Building with Earth is Sacred Work

An Interview with Nader Khalili (full text)

Introduced by John Sullivan
Interviewed by K. Lauren de Boer
Large excerpts of this interview appear in 
EarthLight Issue #32, Winter 1998-99, p 21.


     In 1966, Nader Khalili, an Iranian architect working in the United States, was crossing a street in Los Angeles when he had a flash of insight. Why not, he thought, build a house of clay and fire and glaze it like a huge overturned pot?
     He was responding to the need for inexpensive housing that could withstand the earthquakes that happened in his native Iran and in California and that would not contribute to the environmental crisis.
    After having this sudden inspiration, he talked about it and held the image in his mind, but, as he admitted later, he was too busy working and making money to do anything about it. Only after a transformative experience did he put himself on the path to realizing the dream.
    A trip to a park with his young son in 1975 (described in the interview below) convinced him to quit the rat race, sell his business, and devote himself to finding how his vision of ceramic dwellings could be realized.
     His journey of discovery took him to the villages of Iran to study the ancient technology of his native land and how it could be used in the modern world. It put him in touch with the values of the villagers and also with the poetry of the Persian Sufi mystic, Rumi.
     With inspiration from these sources and much trial and error, he perfected his method of building, using the traditional basic elements of earth, water, air and fire. These elements were very close to him there in the desert of Iran. He also found them as constant themes in the poetry of Rumi.
    The use of clay in building ensures that no trees are cut down or fossil fuel used to produce steel. Because it is a material close at hand, underfoot actually, the cost of producing the material and transporting it is minimal. Inexpensive, earth-friendly housing can now be a reality all over the world because of the work of Nader Khalili.
    This visionary architect now lives and works in Hesperia, California where, in 1986, he founded the California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture (Cal-Earth). There, he has built prototype ceramic homes and other buildings such as the Rumi dome which he discusses in the interview with Lauren de Boer that follows.
    Cal-Earth also conducts an apprenticeship program which teaches people how to build homes, schools, and other buildings using Khalili's methods. There are also children's workshops in which the young people learn new skills and bring out their inborn creativity.
    Nader Khalili is continuing his visionary work, and EarthLight hopes to make it known to more people. Thus we present here the words of Khalili himself and those of the poet Rumi from whom he has drawn such inspiration.


     LdB: You began by practicing traditional Western architecture,. building high rises.

     NK: Yes, until 1975, I was practicing and lecturing around the world. I was one of the 300 known high rise specialists.  I had been running an office in Tehran during the time when there were about 30,000 Americans in Tehran creating a lot of projects.  We were in this whole building and promotion rat race. 

     Something happened one day to change my direction.  My little four and a half year old boy, Dastan, was running with the children in the park. Soon their play was changed from a game into a race.  The parents were encouraging their children to run faster, faster and my boy, because he was the slowest and the youngest, came out last every time!  One time he came to me and he was crying, and he said "Baba, Baba, I want to race alone!" 

     I said "What do you mean you want to race alone?"  Then it dawned on me: why can't he race alone?  After everyone had left, I drew a line for him and I counted "one, two three, go!"  He went and came back and this time he brought a yellow sycamore leaf in his hand.  The next time he found flowers.  He was really enjoying his own race and I noticed that every time he was coming out first!  So his exact words became the title of my first book.  It just had such an impact me—that in this whole rat race of life, you don't need to race with everybody!  To race alone really means to begin from a different plateau in life, rather than just trying to beat the next person or get ahead of everyone else.  At the very most, we only beat someone else's potential, not our own. 

     LdB:  It's less competitive with others, more of an inner spiritual journey

     NK: Yes.  In the journey of competition and racing, we never get a chance to reach our own potential.  We're only defeating someone else's.  That was a very important message I got.  A  year later, I had closed the office, bought the motorcycle, and I rode in the desert for five years, following this whole dream and idea. That was the beginning. 

     LdB:  You visited villages in your native Iran

     NK: Not only visiting but carrying out some of these dreams and ideas of how to build with the Earth.   Over 900 million people in this world today are either homeless or they live in shantytowns and shelters that are totally unacceptable.  They will never have any hope for having shelter unless they work with what is under their feet.  The Earth is the only answer.  I was trying to follow that idea—that there must be a way that we can build with earth that will have the answers.  I found a wealth of work that has been done for thousands of years. 

     LdB: Right there under your feet...

     NK:  Right under the feet...and that humanity has forgotten and lost and destroyed all of that and we're very busy destroying all of that beautiful earth architecture because of the products that have to be sold -- because the earth isn't easily sold. It's right there -- you can just use it. 

     LdB: It seems that this not only answers the need for sheltering people, but as others and yourself have pointed out, it addresses some of the more intractable environmental problems such as energy, deforestation, ....

     NK:  When you begin working with earth, you see that you don't need to work out solutions and marketing and so on.  It's all there. All you have to do is to put your hands in it, your hearts in it and then just build.  We don't need to some up with clever solutions.  It all will transform and be manifest in everything we do.  And yes, it's an answer to environmental crises too, to deforestation, energy, to even building on the moon and Mars and planets beyond -- it's all there, the universal elements of  earth, water, air, fire. We just need to work with it.

     LdB:  In what sense is working with earth sacred work?

     NK:  Once you leave aside the idea of an architect, builder, or designer as clever innovator and truly see what it is this Earth offers, you will find the greatest master and architect:   when I see an apricot pit put into the ground with some water, it changes that earth into trees, branches, blossoms, and fruit.  That is earth architecture!   For me, it's to achieve the genius, the spirit of what is in that small pit—which is also within ourselves! 

     I don't need to go and try to force my own ideas of what is form and function  and how people should build or not build, but just observe how, for instance a little creature  in the sea creates the most beautiful seashells out of the elements in water; how a great seed changes the earth into the most gorgeous fruit.  All of these are the greatest inspiration for me.  They are the teachers, the masters. How do they transform that?   None of these say that they are nature's god, they don't make big claims like we do. And yet they do create a godly type of work.  Without so many universities. Within ourselves that same capacity.  They're all connected and "racing alone."  If you have that resolved in your own life—finding your own angle of repose—then the gravity of earth and yourself will form a structure that is your heart and your architecture and your life...

     LdB:  It becomes perfectly sufficient and you don't need outside recognition...that's beautiful.  So that architecture is the creative forces of the universe using the four elements to create, well, ...everything.  It 's also something you've attempted to bring into the creation of your earth houses.

     NK:  Exactly.  It's that journey.  Rumi has a beautiful line:  "be soft, be humble like earth so that flowers of many colors can grow from you." 

     LdB:  To think in terms of becoming soft like earth is a very bodily, somatic connection with the surroundings.  To what extent do the houses we live in effect us?   In the Western world, our houses are very linear, with angles, etc.  Your structures seem very "somatic."

     NK:  It all deals with the human body and soul.  When we send children out into the world telling them that a house should only look like a pitched roof and chimney with square windows, when we tell them that what is under their feet is called dirt, I think we create a great handicap for them.  We deprive them of the whole creative process that says they can have houses like rainbows. Rainbows are nothing but arches.  You can build anything in this world with the arch without cutting the trees.   If they understand that they don't need to call this Earth "dirt," that this Earth is holy and beautiful, they know that they shouldn't be polluting it.  Because once its called dirt, you can trash it and landfill it. 

     What I have been trying to show here in the desert in the past few years is that there are beautiful things to create from this "dirt" and the elements. Millions have been created around the world in different forms and shapes anyway.  All we are doing is drawing on this knowledge.  The vocabulary of this architecture is really the four elements.  And, of course, the form is arches, vaults, etc. It could be any form, even conventional building forms.  As long as you don't need to butcher the trees, destroy the Earth, or manufacture the building materials.  Just like  that creature of the sea, it's really possible to create everything out of earth.  And if we can't, it's because the limitations are ours.  We are limited by our own habits, our own inspiration, education, imagination.

     LdB:  One of the structures you've built is the Rumi dome which you designed for meditation for your students.

     NK:  For meditation, for dance, for music, for gathering.

     LdB:  I can only imagine what it must be like to hear the, poetry of Rumi in a structure like that.

Every moment
a voice
out of this world
calls on our soul
to wake up and rise

this soul of ours
is like a flame
with more smoke than light
blackening our vision
letting no light through

lessen the smoke and 
more light brightens your house
the house you dwell in now
and the abode
you'll eventually move to

now my precious soul
how long are you going to 
waste yourself
in this wandering journey
can't you hear the voice
can't you use your swifter wings
to hear the call


     NK: The importance of that structure is that it is created from only one point in the center—the center of compass. The center of compass is when you create a circle which is the base of the structure.  And as you move up, you just keep going around. You can lay bricks, blocks, adobe, anything—and let the light in different seasons and different times of the day enter through these lacy openings, like thousands of eyes that see through these holes. The light will enter. Rather than putting in a huge picture window, each one becomes an eye. You see that what you've really created is not this "dome." It is something that one unity at the center has created. And that center, that one dot, is where the sound will concentrate, right at the center. If you stand at that center, you will have an experience that no one else will have.  So in the light, the sound, the energy, the physical entity of that building, there is a unity throughout that comes from that one point. And that one point is the point also that is the creation of  the whole solar system, the galaxy. 

     LdB:  Is this what you mean when you say that we need to teach and learn architecture that's timeless?

     NK:  Timeless principles and timeless materials. Timeless principles are like the sea shell, the apricot pit, the point of compass. One point in the center. And timeless materials—the elements of earth, water, air, fire. Ultimately, this architecture is not a lot of clever innovation. It's distilling. You will find out that you are not the one who is building the building. It's the building that is building you. 

     LdB:  There's a lovely Rumi poem that comes to me hearing you talk about the sound in the Rumi dome, that begins, "Every moment / a voice  / out of this world / calls on our soul / to wake up and rise." What's that voice calling us to?

     NK:  To rise, wake up and rise because this soul of ours is just like a fire, but with lots of smoke around it.  And we don't see that.  We get constantly crowded.  You have to wake up and rise.  That fire, I think, is the fire of our existence. That message comes to us in every moment from every side. When we get sick, we get that message. The fever we get is the fire that comes right through us. That is the message gained. When you are sick with a fever, you see things, a lot of things are revealed to you. The meaning of life and work and so on.  This what it is really is -- our soul is like a flame but always covered with smoke, blackening our vision.  If we just take the smoke away, we'll see that the meaning of our life both in this world and the next. This constant wondering journey is not necessarily the answer to the life we are seeking....

     LdB: Another of your translations of Rumi goes: "If you distance yourself / only for an hour / from your endless thoughts / what do thing will happen..."

     NK:  In human life, so much depends on hope and fear. We get so involved with our selves because of that, it becomes our gauge and standard.  All of our securities, no matter how much we have, you'll see the most insecure situation. If we can distance ourselves from endless thoughts, Rumi believes that if you follow your heart, your love, then you can really rise to the highest.  But if you follow your thoughts, they will land you in a house of madness. He has another beautiful line that says that "whatever you are afraid of now, that's your true worth." He also says that whenever love arrives you can go beyond any known limits, but if you follow your mind, you will end up in madness. Letting the ego go and being humble like earth, soft, so that many flowers grow from you. 

     Rumi is dealing with these elements of earth, water, air, fire, and the transformation of one into the other.  I think of your magazine—EarthLight—Rumi is constantly dealing with this earth and the light and fire.  He says, "in this earth, in this immaculate field, we shall not plant any seed, except for compassion, except for love."  You can imagine the planting of the seed is a very physical image and then the compassionate love, the intangible becoming tangible, is the seed that you grow into flowers.  This is exactly the same thing as seeding the structures at work.  The apricot pit transforming the earth, the structure of the sea shell. They are all manifestations of the same image.

     LdB:  The unity between how we constantly transform ourselves and our thoughts, experiences, the images we choose to work with that manifest themselves in the world and then the relation to how we design our very surroundings all comes through very strongly.

     NK:  Yes! Some of the structures we are designing have rooms that we call "bedwombs" instead of bedrooms. They are right off the buildings.  Inside of the buildings, imagine that you have dug a out a shell right in the wall and that shell is deep enough and round enough, just like a pouch that becomes a bedwomb.  We've designed them for children and other people coming and going. They don't want to get out!  I see them as "bedwombs," living wombs," dining wombs" because they are more in line with our own bodies.  They are organic forms. You don't see any straight lines in your body, all these angles and forms, and so on.  Somewhere along the way the history of humans became very square, angular! 

     LdB:  The image of the womb reflects this constant process of birth we are going through.

     NK: I am designing a school up north near Nevada City where instead of in the area of the campus where they have dorms and cabins, instead of having bedrooms they'll have "bedwombs." We have had people come here who sleep there and they recount their dreams to us the next day.  You can imagine.  These sort of structures that are made from earth, and are in tune with your own body and gravity, it effects the mind!  When you have a flat roof, or even a pitched roof, the gravity is constantly trying to pull it down and destroy it.  It's denying, defying gravity.  When you start building with the arch or a form that is like an arch., every moment, every piece of that roof or ceiling is pulled by gravity, yet becomes stronger, the molecules get tighter and tighter together because they are in tune with the gravity. This is the way it effects, our thoughts, dreams, work. 

     LdB: You work with children at Cal-Earth

     NK:  Yes!  Abused children from the hospital. They'll work clay, even sandbags. They'll kick it, throw it, make balls of clay. Children come from emergency shelters and just begin building with earth. Children love to work with mud! More than anything else. You can see with the children that building and constructing is not really a big task. It is a great, joyous process of creating that brings in great laughter. You see them laugh and have great fun in doing this work. Building is not just for the macho, equipment, and big tractors, trailers, and cranes.  Every child to me is born a doctor and builder. It's in all of us. If you ask anyone for their opinion, they'll always tell you how to build something.  If you say something is wrong with your body, they'll say, "eat this, take that, take this." It's all within us.  We are created to heal and shelter ourselves.  We are the doctors and builders.

     There are two things about my work:  First, my work is not just my work.  It's hundreds, thousands of people's work, students, apprentices, people who have come and contributed.  This architecture I'm doing is not one person's architecture. Otherwise its progress would stop.  Their are thousands of souls who have had a hand in it.

     Second, we just do the work and send it out to the universe.  Some are taking it and trying to do the work in Honduras.  It's constantly connected with the actual reality, not just staying on the poetry level.  The way your magazine is presenting and working with things is very valuable.  Our work is the same thing: "seek not water, seek thirst."  The quest is the most important. Not just personal dreams.   Something that deals with all of humanity.  Rumi has a beautiful line that goes: "like parched lips searching for water, never let go of your quest. the quest itself is the key to all of your desires.  The quest itself is your victorious army."  There's not really any target.  Racing alone is a quest by itself.   I'm sure you are on the same journey.

If you can't go to sleep 
dear soul 
for tonight 
what do you think will happen

if you pass your night
and merge it with dawn
for the sake of heart
what do you think will happen

if the entire world
is covered with the blossoms 
you have labored to plant 
what do you think will happen

if the elixir of life 
that has been hidden in the dark 
fills the deserts and towns 
what do you think will happen

if because of 
your generosity and love 
a few humans find their lives 
what do you think will happen

if you pour an entire jar 
filled with joyous wine 
on the head of those already drunk
what do you think will happen

go my friend 
bestow your love 
even on your enemies 
if you touch their hearts 
what do you think will happen


Poems from Rumi: Fountain of Fire, A Celebration of Life and Love, courtesy of CalEarth Press, 1994, translated from the Persian by Nader Khalili. 

John Sullivan is EarthLight's EarthSaint editor.

K. Lauren de Boer is the editor of EarthLight.

Thank you for visiting the EarthLight Magazine web site.  We invite you to subscribe to EarthLight  and receive a wide range of these informative and inspiring articles, reviews and interviews every three months.

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