The definition of "shelter" for many people typically means four walls and a solid roof overhead. This is often especially the case in extreme environments like the desert. Every attempt is usually taken to keep the heat, animals and insects out of where humans have decided to take residence. The outside is kept out.
However, Simon de Aguero, a recent graduate of the Taliesin School of Architecture, has created a new shelter he dubbed "Brittlebush," which challenges preconceptions of what form architecture for living in a desert environment can take.
Eric: Could you talk a little bit about the concepts behind your “Brittlebush” shelter and why you chose an open-air design versus a more enclosed approach?
Simon: As a first year student at Taliesin West, I was immediately drawn to the notion of building a desert dwelling. I continuously wandered the desert searching to find a site that evoked the iconic response that Frank Lloyd Wright labeled “catharsis.” I didn’t experience it.
I fell in love instead. The Taliesin West property is about 500 acres of desert landscape similar to the high mountain desert of my home state of New Mexico. I quickly explored the small differences between the two. I was at once very comfortable with the bobcats, snakes, and thorns; I walked everywhere finding many existing dwellings and old abandoned ones in various states of condition. I slept in quite a few of them—learning their pros and cons. I had many moments where I was fascinated and wanted to build in one location or another; I just couldn’t find that moment of conviction!
Now I realize, I was doing research. I needed to understand enough of the historic context of Taliesin West before I could begin choosing a site. Frank Lloyd Wright initiated the shelter program when he sent his apprentices out in to the desert to sleep in tents. These tents first took form as a tetrahedron on a triangular cement slab.
David Dodge is the only apprentice I know that lived in this type of tent. The second version of the tents was a pyramid shaped shepherd’s tent. Many of the apprentices used this tent and transformed the canvas and wood into more elaborate structures of their own. The site where I chose to build with was part of that early evolution from a triangle based to a square based for the tents. The triangle is visible on the patio slab. The tent and its evolution was one of the concepts I was working with.
Bill Moss, the inventor of the modern pop-up tent, was a resident at Taliesin West during the winters of 1989 and 1990. With a enthusiastic investigation of fabric as a building material, his legacy inspired me to build with fabric. Phillip Drew, in his book New Tent Architecture, talks about the tent as an aspect of architecture that brings the inhabitant closer to the earth that conventional buildings. My choice for the open air was to embrace the desert experience in its fullest.
I sketched various different ideas for almost a year while gaining a better understanding of tensile fabric structures. All the while, students and faculty discussed the shelter program—“What is the difference between a shelter and a house? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the shelters that exist? How does one live in the desert(s)?” Ultimately, through a conversation with Saskia Jorda, a friend and artist in Arizona, I was convinced that this project should be considered a dwelling.
The desert is essential in the expression of the brittlebush concept. I was doing my best to integrate the desert into the dwelling experience while providing stages of separation that could vary depending on the user. Some of my best nights at Taliesin West were spent in open-air shelters; I wanted to keep that as an essential experience. The comforting heat of the fire under the mass of the bed slab is a concept that I thought could be an interesting experiment—the very nature of these shelters...an architectural experiment in materials, functions, and habitation.
The roof, seen in the photos, is currently made of shade cloth. I made the tensioning system versatile enough to accommodate other waterproof fabrics as well. I am currently working with Andre Belkom the current student resident on procuring material donations for a waterproof roof.
Where do all these angles come from? The dwelling is, in part, an attempt to emulate ideas that I see in the main buildings at Taliesin West. If you look at photos of the buildings you will quickly see that they are all slanted in an almost pyramid-like form. The common angle used is 15degrees. I used this angle in conjunction with the idea of folding—as seen in the Origami Chair by Frank Lloyd Wright—to design the dwelling shell. I utilized the Fibonacci sequence as a rule for dimensioning the walls: 1,2,3,5,8,13,21. These same ideas carried into the furniture as well.
Eric: How did the principles of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Organic Architecture effect your shelter design decisions?
Simon: Inspiration from nature is a principle of Organic Architecture that constantly comes to mind when I think of Frank Lloyd Wright. How to site the project in its natural environment is an essential point of consideration. A very important decision was choosing to work with a pre-existing cement slab. The Taliesin West property is full of such slabs; to build anywhere else in such a fragile and historic environment would be disrespectful to property.
The desert is a fragile ecosystem that can take hundreds of years to rehabilitate depending on the level of damage. (If one looks at a satellite image of Taliesin West you will see trails and roads that have not been active for several years—their impact is still evident 50 years later.
Any architect or builder knows, that once you begin to build, the construction site can become a destruction site too. The landscape of Taliesin West needed a construction method that minimized impact. I used the existing cement slab as the staging site. I rarely did any construction from the exterior. Instead, I tried to work outward from within.
Almost all design decisions were based on material availability and local context. In this case specifically I work with materials that I had slavaged from our junkyard. I continued to find immediate resources for roughly 80% of the building material and about 95% of the labor. The ‘seed concept’ in Organic Architecture is very engaging to think about. Consider the ‘seed’ the starting context of the project. The ‘seed’ is defined by the free materials in the school scrap yard, the budget cap imposed by faculty, what I could physically, mentally, and monetarily contribute, and any potential outside contributions. From this ‘seed’, how does the project grow?
A quick lesson that woke me up in the beginning: Breaking ground on a building site is like plowing a field for planting. I chose to use a pickaxe and a shovel to break mine. That alone would be enough to stop some people—especially with the compacted earth of the desert. With the help of friends and the knowledge of a legacy—the building of Taliesin—I continued on. Many apprentices of Frank Lloyd Wright built this monument of American architecture with the same tools. Inspiration is one of the greatest nutrients to the seed of a project—in this context, both current and historic.
Eric: Could you describe some of the various materials and building techniques incorporated into shelter?
Simon: A steel frame welded on-site with 1foot concrete ground anchors in the skeleton of the dwelling. Vertical rebar was welded to the larger frame to keep the wall upright and stable. A 3 foot-tall retaining wall made of CMU (concrete masonry unit) block ensures the weight of the earth on the east side is set back from the 3inch rammed earth wall inside the steel frame. The rammed earth is a mixture of 15 portions of local dirt from a former shelter site, 1 portion cement, and 1 portion lime (with a dash of brown coloring).
Fortunately, I had a small mixer that allowed me to mix the ingredients in 5 gallon bucket increments. One side of the steel frame was completely boarded up and secured to respond appropriately to the ramming. On the other side of the steel frame I devised a slipform that allowed me to ram the mix at roughly 1foot courses. I would let the rammed earth set for a day and then move the form up and start the cycle all over. I used a hammer and an L-shaped ramming device—which I welded together—to compact the earth. (This was quite a learning process. I think I finally had both the technique and the mix refined by the time I completed the last wall.)
The fabric is anchored down by 1 ¼” steel tubing that is welded to the larger frame. The fabric is pushed upward by a height adjustable steel tube—the same tubing used for anchoring—topped with a 5” acrylic orb (which prevents the fabric from being punctured). With a kind donation from Tenshon, I chose to use a shade-cloth made by Synthesis for the first roof. This fabric is flexible and allows for on-sight adjustments. The plan is to make the second roof out of PVC vinyl; we are currently working on procuring donations of materials and production resources, an ultrasonic welder.
Eric: Did you also design the furniture for your shelter? If so, what were some of the ideas behind their unique designs?
Simon: Yes, I did design the furniture. Frank Lloyd Wright believed that a good concept could be translated into the design of furniture. I explored this concept further with Lloyd Natof, a master furniture designer from Illinois. Working with Lloyd pushed me to think harder and question: Did the concept need to be translated literally? How does one really make a piece of furniture?
The original design was much more monolithic—extremely similar to the walls of the dwelling…as if the rammed earth was being replaced with wood on all sides. Through a series of conversations we decided to place wood only where absolutely necessary—the seat and the backrest. In keeping with material continuity, the frame is made of 1 inch-angled steel.
Eric: Were there any special challenges faced or design changes needed once you started building the shelter?
Simon: I faced so many challenges, all of them containing a grain of learning and growth. One of my favorite challenges was moving the earth through the desert one wheelbarrow at a time. It was hard work but the most sensitive method I could use. I need to consider the fragile nature of the desert and I provided a good healthy exercise away from the other hours at the computer. Fortunately the only design change was that I used CMU block to retain the earth on the east side of the dwelling as opposed to the cast-in-place concrete wall I had originally designed.
The process was very fluid and the shape of the fabric was the hardest to understand. That is why I omitted it from the renderings and drawings. In working with fabric a 1/2” scale model is essential to understand. The design. Computers can do it to but it is more immediate to try to do something with the fabric to really understand its properties.
Eric: What future projects are you working on, or would like to work on?
Simon: I am currently working on two projects. First, I have an internship with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. For the duration of the internship I will be staying at Taliesin in Wisconsin. I will be working in conjunction with Taliesin Preservation Incorporated (TPI) on the restoration of Tan-y-deri. A 1907 Frank Lloyd Wright residence designed for his relatives, Jane and Andrew Porter.
Second, I will be working on applying for the SOM (Skimore, Owings, and Merrill) Prize and Travel Fellowship for Architecture, Design, and Urban Design. A travel fellowship for recent architecture school graduates. I hope to further my studies in tensile and fabric structures—to potentially discover new applications for fabric as a building material and tension as a structural concept.
I would like to work on projects that make a difference in our urban and rural environments; to work on projects that are useful and last; to meet individuals that will push me to think deeper about my design and in turn do the same for them. I would like to work on residential, commercial, and international projects. I want to work, get licensed, and practice! I want to make friends contribute to my communities and do my best because that is all I can do. Maybe, a little salsa dancing, skateboarding and Capoeira in there too! pm
All Brittlebush photos and drawings copyright Simon de Aguero. Google map copyright Google
Eric O'Malley is a co-founder and contributor to PrairieMod. He lives with his wife in the Little Red House, a Mid-Century Modern ranch in suburban Chicago. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.