Graham Caine and the Street Farmers, South London, 1972
WHAT IS THE POWER OF SHIT?
In 1972, Graham Caine, a member of the anarchist group Street Farmers, built a house as a laboratory and a living experiment empowered by his own excrement. The Ecological House was not only was a fully functioning integrated system that successfully converted human waste to methane for cooking, but was also built by its architect, who used himself and his family as a guinea pig.
Caine, then a 26-year-old fourth year student at the Architectural Association of London, designed and built the Ecological House on borrowed land from Thames Polytechnic, as part of his diploma thesis at the AA. He received a provisional two-year permit from the Borough of Woolwich District Surveyor with the promise to build an “inhabitable housing laboratory” that would grow vegetables out of household effluents and fertilize the land with reprocessed organic waste. With 2,000 pounds of funding from the chairman of the AA, Alvin Boyarski, and scavenged materials, Caine settled in the house in December 1972. After having lived in the house for two years with his family, Caine was asked to destroy it in 1975. By that time, the Eco-House had received wide attention from the British press and architectural magazines, as well as considerable attention in television. It was the main subject of a television show entitled “Clearings of a Concrete Jungle” in BBC’s Open programme for Television in June 1973.
Throughout the construction process, Caine used himself and his family as a guinea pig in order to test the function of several components of the house. He experimented with his waste, his cooking habits, his use of water, monitoring closely every activity of daily practice until the day the house was demolished in 1974. Caine was undoubtedly the steward of the house; he alone knew how to feed the house with the right nutrients - how to chop wood, grow plants, supply the engines and water the greenhouse. The architect, therefore, was an indispensable biological part of the house he built and portrayed himself as a combustion engine for generating electricity, connected to the house in a diagram where excretion becomes a vital constituent of the system’s sustenance. The house needed care from its caretaker and without human presence its living biotechnical systems would degenerate and die. Describing his house as a life-support system, Caine satirically argued that the architect now being involved with the house’s biological cycles may now relate to his own shit. This type of absolute connection on a daily basis to assure the wellness of the house was recognized by Caine who rarely left the house. Robin Middleton, technical editor of Architectural Design magazine at the time and a colleague of Caine at the AA, humorously spoke of a Gordian knot between Caine and the house. As Middleton recalls, Caine “never left in order to assure that all systems were working. At some point, he had to leave for a while for some reason, someone got ill, and he had his favorite AA student to look after the house and make sure that all systems keep going.” According to Middleton, everyday housekeeping habits affected the health of the Eco-house and vice versa. In other words, the house’s health was physiologically co-dependent with the dweller’s health as in an interlinked biological pattern.
For Caine, the Ecological House was a political statement against consumerism and capitalism. It was a grain of resistance against the state’s networks of centralized control manifest through the distribution of electrical power and sewage networks. If capitalism could be illustrated in a linear scheme, recycling of organic matter, rainwater and sunshine that in turn produced
food, gas, and heating, represented an alternative political reality of
This illustration of the dirty physiology of the body, which is weaved into the ecology of habitation, is far away from contemporary illustrations of climate change depicted in statistical surveys. The exclusion of the body’s physiology from contemporary environmental concerns does not allow us to construct a more nuanced perception of climate change and to motivate behavioral change. As Caine shows us nevertheless, to effect change, one needs to get involved and dirty in architecture production.
SICK HOUSE: The house got sick when Grahame Caine got sick illustrating a biological gordian knot between the house and its dweller.
FRAGILE ECOSYSTEM: The diagram of interdependencies was an idealized representation of a world with no loss. Links in its closed-loop ecosystem were extremely fragile.