Under the great dark dome of a Mojave desert night, architect Nader Khalili's students sit before a campfire reading Persian poetry aloud. The words of Hafez and Rumi mingle with the crackle of burning logs. Each student has traveled to Hesperia, California, to learn about building homes with earth, and the poems they read are about clay.
"Clay is the gift of Eastern civilization to the West," Khalili says. "My goal is to enable two people to create their own home, with no machinery and very little money, using the earth under their feet as their primary building material."
Not far away, on the grounds of Khalili's California Institute of Earth Architecture, sit several sections of experimental houses, each basically round.
"It all begins with an arch," he says. "You take an arch and repeat it linearly and it becomes a vault. Rotate it, it becomes a dome. Raise it from the ground, it becomes an apse."
Born in Tehran in 1936, Khalili studied philosophy and architecture in Iran, Turkey and the United States. By the time he was 40, he owned a successful company specializing in high-rise office design. Yet he was dissatisfied, concerned that Western building methods did not always suit the needs of his native land.
"Throughout the Middle East and the third world, they tear down what they have and rush to build with concrete blocks, because their teachers were educated in the West," he says.
In 1975 he gave up his shares in the company and headed into the California desert to search for a new way of building.
Inspired by the adobe houses of the Iranian plateau, Khalili devised a process he calls geltaftan, from the Persian gel, fire, and taftan, earth. Traditional adobe homes, he knew, crumble over time and can melt in a heavy rain. The geltaftan process actually fires an entire clay house, using an interior blaze that burns for three days and bakes the soft clay bricks into a seamless, rock-hard ceramic shell.
Earthquake- and flood-resistant, energy-efficient and astoundingly cheap, geltaftan houses are finished with an interior glaze, like a piece of pottery. The United Nations is so impressed it has named Khalili a consultant for earth architecture and ceramic housing.
Khalili has also taken Middle Eastern desert architecture into the realm of high-tech dreams, working with McDonnell Douglas and the Princeton-based Space Studies Institute on ways to use sunlight to fire lunar dust into a ceramic material that could then be used in landing pads, walkways and housing.
But low-income housing on earth remains Khalili's most meaningful mission. His latest prototype, the sandbag dome house, can be built in two weeks by two people, he says, using 1400 sandbags, two rolls of barbed wire, and earth of almost any type. The basic cost is about $500.
"Middle Eastern architectural forms, built with the materials on the site, are still best even by the standards of today's design," he says—including energy efficiency, environmental impact and cost. "With a little adobe you can build an arch, with that arch a house, and with that house a whole town."
San Francisco photojournalist George Baramki Azar is a frequent contributor to Aramco World.