At first glance, one can already tell Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design, by former Architectural Digest editor Richard Olsen, is a different type of architecture book. While sharing the hefty weight and handsome visuals of other tomes, the book surprises readers with a personal, informative narration of a forgotten type of architecture and an intimate glimpse inside 23 homes from around the world.
A “handmade” house is perhaps the antithesis of the machine-made homes many of us know today. The movement blossomed in the late 1950s to early 1970s, with architects, untrained builders, and designers going into the country and making their own homes in protest against the turbulent events of the time. By turning their backs on the mainstream, they embraced pioneer architecture similar to old farmhouses. They used reclaimed materials and architectural salvage, imbuing each space with a distinctly human touch. They built with a pioneer spirit, away from the restrictive guidelines of building codes.
Handmade Houses grew out of Olsen’s observation that another back-to-the-land movement has burgeoned after the tragic events of 9/11, as more people have sought solace in the country and in self-reliance. Olsen had unknowingly started on a five-year journey of discovery. Apart from design-build experiments, handmade homebuilding is rarely discussed in architecture schools, Olsen explains. As a result, it’s been all too easy to bypass this architecture type.
Learning a new branch of architectural history is a lot to ask of a reader and Olsen tries to make it as easy as possible. He provides many visuals and writes a concise, macro view of the movement, tying in key players and events that happened along the way. In a separate chapter, he compiles a worldwide survey of the movement’s antecedents, citing Antoni Gaudí, Bernard Maybeck, and even Carl Jung.
The heart of the book lies in his chapters of individual homes. Working with photographers Lucy Goodhart and Kodiak Greenwood, Olsen offers warm shots of homes ensconced in nature. Occupied for more than four decades, the homes aren’t spic-and-span but earthy and homey. Often I would catch myself staring at the photographs, amazed at the determination and creativity it took for the homes’ builders to turn the world’s refuse—driftwood, burned wood, sod—into beautiful dwellings.
Homes grow and change according to the needs of their owners. Mike Breen’s original two-tank wine-vat home configuration eventually made way for three more tanks, all making room for formal and informal living rooms, a guest room, an office, and other spaces. Over three decades, sculptor James Hubbell and his wife Anne would often throw “rock” parties with friends, foraging for suitable construction materials. Adobe brick, granite, and colorful glass pieces eventually made their way into the seven fantastical buildings that make up Ilan-Lael, their live-work compound in San Diego. Using glass, native stone, and reclaimed redwood bridge timbers, George and Jennifer Brook-Kothlow fashioned a 3,500-square foot three-pavilion timber-frame home filled with clerestories and oversized windows that took in the Santa Lucia Mountains and paths toward Carmel Beach. The houses here are a constant work in progress, open to the next iteration.
The author visited each home and conducted interviews with those involved. For Mickey Muennig’s home in Big Sur, the author not only spoke with Muennig, but also with ex-girlfriends Wendy Brooks and Judith McBean, who both lived there at different periods.
Handmade Houses is undoubtedly a labor of love, filled with compelling details on the builders, the homes’ components, and even the stories behind the salvaged material. Like the homes it features, Handmade Houses succeeds in being visually stimulating but also grounding, helping readers rediscover an old, underappreciated way of building.