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James Hubbell’s mysterious, colorful compound is at the end of a dirt road, miles outside of San Diego’s urban core. He’s resided in the backcountry community of Santa Ysabel since 1958, when he and his wife, Anne, bought 10 acres for $350 per acre and began a decades-long effort to build their unusual, inventive home there, building by building.
Now the compound is 40 acres, home to a number of rustic, rounded structures that seem to have grown out of the land, made of clay, reclaimed cedar, stone, concrete, colorful glass and tile and wrought-iron. Hubbell, who turns 80 years old this year, is known and treasured all over the world for his art, design and architecture intended to honor nature and the cultures surrounding whatever it is he’s building.
The residence is open once a year, an event so popular it’s already sold out for this Sunday. This week, as sunlight streamed in through the compound’s dozens of stained glass windows, Hubbell walked us through his home, over thresholds of art studios and through decades of his family’s memories, including the wildfire that gutted four of the structures in 2003.
When Hubbell speaks, he is the opposite of flippant. He pauses a lot, his eyes glinting with a question or a theory or a joke. He means what he says and resists believing he has the answer. He’s a remarkable person to have a conversation with. Listen in.
Did you always know you’d want to live in the country rather than the city, where you grew up?
It was more because our mothers lived (in the city) and you had to go to dinner all the time. So if you’re up here you don’t have to do that. We like the ocean but we both liked the trees.
Do things show up in your designs that indicate that your family used to live in the very room you now use for a studio?
Yeah. I think you actually do things subconsciously. If you look at the work of artists, things that they did when they were really young come back over and over and over and over again. So it’s almost like there’s a language that you’re born with.
What is your language?
Probably water and smoke. I like that type of line.
And nature, generally. I feel comfortable with it; I don’t always feel comfortable with what people do. (Laughs.)
How much of this whole evolution of your residence did you dream up at the beginning, and how much came as you went along?
I kind of just liked to build. I think I knew there was a cluster there (points to the first structures). But the nice thing about building them separately was that I could do one and then I could improvise and change the language on the next, and it gave me a chance to try things. It’s sort of an addiction.
I think a lot of people would say they’re addicted to renovating, but it’s not quite so imaginative.
I’m not sure for all artists but it’s sort of like trying to find something that doesn’t exist yet. That you know is there, but you have to make it. It’s not bringing back something. Science is about finding truth. Art’s about finding mystery.
Do you feel like this land was art before you lived here?
Can I use a different word? I’d use the word “worship.” That’s what I’d say about the earth. It’s more difficult to interpret, because I don’t know what it means.
I have a lot of ideas. (Laughs.) But I think one of the problems with our culture is that we’ve been trying to control the world too much. I think we think we can think up the future. And I think we need to begin to appreciate that the world is magical, and that we don’t know.
And it’s all right. Nature doesn’t always tell you what you’re going to do. I’m hoping we go back to a romantic age.
When was the first time you saw a stained glass window or a mosaic?
Well, when I was a kid I went to Africa for most of a year. On the way back, I hitchhiked through Europe. And I went to Notre Dame. It wasn’t actually the windows; it was the light that came through the windows. Filled the cathedral. At that point I knew I wanted to do that.
What about that light hit you? Was it the color?
You know music, when someone plays, the music comes and wraps around you? Light does that. The windows can do that. And that’s what I think I could feel. A painting stays on the surface. You can sometimes go into it mentally. But it doesn’t come out and sort of touch you.
Is there a time of day and one of your stained-glass windows that you think is the best combination?
Well, there’s surprises. There’s a window in our bedroom, a round one. It’s not only the time of day; it’s the time of year. There’s a certain time where that just sits right about the bed like a halo.
What kind of music do you listen to?
Schubert. Berlios. Mozart. I like Mexican music, too. I’m not that much into contemporary. Occasionally, because they sometimes play really interesting things. But I don’t usually like it.
I sort of don’t feel I fit into the contemporary world. I don’t understand most of the artists, what they’re doing or why they’re doing it.
Do you feel that way at all about architecture?
A lot of it. You know how many glass buildings there are? You can see yourself, so it’s narcissistic. And it reflects everything. It’s an elusive thing. It’s sort about how we think of ourselves. You know, a gothic building — half of it is shadows. Where with a contemporary building, there’s hardly any shadow.
If you use shadow, then you’re saying, “Mystery’s OK.” If you’re afraid of shadows, you build a building that doesn’t have any.
I have no idea if I’m right.
Do you go to church?
I go with Anne. But I’ve worked with the Arabs and the Jews and the Catholics and the Unitarians. I think they’re all interesting. So it’s nice. I don’t have to …
— you don’t have to pick.
No. If I picked, I’d pick nature. My wife’s church believes we’re here to learn things. But I didn’t like school. Most of the rules are made by people that like school.
When we were coming up here today, we were wondering how it feels to you to have so many people come up from the city.
Sorta strange. But when you make something as an artist, originally it’s for yourself, but you do want to share it.
It’s not hard to remember the (2003 Cedar) fire when you’ve got these charred trees around.
You see things differently as an artist. Before the fire, there was so much brush. And there were big rock formations down here I’d never seen. So just to discover that. The ground was so soft, and usually it’s hard. Two or three inches were just like powder. This is amazing! And there’s all these interesting colors in the soil. I did a lot of watercolors.
How many days before the fire hit your property were you evacuated?
Half a day. The only way you could get out was to go to the desert. It was like something from the Bible. All these cars and trucks and horses and kids, driving down. It was interesting.
What was it like the first day you came back?
I think it took a while to register. The big difference was that Anne and I decided that we didn’t want to be victims. We’d lived here 45 years or something. It doesn’t make sense to be mad. Take the good parts. I mean, I don’t know, for some people they lost their house twice. That would be really hard.
It strikes me, aside from the human interaction causing the spark for these fires, that fire is also natural, also a part of the landscape out here.
And the other thing that is really interesting is that it creates space. And it might be that the whole point of religion and art is really to create space.
If you listen to a piece of music, you can kind of walk into it, and it takes you somewhere you haven’t been before. Sort of room for the soul to move to a different place. It’s not really to tell you what you already know. It’s to take you to a new place where you have to go.
And if you don’t have space, you can’t go there. The fire did that.
Otherwise you’re just looking at what you have right in front of you —
Counting it. (Laughs.)
Do you have any ideas about where you “have to go?”
I’m trying to find out.