.

Dethier casts light on earth construction traditions that embrace and even express the principle of architectural care.

“The burden of periodic maintenance” versus “frequent small acts of care”: these opposing descriptions of “regular upkeep” merit sustained reflection. For “regular upkeep” is an integral part of nearly everyone’s daily experience, and though an architect’s perspective on the matter will shape entire landscapes, my own perspective will shape the life of my soul and my home. It will direct the motivation I bring to each day’s tasks and the meaning I discern in them. It will shape the ideals I cherish and the ways I labor to bring them into reality. It will plot the narrative of my soul’s formation, and color the sketch of my ultimate hope. Do I consider “regular upkeep” a weakness? Or have I staked my life on the “principle of . . . care”?

If I deem “regular upkeep” to be a burden and a weakness, I will consider all recurring duties to be a distraction, a deviation, from better, nobler, truer work. I will do maintenance work in the most perfunctory way possible. I will try to maximize ease and efficiency in my methods, but will dismiss beauty and love as irrelevant to them. I will build and plan and organize and schedule and decorate and educate and cook and clean and vacation and worship to minimize any recurring habitual action. I will always want to be doing a new thing, not a thing I have done before. I will tend to start many things and sustain few of them, to know the surfaces of many ideas but to see the depths of none. I will aim for perfection—by which I will mean completion, cessation—in whatever I do, and if I cannot achieve this kind of perfection in a given labor, I will prefer not to do it. I will be tempted to despair when I find myself doing the same thing over and over, whether that be doing laundry or resisting besetting sin. And the landscape of my life will look like the landscape of modern architecture: stolid, impervious, not part of nature, not something in which to invest care for because it is loved, but to be tolerated because it requires little effort.

If, however, I deem “regular upkeep” to be an opportunity to embody care—that is, to embody virtues like patience, kindness, longsuffering, forbearance, gentleness, love—then I will consider all recurring duties as a gift and vocation. I will tread the round of daily chores with calm content, looking out for ways to freshen them with creativity and beauty. I will build and plan and organize and schedule and decorate and educate and cook and clean and vacation and worship by weighing, with great thought, what should be done each day so that small actions may accumulate into habits, liturgies, character. I will be cautious in taking on new things. I will do few things and will know the limits of my knowledge, but will do well and understand deeply within those limits. I will not take perfection or completion as my goal, for to do so would be to invite despair; but I will count my day well lived when I have labored in love, even though I have not finished my tasks and will begin them all again on the morrow. I will be patient even when I find I cannot rid myself of the same temptations, taking them as a continual pressure towards Jesus’ presence. And the landscape of my life will look—like something our world has just about lost: humble dwellings, rising out of the same earth from which they are made, kept because they are needed, well kept because they are loved.

God has set “eternity in our hearts”; the whole history of human literature and art and architecture can be read as a gloss on this Ecclesiastes text. Modern architecture sets itself against change and decay, and in that sense it too seeks the eternal. But classically, from Gilgamesh to Gatsby, change and decay are feared because they draw something that is loved (one’s companion, one’s beloved, one’s honor, one’s name, one’s life) towards loss and absence and death. Eternity, in other words, is the bliss of undying love. In Dethier’s account, modern architecture avoids decay just to avoid effort; its motivation is not love but laziness. Eternity itself has been redefined from enduring love (being) to cessation of effort (nonbeing). No wonder modern people find it hard to imagine Heaven.

To live on earth as a herald of Heaven, to pray “Thy kingdom come,” is to love into being each act we undertake.

(Photo: Sir Walter Raleigh’s birthplace, made of cob)

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