Long before I built my house, back when I was setting up a yoga camp on Turkey’s Faralya coastline, fellow builder Chris Shaw said to me, “The land will tell you what to build, it’s all about the land.” It was an aphorism that adhered itself to my brain. And it has served me well.
Following the land is what humans always used to do when they built homes. Before settling anywhere or building anything, we would scan the topography of our terrain, discover which materials it had available, which climate it was in, and which gifts it had to offer. Because land always comes with gifts. The modern approach of marching in with a bulldozer, razing a plot to the subsoil, and then slapping down a whopping great cement slab is a very recent phenomenon.
Ten days ago while on my quest for new land, I stumbled on a perfect example of how ancient humans used to work with nature to construct houses...in France.
La Roque Saint Christophe in the Dordogne is a fascinating place for a natural builder. Humans have been living on and in La Roque for at least 25 000 years, so the place acts as a wonderful chronology of construction.
Initially, the troglodytes used the contours of the rock to live in, sometimes with animal hides tacked up like tarps.
Then a new technique arrived: Wattle and daub. It’s estimated wattle and daub has been around for as long as 6000 years. In La Roque Saint Christophe, the builders of the day would carve out niches in the rock and insert large beams to create a post and beam structure that jutted out from the contoured rock. This gave them more living space. Then they filled in the structure with a lath and mud daub, or with wooden shingles.
Later, by medieval times, builders replaced some of the wattle and daub with cubes of rock to create even stronger structures, and the troglodyte city became a sophisticated fortress, with roads, drawbridges, and cranes.
It was purely by chance that I found La Roque, and it is an exquisite illustration of natural building through the ages. So if you’re ever in the Dordogne in France, go have a climb around. You can find out more about La Roque Saint Christophe from their website.
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