In the year 2000, Shaykh Zaki Yamani, the erstwhile Saudi oil minister, gave a one-off lecture in London which I had the good fortune to attend. The lecture was about the house of Khadijah, may God be pleased with her, in Mecca, the first wife of the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, which was so mindlessly obliterated by the Saudi government in the 1990s to make way for a building of 1,400 toilets adjacent to it. The site itself is now covered in marble. This was a house which was revered as a place of pilgrimage by muslims for well over 1000 years to which dignitaries would visit and pray in, and where the angel had sat and prayed with the Prophet and where he taught him. A place of revelation in other words. As sacred a space as you could possible imagine. The house was tiny and a sign of the simplicity and economy that those people of that time embodied during their lives. You can watch the lecture here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fcx-fJCCy3I
In his lecture, Shaykh Yamani explained that he was able to secure a three week delay to the rebuilding while he brought in 500 workers to excavate, measure and photograph it before it was filled in with sand and covered in concrete. This act was hurtful to the vast majority of muslims. The recent destruction of Palmyra and mausoleums in Libya were merely a continuation of this process of desecration that has been going on for centuries. The favourite pastime, it appears, of the khawarij and its current manifestation.
My fascination with this tiny house in Mecca, was the sheer smallness of it. It must have been a house with five children with two thirds of it for commercial storage, as Khadijah was a working businesswoman who employed her younger husband who happened to also be the Prophet of God. You could stand in one of the rooms and touch opposite walls with arms outstretched. Compare this to the excesses of life in the west and what is now considered the poverty line in the USA and you start to wonder if some of the material values aspired to by the so called developed world aren’t seriously overblown.
My father when he was alive in the 1950s was editor of a fine arts magazine and as part of his job had to visit Sutton Place, in Surrey, the then British residence of J Paul Getty, the elder, to write an article on the 600 room historic mansion and its antiquities.
Getty, then the richest man in the world at the time, lived there alone and made his guests bring sandwiches and in a wild moment of generosity provided a payphone in the entrance foyer for their use. Sad, to say the least. A king of the large-house movement. Conversely there is a growing small-house movement these days world-wide in the so called developed world.
Sutton Place, Surrey UK
Left: a tiny house in the USA. Above: Interior of a small wooden Japanese house.
Type ‘small houses’ into Google and you get 83 million results. However, in the USA the average size of new single family homes grew from 1,780 sq. feet (165 sq.m) in 1978 to 2,662 sq. feet (247.3 sq.m) in 2013, despite a decrease in the size of the average family. Reasons for this include increased material wealth and prestige in a very spoilt country. And of course it has left a lot of people out of the loop, if not actually homeless. Which is why now people are looking for alternative ways of living because of the difficulty of renting property let alone buying it. I personally know of people in Spain who have rented land and built theoretically temporary structures to live in. Importantly they live within their means, often off-grid, and avoid the need to borrow money. I call it creative adaptability. For them it is fulfilling and honourable.
The human race is very inventive and hugely adaptive which is why I’m interested in people who have consciously and creatively down-sized and how they have done it. I have recently downsized myself and after a year and half my wife and I have fully adapted. Not enough storage? Then get rid of the clothes you never wear. Badly need another room? then build a shed. But only if you really need it. But our mini house does have a lovely very private garden with fourteen kinds of fruit trees, vegetables, a fast running irrigation acequia (irrigation channel), a small pool and rather too many cats. In Spain you live a lot outside all year round so not having palatial living rooms is not a problem which is why most houses have small rooms.
Our ancestors, the best of them that is, mostly lived in small houses and only the rich elites lived in big houses. The current American large house solution is clearly unsustainable even though Hollywood and English period TV productions, try to convince us all that we really need kitchens the size of tennis courts and swimming pools the size of the Caspian sea. That model, with the huge mortgages it necessitates, cannot and will not last.