How to Live in a Teacup
First an apology. I promised the next post would be about juniper jin, and as you can tell, this is not that. Since this summer, the construction of a house has been my focus, which is partly why my posts this fall have not had their usual frequency. In lieu of the usual bonsai offerings, I thought I owed you at least the story of what I’m doing, and why.
About a year ago I was ruminating on several things. The first was that I had another apprentice arriving soon (which would make 2), the second was that the rents in Portland, Oregon, USA are on the far side of ridiculous, and the third was that I lived alone in a suburban home with three bedrooms in it. The math wasn’t adding up.
Years ago, when I was just entering graduate school (for ceramics, a former life) I thought that it would be economical if I built a small home for myself, bigger than a capsule room in Japan, smaller than a villa, and mobile. I never did that. Later, before buying my current home, I reinvestigated the idea of a micro home. The small living industry had made some leaps but for several unrelated reasons I didn’t make the leap then either. But the idea of living as a bonsai does, in a small space, and having everything you care about within reach, has appealed to me for a long time.
This year I realized there was a win-win in the making. With apprentices I have often felt like I was in their way by living at the studio residence. Apprentices should have full access to the bonsai and be immersed in the life of trees. And as I wasn’t interested in a commune, I needed to evict myself.
The first part of this year was spent designing a simple, modern cabin that would serve as a primary dwelling. Because I didn’t know if I would ever own more land, I chose to make it mobile. When I started designing this building, I was really at a loss. I would spend hours on Pinterest where I was thrilled with 95% of the architectural ideas I was seeing. Many got pinned. It was fun, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. I realized I needed a framework, a reason for doing what I was doing. I needed an intention.
The space that I then imagined was very simple. It would be for contemplation, full of natural light, with books and a wood stove.
The surface of a building seems to be as important as the skin of glaze on a pot, or the bark of a tree. It tells you much about what it is, and for a building, it is the first greeting you have before entering. For my simple cabin I am using a traditional Japanese siding, called yakisugi, or shou sugi ban. Sugi is cryptomeria, although I used a local conifer, Western Red Cedar. The technique involves burning the wood, then brushing the char off, and then coating with a natural oil. The burning helps protect the wood from UV decomposition, insects, and fungus, and because it’s pre-burned, it is ironically more fire-resistant. Many traditional buildings in Japan use this technique for the longevity it offers the siding, and I liked the fact that it was not painted. The dark burned exterior wood will set off a warm birch interior.
What I liked least about my studio residence, a simple ranch, was that it insulated me from the outside. The idea that solved this for the micro home was a double set of French doors that would be opposite one another, so that when opened would essentially be a breezeway across the middle, where one could place a table, a chair, or string up a hammock according to the whim of the day. I have no such whimsical luxury or exterior connection at my current residence.
This year I watched a documentary with my apprentice Andrew about Japanese architecture, and realized they had achieved similar goals much more elegantly hundreds of years ago, with the shoji screen slider that exits out onto a narrow, long porch, protected from the rain by a wide overhang. Move the screen, and the inside becomes the outside, intimate with the environment.
Of the things I love about bonsai, the strongest is how it connects me with the currents of the seasons, the lesser winds, and the light that I might not notice if I were not outside smelling and looking and feeling. And yet I found I was only doing this with bonsai, not with how I lived. For that I needed a double set of French doors.
Well, that is what I’ve been up to, and why my posts (and to some extent my communication) has not been quite up to par. This should change come spring.
The title of this post is obviously ridiculous, since I have no idea how to live in a teacup and have no guidance to share there—although I did for a time live in a 97 sq. ft. mountain cabin and enjoyed it immensely. And though I did drink tea there, the tea was mute about what life in a teacup was like. If I get any inkling of this in the new dwelling, I promise to tell about it.
The following is a random assortment of photos from the first few months of the build, except for the last three, which is how it looked when I began living in it. The build took 5 months, and from conception to completion one full year.