“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
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.
Bill 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.
A 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.
Working 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 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.
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…
Wild people are smarter! The first study of its kind to test cognitive skills during sustained wilderness travel has revealed that we think better – 50% better – when we’ve been walking for days in the backcountry, cut off from our electronics. Not a big surprise, given our brains were formed by two million years of computer-free wilderness immersion, but the implications are fascinating. The University of Kansas study was the first of its kind to test participants’ cognition while they were still immersed in nature (on an Outward Bound trip), and its results are dramatic:
“…four days of immersion in nature, and the corresponding disconnection from multi-media and technology, increases performance on a creative, problem-solving task by a full 50%.”
The authors suggest this half again jump in brain power
“…comes from an increase in exposure to natural stimuli that are both emotionally positive and low-arousing and a corresponding decrease in exposure to attention demanding technology, which regularly requires that we attend to sudden events, switch amongst tasks, maintain task goals, and inhibit irrelevant actions or cognitions.”
This information certainly puts a few exclamation points on the Nature of Design’s education programs, where design work is integrated with 4+ days in the backcountry specifically to see how this immersion impacts creativity and the design/build process. But the paper’s results also point to a tangential line of inquiry. If an “increase in exposure to natural stimuli” makes us more creative and intelligent, then wouldn’t it be smart of us to integrate more “wild design” into our cultural habitat? In this sense, the study is fodder for re-naturalizing our built environment, and on a large scale.
The authors do note the difficulty in parsing out the effects on their participants of prolonged time in nature from the concurrent prolonged separation from electronics. All we know from their study is that extended outside computerless creates conditions conducive to sharp, creative problem solving. Is it then time to design for the decentralization of electronics?
This research is worth some deep consideration, and action. What would life look and feel like if the majority of our days were spent outdoors (or in structures designed with the materials and patterns we see outdoors) and we were completely cut off from the electronic umbilical? How would the resulting 50% increase in our cognitive ability change the choices we make about our livelihood, our health, our relationships? How would these choices affect the future of our species?
Review the research online:
Atchley RA, Strayer DL, Atchley P (2012) Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings. PLoS ONE 7(12): e51474. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051474
I’m thrilled to go to Boston this June to present the Nature of Design at Janine Benyus’s Global Biomimicry 3.8 Conference and Education Summit. I’ll speak as part of a panel of educators who do innovative biomimicry education for adults in the field and in the classroom, and will focus on the course I’m developing for Yestermorrow Design/Build School.
This is an awesome opportunity for me and the Nature of Design project to get our message out there, and to learn tools of the trade from all sorts of practicing biomimicry experts and educators.
Check out the Biomimicry 3.8 website, and consider the Global Conference from June 21st-23rd, 2013.