Ray Meeker’s Fired Houses

By Jim Danisch

Ceramics Monthly, January 2001

During the past 15 years, Ray Meeker has fired several clay buildings in India for use as private residences, company housing and, most recently, as a memorial shrine to a famous dancer. Taking the concept from theory to practice, particularly in a monsoon climate, took extraordinary perseverance.
In November 1983, Ceramics Monthly published my article about Nader Khalili's vision for fired houses, which I wrote after constructing the first small test vault in the U .S. A few months later, I received a letter from Meeker (an American potter living in Pondicherry, South India, where he and Deborah Smith established Golden Bridge Pottery in 1971. inquiring about the process. But by then I was in Nepal, advising traditional potters on glazed earthenware techniques. So on his next trip back to the U.S., Meeker attended a two-day workshop with Khalili.

The fired building vision is irresistibly compelling: Construct a complex of vaults and domes, load it with ceramic products (bricks, tiles, pottery, etc.), apply glaze to the interior, fire the building like a kiln, sell the products to pay for the construction costs, and move in. It has potential as a low-cost housing solution, as well as all the romantic associations of Bernard Palissy's vision of house/shell/grotto with fired glaze interiors. (Palissy was a 16th century scholar, potter and enamelist: there is a fascinating discussion of his ideas in The Poetics of Space, by Gaston Bachelard, Beacon Press, 1964.)

By the mid 1985, a few test structures had been fired: Khalili's original experiments in Iran before he was forced to leave by political events, my Ojai vault and some buildings in Mexico, which were probably the biggest successes, as they were done without any technical advice. However, all were in low-rainfall areas, where firing the walls completely through was not critical. Problems with financing, high labor costs and lack of technical expertise, as well as stringent building codes, prevented other experiments in the U.S.

South India proved to be an ideal place to work out large-scale construction involving bricks, as they are plentiful and labor is cheap. The challenge is the heavy annual rainfall. Meeker constructed his first vault in 1985, with the assistance of Dutch ceramics artist Jan de Rooden (see his autobiographical article “Lifelong Relationship" in the May 2000 CM), and fired it fairly successfully; but the 18-inch-thick wails were only partially fired, so he destroyed it before the monsoon set in.

The second structure collapsed while Meeker was inside photographing cracks that had developed in the vault. Miraculously, his mason-somehow actually seeing the collapse begin, pulled him out safely, but his camera was buried. The failure was due to having expanded the curve outside the catenary, creating tension in the roo£ He successfully rebuilt the vault as a catenary and has not strayed since.

Meeker's test vaults seem to have a diabolical attraction for torrential rains just before firing, and there were more collapses during construction. The solution to firing 18-inch-thick supporting walls was to use raw bricks inside, and interlock them with fired brick on the outside. By the fourth test, he had a1so figured out how to coat the outside of the vault or dome roof with 4 inches of combustible insulation (clay and coconut fiber, a waste product), which ignited when the walls became hot enough, and fired the 6-inch-thick brick roof all the way through. Two structures did collapse after firing, but this was due to inappropriately large openings in the walls, not under-firing.

Firing a large dome or vault, and particularly a complex of both, requires full understanding of the qualities of fire and how to distribute heat evenly throughout a space. Large buildings cannot be fired empty. The most practical load is brick, which can be stacked in ways to channel the fire where it is needed. Tiles and pots can be included as a secondary load. Brick and tile have tremendous thermal mass, resulting in a mammoth heat reservoir that radiates deeply into walls and roof And there is a market for high-quality, table-molded brick, which is more profitable than the ordinary slop-molded product.

By 1987, Meeker had worked through the major problems, and felt confident enough to take on commissioned projects. The first of these was a private residence in Auroville, an experimental community near Pondicherry. Consisting of a dome and ancillary vaults, it was fired successfully in 1988, and proved to be a practical residence for the hot climate. This project was the subject of the videotape "Agni lata (Fire Born)."

In 1990, he took on the challenge of producing a low-cost model house, with the idea of balancing the costs of construction with the sale of the fired products. Though the final cost of the house was significantly lower than the standard local method of construction, other factors-infeasibility of marketing high-value products on a large scale and high-energy consumption-made it impractical as a solution to housing for the poor.

His next project was for 8000 square feet of middle-income housing for the Indian Tobacco Corporation. Though small architecturally, it was the next logical step-up in scale for a fired building. The project required a half million bricks for the housing, offices and laboratory spaces, plus the product to fill them. It demonstrated the potential for a small village complex, and also underlined the need for onsite clay, which is not an easy requirement to meet, since most surface clay is unsuitable for making fired brick

The Salem Project was an attempt at low-cost housing for the rural poor. Supported by the District Rural Development Agency of the Tamil Nadu government, 50 single-vault houses were laid out and construction commenced; however, the project was only partly completed because of a change in leadership. It did prove, however, that the technology could be transferred, since young Indian engineers managed the construction and firing.
Meeker's latest project (1997-99) took the process into the realm of fine art. He was commissioned by Protima Gauri, a famous Indian dancer, to design and construct a shrine to Shiva—lord of the cosmic dance. This involved not only the structure, but also terra-cotta murals depicting Protima and her guru. A series of terracotta "mirrors" portrays the five senses in a truly inspired tour de force. Sadly, before the shrine was completed, Protima Gauri was killed in a massive landslide while on pilgrimage to Mount Kailash in Tibet. It is now a memorial to her.

On the technical side, the bricks for the shrine were mixed with combustible material, so they are self-firing after becoming hot enough. This technological breakthrough means that Meeker can fire a building using no more fuel than the local brickmakers. Not only is he responsible for bringing the vision of the site-fired building through trials of fire and water to develop a practical process, but for realizing its full potential as art and architecture.

Nevertheless, he has concluded that while raw-brick buildings can be constructed at lower cost than conventional brick buildings, they use more energy; it is cheaper to buy local bricks for the composite walls than to use the product from the buildings. A more energy- efficient approach to low-cost housing is cement-stabilized mud bricks. They don't require exterior plastering and are an easier technology to transfer.

Moreover, the idea of glazing a building interior is negated by the difficulty of getting even temperatures and protecting the raw glaze from damage during brick loading. It makes better sense to fire glazed tiles in saggars and to install them after the firing.

Will he continue to fire raw-brick buildings? Probably not. Is the process worth continuing? Possibly s0--not so much for practical purposes, but more in the spirit of Palissy, for the romantics who love the drama of earth, water, fire, air and space. To create the stage for such a firing and to direct it on such a scale, is irresistible.

A visit to one of his buildings leaves one with the dream of living in such spatially satisfying rooms, with their coolness and rich acoustics, their intriguing passages, slanted buttress walls and sculptural exteriors.