Building with Big Rocks

I love big rocks. Above all I love their sheer enormousness and immovability, reminding us puny humans how fragile and short-lived we are.

They’re great for building and one of the first structures I ever built was a staircase made from white rock slabs that had been ploughed out of a field. Moving and positioning them is tricky but once they’re in, they’re in and some fifteen years later my stairs haven’t budged an inch. This is my homage to big rocks and the buildings made with them.

We have plenty of big rocks where I live in Guatemala and they’re used a lot in buildings here: in walls, foundations, furniture and sculptures. We built a small amphitheatre for presentations at our centre (La Cambalacha) using rocks weighing up to 6 tonnes :

Moving a medium-sized boulder into place at La Cambalacha
This is one of the smaller ones!

We had up to 20 helpers on the job – a tricky thing to manage as the potential for the inexperienced to crush a finger, toe, hand or limb is significant but, knock on wood, we’ve not had any serious incidents. Add to that the engineering problems of moving these boulders and you can either have a lot of fun or a lot of frustration!

Engineering big rocks is an ancient art form practised the world over, making it all the more surprising that so little is known about how they used to do it. Dynamite, diamond saws and diesel-powered excavators are used nowadays, but check out Wally Wallington’s techniques:

I’m curious to know if this is how Florida’s famed Coral Castle was put together – Edward Leedskalvin (1887-1951) built it in secret over 28 years – or if there’s any truth behind Leonard Nimoy’s speculations here:

These last two buildings involve moving rocks to make buildings, but there is another class of big rock buildings that involves keeping the rocks where they are to form part of the building. Below are some of my favourites.

This is Daniil Sihastrul’s monastic cell in Romania, which he excavated over 11 years in the 15th Century:

Daniil Sihastrul's monastic cell that he excavated from a large rock

One of the many boulder houses in the village of Monsanto, Portugal:

Many of Monsanto's houses are built using large boulders

The Monsanto houses probably inspired this two-storey house, which was built in 1974 between four boulders in the mountains of Fafe in Portugal:

Rocks make this house in Fafe, Portugal

This cave house is one the remains of England’s last troglodyte community, near Kinver Edge, Worcestershire, England:

Derelict Cave House, Worcestershire, England

And here is Matera, where Italy’s last troglodyte community lived, until Italy grew so embarrassed of it that in the 1960′s it was declared a “national disgrace”. The state ordered its evacuation but in 1993 it started becoming a trendy place to set up home and now real estate prices have gone through the roof!

The abandoned and reinhabited town of troglodytes: Matera, southern Italy

Turkey’s Cappadocia region has countless dwellings carved from its rocks, including underground cities that were used as hiding places for early Christians (e.g. Kaymakli):

Goreme, a cave city in Cappadocia, Turkey

Profile map of a cave city Cappadocia, Turkey

In 1998 I spent a month living in a monk’s cave house in Rewalsar, India, which was part of a Tibetan refugee community that lives in some 50 caves and cave-houses nearby the original cave where one of their favourite saints and heroes, Guru Padmasambhava, once made his love nest with the princess of Kangra.

The Tantric master who brought Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century was born in Pakistan, but he stopped off in Rewalsar on his journey to Tibet to seduce the king’s daughter, Mandarava, who became his consort and travelled with him into the wilds of Tibet. He converted the locals to Buddhism after surviving the king’s attempt to burn him at the stake! My photographs are currently in a box 5,000 miles away in London, so here’s a picture of Padmasambhava in his cave temple.

A statue of Guru Padmasambhava in his old cave at Rewalsar, Himachal Pradesh, India

Here’s one of my latest projects involving a very big rock: a one-room rock and concrete house that we built onto a very large rock indeed – the cliff face. All that cement isn’t very natural I know, but this is where we’re storing the equipment needed to build all the other much more natural cabins, compost toilets and a studio. We’re soon adding a bamboo and palm-thatch second storey, and an outdoor kitchen and dining area.

The GuardianĂ­a at Sha'baj, San Marcos La Laguna, Guatemala

Although one saves materials from not having to build one of the walls, the time we saved was lost when we had to engineer solutions to the water that seeps through the walls. I’m glad we had a diamond-tipped cutting disc and one of my favourite tools: my reconditioned Milwaulkee Rotary Hammer, which plunges holes into rocks faster than you’d think possible if you’ve only ever used a normal hammer drill on concrete – click on the image to see the latest version on Amazon.

Milwaulkee Rotary Hammer eats rocks for breakfast - click to view on Amazon (opens in new tab)

Not that I like breaking open or plunging holes into age-old rocks, but sometimes there is little option. According to Hinduism, spirits often identify themselves with rocks and mistakenly believe that they are the actual rock itself, and so masons will either say a small prayer before working on a rock or even, in the case of a larger rock, call for a puja or ceremony to release the spirit within. The priest informs the spirit of its metaphysical confusion, thus liberating it from the rock. Only then can work begin!

On that note, I’ll leave you with a photo of the Ellora cave temples in Maharashtra, India, which I visited in 2003. Built over a 300-year period, the 34 caves were excavated by competing Buddhist, Hindu and Jain sculptors. This is the Hindu Kailash Temple.

Kailash Temple, Ellora Caves, Maharashtra, India

I’d love to hear of any other interesting big rock buildings – just add a comment with the link, thank you.