Garbage Warrior reviews


Notes from an field trip.


Leila, Flex Unger and I recently went to a screening of Garbage Warrior, a documentary about architect (or should we perhaps say anarchytect) Michael Reynolds, who has spent the last 30 years building what he calls “Earthships” – houses built largely by trash and designed to facilitate an off-grid life (that is, living without electricity, gas and other comforts connected to one’s house). The documentary, directed by Oliver Hodge (founder of Open Eye Media UK) follows Reynolds’ quest to perfect the art of Earthship construction, as well as establish trash house communities in his home state New Mexico.

The main narrative centres on legal battles with the State of New Mexico, with Reynolds putting on a lobbyist hat in order to get legislation passed that will allow him to carry out his visions. Being an anarchytect, Reynolds has little respect for the slow turning wheels of institutionalized democracy, and not surprisingly, the bill passed after three years is stripped of visionary content. During the after-film meet-the-director evening we attended, Hodge felt pressed to point out that New Mexico is one of the more progressive states in the US on off-grid construction.

While the political game is interesting and highly comical, it steals the focus from what we trash fetishists crave the most: Delicious imagery of tyres and plastic bottles being transformed into houses. (Perhaps there’s extra material on the dvd.) We do get our share though, when Reynolds and his crew fly over to the tsunami stricken Andaman Islands, and build an Earthship for the community, inspiring local engineers to wild ideas of putting up a couple of hundred more.


I enjoyed this in-depth look at a community of cutting-edge architects living in their own experiments and thinking about new ways to design homes that don’t have to rely on municipal sources for electricity, water and sewage. The enemy fought in this film are city regulations requiring that homes be connected to the grid, which the architects see as stifling. I see their point; though I am also glad that architecture is a licensed profession that carries with it a commitment to safety. The key to advancement in green building seems to be finding the balance between forcing homes to connect to the grid and ensuring new construction concepts are tested and sound.

As someone who travels a fair amount in parts of the world where municipal infrastructure isn’t the enemy but the impossible dream, I’d like to put in a little plug for government-run utilities. Clean tap water, flushing toilets connected to pipes that take the shit away, electricity so reliable we think black outs are national emergencies or cause for a street party, these are all luxuries I gladly take part in. Yes, these systems can be improved and run on far fewer resources. But let us remember that the time, money, skills and resources to build an Earthship remain out of reach for most. In the meantime, advocate to reform the grid, not destroy it.

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