Wild Visions + Utopian Spaces: Alternative Dwellings in the American West

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Airbnb’s most eye-opening quality might be its ability to let people discover unusual spaces. Beyond traditional apartments, users can book stays in yurts, geodesic domes, castles, caves, clock towers and the occasional converted school bus. If you’re searching for lodging in the Pacific Northwest, you’re likely to come across a listing for The Stump House. Nestled by a placid pond in Washington, The Stump House, a hexagonal wooden structure built around a tree, is the design of 64-year-old SunRay Kelley. An accomplished builder with over 50 unconventional structures across the country, SunRay calls the nine-acre homestead that includes The Stump House his “magical forest retreat,” offering guest access to a trout pond, sauna, composting toilet and two-story treehouse, all sheltered by towering cedar and fir trees.

SunRay is a scion of a quintessentially American tradition of alternative builders, a lineage of experimenters and crackpots, squatters and visionaries, each with their own particular agenda for bypassing the conventions of mainstream architecture. Mostly originating in the counterculture era of the mid to late ‘60s, their dwellings feature off-the-grid and sustainable energy, cheap or recycled building materials, and expressive designs executed with varying degrees of foresight and whimsy.

The American West has become a magnet for these builders. Space is abundant, the people few and the skies vast. Today, a number of their constructions are publicly accessible, open to anyone seeking inspiration for alternative living.

A snowbird community deep in the California Badlands, Slab City is a thriving architectural ruin. Occupied by squatters since the mid-‘60s, the City takes its name from large concrete slabs remaining from an abandoned military base. Slabbers embrace spartan living, reject materialism, and forage building materials from scrap. They value desert solitude, living according to a romantic, libertarian sense of freedom, and allergic to most forms of political order.

At Slab City, the ruins of the past become echoes of the future. The roughshod architecture has a post apocalyptic flair, where scavenging and salvaging reign supreme. A Slab City visit is not complete without attending to its neighbors: a Burner-style arts commune called East Jesus, and Salvation Mountain, a terrific mound of clay slathered in psychedelic paint and the heartfelt gospel messages espoused by its visionary builder, Leonard Knight.

Elsewhere, alternative dwellings come wrapped in bigger dreams, so big that in some cases, they’re still unfinished. In 1970, Italian architect Paolo Soleri founded Arcosanti, an experimental town in Arizona. Guided by his concept of “arcology,” Soleri imagined an entirely self-contained and off-the-grid society with plans so elaborate, only a fraction to date have been built. Today, a visit yields an alternate reality still in progress, and perhaps a bronze bell from Arcosanti’s foundry, its main source of income.

Outside of Taos, a traveler would find yet another form of alternative dwelling, one sharing both Slab City’s fondness for recycled materials and Arcosanti’s vision for an alternate human future. What the Greater Earthship Community adds to the mix is a hyper-pragmatism and acute knowledge of building design. Unlike Arcosanti, however, the Earthshippers do not focus on a new society, but instead on perfecting a new form of dwelling. Here, low-tech doesn’t mean low quality. In a number of ways, an Earthship is more ecologically efficient than a conventional home. Made of discarded materials, including glass bottles and tires, Earthships are completely off the grid, passively regulate their temperatures, and reuse their collected rainwater four times before discarding.

Once again, the ruins of contemporary society stand to become the foundations of the future. Led by founder Michael Reynolds, the Earthship community works to realize the open-source Earthship concept in third-world communities, where funds for homebuilding can be scarce, but garbage is plentiful. It is a step in the right direction for the roughly 1.7 billion people on the planet already living off the grid, whether they like it or not.

This article was originally published in RANGE Magazine Issue Five.

William Rauscher