A new day arrives and I awake with little idea of my whereabouts. The sun was filtered through a canopy of leaves. No walls surrounded me. No mattress – just a beautiful pillow cosseted my head as I begin to recall my new circumstance. Juan had told me to make my way to the house for breakfast, but first I spend time looking at my chosen spot: a small clearing with a canopy of trees through which I could see to a beyond, beyond which I know nothing. The eye was given a distance which allowed the brain space to imagine. I imagine Mongolia or Aberdovey, neither places I have visited, but this place, selected the previous day was already making me see things I did not know. This is the spot!
I dressed quickly and walked to breakfast.The huge kitchen, which I was told was ancient, contained a 20-metre long table on wheels, a long rough timber construction which had acquired the stains of many meals. Around the table sat 50 chairs, all different as though each piece of furniture would bestow its own personality on the sitter. It was a celebration of individuality, an invitation to think and refocus. I could write a novel here.
There were a dozen other people who appeared as if from nowhere, already sitting and eating and talking. Were they all here to write a novel? I did not stop to find out, but simply smiled and passed into the kitchen with its simple work surface, range and well-stocked cupboards. I prepared a tray with two boiled eggs, toast, ham, tomato and coffee. Everything came from the land and was fresh.
I carried my tray outside and joined the others at the table. My chair, a strange construction of bamboo and rope, looked fragile but was quite robust and comfortable. I later learnt it had been made by a former visitor. The chair reflected my own condition: one of anticipation and fear. I had a mission but before I could start I would have to make my own room in my chosen place.
These thoughts were going through my head as I settled in the chair opposite Claudia and Joshua.
Claudia is from Italy although her mother was Irish. She was clearly searching for something to do; she had lurched from university, where she had studied a variety of subjects including Philosophy, to Landscape Architecture.
She was beautiful. She was alone and had come to Las Heras on the recommendation of a friend. She had already been resident for two weeks and had no idea how long she would stay. She was enjoying herself, and enjoyment gleamed through her dark, dangerous eyes. She confessed she was building a hut that would contain all the thoughts she’d ever had; she was constructing the centre of her world in the depths of the trees.
She slipped into an elaboration of her new world, a resolution of all she knew, and then suddenly she stood up, finished her coffee with a single gulp and raced off to carry on with her day’s toils.
I was alone with Joshua, who had been sent from his university to investigate this place. After a brief period making houses for poor communities in Alabama, he’d gone back to Oxford to study architecture,2 and now in his fourth year, a group of fellows had decided that the programme for students to meet and build in Las Heras sounded interesting and that someone should go and look.
Someone was Joshua, as it turned out. When he arrived he was clear; here was a place where students could stay and build their own accommodation in the landscape. It represented a wonderful opportunity to gain direct experience of simple construction and for him, in particular, to continue some elements of what he had learned in Alabama.
He was not prepared to discover so much more. And what he had discovered evidently made him nervous.
Joshua was a thoroughly modern man, and like so many other modern men, he had been raised on an idea of cool. Now, although tempered by his obvious leaning towards practicality and a social conscience, he was unable to escape ‘cool’s’ inevitable call; it was a seductive place to retreat to when in judgement of others. In his Las Heras, after delicious eggs in the sunshine, he felt a connection with its basic values combined with unadulterated luxury. It was no wonder that the latest addition to the house represented an attempt to create opulence deep inside a rural innocence.
Joshua also felt attracted to Claudia. This was a simple lust, disguised as something grander: passion.
He jumped up and left me alone at the long wooden breakfast table. Breakfast was done and it was time to find Juan, who was where I expected him to be: in the workshop.