TINY HOMES: SIMPLE SHELTER – Scaling Back in the 21st Century

Lloyd Kahn
Shelter Publications ($24.95)

by Niels Strandskov

In the thirty-nine years since he published Shelter, his first compendium of alternatives to the standard American way of building, Lloyd Kahn has created a movement that defies easy categorization, but is instantly recognizable to its adherents. His latest work, Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter, Scaling Back in the 21st Century, focuses on houses under 500 square feet, but his books Homework and Builders of the Pacific Coastinclude many fairly large structures. Some are hand-built, without even a cordless drill on site, while some are put together using the normal techniques of journeyman carpenters. Some are relatively expensive, others built almost for free, with material scrounged from the trash or cut fresh from a forest. Scanning through these works, however, the gestalt of houses that make people feel good to look at or live in is immediately apparent.

Kahn came to publishing almost by accident. A devotee of Buckminster Fuller's popular geodesic domes in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Kahn found few resources available to the DIY dome-builder. So he, with a few collaborators, put together some primers on dome construction. After selling out many print runs, however, Kahn soured on the whole concept of domes, which were too often drafty, leaky, and inefficient in their use of space. He turned his attention to traditional methods of building (with a few starkly innovative designs thrown in) and published the briskly selling guide Shelter, which prophesied a return to the ancient traditions of building by hand, with mostly natural materials.

With Tiny Homes, Kahn brings his gaze to bear on the elegance of limits in contemporary architecture. Far from the McMansion-filled and heavily foreclosed suburbs of the car culture, we find a distributed community of small builders, self-builders, and bricoleurs who want to keep their dwellings at a human scale and in a funky aesthetic. As with his previous work, Kahn is committed to letting his subjects relate their own stories. While a significant amount of the text and photos in Tiny Homes is by Kahn himself, a large part of this volume highlights the builders' own narratives, which are often heartfelt stories of the philosophies that propelled them to begin building. Although this makes for a slightly disjointed structure, it does allow the reader to experience the emotional drama behind each beam in a way that a standard architecture text might not.

While Shelter and Homework meandered around their subjects with a countercultural lack of concern for specificity or linear explication, and Builders of the Pacific Coast narrowed the focus to a very limited set of possibilities, Tiny Homes explores the rush of small homebuilders in exhaustive detail. A large section of the volume is devoted to listings and descriptions of small house builders for hire, with contact information and price ranges. Kahn is very openly an advocate for the builders and designers he admires, but his tastes are catholic enough to give the reader a fairly wide range of possibilities to consider.

The real joy of Kahn's work, which comes through admirably in Tiny Homes, is in his lively full-color photographs. While Kahn's self-taught style might not always provide the most architecturally accurate view of his visual subjects, his informed discernment tends to bring out details of emotional form that a more polished photographer might miss. He often creates collages of several different shots at various angles, with the edges of the amalgamation left rough. These panoramic views cleverly evoke both the funkiness of the designs and the piecemeal nature of their construction processes. Kahn's idiosyncrasies here provide a treat for the puzzle-solving reader, as the exact relationship of some of the shots is a bit obscure. Turning the book this way and that to visualize the three-dimensional experience of the rooms and exteriors Kahn shoots leaves the reader with a far more holistic understanding of these constructions.

Tiny Homes celebrates the small and the beautiful in a way that few architecture books can match. Lloyd Kahn's verve for his subjects, and their mutual respect for his inspiring works, create community out of the prosaic rap of a hammer on nails and the exultant scent of freshly cut pine. Resurgent nature, rebuilt communities, and resistance to the hum-drum pressures of the Rat Race find their apotheosis in this big, lovely book of little houses.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012