Issue: Fall 2005
Exploring the edges of creation: The Influence of Enchantment
Written by Sonja Horoshko
Photos by Heather Leavitt & Raymond Martinez
According to Mark Mittius, every farm kid knows “baby chicks put in a square brooder house will move to the corners, pile on top of each other to stay warm and usually smother to death during the night.”
This small bit of childhood experience has influenced the vernacular and reasoning behind the buildings Mark constructs for himself today. His farm near Cahone, Colorado is dotted with round and cylindrical forms. And while the conical metal roofs topped with decorative elements hook his work to the sky, the shape and direction of each garden, fence and path bend toward the organic.
“I helped my Dad put cardboard pieces in the corners of our square brooder houses to make them round. It kept the chicks in the warm area near the center, the safe place needed for the first three weeks of their lives. One of the advantages of a round brooder house is how it protects the life of the baby chicks.”
If you suggest to Mark that it may be a stretch to apply the leitmotif of round brooder house for chickens to round habitat for humans, and that it may not be a defensible point of departure for building design, he responds with gentle astonishment,
“Round is normal, or at least the basic beginning norm for construction. We started building square because we started getting materials and tools that were friendly for square buildings .... Rather than using string to measure–which would sort of dictate that we’re going to have round, organic buildings–a standardization started, using levels and plumb bobs and measuring tapes. The whole world went square after that.”
Mark’s farm property tucks discreetly into the seam where a turquoise sky meets ribbons of piñon and juniper forests, sage flats and vast expanses of cultivated bean fields. Clear, yellow light effervesces over swelling blood-red earth. It is heartbreakingly beautiful, rural Zen country. “Oh, most people get a little confused finding their way out here,” he admits, “because the scenery is so distracting.”
But when you do find his place and get to meet Mark in his own context, his own aesthetics, you sense you have arrived finally at the heart of a Fellini-esque farm and forest. He has waited a long time to build to suit himself and it is evident that he is enjoying the process. His grasp of architectural concept, design and construction is strong and playful, expressing a quiet, childlike confidence that life is an endless opportunity chock-full of pleasure. Because he is experienced in a wide range of alternative building techniques, however, he spends a long time considering the foreseeable consequences of structural engineering and behavioral affect before committing to an idea.
Fifteen years ago, Mark and his partner, Rex Tarr, built two of the first large scale residential earth ships in Montezuma County. Mark still credits Rex with influencing the democratization of new building construction and embedding a philosophy that enables his own creativity.
“He taught me that poverty benefits us–providing time to consider what we are able to do for ourselves with what materials and resources we have available near our own hands.”
Today, Mark contracts with new construction projects, bringing his experience and reliability to the job, and when needed, he consults on creative solutions to the design-build process. But when he leaves the client’s site he goes to his own work where his priorities and aesthetics manifest in a magical sense of place, a personal relationship to the land and his lifestyle.
“During the first year I roamed the property–day and night, in all conditions and in all seasons. In the summer, I would stand in the forest naked and lost in the full moonlight. It was primordial, even a little frightening at times to wonder where on this planet earth is this little piece of land. And where am I on this little piece of land; to consider my relationship [to the universe] from this small spot near Cahone.”
It was time well-spent exploring the creative process, opening personal responses to the design nuances of light and dark, form and shape, pattern, movement, diurnal swings, temperature conditions and his own human presence in scale to the land.
“The experience raised my consciousness of the spirit of the property and contributed the fundamental knowledge I use to make plans and basic decisions about locating buildings where they create the most intimate relationship to each other.”
The buildings radiate out from the center of the property near raised organic garden beds. Some structures peak out from beyond an elbow of a path or the farm road to the pond. During the past four years, Mark has added all but the two small, stick-frame buildings on the land when he bought it. Although they were not completely finished, they were strong enough to house
Mark’s shop in one and warm enough to plumb some basic cooking and bathroom essentials in the other.
After he completed these spaces, he returned to Nebraska to salvage three two-story corncribs and the metal cone-shaped roofs from his father’s farm. Except for the labor to disassemble the cribs and transport them from Nebraska to Cahone, the material was free. These basic, fence-like, galvanized steel-crib cylinders provided the structural support Mark needed to begin his own project.
A chicken coop and a fifty-five hundred gallon cistern were the first to be built. Both started with a corncrib cylinder. Both are topped with a conical roof, but the similarities end there, with construction solutions aligned to distinctly different farming functions.
The walls of the chicken coop are built of straw bale stacked inside the crib. Mark collected some of the building materials from the Earth Song Haven Book Store in Cortez when it was sold and remodeled. He used two four-foot square “picture” windows from the bookstore to shower the inside of the coop with light. The hand carved bookstore sign, hanging above Main Street for thirty years, has been retrofitted into the chicken coop door. Forty bicycle tire rims from another location in Cortez are recycled into an aluminum lattice for the roosting floor. They are laid horizontally on rough-hewn vigas radiating out from a central juniper post. It is swank digs for chickens.
For the moment, though, Mark is the life force using the coop building. He spends a portion of each day sitting in an old oak office chair mounted and balanced–rocking spring and all–on a post in the center of the peaked roof. Thumbelina might find it comfortable, but a human? Up there? Why did he put an office rocking chair on the peak of a roof?
“To be able to see of course! Birds do it, so why shouldn’t I? It’s a perfectly logical place to be, a perfect point of view to contemplate the progress of my work on the land. In fact, it was from up here that I located the highest point on the land, the place to build the cistern over there,” he tells me from his perch in the sky.
The one-story cistern sits above ground in the middle of a wide, grassy field. Sunflowers grow wild all around, contrasting bright yellow petals against the red organic paint. Lime-chalk handprints mark the building. Although it is unusual for a cistern to be built above ground, Mark knew he could do so if he used the corncrib as the structural component and embedded it with a thick layer of Ferro cement. Another conical roof tops the concrete tank, and on top of that rests a salvaged satellite dish like a hood over the peak of the point. When it was finished, he mudded the outside with a mixture of cement, straw and clay. It was a massive, time-consuming job.
“I needed help and a lot of people came. At the end of the day, we flipped open the skinny cover over the access hole in the roof and slipped into the dark tank for a cooling swim.”
Two more corncribs and one roof stand in the places where they will become buildings someday. One tall, empty crib penetrates the horizontal arch of a fifty-foot field fence stretched over the chicken yard. At its simplest, it is a vertical cylinder fence passing through a horizontal fence–like a found-object art installation. But the form’s intended function is critical to the balance on the property because it is inundated with predatory birds perching above the chickens.
Rather than becoming the predator himself, he designed a pragmatic solution: to build a dovecote above the brooding house that will be in the bottom of the cylinder on the ground floor in the chicken yard. The dovecote on the top floor will provide guano for the organic gardens. A solid floor, and the arching field fence covering the chicken yard, separate both functions. It is a symbiotic solution.
A second empty corncrib stands in the center of a nearby pond. The bottom half is submerged in the water, bolted and sunk into a four-foot thick concrete donut on the bottom of the deep pond.
“There are times when it will be full of water. I want to raise plenty of healthy fish, but this pond is still, with no current, egress or natural aeration.” Mark points to a windmill lying on its side in the grassy bank on the far side of the pond and adds, “I’m building a platform twenty feet above the water on top of the cylinder to put the windmill over the center of the pond—the most direct aeration location to keep the fish healthy … and, well, maybe next summer I’ll be diving into the pond from under the windmill.”
Mark is a random access thinker. His imagination doesn’t rely solely on his formidable building and woodworking skills. Instead, he ranges through his experience, appropriating processes, needs, function, aesthetics and materials, making connections and combinations completely outside the building blocks of conventional design and construction.
“I think the creative energy found here on this farm is present because I am at the edge with it. I enjoy exploring in the edges of my own creation.”
Touring Mark’s work on his land at his languid pace helps me enter his process and his world. It feels casual, but is, in fact, filled with dynamic energy and utterly comfortable for him.
“It is something I feel working with my own hands on my own projects, like when I was a kid, I redesigned the hog houses on Dad’s farm; spent a good amount of time drawing how they could be built out of red brick. Of course we couldn’t build hog houses out of brick. We didn’t have brick to spare on the hogs. But, then, well, I was only eleven when I thought it was all possible.”
Mark Mittius can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sonja Horoshko, visual artist, is currently showing her work in the Bay area in California. Her project “Drawing Together” is based in Southwest Colorado.
Inspired mainly by people as his usual subject matter, Ray found himself surrounded by interesting structures during a photoshoot with writer, Sonja Horoshko and creator, Mark Mittius.
Photographer's Email: email@example.com