“There are no more deserts. There are no more islands. Yet one still feels the need for them.” So wrote a young Albert Camus in 1939, jaded before his time. Where, he asked, was the necessary solitude to be found? The answer, in his day and our own, is in the city, among millions of our fellow citizens. The anonymity of the urban life is too convenient to deny. Yet we all have our Walden moments, when the urge to recluse ourselves in the house on the pond becomes unbearable.
Solitude, though, requires time. And more often than not, in my case, I have one without the other. This was only too obvious to me on the tiny plane from Bogota to Nuqui. Flying over the rainforest of Chocó, the sense of becoming ever more remote, of finally achieving a Crusoe-like distance from civilisation, promised the opportunity to decompress. But all I had was two days.
Leaving the airport at Nuqui, no more than a hut really, we boarded a boat that slid slowly past houses on stilts rotting on the riverbanks. Such a faded, melancholic atmosphere that it was impossible to banish Heart of Darkness – or more accurately Apocalypse Now – from my mind. At a military outpost with sandbags sprouting ferns, there was a cursory check of our papers, and then open water at full throttle.
Jonathan and Fernando met me on the beach. We walked barefoot along the sand to the base. The “base”: what associations that word triggers, of schoolboy hideouts, military HQs and clandestine guerrilla activities – none of which suggest a cultural residency programme. But a base it undeniably is, shelter amid the wilderness, a home away from home, or perhaps just home.
Here, the forest stops at the sea, and the property sits at the edge of both. Three small structures stand in a garden of papaya, banana and citrus trees. The central pavilion has an open living room and an open kitchen; there is a bathroom adjacent to it; and then at the end of the garden, at the foot of an incline, is the house I came to see. Within minutes of arriving, Jonathan and Fernando were already referring to it as “your” house, and it felt good.
I’ve met the architect, the Dutch artist Joep Van Lieshout, a few times, and somehow it is no great shock to find him building a base in the Colombian jungle. In 1998 he established AVL-Ville, an autonomous free state in Rotterdam, a tiny utopia complete with its own arsenal of homemade weapons. Van Lieshout’s early career was one big secessionist fantasy. Playing the eco-warrior-artist, he cultivated an ingenious self-sufficiency, before he started drawing up dark, satirical visions of parallel communities with names like Slave City.
The house in Choco, however, bears none of his hallmarks. His structures are normally made of fibreglass, rather like oversized Fisher-Price toys. Indeed he did originally plan to drop a fibreglass white cube into the jungle but changed his mind. Instead, he decided to work with what was already there. And the found object, or readymade, that he chose was a fallen tree. It had lain there for decades, at least half a century, after locals chopped it down to carve a canoe. Incredibly, the wood is so hard that the remaining trunk was still sound, impervious to rot. This seemingly indestructible object became the foundations of the house.
The design of the structure itself is unremarkable. Without walls, except for sliding screens in the bedroom, it is simply a raised platform with a roof supported by columns. It has no pretensions to architectural form, and is modestly in keeping with local craft traditions. If its concept derives from its base, then so does most of its character. The way the trunk curls down to the ground offers a snaking staircase to the deck. The trunk also provides the spine of the platform, with the floorboards attached either side of it like ribs. The Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa once defined architecture as “an extension of nature into the man-made realm”, and it is as though this is a literal manifestation of that idea.
But let’s continue with the floor, because it is the secret to the house. Following the curves of the tree, it is anything but even. From the top of the steps it slopes downhill, so that a gentle gravitational tug pulls you inside. Then, as you enter the bedroom, there is a slight incline. In an ordinary house one expects the floor to be level – anything else is defective – but here the surface underfoot admonishes you to leave behind such dependability, and loosen up a little. The texture of the floorboards, too, contributes to the sensory experience. We are used to touching hand-carved wood, but not with the soles of our feet, and since in this house you are always barefoot, merely walking around is to read how the house was made, a Braille of the hand-axe.
Being in a house without walls means that you never leave nature, you cannot shut the door on it. In the end, you experience this closeness mostly as sound, and most intensely when you first wake up. Lying there in the greyish dawn, the world outside tunes into a frequency that is both sharp and nondescript. It is hard to tell what is rain, what is the wind in the trees, what is thunder, what is the crashing of waves – they all become a tropical white noise.
Or perhaps it was just inexperience. As I mentioned, I was there for two days. The irony of finally finding a retreat, and yet it being just another pit stop on the global merry-go-round – life teases you like that. But having spent the previous weeks in Caracas and Medellin, in intense cities that are trying to address intractable problems, this was a taste of another South America – pre-urban, virginal.
Our one foray into the local village, with the curator Jose Roca and his family, provided not so much a reminder of civilisation as a shadow of it. The place felt half deserted. Languid villagers fed us crab and rice, and while they were friendly they also observed us with – or so I imagined – suspicion. A few days after I left, Jose and his family headed to the airport to return to Bogota, but their plane was grounded. The town was demanding that the government provide better healthcare and education. Occupying the runway during the peak Easter period was the citizens’ way of getting the government’s attention. I wondered later whether the villagers we’d met had known what was coming. Either way, I was relieved that I’d got out, although, as someone who collects stories, I was almost disappointed to miss out on the experience. If nothing else, being a hostage of sorts would have allowed me to spend more time at the base.