House by House
That was the first of a number of times we got together, later at his cliffside house facing the ocean on the west side of Vancouver Island. I'd spend the night (after getting there by boat) and we'd have meals together and sit at his circular table overlooking the sea and talk about his work and how I was going to present it in the book Builders of the Pacific Coast. We'd read what I'd written and then kick things around. He's two years older than me, and we've got the same pre-television born-in-the-'30s background. A couple of old guys.
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A lot of his talk was abstract and philosophical. He didn't talk about the practicalities of design and construction, but rather the processes and the insights that contributed to his creations. Out of our many conversations I concluded that the most important thing to Lloyd, in all his work, in all his creativity, was — if you'll pardon the expression — love. Love for people, love for beauty, love for wood, love for life. It's obvious.
When I walked down the dirt road and first saw it, my heart almost stopped. It was perfect. Everything was working in harmony: design, siting, materials, craftsmanship, details. I hadn't met Lloyd yet, but I felt I knew him. His spirit was present in this building. It was a concerto.
Down a grassy road on a small island, Stefan Doll's house sat on the edge of a marsh. Lloyd built it for him in 1985, with the provision that Stefan not come to the building site until Lloyd was finished.
"Stefan asked me for an artful dwelling, whether he was aware of it or not. I did my best to give him just that. Art being, for me, everything in its proper place."
Lloyd grew up on the seashore in West Vancouver. He eventually began discussing his experiences in the first person: "When I was four years old, I was fascinated with my father's saw. It had a beautiful patina. I couldn't reach it and my dad wouldn't let me have it. The power of tools. It sparked my interest. My first building project was when my folks gave me a bunch of short ends of two-by-threes. They told me to make a lion's cage, so I did. After that I made a series of forts, then hideaways and habitats in the woods. I was a builder from the time I could hammer a nail."
"One day after I graduated from high school, I was hitchhiking and got picked up by a builder, and that got me into the trade. I eventually ended up working on high-end houses, but soon realized that the architect was in it for his reputation, the contractor and carpenters were in it for the money, and no one cared about the owners' dreams. It got so that I hated getting up in the morning. I loved building, but was burned out on industrialized housing. So I took a job working on a forestry boat."
In 1966, Lloyd was offered a job by a Tyrolean ski club building a lodge at Whistler Mountain, British Columbia. He took the job, designed the lodge, and then led the 110 members of the club in its construction. "They were butchers and bakers and candlestick makers, by and large, including a few carpenters, of course. It was wonderful working with those people." The lodge was post and beam in construction, with plaster over lath on the walls. It was 30 by 60 feet in size, with a 26-by-30-foot side wing that slept 40 people.
In 1967, he "dropped out," and moved to a small island in the Strait of Georgia. At that time, there were a lot of "...radical people exploring creativity."
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Lloyd Kahn started building almost 50 years ago, and has lived in a self-built home ever since. He first got into being a publisher by producing Domebook One (1970) and Domebook 2 (1971), and published Shelter, the namesake of Shelter Publications, in 1973. The company has since published books on a variety of subjects, coming back to its roots with Kahn's Home Work: Handbuilt Shelter in 2004.
This article is excerpted from Builders of the Pacific Coast by Lloyd Kahn, copyright © 2008, with permission of the publisher, Shelter Publications.