- From Shit to Food:Graham Caine's Eco-House in South London, 1972-1975
Early in 1975, at a corner of Thames Polytechnic's playing fields in South London, an ecological house was demolished. It not only looked like a spaceship but also functioned as one, even though it had been erected from materials scavenged from the streets and bore a striking resemblance to a giant outhouse. From the beginning of its construction the Eco-House emerged as something uncanny, as "something that landed on the earth rather than growing out of it," in the suburban context of Eltham.1 Neighbors used to walk around the house's site, disenchanted with its aesthetics, calling it an "eyesore."2 They were quite pleased with its eventual demolition. In fact, they accelerated the process by helping to pull down the house. These neighborly commentaries notwithstanding, the historic significance of the Eco-House lies in the fact that it was a built laboratory inhabited by its architect and manifested for its creators a statement for political and social reform. Inside the envelope, digesters, hydroponic gardens, solar panels, and other machines endowed the house with more functions than simply to shelter.
One of the earliest ecological houses, the Eco-House was built in 1972 as a laboratory and living experiment by Grahame Caine, a member of the anarchist group Street Farmers, originally formed by Peter Crump and Bruce Haggart. The Eco-House was a fully functional, integrated system that converted human waste to methane for cooking and maintained a hydroponic greenhouse with radishes, tomatoes, and even bananas. Its construction had been supported by a donation of two thousand pounds from Alvin Boyarski, the chairman of the Architectural Association of London (AA). Caine, a twenty-six-year-old, fourth-year student at the AA, designed and built the Eco-House on borrowed land from Thames Polytechnic, as part of his AA diploma thesis (Figures 1, 2). 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 the help of the Street Farmers, Caine was
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able to start construction in September 1972, during his fifth year, and to install himself by Christmas. After having lived in the house for two years with his family, he was asked to destroy it in 1975.
By that time the Eco-House had already received wide attention from the British press, architectural magazines, as well as British television. It was the main subject of a BBC Open Program for Television episode in June 1973 entitled "Clearings of a Concrete Jungle," which featured the promotional line "Spring is here and the time is ripe for planting in the streets."3 Other publications about the house included "The House That Grows" and "A New Way of Living" in the London Garden News, "Living off the Sun in South London" in The Observer, and "A Revolutionary Structure" in Oz magazine (Figure 3).4
Despite the extensive press coverage and the massive logistical and administrative struggle to acquire permission to use land for an experimental facility, Caine failed his final examinations at the AA and never received his diploma as an architect. In his final presentation, he did not present to the committee any architectural drawings. He did present, however, endless arrays of scientific diagrams and tables monitoring in excruciating detail the performance of the Eco-House's interconnected machines, as well as sketches that envisioned an alternative political reality. Although Caine envisioned his scientific analyses as a crusade for the individual's political liberation, the jury could never quite forgive the obliteration of an "architectural middle ground," that is, his rejection of conventional forms of architectural representation. In 2008, when this author met Caine in Ronda, Spain, and asked him to recollect this story, he was comically apathetic to...