"Mr. Phillips... slight and sinewy with a long gray ponytail and bushy mustache. He grips the armrests of his chair when he talks as if his latent energy might otherwise catapult him out of his seat."
This a line from the New York Times article describing a man who builds houses out of "trash" ("One Man's Trash," NYT, 2 September 2009). The article can be read in full at:
Bottle butts, wine corks, scratched DVDs, a cow skull scoured by beetles from a nearby cattle yard -- all fair game for Mr. Phillips, who does his work in Huntsville, Texas -- a town better known for putting people to death under the state's auspices. There he is with his raisined body, drooping mustache and healthy ponytail, doing his admirable work seventy miles north of Houston.
Not a far cry from Isaiah Zagar, the recent subject of a documentary, and someone I grew up with in Philadelphia. Zagar, a famed mosaic mural artist, uses bike rims, wine bottles, crucibles -- essentially anything to construct his edifices. Isaiah's Magic Gardens, his artistic flagship, on Tenth and South (www.phillygardens.org) invites people into the medulla oblongata of his forbidding genius. Version 2.0 of a circus funhouse, it's at the top of NFT's list of Philly art stops.
For this is salvage's fate: relegated to the quirky innovator who might or might not have a screw loose. Shot through with latent energy, requiring straps on his wrist lest he catapult from his restrictive chair, more fox than hedgehog, to use Isaiah Berlin's criteria -- working furiously, solo, prisoner of his (it's always men singled out -- the reason for this the subject of another piece) own brilliance. Occasionally conscious of the world around him, as Mr. Phillips seems to be, when he points to salvage as a strategy to cut down on landfill use. But more often tortured by his "ideas," the possibilities which, as they always are in these articles (Mr. Phillips does not fail in his duty to the journalist here) "endless."
Here's what I'm waiting for: an article on the use of salvage on the Upper East Side, or Rittenhouse Square. How the marble foyer, the baseboard, all 32 oak doors, casement, mantels, panelling -- how all of it was done from materials reclaimed. Because it's been done -- we've done it, and so have others. I'm not talking about a house with soda bottles encased in the mortar so that the light falls green on the stairs, or a wall of pastry plate shards from the bakery down the block that shut its doors last year. I want an article on local reclaimed material used in a home constructed by socially-conscious people who otherwise would have hired a mainstream high-end contractor. People intent on transporting the stories of salvage into their house, on doing the right thing, and having it look beautiful.
Because they're out there. In force. Banging on the door of our shop to ask for good work. It's the media that's failed to pick up the scent.
A few minutes ago a highly-published freelance journalist emailed me, and described The New York Times as asking its reporters to "bring me last year's idea today." I'm fine with print journalism giving an idea some time to marinate -- no one ever accused The New York Times of being avant-garde. But what is happening with reclaimed material is not just an "idea" -- the hobby of an innovative misanthrope, tormented by his overflow of chi, the reclusive genius building in a way that makes you chuckle over your Sunday coffee. We are taking the construction of the homes in which we live to a more sustainable, a more attractive, and a more intriguing level. Much bigger than one man and his brainchild. These articles therefore aren't behind the times; they miss the point entirely.
If the end of the twentieth century was about California tracts and sprawl, production housing and an endless supply of 2x4s, the 21st century is about building with what already exists. This is not a mercurial building strategy practiced by the few, or even an alternative idea. It is the full-on future of building. Our clients understand this. I am waiting for the media to catch up.