We have lived in our 1926 Spanish Colonial Revival house for over 20 years. The house is a cross between Addison-Mizner-on-a-budget and Wallace Neff. It has most of the details of high-style Spanish Colonial, including multiple roof lines, stucco exterior, decorative metal work, and a front porch with arcade. Our favorite feature is the 37 original metal casement windows which have been restored over the years at a cost which makes me dizzy.
It was time for me to embark on the annual window washing. While I was arming myself with supplies, surveying the work, I noticed an industrious wasp building a nest outside the bathroom window. My first reaction was how to get rid of it while avoiding a trip to the emergency room.
Instead, I decided to wait to see how this work-of-wasp-engineering materialized. As the days progressed, I saw that this wasp’s work was a model of efficiency. No architraves, no columns, no triglyphs, just a shelter that was at once, modern in its clarity, classical in proportion. This work would be appreciated by Vitruvius or Van der Rohe.
Considering this nest, and other natural works of architecture such as the spider web and the beehive, I wondered why these forms fascinate us, and why humans from every culture and tradition have admired them. They all have the hallmarks of what Vitruvius said makes a good building: utility, beauty, and strength.
Unfortunately, these qualities are not often among the things home buyers consider when looking for a new house. The first, and almost only thing home buyers care about is, square footage. Americans are obsessed with how much space a house offers. This is surprising given the movement to simplify, downsize, and reduce our collective carbon footprint.
We have contradictory ideas about how we want to live. We are environmentally conscious, considerate of our planet, our resources and each other, but we think that a smaller house is a less gracious house. Perhaps it is time to create a new linguistic expression for what is desirable. “Downsizing” for most people still means “less” rather than “right.”
Beehives, wasp nests, and spider webs have no great rooms, formal dining rooms, or bonus rooms. These arachnids and arthropods inhabit space that is tailor-made for them without attics and basements full of things that will never ever meet their beady- eyed gaze. It’s time to take another look at this small-creature community who only builds as much as it needs, without pretense.
Since mankind domiciled at Lascaux, we have favored rooms that serve more than one purpose. Throughout the history of the world, multi-functioning rooms were common… until 19 century America when a burgeoning middle class coupled with Victorian propriety decided that each activity of life should have its own room. In wasp terms, this would mean multiple hives for each Vespoidea. If that idea seems ludicrous, then doesn’t the number of extra spaces we build seem equally puzzling? In the logic of space, there is beauty.
Notice the use of building materials used by birds to build a nest. These materials are familiar to the builder, have stood the test of time, suit their purpose, and are undeniably vernacular. These are the qualities that define “honest,” materials, an otherwise misused adjective describing today’s manufactured building products. What materials are suitable for their use? This is the question we should ask.
It rained two inches today. My basement is wet. The wasp’s nest is dry.