U.S. Department of State
By Stephen Holgate, Special Correspondant, Washington File
For USinfo.state.gov (Farsi Website)
June 30, 2003 – October 30, 2003
For Architect Khalili, Rumi Inspires 21st Century Housing Solutions
“Super adobe” uses material at hand to build shelters on Earth and in space
Are obedient creatures,
They are dead to you and me,
But alive at God's presence.
- Rumi (Jalaluddin Mohammad)
The richness of one of the world’s most ancient cultures, the vision of a 13th century Persian poet, and the freedom and opportunity offered by the world’s most modern country have inspired a leading Iranian-American architect to find new solutions to one of the world’s oldest problems.
“There are more than 800 million people who live in shantytowns made of scraps of tin and wood, or have no shelter at all,” says Nader Khalili from his office in Hesperia, California. “It has become my dream to find a solution to house these people.”
From this small town at the edge of the Mojave Desert, Khalili has worked for almost two decades to show that the solution he seeks does not lie in the development of high-tech compounds or expensive construction techniques. Instead it will come, he believes, from the simplest of materials – sandbags, plastic tubing, wire, earth and fire.
As for construction techniques, he says, “Imagine the concentric wooden doughnuts that you stack up as a children’s toy.”
Khalili believes that the techniques he uses will make houses all but fireproof and will cost 40-60 percent less than for other buildings. He adds that energy savings from the use of natural materials to insulate against both heat and cold could pay for the entire cost of the house within a few years.
He refers frequently to the word “sustainability” when speaking of his structures to indicate that they rely on materials and techniques that put little burden on distressed natural environments.
And as if to show that the simplest ideas can prove the most innovative, Khalili’s work not only offers hope to the inhabitants of this world, but has also drawn the interest of the scientific community as a promising means for sheltering humans when they establish bases on the moon or Mars.
The path that led Khalili to the discovery of the essential truths was not in itself simple. During the 1970s, Khalili was one of Iran’s most prominent architects, specializing in skyscrapers and splitting his life between his offices in Los Angeles and Tehran. His face had become familiar to millions of Iranians through his frequent television appearances. Yet, in the midst of his fame and success, he found that he had grown disillusioned with architecture.
“I was in competition for projects and contracts. But I felt I was in the rat race,” he says. “I never really helped people.”
A child’s footrace proved to be the turning point in his life.
During a picnic at a park in Tehran, a number of children, including his own young son, started racing. “Parents were encouraging their children to run faster, to win the race,” he recalls. His son, however, at four and half years old, was the youngest, and time after time finished last. Embarrassed and upset, he said to his father, “I want to race by alone.” At first Khalili tried to persuade his son to keep racing with the others, but then relented.
“So,” Khalili said, “after everyone had left, I drew a line on the ground and he raced around the park by himself.” He found that his son was not only happier, “but each time he came back to the start, he had discovered something interesting in the park. He was running even slower than before, but I noticed that not only was he enjoying his race, he also always came in first.”
He realized that his son’s experience spoke to his own life. As he has recounted in his book “Racing by Myself” (“Tanhaa Davidan” in the Persian edition), he vowed that, “I would race to my own potential rather than trying to beat someone else.”
Soon he gave up his architectural practice, bought a motorcycle and went into the Iranian desert for five years seeking new inspiration. As he looked at his country with new eyes, he saw great simplicity and value in its traditional architecture, especially in the thousands upon thousands of villages made of mud houses. “They were very simple, but very sophisticated in their use of natural elements,” Khalili says. “I wanted to learn. I began to have this dream of building structures from earth and fire.”
He also began studying the writing of Jalaluddin Mohammad, known as Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet who wrote of the unity of all life and the elements of the earth. From Rumi’s vision Khalili took his own inspiration to use natural materials to create modern habitations. “When I was in the desert,” Khalili says, “I became familiar with five personalities: water, air, earth, fire, and Rumi. I learned the language of spiritualism and it is embedded in my own life. Even my work in Hesperia is from Rumi.”
“I soon realized,” Khalili says, “that if I made buildings of mud – as in the villages – and then set them on fire, I could turn them into ceramic houses that lasted much longer.” He named these “geltaftan,” or, in English, by the term he used for the title of his second book, “Ceramic Houses.”
“But,” he says, “everything was in high tech at the time of the Shah, and I had no chance to work this out.” Ironically, when the revolution ended the old administrative system, he found the opportunity he had been looking for. “There was no more municipality, no more ministry. I had a totally free hand,” he says.
Khalili attracted students and other architects who came to learn how to create safe shelters with his ceramic structures. “It gave them a way to use traditions while integrating them with modern life,” Khalili says.
Eventually, though, the revolution created its own order, and the new bureaucracy proved as obstructionist as the old. In 1981 Khalili decided to move back to Los Angeles, where he was a licensed architect and had been offered a teaching position in Los Angeles.
“The difference between the United States and Iran,” Khalili says, “is not just in high tech and management, but in enthusiasm and dreams. This is the greatest wealth that the United States has to offer. Everyone, from kids to the elderly, speaks of their dreams.” At the same time, says Khalili, “I came to see how Iran’s traditional culture could make an impact in the United States. The popularity of Rumi’s poetry is one example. Sustainable architecture is another.”
He calls the material he uses in his more recnt work “super adobe.” With it, he builds structures primarily of sandbags and barbed wire – materials of war, turned to peaceful use. These structures have attracted the attention not only of architects in the United States, from whom he received wide recognition, but from the United Nations. The UN has taken a great interest in using Khalili’s simple techniques to build emergency shelters for refugees or for those who have lost their homes in natural disasters.
During the early 1980s, he also began working with the scientific community, which saw great promise for space habitation in his ceramic, or “super adobe” houses. His presentation at the National Academy of Sciences on the use of lunar soil to build simple structures on the moon drew cheers – a reaction not usually seen at staid academic conferences. Because the cost of launching a pound of material into space exceeds that of two pounds of gold, the potential for using materials at hand has proven understandably popular.
Meanwhile, in the town of Hesperia, Khalili has built several structures which meet southern California’s seismic and other building codes – among the toughest in the world, he says. Using sandbags, and barbed wire to keep the stacked sandbags from slipping, he is now building a modern middle-class home with three bedrooms and a two-car garage in Hesperia. It is little wonder that the mayor of Hesperia has said that Khalili could revolutionize the housing construction industry.
Even more often than he speaks of sustainability, Khalili talks of the inspiration he has taken from Rumi. In Iran, Khalili says, every cultured person memorizes poetry and knows of the work this poet. Khalili has even published a book translating much of Rumi’s work into English, and through the work of Khalili and many others, Rumi has become one of the best-selling poets in the United States.
According to Khalili, Rumi believed in the “unity of life and the elements.” Each one is created from the other. In following that vision of unity, he says, he is not simply inventing a new architectural vocabulary from ancient traditions, but is well on his way to achieving his own vision of providing shelter for those most in need, “trying to turn poetry into structures.”
To learn more about Khalili’s work, go to the CalEarth web site (www.calearth.org).
Copyright 2003 U.S. Department of State