Posts in Category: travels in human nature

The democratic design of Bill Coperthwaite

“A Question: Why is it that other cultures… had such beauty about them in their daily lives–and we have not? Is it important? I suspect that it is extremely important for ourselves, for our children, and for our friends that we seek to surround ourselves with beauty. Suspicions: I suspect that how a culture defines beauty greatly affects its success as a culture. I wish I could persuade our world to see life itself as a work of art…”- Bill Coperthwaite in A Man Apart: Bill Coperthwaite’s Radical Experiment in Living

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There is no rootsier a designer than Bill Coperthwaite, whose lifelong and stalwart commitment to the handmade, the simple and the beautiful, and to design as a way of life, set him apart from nearly everyone. Many know Bill as an innovator of wooden yurts from his life’s work adapting Mongolian round houses. Indeed he built over 300 wooden yurts around the world, often fantastical, often multi-tiered, likely no two exactly alike as he was always perfecting his designs and trying new ideas.

A new book by his friends Peter Forbes and Helen Whybrow takes us deeper into Bill’s world. Painted in letters, stories, and a narrative spanning the couple’s experience building a yurt at Bill’s homestead, are Bill’s philosophy of democratic design and experiential education, his fascination with handmade craft the world over, his 50 year remote homestead on the Maine coast, and his thoughtful, if difficult, relationships with those he loved.

Human habitat, artfully rendered and free of the trappings of modern mass production, is now rare, and I seek it out whenever I can. Indigenous cultures struggle to maintain or revive their time-hewn methods under the crush of Western homogenization and occasionally, individuals also emerge here and there who are able to imagine – and build – something authentic and free. The process of creating this is what Bill Copperthwaite called “democratic design” and I have come to call “wild design.” Design that by its existence, keeps real another way of living on earth, one that puts authenticity and meaning above the banal push for profit and personal gain. One that requires relationship – between people and land, between generations, between cultures. One that demonstrates that people can create shelter that is both deeply human (expressive, artful, unique), and also natural (designed to decompose, to create conditions conducive to life, to ingeniously embody the natural patterns that structure our world).

Visiting the habitat of such wild designers is a treat! In a whimsical twist of fate, I was fortunate enough to be part of the yurt build described in A Man Apart and have included some photos of my time to compliment this nod to Peter and Helen’s excellent book. Go get the book and have a read to travel deeper: A Man Apart: Bill Coperthwaite’s Radical Experiment in Living. And then start designing. And building. The cultural impetus for democratic design has never been greater.



Bill Copperthwaite’s tri-level (plus atrium!) wooden yurt on his remote homestead on the far-flung coast of Maine near Machias. Bill built the yurt by hand, a few miles walk from the nearest road, with no access to power tools and all materials carried in by foot or canoe.  Peter and Helen relate in their book that Bill actually began by building the top two stories, and some time later, on his own and without benefit of power tools, jacked these up and built the ground floor workshop.

lindley does drawingsA view down one side of the Bill’s woodshop in the ground floor of his yurt. Hand tools and handmade chairs are ever present around Bill’s habitat.

yurt wall detail 2Bill Copperthwait’s chisel collection, displayed on the outer wall of the original yurt structure, now enclosed within the addition.

bill's bathroom 2Bill Copperthwaite’s “bathroom.” Bill lived for 50 years with no running water. He showered in an open-air stone room by the ocean, and kept a hand made basin and hand carved soap dish for his indoor washroom.

carving knivesA few of Bill’s treasured carving tools, part of the collection of hand made craft implements that he spent a lifetime gathering from all over the world. Peter details the odds and ends of joining Bill on one of his worldly sojourns in A Man Apart.

wheelbarrowA design Bill was working on near the time of his death a few years ago. He custom designed and built hand carts to make the forest walk between his home and the road an easier load.

Circular structure - Coastal MaineWorking on a “Yurt John”, a mini-version of Bill’ yurts. These have also been adapted by others to become small meditation spaces, as at Peter and Helen’s farm in Vermont, or by design/builder Aaron Westgate.


Bill’s yurt sometimes are built with a temporary tripod holding up a circle, in this case a bike wheel, that the roof is constructed around.

Bill believed the confluence of experiential education and hand made craft presented a great antidote to the despair of industrialized versions of both. He earned a PhD in Education from Harvard, teaching design/build through the construction of a wooden yurt on the Harvard campus that would serve as his classroom in the 1960s.

Here I am, receiving instruction from Bill on how to build this fantastical design.


Checking out Bill’s bedroom of 5 decades.billsbath

Bill’s bathroom with a meadow view.billsbooks

Bill’s library, complete with hundreds of books on education, craft, handmade tools, indigenous cultures, as well as a few of his handmade chairs.


Bill demonstrating how to make a wooden bowl with a mounted carving knife.


The yurt john design, in Bills characteristic detailed hand rendering. Bill engineered hundreds of atypical, round buildings without the use of a single CAD or design program.


Bill’s shower, overlooking the ocean.


Another angle on Bill’s shower.


A guest yurt on Bill’s land in Maine, complete with a ladder, re-imagined.


Since the 1960s, Bill made his designs available to others through poster instructions that you could get through written order. He liked to provide just enough information to get a new yurt-builder going, but also require her to think!

Got a link to one of Bill’s yurts you’d like to share? I’m happy to post them here…

Photos by Malena Marvin or the talented and beautiful Lindley Brainerd.

Osa Peninsula outside in – a visit to Ojo del Mar

Like a novel written by a poet, the wild architecture of German artist Mark Huebner is a hand-wrought meditation on place and the senses. Here we wander the winding pathways of Ojo del Mar, the solar-powered “simple life retreat” Huebner created with Niko Fischer, and explore an artful world where human habitat plays with that of howler monkeys, scarlet macaws, and green iguanas.


An accomplished artist as well as author of a cadre of intricate bamboo timber works, Huebner’s vision has truly flourished at Ojo del Mar, where the pegged bamboo structures and hand-made furniture are carefully crafted of and with their jungle landscape.


Ojo has been an experiment in tropical architecture that skips foreign and unsustainable building materials. The elegant result embraces its location on a rugged beach adjacent to one of Costa Rica’s wildest and most biodiverse national parks.


Huebner has learned the hard way that the Osa peninsula’s intense weather swings and aggressive jungle make it a tough place to build anything that lasts, especially if you’re trying to avoid concrete. In order to maintain structures that withstand searing heat and off the charts humidity, endless insects, and pummeling rainy-season downpours, Mark has made a few concrete concessions and replaced some aging bamboo with eucalyptus poles. But for the most part, his “casa grande” lodge, 10 or so guest and staff structures, and all the furniture, are hewn from pegged bamboo and hardwoods grown on or near the property and finished with natural oils.


Ojo’s casa grande hosts a formal dining space, barefoot lounge extraordinaire, open-air whole foods kitchen, and guest library. It’s also a timber-framed shelter and rainforest art installation, a delightful study in both intricacy and economy of design. 


Huebner built a scale model to scheme out Ojo’s casa grande, now collapsed and tucked in the shed. Originally built with bamboo, the casa grande’s lengthy timbers were replaced with eucalyptus after a decade or so of tropical living. Huebner prefers building (and re-building) light and temporary, acknowledging the jungle will take it all back in the end anyhow.  


Eucalyptus roundwood timber framing in the casa grande lodge. Huebner uses a home made jig to hold joints in place while mortises are drilled.


Niko’s cooking is fresh fish forward, with a yummy and educational emphasis on local fruits and vegetables.


Abundant tropical flowers are grown on site and artfully arranged in all the structures.

tims lodge detail

A former agricultural area, Ojo has been re-cultivated as an extension of the wild rainforest protected in nearby Corcovado National Park. Structures are small and scattered along winding paths that tour dense jungle gardens. Since the grounds are actually a regenerating ecosystem with a diversity of habitat niches, guests are treated to close encounters with acrobatic howler and spider monkeys swinging through the upper canopy, a colorful company of lizards and frogs sharing the walkways, and a perpetual symphony of bird song and fluttering wings as bright hummingbirds, parrots and trogons go about their daily business.


Huebner has re-thought the western bathroom, replacing it with outdoor showers and sinks, and hand-sculpted, plumbed outhouses.


Bamboo and timber outhouse with a trademark Huebner hingeless door.


Each guest space is unique, but all carry similar elements and are artfully designed and curated for ‘outside in’ living.


Nature’s forms are on display, gallery like, everywhere you turn!

“Bamboo is not only sustainable, it’s sexy,” says Huebner.


Abundant heliconia flowers delight birds and butterflies alike.


What would a Costa Rican lodge be without a yoga studio? Ojo’s beachside studio hosts a variety of wellness retreats.


A sitting area in the casa grande common area.


Each unique guest cabina is open to the rainforest, and located on its own winding path. While Ojo’s typical guests are certainly not of the high-brow wealthy set, increasing Western visitors and expats in a region where people make $3 per hour is creating tension on the Osa Peninsula. Huebner opts to prevent theft through maintaining long term relationships with local community members, as well as individual lock boxes (handmade, of course) in each guest space, rather than the heavy security and barbed wire fencing used at some resorts.

white gates

Huebner’s doors and gates show you how to swing with no hinges!


Quiet beaches dot the Matapulo coast, reached by a 45 minute, jarring drive on a pot-holed dirt road from Puerto Jimenez. This one’s a short, barefoot walk down the beach from Ojo del Mar.


With limited wifi (Niko offers her phone as a hotspot when needed) and abundant ocean-view hammocks, guests can disconnect and reconnect.



Thanks to Mark and all at Ojo del Mar!

Ojo del Mar’s website features a gallery of Huebner’s bamboo works.

Find Huebner on Facebook