2015: Slow Design: The Teardrop Trailer

Harper Keehn

This is an application for funding of a three-month experiment in which I construct a teardrop trailer as I tow it across country. Throughout, I’ll build off of feedback loops that develop over time instead of plans developed ahead of time: this structure will grow around thousands of conversations, miles, degrees of temperature variation, roadside failures, available materials, unforeseen pleasures and frustrations, etc. It will be self-consciously permanently unfinished. In this way, the various work I produce along the way—the trailer itself, of course, but also the documentation and things I leave behind—can be seen as the residue left by a project that is more performance than design exercise. In all, the three functions of this project are (1) the construction of a sculptural object over time, (2) an architectural research question about minimum standards for a functional dwelling, and (3) a literal vehicle for returning to and learning from a vernacular building style that has inspired my last five years of work.

Ostensibly, this project is structured around visits to three ranches managed by friends in Montana, Colorado, and New Mexico. Before this, in New York, I’ll work full-time to build the trailer just to a point where it’s road-legal, safe, and I can sleep in it. Then, over the course of the trip, I’ll borrow shop facilities and use the tools and materials I can find (or bring with me) to continue construction. The trailer will be a scaffolding for incremental and direct design of all scales—all the wonderful marking and fiddling of an animal in a burrow as much as the comparatively big structural decisions of a human building a tiny and waterproof house to whiz down the interstate.

But to say it clearly: this project is exciting to me (and hopefully worth funding to you) not as a novel way to get to Montana. Rather, this is a point of entry into a now-century-old conversation (or really, constellation of conversations) that precedes me: the dignity of craft in the Arts & Crafts revival, the encounter with material as wellspring of design in the early Bauhaus curriculum, the unfinished and contingent quality of Kurt Schwitter’s “Merzbau” and Umberto Eco’s Open Work, Rirkrit Tiravanija’s social “sculptures,” the current architect Kiel Moe’s work on thermodynamic cycles in architecture. These movements feel important but are still maddeningly theoretical to me, devoid of visceral reality. So this is first a personal investigation, because in order to enter that conversation in a meaningful way, I need my own rich experiential data. For this reason, I’m proposing to build a living space by living in a space. To let my hand be forced, for a few months. Although the prospect of this project fills me with joy and rabid excitement, I believe it to be the most serious work I can do, right now.

ii. Details

I expect this to be a full summer commitment. One month of preparation at my shop at home in New York, and two months for continued construction and travel. Although this is an ambitious project, I believe it’s plausible, given my construction experience and willingness to rely on a network of experienced advisors.

I understand the risk of a project that is going in this many directions. As I said, this is: (1) a slow and unfinished sculptural object, as well as (2) a specific research foray into the possibilities of minimal functional housing, as well as (3) a probe to send into a vernacular building style that already does much of what I aspire to do. I’ll describe each of these particular ambitions in more detail below. However, I hope to demonstrate that, in total, this project advances the central effort of my practice.

If this central effort needs a title, I would call it a “material ethics”: how can I treat any and all material that I work with—whether shoveling snow, or building a hay barn, or learning to crochet little hollow sculptural forms—with equal dignity and pleasure? Whether the tools in my hand are familiar or not, I want to practice care as a quality that exists in making, apart from the specific content and technique required by the project at hand.

This is not to imply that others design in a way that is careless or undignified. Rather “care” and “dignity” are, for me, shorthand for a specific kind of honest, stupid, direct effort: a willingness to work like a committed novice even as we become practiced. Being ready to weather frustration and episodic uncertainty, to suffer black eyes and frigid roadside breakdowns, to give myself and the object time and room, and to offer myself as a test guinea pig as I go through the inevitable reams of failed rough drafts. Treating things with care and dignity allows them to be ugly and broken for a while, and requires that I stay right in there with them. I want to be an executor who makes careful and sturdy (and for that, beautiful) internal decisions, in whatever time and form it takes. This, so that I might step back at the end and look at what I’ve just made with surprise and pleasure, but trust that it really will do what it intends to do because I’ve seen all the guts. Or, maybe it’s a flop. But at least it is a record of real effort, a rich journal entry.

As examples, I’m submitting some work that exemplifies this particular push. Objects with a clear purpose delight me because they make this kind of design much easier. Make a spoon, make this tower stand straight on uncertain ground, make a gauge for determining the size of knitting needles. That’s enough direction! Just working through any project like that, with the materials and tools available, is a beautiful challenge. The first attempt pulls a special effort out of us, and I love the honest and halting missteps that are recorded when we have a go at a defined problem with new tools.

However, I think the clearest explanation of this kind of making is the non- functional things I’ve made. I’ve included images of a series of hollow forms that I’ve been working on for the last 6 months. The process of making each of them is the same: I know from the outset that they will resolve into a hollow freestanding shape about the size of a grapefruit, I have a material in mind, and I have a jointing strategy. For instance, steel plate was cut, formed, welded, and polished. Light ochre yarn was crocheted and stuffed with roving. Clay was rolled out, sliced, and slipped together. Leather was cut, tabbed, and glued. Each takes between three and twenty hours (always longer than I expect). While working on them, I lose track of the final form. I focus entirely on figuring out how to make the joint strong and clean, and I get to simply enjoy rolling around in the material properties of whatever I’ve chosen to work with. Eventually, it closes up and I can step back and work on some polishing and refining of the whole form. But critically, I can never predict the end shape from the outset. My plans are immediately frustrated by how the material moves, as soon as I start. These little shapes are the opposite of drudgery, always teach me something about the material and technique, and inevitably show my hand back to me in a way that’s both humbling and gratifying. They immediately suggest a next project. I can give them away without explanation.

(1) As an object:

The trailer is the next scale of this kind of thinking and making. Its material palette and ambitions are more complex, but it requires the same effort. That is, in my descent into the material reality of grappling with functional requirements, it will become an open sculptural object that I can crawl inside and pull down the road at 70 mph. I want it to be sticky with memorable touches, a palimpsest of failure and revision.

I can best begin by approaching it from the inside out, and directly. For instance, if it’s a cold and rainy night and I’m coming in with wet clothes and dirty boots, how can I get cleanly into bed and read my book? Or, what would it take to have a friend over for a drink on a hot afternoon? I plan to burrow into the minutiae and hire myself as a loving contractor to handle the million small decisions that will be required just to solve these problems. I’m pursuing clear utility, but where utility doesn’t mean strict utilitarianism. This whole thing is a lark, even as it’s serious practice.

Imagine the satisfaction of this kind of design! By the time I build a cabinet or a shelf, I’ll have already reached to set something there a dozen times, learned where I bark my elbow in the dark, and have a particular object in mind to store. The cabinet I finally install will feel inevitable and deeply comfortable. The trailer as a whole will be an accumulation of these satisfying and unpredictable accommodations. I guess that functional, beautiful objects simply take time and practice. The thing I bring back east will be something that I could never imagine as I head west, but I know it will fit well.

(2) As research:

Beyond a sculpture, it is also an architectural research question: what are the phenomena that a dwelling must control in order to support human health and comfort? How might this be accomplished within tight budget and performance constraints? Satisfying the basic requirements of this structure (that it be temperate, waterproof, and rolling) requires interesting research.

Here, so close to the bone, this structure needs to do work, to be a small machine for living. I’m asking for 50 square feet to do as much (and in some ways more), as most houses. For instance: if it can’t dissipate heat, it will be a large mobile oven as I shimmer through a 110-degree afternoon in New Mexico. And if it can’t retain heat, it will be a bitter cold box on a 20-degree night in alpine Montana.

Here there is a reason to do thermal calculations and measure embedded energy, and a chance to learn viscerally what those calculations amount to. I’ll include a thermometer and a humidistat and keep a descriptive log to measure my successes and failures. I want to try to control a smallest-scale dwelling I can so that I can be opulent with my time and effort. What I learn about flexibility and control will be relevant to the next structure I build.

(3) As a vehicle:

This project is, finally, a way and a reason to return to a landscape and group of people who are, by necessity, experts at the kind of making I describe. It’s important that I drive cross-country. First, because travel will provide the user’s information that I need for construction. But more, this structure will put me in contact with people who, by example and by direct instruction, can teach me about my ambitions.

Between thin margins and difficult work, the people I knew on these ranches had learned to shrewdly balance scarce energy (money, time, material) against heavy functional requirements. “Perfect” means something that does just what is needed and not more. If a strong stick will tension a fence as well as a custom piece of cast aluminum, the stick is clearly the better choice. There isn’t time to make things twice, so “Will this work?” is a question of real consequence. Of course there are failures, but these preferences are in the air in a way that is harder to find in the folds of the comparatively fat margins of the coasts. I want to return to this area for critique and inspiration. I want the observer’s distance that this project will afford me so that I might take a second and different look at a place that, before, I could only see from the inside out.

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Teardrop Trailer Construction Continues in Oberlin

Teardrop Trailer Driving into the Mountains and Cutting Some Braces for the Roof

Picking up a railroad light