Architect Nader Khalili began his career in Iran. By the 1970’s he headed a thriving practice specializing in skyscrapers with offices in Tehran and Los Angeles. But as the decade came to a close, he felt he'd lost his center.
He gave up his lucrative practice and spent five years traveling the desert regions studying the vernacular architecture of his native country. It proved to be the turning point in his career, allowing him to test new building methods based on traditional construction such as his Geltaftan Earth-and-Fire System and later his "Superadobe" system.
In this interview, conducted in March 2005, Khalili talks about designing Lunar housing, working with the U.N., and his decision to abandon conventional wisdom and run his own race.
Q: How did you start doing this kind of work?
I really had a dream in my mind. I acted upon it and in time I was successful. But in order to chase that dream I had to leave everything else behind in order to be free to pursue it. My dream at that time was pretty simple. I was raised in Iran, and I was very interested in the traditional earth architecture of my country. Earth architecture covers one-third of the buildings in the world, and at that time I was looking for a solution [a way of building better housing for everyone.]
I said ‘What if I set fire to earth buildings? Why wouldn’t they turn into a ceramic pot?’ And the more I went forward with it, the stronger the idea became to the point where I closed the office and set out on a motorcycle.
When I closed my business I already had ten years of experience. I was in the rat race. There were 30,000 Americans in Iran and some huge companies. I had my own very successful business building skyscrapers in Iran and Los Angeles, but I was in the middle of this rivalry to get big jobs. Then one day I took my boy to a park, and he started playing with the other kids and racing with them. The fourth time around my son, the youngest and the slowest, said, "Papa, I want to race alone."
Then I thought, why can't he race alone? To race alone doesn’t mean to stop racing. If I race with you and win, I only reach your capacity but a little better. But I will never reach my own capacity. I will never know how far I can run. Sometimes it is better to race against yourself." This moment affected me so much that less than a year later, I closed my office.
Ceramic houses that was what I went after. It was two years before the Iranian revolution [which transformed Iran from a monarchy led by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to an Islamic republic under the rule of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini]. I missed that whole revolution because I was so passionately involved in ideas. The revolution helped my work a lot because it created a crack in the system. When that happened it became paradise for my work. There were no ministries, no building department, and there were hundreds of students wanting to help. Many of the architects who were worked under the Shahwere exiled or put in jail; but I was doing this work, and I stayed in the villages.
When Iraq was bombing Iran, I was firing a school, and we were not supposed to have any light at night because of air raids. But I had absolutely no fear. At that time I understood what passionate means. Everyone said ‘choke the fire, let’s go home.’ But I had no fear at all. When you are burning inside, outside fire means nothing. The heart becomes a kiln.
Two years later religious people took over and I wasn’t going that way at all So, I eventually left the country. That is when I came to America.
Q: It's interesting that you had to leave the city and go out into the country to find a new path. How important was it to be in a place that was free of expectations, free of precedent, in a sense?
It’s not the time that arrives with an idea. It’s a place that arrives with an idea. Somewhere in this world the time is always right. And to the young architects I would say if you want to have a lot of clients just reduce your fees. Then you will have millions of clients.
There are two ways of carrying out ideas and dreams. One is to really go after making a lot of money and then carry out your ideas. But for me, by the time you have made a lot of money you have forgotten about your ideas. The second is to reduce your need and want–-All the mortgage, the cars and the things we want. . And that is a powerful way of going after ideas. When you are dealing with housing for the poor and dealing with poor people directly you have to really be part of it.
Q: Tell me more about your early "ceremic" or Geltaftan architecture? Explain the building process?
First I set fire to buildings. I take out the windows and the doors, and I close it with bricks, adobe. The buildings became a kiln. I fire the whole kiln from inside out. Once it becomes a kiln, you keep the fire on for 3-4 days then naturally adobe starts becoming fire bricks, and if you continue, it becomes rocks. That was the idea, I was constantly looking for.
At first, it was 'It’s my ideas, it’s my work...' But slowly when you start working with people that element of “I” becomes eroded. It doesn’t matter anymore. Your dream becomes important when it reaches other people’s dreams and wants. If you can provide shelter for others than it becomes meaningful like a drop of water becomes the ocean.
We went to one village. Half of the houses in the village had fallen down in the rainwater. The houses had deteriorated from the rain and snow. That’s the biggest problem building with adobe, it just melts. We got houses, cleaned them up and fired them, and they became strong and water resistant.
And then the revolution came. The top officials came and saw what I was doing and they said, 'Why don’t you do a school.' After that they took me to an office that deals with housing for the poor. A deputy came into the office one day and said ‘If you want to wait for a contract, it’s going to take a long time.’ He came with a suitcase and put it on table. Then he went out to talk with the governor. I thought, ‘there’s a bomb in there, that’s the end of me.’ But he came back and said ‘just open the suitcase.’ He opened the suitcase and inside there was thousands of dollars in cash. He said ‘take what you need, leave an IOU paper and when the contract comes pay us back. Just go and do the work.’ That’s dream work for architects, to just go and do a project that you think is right.
Q: You went from working in rural Iranian villages to working with NASA. when did you start working with NASA and how did that happen?
In 1984 there was a call for papers dealing with lunar building on the moon requested by NASA, for what was called lunar bases and space habitation of the 21st century. And I just answered that paper. I spent 90 days and nights to write one page. And amazingly I was invited to go to that conference, and there were hardly any architects there. Six years earlier, I was setting mud on fire in the little villages of the poor, and I had no problem presenting these ideas for the moon. It was very obvious to me how to think about building in these harsh climates to fit the moon. If I go to the moon and get the energy of the sun concentrated on lunar dust, I will get molten lava which is a ceramic concrete The idea was to build up these structure using just the sun and the air underneath.
Q: You called it Superadobe, and it used Velcro. You adapted the system to use barbed wire, and eventually you worked with the UN to build a refugee camp inside the Iranian/Iraq border. How did you go from working with NASA to working with the UN?
I was after this whole issue of tree free building. No use of forest products. This is the way we can fight the destruction of forests. Because up to 65 percent of the trees cut down are used to build houses and buildings. This is built from soil-cement or lime-stabalized earth.
Then in 1993 there was an American journalist in Iran who wrote an article in English about my work. This journalist was a friend of a UN representative to Iran, who become very interested because in that time after Desert Storm there were all these refugees from Iraqi Kuwait running into Iran, and the UN needed to build camps. [The UN representative] invited UNHCR to go in together to carryout a prototype cluster of these houses in the camps. The UN got behind this and the local government and immediately noticed that this may be good. So one of the things the UN had to do was build a prototype in the building research center of the Ministry of Housing in Iran, to approve and test it before building it in the camp.
Q: So were you working on-site with the refugees?
I was back and forth but not many times. The UNHCR and UNDP hired a local architect. We trained him and were constantly in communication. He was very experienced with refugees. He was also very much committed, like ourselves, to break through the system and come up with a solution. The whole philosophy was that the refugees would build their own homes and he was just supervising. Six refugees built homes in 7-11 days. It cost $625 for each structure.
We built 15 domes as a cluster to be repeated and changed into thousands. Some people moved in even before they had finished and plastered it inside and out. UNDP and UNHCR together put $20,000 towards the project, and still at the end they had $3,000 left. And, that was one of the main problems later. The local officials didn’t like this whole idea at all.
There was a lot of aid coming into the place and usually officials took ten percent and by the time it trickled down to building there was very little left. But this project had its own factor of failure in it because they wouldn’t make any money in it. The basic philosophy was it was low cost. People could do it themselves. Women can build it, that's very important. And this was the greatest dichotomy we had to deal with.
The government needs to hire people to create jobs but this wouldn’t create contractor profit. It’s a single trade job. It doesn’t need a concrete worker or foundations workers. Just with earth and coils you can build it. At the end there were ten rows of barbed wire and bags and that the local officials told the people to take it away. What they wanted us to understand was that there was no money in this for anyone there. And then, of course, Desert Storm discontinued.
They say the major problem when every disaster happens is there is a lot of funds that pour in and depending on who is the one closet to government they get the contract. But the character of the architect is not conducive to taking that sort of money from people and I think that’s one of the hurdles, they need non-profit or government support.
But the UN was very encouraged. A year later the UNHCR and UNDP sent one architect and an engineer to evaluate the project and they wrote a very positive report. The potential was great because it needs minimum skill, it is self-help it uses only local materials and it creates jobs for the refugees to help restore their dignity. We took those recommendations and continued to develop the building system at CalEarth.
Q: What were some of the recommendations they made?
The recommendation was to work with more prototypes, more space division. Instead of one big dome, a number of smaller ones. Instead of a standard sandbag, I discovered long tubular bags. So then we started using all of that.
Q: What happened to the camp? Is it still there today?
As far as we know it is not there anymore. The whole camp is gone and the UN says they dismantled it. That is a little bit of a question mark for us because we know it was inhabited for several years, and part of a larger camp.
But this was designed to be temporary structure. Host countries never like to have permanent architecture for refugee camps. They always want it temporary. So this is meant to be temporary. If they don’t waterproof and plaster it, they could just bulildoze everything back to earth. Its not making a statement. It’s providing a means for the refugees to find a way to live.
A few years ago, we had a wonderful visit by the UNDP head of emergency response [to our center in Hesperia, California.] They were going to stay in the penthouse of the Ramada Inn. The minute they get here they got into doing construction—he was filling sandbags-- and the next night they stayed in the niches and domes. The UN invited me to go to Iran to regional conference. It was very serious. Unfortunately, he was transferred to another division. They promised [to pursue it], but finally they couldn’t do anything. So even though we were excited by the first project in Iran, its been a decade…
Q: Many designers have difficulty getting past the prototyping/testing phase. What do you think is the main obstacle to seeing new concepts for emergency housing replicated?
The bureaucracy… Some of it is this, because people are constantly shifting positions and because they don’t know about each other’s work. But the UN is limited in what they can build, and ultimately the request has to come from the country. We can't tell them what to build.
During the American bombing of Afghanistan [in 2001], the UNDP in Iran wanted to build 60,000 of these units on the border. So they asked us for a proposal but as the war began, everything shifted and everything went to Pakistan. And then they had to follow the recommendations of the local government. And it just works like that. We had another connection with the UN that wanted to build some after the Honduras flood. They were very close to letting us use our system, but it got bogged down with local government.
So this is the way it is.
Q: After ten years, at some point do you say to yourself, maybe I should give up? Maybe this idea is not going to work?
We've also thought of giving it up and then something happens. For example, I wanted to go through the permitting system in California because here in this country it doesn’t exist. There isn't a building that’s built with earth and has permits unless it was built before 1956. And, if you can get a permit done in California that means that everyone in the world will accept it because it’s the toughest code. To pass the code you need to test your structures physically for earthquake resistance. That’s big money. We couldn't afford it. We received a grant from the Grateful Dead, and the Ted Turner Foundation. So we went and tested this, and it passed code in California.
It is these people who join with you in what you are doing that keep the dream happening. Your duty in life is two things: sharpen your pencil and scratch your paper. If you keep doing your work, the rest will happen.
The only way you can really survive with idealism is because you constantly have to be in touch with poetry and that poetry should not be brushed aside by practicalities or viabilities or economics. That is what the juice of survival is—always being in touch with poetry.
This interview was conducted in March 2005 and is profiled in the book Design Like You Give A Damn. Any reproduction of this interview, online or print, must be done with expressed permission from Architecture for Humanity.