Artist Builds Homes and Hangouts Out of Mud

21 December 2019 in leafhouse, Tinyhouses
Brice Mathey, Builder of Mudhomes

LB: Thanks for doing this interview Brice! Before we hop into natural building, can you first talk generally about your background – like where you’re from and what things have been pivotal to your growth as a human?

BM: I come from a loving and comfortable family, and spent a big part of my childhood in South of France. My mother was a painter and my father a french navy officer. While at University, I began studies in biology, (I always loved physics and biology ), but then quit to attend fine-art school! I’ve always felt like a scientist of art or an artist of science.

LB: How long have you been making earthen structures? How did you start and what initially inspired you?

BM: I started 18 years ago. While digging out on my land, I found a magnificent yellow ground, perfectly balanced in sand and clay. Then I made my first clay oven, and immediately after, I added a room to my house where for my three young kids at the time. In French Brittany cob-houses are common, but the main inspiration came from guys like Lloyd Khan, Ianto Evans, Michael Reynolds and all the unknown heroes I could only meet in books! I loved how they used natural materials to explode the traditional way of building and bring houses to be expressive, ecological and sensual! From my first cob oven, I never stopped!

LB: What amazes me about your structures is that they are in their own category – they are small and compact like a cave and almost too small for full-time living. Do you think of them as a kind of alternative category of space? Like a gathering place, or socializing space, or a space for intimacy?

BM: To tell you the truth, I’ve spent a winter in each of the love-shacks on my land. So I do believe you could make a living there in a world where you work outside and your house is a place to eat and sleep and gather around the fire. It could become an interesting alternative as soon as you look for a minimalist lifestyle, a definite answer to hyper-consumerism. The small round bubbles are so easy to heat up, and lovers don’t need anything more than a warm bedroom.

By the way, I’ve always considered my creations as prototypes or experiments around bamboos and clay. And after my 7th prototype, I can imagine how it can be done bigger, but I am not found of scaffoldings nor am I comfortable with large-scale building projects. I appreciate this human scale. I believe we’ve formed a really bad habit by living in palaces and castles!

LB: You are also an artist, what do you think is the role between making art and building dwellings? Is it just another medium, one we’ve forgotten about over the centuries? And why do you think it seems like we’ve lost the connection between artistic expression and our building spaces?

BM: I use the onion metaphor to describe our soul’s experience. First, we are in a bag of skin and bones and water. Then the next level or envelope is what we wear, and usually we like this one to reflect who we are, expressive of a mood or a style or anti-style, etc. And a house is also a sort of an image of yourself, too… And over the years, it’s been awfully standardized! Clay is a beautiful and totally recyclable material that can be used to create a house that looks like you. It’s organic and sensual, discreet and welcoming, healthy and non-harmful for all of nature. I love how in Africa, for example, houses are painted, sculpted, and shaped, depicting who lives inside.

I am not in the egotistical sort of art made by the market and the bourgeoisie of the 19th and 20th century. I am fond of the rural arts and artisans, which despite negative stereotypes, possess very sophisticated manners and traditions too. Pre-Columbian ceramics, for example, are for me an ideal form of art. When you start building on a human scale, with hands, using arms or wrists as compass, your feet or your palm as a measure and only your eye as a spirit-level, you can become very precise and the whole house will be a sort of a body extension. The proportions and design will be as perfect as our human body! No need of any art, it will just be naturally harmonious and definitely original!​

LB: When you start designing and building a dwelling, is everything planned out or do you sort of go with the flow and allow the space to tell you the shape?

BM:​ Before starting any projects I need stones, clay, wood, and bamboo. And in addition, ideally, some gentle friends to help! I cannot improvise with the design as much as people want. It’s important to be precise with the volume of material required for the builds. So plans are necessary; and although generally rough, the serious technical issues are pre-seen on paper, with some 3D drawings.

I must say, most of the work I do is eyes closed, laying on my back in bed! The idea of the Love-Shack is to melt the building in the environment, as if the dwelling is in love with nature. The structure’s curves will answer the landscape’s curves, and the ground’s color will compliment the wall’s color, and the local grass will grow on the roof. ​

So all the plans start by finding the perfect spot to catch the spirit of the place. But as I am not the only builder, everyone on-site contributes his/her touch to the walls. And sometimes, mistakes become inventions! So my process is open to improvisation, but I always keep an eye on the global image.

LB: The names of your dwellings, “Love-shacks,” comes obviously from the famous song by the B-52s. Is there a back story to how you named your designs this?

BM: I just loved this Band as a teenager! Of course I tried very hard to find a french name. But Love-shack always came back! Especially because it gives this ecological activity a “rock’n roll” style, something jumping and mad, noisy and disrespectful! Ecology needs more craziness and some hair like those B52’s girls, to ensure it never becomes a system or an industry, to keep the door to Nature open.

LB: How long does it typically take to complete one of your builds? And what materials do you like to build from?

BM: Year after year I shorten the building time. And now it takes me only two or three weeks to achieve a 15 sq. meter Love-shack. I stick to the same routine and materials: stones, clay, straw, bamboos and wood, and the rubber layer of epdm for the vegetal roof.

LB: Recently you took a trip to India, and facilitated a “love-shack” workshop, can you talk about what brought you out to Goa, how the workshop went, and how the experience shaped your craft?

BM: One year ago I was in north India for another Love-shack experience, that happened as a result of social media. While there I met a wonderful woman who was a clay buildings architect. We became such good friends! She succeeded in gathering 30 engineering and architectural students to a place in Goa. Working with Laterite (this red dirt) wasn’t easy, and the termites and Bamboo Borers posed new challenges for me. We found local solutions. But the worst were the monsoons! This word now puts my hair straight up! We had 3 weeks of continuous shower, and this was the worst thing that could have happened for the vegetal roof. But I trust our design, and it may work, as soon as people there take care of it during the first two years. One thing I learned was how necessary it is to work hand-in-hand with partners. India taught me that communication in a large group of people is central, and local solutions to local problems should always be searched for first. Now we’ve got 30 young architects and builders who have discovered something other than cement!

LB: There seems to be a sacred quality to your designs. Do you think of them as sacred spaces?

BM: Well, if harmony has to do with what’s sacred, and if living and loving someone in a place can be sacred then yes. But in a spiritual way, not really. Everything there is designed for the pleasure of the five senses!

Brice Mathey is a natural builder and artist from France. After studying biology at university, he felt that his interest in Nature was more about poetry than science and moved to fine art school. There he discovered you can’t be taught poetry, you have to live it! So he left to work by himself painting and sculpting, while keeping a foot in his studies of history, art, and anthropology. Website, Instagram