Hypermodern glass and steel may be shaping our cities of the future — and the supertall skyscrapers that continue to punch through their skylines — but some architects are looking instead to humanity’s oldest dwelling: the humble cave.
With well-insulated, energy-efficient interiors, building materials partially provided by an existing structure, and a sense of harmony with the natural world, caves present an alternative way of eco-living, either as an isolated introvert’s paradise, or a community of cliffside homes.
Perhaps most famous are Turkey’s Cappadocia caves, which house rooms for rent and a luxury thermal hotel, but there are other examples, from a minimalist apartment in Tel Aviv, to a secluded temperature-controlled wine cave in Texas. In 2005, educator Jiang Lu conducted an Earthwatch-backed study on traditional cave dwellings in China’s mountainous Shaanxi Province — which still provide housing for millions of residents today — finding them to be compatible with the principles of contemporary sustainable design.
But caves, despite being our oldest homes, are often seen as a radical choice: In 1958, when Life magazine visited the cozy abode of Mexico City-based painter and architect Juan O’Gorman, formed by a lava cave and decorated with animal print throws and ceramics on built-in shelving, the writer called it “most bizarre.”
Now, O’Gorman’s home, along with three other Mexican artist-architects who have explored modern cave design, is exhibited in “In Praise of Caves” at the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in Queens, New York. While the show isn’t a call to find the nearest cavern to inhabit, it presents the cave as a wellspring of inspiration for architects, particularly in how we think about the shapes of our homes.
“I think the thing that’s so timely about (the exhibition)… is these Mexican artists were not talking about a kind of backwards-looking nostalgia (for caves),” explained Dakin Hart, a senior curator at the museum. “They are looking forward — this is about the future.”
Nature meets design
Javier Senosiain, the only living artist-architect in the show, is perhaps the most famous of the bunch with his vibrant, eye-popping projects such as animal-lair-like “Casa Orgánica,” where Senosiain and his family formerly resided an hour west of Mexico City, and “El Nido de Quetzalcóatl (The Nest of Quetzalcóatl),” which he completed in 2007. For “In Praise of Caves,” Senosiain created intricate models of his own designs as well as O’Gorman’s subterranean home — which has since been partially demolished by a new owner — and the forward-thinking concepts of Carlos Lazo, who died young in an airplane crash before his visions could be fully realized.