June 27, 2003

Feeling for space:

James Hubbell and his soul called home

By Mariana Martinez

There is a quiet noise whispering in my veins as I sweetly lay and seek the sky in the mountain top, no clouds: The roofs look like meringue and there is a firebird on the floor of a room with seashells on the walls. The pathways -swirling rivers- through green landscape, there’s a fountain and a black pool, where a dragon lays and waits for me to wake up. This is James Hubbell’s House.

As I was driving up, I felt anxious and exited. I was invited by my friend Teresa, who had just become an architect student at ITT (Tijuana Technological Institute), and had planed this trip, to the Hubbell house, with the rest of her classmates and some teachers. The narrow road is hugged by old trees and the chilling Julian wind battles against midday sunrays. A tall man greets us; his hair so white his cheeks so red, all smiles. He tells us where to park and then rounds us all in a circle and introduces himself to everyone.

He starts the tour of his home by letting us in to his past.

He went to 13 schools and had five fathers before he was even out of high school, he blushes as he says “I was not a good student, I was very bad at school.” So he ran away to nature and started taking pictures of horses and then drew sketches while he dreamed of becoming a painter. But the art department in collage had no room for drawing classes so he had to go into sculpture; his new refuge.

His involvement with architecture started with the idea of building his own home, so he started talking to many friends who where architects or engineers and sailed into a journey now 43 years old.

His first building was made out of adobe and rocks. He built his home one building at a time, with no loans and very cheap material, such as rocks from the area and some concrete. “My first building is very solid, as if I was trying to anchor myself to the ground” he analyzes.

He talks to the students about the importance of space between his buildings. “It is not the object but where it takes you,” he lectures the young students who seem intimidated by his art, but welcomed by his humble attitude. He talks about no separation between spiritual and material world, about life as a common ground where you can discover yourself through beauty, so for him, paint, sculpture, architecture are all part of a private search for self that he shares with the world community.

His way of learning has to do with his senses, his hands by working with tiles, adobe, cement, fire clay and wood as a way to discover his ancient self. He yearly hosts an open house, every year, this year, Saturday June 15, more than 750 people came to visit his home.

He reaches out to art and architecture students in five countries and has developed many projects along the Pacific coast with his “Soil & Soul” workshops, part of his Foundation Ilan-Lael, created as a “proposed network of projects around the entire Pacific Rim. These workshops inspire in their participants the confidence to live in productive harmony with nature and with each other and to build from a positive stance towards life.”

His workshops include Vulcan Mountain, Julian, CA, 1993 Issaquah, Washington, 1993 Rancho La Puerta, Tecate, Mexico, 1993, where he built environmental health education classrooms that look like rocks from afar and have quartz windows to blend into the brown landscape.

The Foundation is also involved in the Pacific Rim Parks project. As he puts it on his great website, http://www.hubbellandhubbell.com, “It is valuable to work with architecture students from very diverse backgrounds and cultures and ask them to envision a park that celebrates not only their own culture, but the inter-relatedness of the Pacific and the world.”

So far, he has worked with students from Russia, China, U.S. and México and built the Soil & Earth Park, Vladivostok, Russia in 1996, Pearl of the Pacific, San Diego, CA, 1998 and Pearl of the Pacific, Yantai, China, 2001.

He also has a school in Tijuana in a very poor part of town called Colonia Esperanza, where he is constantly building an elementary school where more than 250 children get their education. The school is built with volunteer work from local architecture students. Under Hubbell’s supervision, they have the opportunity to share their knowledge for the good of the city.

Hubbell finds, “you can’t explain San Diego without Tijuana: they are one. I once saw a sculpture of a couple in bed, with a metal plank between them, we are that couple, we have the plank in the middle but we are still married…. When you work in Tijuana you have very little control, nothing is exact, is like working with jazz musicians and I love it.”

His way of working includes 10 to 15 projects at a time, and buildings usually start out as modeled clay and then drawings before becoming structural models. He sees each building as a music piece where you start blending instruments into it, a novel or maybe even something with a life of their own. He speaks with poetry (a discipline he has also touched) and encourages his students to find the language each building is speaking in, and then, it all falls in to place. He sweats with inspiration.

His future plans? He is currently working on a theme park in La Joya (Tijuana) with the Rotary Club and a new building for the Esperanza school, which is planning to expand into a high school. He has five people working for in glass, iron, metal and ceramics three days a week.

Why does he keep building? “I would kick the door if I didn’t” he jokes.

He excuses himself to work on a door that has to be ready by tomorrow and he leaves us there, in the middle of his garden to have lunch with the trees and his dragons.

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