Bluff, Utah. The rock looks like bread loaves crossed by a singular bare-boned ridge, beyond which the desert is studded with red-wall monuments across the Navajo Reservation. Mostly Bluff is wild lands and a little bit of town on a long bend of the San Juan River.
In town, sculptures made of branches and driftwood go up in flames as people dance on the winter solstice. Traders and bead-sellers live here, guides and archaeologists, an eclectic bunch in an outlier Utah community.
Across from the Twin Rocks Café and Trading Post on the north end of town, I met with Atsushi Yamamoto, a Japanese architect from Tokyo now living in Bluff. Yamamoto and his wife Hiroko run a small campus for a project called Design Build Bluff, which brings in graduate students from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City to build a house a year for clients on the Navajo Reservation.
Since 2004, Design Build Bluff has built 17. Students meet with Navajo clients to get a sense of their needs, then return to the Bluff campus where they live in dormitories built on a framework of metal cargo containers. For four months, they design the house and then propose it to clients in January. Under the direction of Yamamoto, the house is built over the next 60 days.
In these canyons, architecture has a history going back over a thousand years. Long before European arrival on this continent, stone was stacked on stone, puttied with mud and mortar. Cliff dwellings, granaries, lookouts, and towers stand in this desert, tucked back into cracks and soaring alcoves. These are from Puebloan tradition with T-shaped doorways and round, smooth-wall kivas sunken into the ground. These people used wood lentils and corbelled wood ceilings, a way of building you might call original American. Their structures have lasted centuries, slowly weathering in this arid, blue-sky land. Yamamoto is the next in line, one of many who’ve directed building projects in this desert.
Yamamoto told me that when his students build a house on the Navajo Reservation, they are asked by the Navajo government to ensure the structure will stand for at least 100 years. In Japan, Yamamoto said he’s used to the question. The same concern exists there about longevity as it does on the Navajo Reservation. But regular American architecture—trailer homes and stick frame construction—seems not to be made with time in mind.
At the Dennehotso Chapter House on the reservation, I spoke with Carmirae Holguin, a young Navajo woman working with Yamamoto to put up new housing. Holguin said, “A lot of these families follow Navajo tradition where the house you grew up in or were born in is where you stay.” She said that a house standing for a hundred years is protocol. “We want future generations to be in this place,” she said.
Holguin is the administrative assistant for what is called the Sweat Equity Project, where the Navajo clients work side by side with Yamamoto’s students, and in the end get their home for no cost. Design Build Bluff’s guidelines state, “The concept of sweat equity is one in which the client uses their own labor (“effort and toil”), rather than cash, as form of contribution in the building process.”
Houses are widely scattered out here on the sandy rabbit brush plain between canyons and towering landmarks, one house every several miles, or a cluster of them, a hogan, a trailer, a prefab, a family unit gathering together, matrilineal with the husband living on the wife’s family land. The Chapter House, which is a form of Navajo governance, chooses a new client each year, people well below the poverty level, or homeless, or living in a collapsing residence. The front door must face east, a requirement in a Navajo home layout, and the interior must reflect traditional design, often meaning it must be flexible. Holguin said that a one-bedroom home, with a few wall rearrangements, must be able to be made into a multi-bedroom structure as the century progresses.
At the campus in Bluff, Yamamoto showed me the architectural mockup of the next house that was being built down a fine, red-sand washboard just over the Arizona border. He pulled out walls and put others in, showing how the house could be changed over time. I was reminded of archaeological excavations in the area where ancient households and community spaces had been dug out of the ground. Some had been remodeled so many times that over centuries it is hard to tell how they started out. Kivas were built inside of kivas, wall murals painted over, footers put up for new walls and storage spaces as families changed and the need for a home changed.
Navajo history and Pueblo history come from two different groups, but over the last several centuries, the groups mixed, ideologies and architecture exchanged between the two around the Four Corners. Navajo people are now living in a country of Pueblo ruins, the ancestry of Hopi, Zuni, Tewa, and other modern Pueblo people. Their histories are bound together, and walking down these red dirt roads on the Navajo Reservation you’ll see pieces of ancient Pueblo pottery wearing out of the cuts and washboards. The houses going up through Design Build Bluff are next in a history of layers. One of the dorm houses on campus is a grand stone house built by Mormons in 1904, and though the outside walls may stand for centuries, Yamamoto pointed out that the wood-plank floor was badly tilted and sagging. “They didn’t put in a foundation,” he said.
He and his students, and members of the Clah family that will be living in the next of Design Build Bluff’s houses, put in the concrete foundation and I visited a week later to pull back the plastic. The floor plan is simple, two rectangles slightly off from each other, entrance in the east, large communal space inside the front door, bedrooms easily divisible. This is the basic design for homes Yamamoto oversees: two matching, joined shed structures that can be configured multiple ways. Using these two halves, public and private space can be defined, fitting with Navajo tradition. One half has a concrete floor, the other half earthen, like the floor of a Navajo Hogan. Making the houses culturally appropriate is big in Yamamoto’s mind. His students sit with the clients, propose plans, and work side by side putting up the houses.
On the plastic sheet overlaying hardened concrete, several small toy houses had been left behind, as if by children from a Monopoly game. I scooped them up and placed them in the middle of the foundation as we folded the plastic. Maybe they’d been left by kids, but knowing a little about the Navajo world, they could have also been a form blessing, a very intentional act. Best to leave them be.
In the canyons around here I once found an ancient, ruined hogan, a circular, corbelled wood building that hadn’t been lived in for a century or so. The structure unfolded like a flower, juniper beams splintering into dust. It gave a sense of ancestry to the land, horizon after horizon of people laying down their lives. The country around this collapsed hogan was architectural in itself, hard lines of cliffs and towers, sandstone cut by erosion, alcoves and cracks tucked with masonry structures predating the hogan by more centuries.
The houses put up by Design Build Bluff are simple, clean, and uniquely modern in appearance. I visited one near the Arizona-Utah border, a metal-walled shell with inset windows and a shaded ramada. It was three years old and orderly gardens had gone in around it. The place was nicely lived in, satellite dishes on top, grid-tied solar panels, a basketball hoop. When I stopped by, the husband living there came out to talk. He said winters were warm and summers cool in the house. In the hottest months it was, “like being under a cliff in the shade.”