The new book Sun Sticks and Mud: 1,000 Years of Earth Building in the Desert Southwest, published by La Sombra Books, looks at building not only with adobe bricks, but with puddled adobe, cob (mud with straw), earth-bag, rammed-earth, jacal (mudded pole), and construction with terrones. "Terron is cut from the surface of the ground, so it retains a lot of the root layer of the grass for structure in the blocks, " said Bart Kaltenbach, co-author of Sun Sticks and Mud with Barbara Anschel. Terron has been used locally at Isleta Pueblo and in the North Valley of Albuquerque, they said.
The volume is a fascinating look at earthen architecture in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Utah, and California, and is peppered with more than 400 color photographs by Steve Fitch. The authors divided the text into two sections. First is the central storytelling about the architecture and its history and locales. Second, occupying spaces on the outer edges of each pages, are running journals, accounts of their four years of road trips pulling a "Lit'l Pup" trailer around the country. "The way people relate to printed material these days is kind of changing, so we felt like it might be appropriate to have a number of ways that people could relate to this book," Kaltenbach said.
The journals have an On the Road quality to them, but it was Robert M. Pirsig, not Jack Kerouac, who inspired them. "When we were working on this and I was doing the writing, at the beginning [Anschel subsequently added material], I decided to take a close look at Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and that ended up being helpful in terms of voice."
The wonderful array of buildings in the photographs really pulls readers in, inviting them to compare the many faces and shapes of earth-built buildings in the American Southwest (with a handful of examples in North Africa and Europe). "We've been looking at some of these buildings for years, and we were quite glad to find that many were still there. One is a carriage house in Winston [a ghost town in southwest New Mexico], which is an adobe infill, the post-and-beam frame covered in pressed metal imported from Galveston, Texas."
One of the first buildings we see, in the preface, is the Kaltenbach-Anschel house in Madrid. It's an energy-efficient passive-solar home with a shallow metal pitched roof with dormers, but there is no attic. "The dormers are just for light, and they also ventilate up high. We began building that 38 years ago, when we first moved there. We made that mostly out of scrap materials we scrounged, then later we built another shell over the top of it when we had more money for materials."
The home, not far away, of Fitch and his partner, artist Lynn Grimes, is also hand-built and also "green" in the old, common-sense, sense. It is an interesting fact that homes like these constitute a continuing regional vernacular, contrasting with the notion that "vernacular" usually describes local, handmade houses in the olden days. "Yeah, we were bringing that term forward into the '70s, when there were a lot of passive solar, new immigrant-built [built by newcomers to the Southwest, often part of the counterculture] vernacular houses."
As long as they weren't designed by an architect.
"And I'm not. Not quite, " Kaltenbach said. "We never used much in the way of levels and squares when we worked on our own houses. I'm not a licensed architect, but I've been doing this since I was 15, working for architects in New Haven, Connecticut."
He was employed for a time with the Architects Collaborative, working with disciples of Walter Gropius, before the old master died. When Kaltenbach and Anschel got into the field on their own, it was in the design/build format (the same person designs and builds the house). One recent design project in Santa Fe was a contemporary addition for their daughter and her partner on Alarid Street.
During the interview with Pasatiempo in late October, Anschel and Kaltenbach were in Chama, building a house of machine-made compressed-earth blocks. "They're denser and give you even better thermal mass than adobe bricks, " Kaltenbach said. "But you have to have enough sand in your soil, and we're having to bring these in from another pit; there's too much clay here. This is our last building project, we tell ourselves."
Those of us in the Santa Fe area enjoy thinking that our earthen architectural precedents in Northern New Mexico are unique, but Kaltenbach and Anschel's survey in Sun Sticks and Mud is much broader. "The Santa Fe Style notion of adobe is really a fairly limited look at the whole picture, " he said. "There are many other ways people have, and will, use earth as a building material."
The book has photos of some really neat buildings in Spring City, Utah, for example. "There's a whole string of towns in the Sanpete Valley, " said Anschel, who did much of the research for the book project. "That was where the Mormons first came, and they only had earth to build with. A lot of them were Scandinavian, and you can see that in the very well-made, sharp-edged blocks there."
The journal sections have their own photographs, fitting into the authors' commentaries. One of the interesting buildings, an adobe granary with stone windows and quoins, appears in a section about the Hacienda de San Diego in Mata Ortiz, Mexico. A splendid contrast comes with a look at the opposite page; one of the photos there shows a cluster of five-story, rammed-earth buildings in Morocco.)
The first three chapters cover "Indigenous Architecure, " "300 Years of Building in High Desert Regions, " and "Historic Restoration and Preservation, " then Kaltenbach, Anschel, and Fitch come up to the present with sections headed "Modern Interpretation: Designing Out of the Box" and "Contemporary Methods and Materials." They take us through southwestern Arizona and southern California for "A Modern Model for Sustainable Building."
We visit Marathon, Texas, to see the papercrete domes at Eve's Garden Organic Bed and Breakfast and Ecology Resource Center. It is puzzling that this sort of thing, creating light building blocks by mixing recycled paper with Portland cement, isn't done more often. "They're real proponents of papercrete, but that's in the book more for the Nubian connection, the use of those kinds of vaults and domes in Mali and Egypt, " Kaltenbach said. "The people in Marathon probably picked that up from [Adobe Alliance founder] Simone Swan, whose house is in nearby Presidio."
The authors stray out of the strictly earthen realm to discuss pumice-crete, insulated concrete forms, and autoclaved concrete. Kaltenbach said the inclusion of those modern building technologies relates to "the fact that people get so hooked on thick walls."
One of the newest photos in the book shows Connor Hall at the New Mexico School for the Deaf, designed in the 1920s by Rapp & Rapp, with a recently completed contemporary-design addition by Studio Southwest Architects, Albuquerque. "We traveled to Europe because our son was living in Berlin, and that's a great place to see how architects have dealt with historic buildings and dealt with modernism. Then we came back and with all the discussion of preservation versus restoration, we felt that was a pretty good job they did at the School for the Deaf."
There is no mention in the book of New Mexico architect Michael Reynolds or his "earthships, " which make good use of local earth; or of Cornerstones Community Partnerships, which works with local communities to restore historic adobes; or of that organization's excellent manual Adobe Conservation: A Preservation Handbook. Kaltenbach does include a primer on modern adobe construction as the last chapter in the book.
Sun Sticks and Mud is an intriguing survey, taking in a primitive adobe potato barn in Del Norte, Colorado; hipped-roof adobes in Abiquiú and in Marfa, Texas; the rather Brutalist rammed-earth Tucson buildings by architect Rick Joy; historic adobes and street scenes in Mora and Wagon Mound; and stately homes in La Cueva (the Salman Ranch) and Springer (the Mills-Clegg Mansion); as well as the well-known historic buildings and modern structures (including Ed Mazria's Genoveva Chavez Community Center, Alexander Dzurec's Zane Fischer house, and Michael Freeman's Santa Fe Public Works Facility) in Santa Fe. ◀
"Sun Sticks and Mud: 1,000 Years of Earth Building in the Desert Southwest, " by Bart Kaltenbach and Barbara Anschel with photographs by Steve Fitch, is published by La Sombra Books.