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Radical Architect Comes Home to UC

By Steven Rosen · May 6th, 2009 · The Big Picture
University of Cincinnati and good architecture have long gone together, both because of the College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning’s (DAAP) graduate and undergraduate programs and the “signature” architects who have designed new campus buildings.

But one of the strongest connections between UC and architecture, especially in this age of sustainability, is Michael Reynolds. A 1969 DAAP graduate, he immediately became an advocate of using recyclable materials (quite often trash) in new-home construction. Reynolds came back to DAAP to speak and show slides for Earth Day two weeks ago.

His interests have led him far off the grid. He has designed sustainable, radical-looking “earthship” homes near Taos, N.M. Solar-powered and built with old bottles, tires and other environmentally friendly material, using recycled water for multiple household uses, they were visionary. He has become environmentalism’s Buckminster Fuller.

But at first he was ahead of his time. Many people saw the homes (and Reynolds) as leftovers of the hippie commune movement, which was especially strong in northern New Mexico. He had a history of scraps with legal and bureaucratic authorities, which wanted his homes connected to utility hookups and treated like subdivisions. He even gave up his architect license at one point in a dispute.

But the new emphasis on sustainability has slowly been turning Reynolds into, as Wikipedia calls him, “the graying prophet of the green movement.” He is the subject of a recent documentary, Garbage Warrior. He’s still going strong in Taos, where he’s developing an earthshiphome community with local governmental cooperation. His earthships have become attractions — eco-tourists rent them out for a night.

And his influence is branching out. He’s been called upon to build his homes for the needy in post-tsunami Indonesia and in Jamaica. They can be constructed quickly, from available material by local unskilled workers aided by Reynolds’ own dedicated crew. Devotees have built earthships elsewhere, including Scotland and even in Philo, Ohio, near Zanesville.

Reynolds has kept a good relationship with UC. Architecture students have done co-op work for him, and in the 1980s he and students built one of his tire houses on DAAP grounds. So Reynolds was a highly sought-after catch as a speaker for last month’s Earth Day, when he came to DAAP to talk and show slides to an audience of students and faculty. He didn’t disappoint, either, simultaneously idealistic and profanely humorous.

He also raised some good, thoughtful points. The tires are used for structural rather than aesthetic reasons — packed with dirt, they become a powerful “rammed-earth” foundation that is then covered with adobe. Non-structural walls, however, use glass and plastic bottles for the beauty of the material. It’s especially important to find a reuse for plastic bottles, which are rapidly covering the planet, he says. Reynolds also said he’s hoping Habitat for Humanity, which quickly builds homes for the needy, would look at more ways to use “green” architecture.

He was funniest when recalling his experiments with one home’s faulty solar-powered toilet that left a “primordial stew” of muck. He solved the problem by setting the goop afire, which inadvertently caused a house blaze that brought the fire department. Solar toilets need more research to be practical, he said.

It’d be great if UC would consider Reynolds for an honorary degree or, even better, to design campus housing — maybe involving students and local residents with the construction process. But hold the solar toilets, at least for now.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com



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